There Still Isn't One Good Way to Represent the Internet in Art

But a new video shows how filmmakers arrived at a single, elegant way to depict texting.
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How instant-messaging was depicted in Two Boys (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Last fall, one of the nation’s most prestigious performing-arts organizations devoted a great deal of money and time to make GChats taller than giraffes.

Or, not GChats, precisely. But in the service of its art, the Metropolitan Opera simulated instant message interfaces by projecting them onto four enormous towers. In front of those, classically trained tenors and altos sang the text of conversations as they sat behind glowing laptop screens. All this was for Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys, the tale of an attempted murder in the early 2000s which set critical parts of its story online.

And all of that, too, was to solve a problem. As Mark Grimmer, one of the show’s designers, told me when I wrote about Two Boys, “This is an opera that is essentially set on the Internet, and we don’t know what the Internet really looks like.”

It’s a problem that exists far beyond opera, and, indeed, far beyond the stage. The writer Quinn Norton has spoken of the same problem in prose writing. “Right now,” she said in early 2013, “my field must tackle describing a world where falling in love, going to war, and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.”

And a new short visual essay confirms: It’s a problem in movie-making as well. Internet video-maker Tony Zhou has released a new piece detailing the hurdles recent films have leapt over trying to make sense of the web. There’s no singular, widely embraced, and elegant way to depict the size and chaos of the web on-screen, he says:

What’s most interesting to me about this video is that Zhou posits this not as a difficulty, but as a problem that will be solved. And he provides the Sherlock solution to texting—the method of floating simply styled words in the middle of the frame—as evidence that a singular way of styling the Internet will arrive.

Me, I’m less certain. I’ve seen compelling treatments of the web—the chattering choruses and towering GChats of Two Boys remain my favorite—but I wonder if the experience of the Internet is too manifold and various to ever represent just one way on film. In some ways, texting is far easier to depict than the Internet. At the very least, it’s more visually interesting: You can get a short, concise text anywhere, but you tend to search or use the web sitting in a nondescript room

But then again, mobile app usage overtook desktop usage earlier this year, and mobile browsing will soon follow. The experience of using the Internet is going to get much closer to the experience of texting. Perhaps, to represent the Internet in art, we had to first bring the Internet out of our rooms and into the world.

The rest of Zhou’s videos, by the way, are worth checking out. He’s entertaining and informative whether lauding the visual comedy of director Edgar Wright or dissecting “Bayhem,” the very odd and very copied visual style of Michael Bay.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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