The Sublimation Hour
The Vegas Sphere is a screen that we view on other screens
Instead of writing about any of several bleak but relevant things that have recently happened in the world, I’m going to (belatedly) write about the Vegas Sphere—a topic I’ll admit eluded me for months despite being obvious Kneeling Bus bait, not because it’s challenging or perplexing but for the opposite reason: The Sphere exists outside of language, loudly announcing everything there is to know about it with no subsequent interpretation needed. A complete statement thats dares you to add to it. “The electric light is pure information,” Marshall McLuhan wrote. “It is a medium without a message.” Unless, he adds, “it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name.” And however much we may fantasize about a transcendent orb that emits such content-free light, the Sphere’s output, like so much of the light that is beamed into our eyes in the 21st century—and so much of the light that Vegas itself gives off—is saturated with content. Consisting of a massive interior and exterior LED screen that don’t have much to do with each other conceptually, the Sphere is less architecture than a building-sized consumer electronic device, too heavy-handed for Apple but just as smooth and seamless—and like the iPhone, it comes with U2 already installed on it. If you need value-free content for online discourse (like I’m doing here) the Sphere provides it. Having fulfilled its destiny as a meme, the Sphere is a screen that we view on other screens. That’s strange, right?
One function of architecture, as well as art, is to tell us what kind of world we inhabit. “America is a very poor lens through which to view Las Vegas,” the art critic Dave Hickey wrote, “while Las Vegas is a wonderful lens through which to view America. What is hidden elsewhere exists here in quotidian visibility.” What the rest of America represses, that is, Las Vegas has traditionally worn on its sleeve; for someone who lives there, as Hickey did, those repressed absences become perceptible when one leaves town and visits anywhere else. “The whole city floats on a sleek frisson of anxiety and promise.” But he wrote this back in the ‘90s, and since then Las Vegas and the rest of the United States have continued to grow more similar to each other. As Hans Ibelings wrote in 2002, “The urban landscape on either side of Las Vegas Boulevard…is no more than a scaled-up version of what is happening in countless other places.” Likewise, the internet provides an outlet for everyday repression that anyone can access from anywhere, making that role of Las Vegas slightly obsolete, while extending its frantic hedonism to digital space. The Sphere, then, is here to correct our outdated assumptions and tell us what the world is actually like today: etherealized and content-saturated, with everyone still staring at screens even when visiting the world capital of fun. No more secrets—what happens in Vegas is transmitted everywhere.
It’s popular to point out that our phones never appear in our dreams. I’ve always believed this is because our devices frame our reality so comprehensively that we imagine we live inside them, and only in dreams do we escape the physical constraints that break the illusion. In his book Non-things, Byung-Chul Han describes how smartphones “de-reify the world by reducing it to information. The material aspect of the smartphone recedes, and information takes its place; the materiality of the smartphone is not perceived in its own right.” The most important object we each own, in other words, is one we never look at but instead look through. This quality, too, is one the Sphere seems to strive for. In a recent essay describing her Sphere experience, Elena Saavedra Buckley writes, “I found myself looking to my right, across to the other side of the seating, where the screen ends and is flush with the wall, and the dull materials that do not glow trace a jagged border up the globe…This was the place that I feel to be the center of the Sphere—where what was imagined, directed, and awesome met the stuff of our world, concrete and plastic and trudging through time.” In physical space, despite our best efforts, the screen always ends somewhere. And like our dreams, virtual reality also promises a screen-free reality, with the frame sufficiently expanded. But the Sphere suggests a different possibility: We love the screens themselves, so much that even within our virtual worlds we’ll still build new screens to look at.
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Paul Ford on the humanities’ ongoing relevance in an AI-dominated future. “The winners will be the ones who can get the computer to move things along the most quickly, generate the new fashions and fads, turn that into money, and go to the next thing. If the computers are capable of understanding us, and will do our bidding, and enable us to be more creative, then the people in our fields—yes, maybe even the poets—will have an edge. Don’t blame us. You made the bots.”
Anna Shechtman on Algorithmic Culture. “It homogenizes, and it silos. It’s the commons, but with gatekeepers. There’s never been anything like it! But it’s really just an extension of Enlightenment rationalism.”