Let's enjoy the reception at the Museum of Modern Art, in the courtyard, an oasis amid the skyscrapers. Everyone is impeccably dressed, heavily skewed to black (at the museum you will see mind-expanding things, including a home with curtains instead of walls, and 21st Century cars not much bigger than washing machines, but you'll never see anything as bizarre as a museum staffer wearing plaid). The chardonnay is from one of the better California vineyards (Grgich Hills) and works nicely with the pate and the medallions of goat cheese. Smart people from the M.I.T. Media Lab people are talking about "bits` and "atoms.`
Bits are 0s and 1s, the units of information of the digital future. Atoms are physical things. In the future there will be more bits, but there must also be atoms, unless we decide to dematerialize entirely. You can imagine that someday the physical world will be seen as so gravitationally burdened, so clumsy, so sticky and gooey and overflowing in fluids, that we will prefer to exist in a pure energy field, traveling from wavelength to wavelength. We'll turn into sunlight. We'll just beam ourselves around the universe, vibrating.
But back to the courtyard and the reception. The smart people are saying that, in the near future, bits and atoms will start to blend seamlessly. They want the technology to become beautiful, by which they also mean invisible. People don't want to see the computers. The bits should be embedded everywhere, unseen, as much a part of the environment as nitrogen and oxygen (which is not my metaphor: "Oxygen` is the name of an M.I.T. designing-the-future computer project).
A fast-talking professor, clearly sporting serious processing power in his skull, says it is easy to design futuristic gadgets that are embedded in the lapel of one's jacket. "Even more interesting,` he says, "is to embed it in your ear.` But he's not quite ready to do that. The technology isn't good enough, he says, "to cohabit with.`
As I listen to these brilliant folks talk about bits, what I keep noticing is the lovely Chippendale top on Philip Johnson's AT&T Building, which is catching the sunlight high above the courtyard. In New York City, there are still lots of atoms. The place is atomically fantastic. It's monumentally molecular.
That's the genius of New York, its physicality. The place has so many layers, from the water towers and rooftop gardens, down through the staggered levels of concrete and glass, to the storefronts, then below to the subways and on down to the storm sewers and secret infrastructures, the subterreanean world of the mythic alligators and that guy in the Richard Wright story. New York doesn't cheat you.
The entire city is wrapped in scaffolding, the atoms getting buffed and polished, the gold leaf restored. Carnegie Hall is getting the treatment, as is Radio City Music Hall. On Seventh Avenue, outside the Stage Deli, a steel reinforcing cable has been left in the gutter, and as an elderly lady exits the restaurant she trips and falls. She's out cold, limp as a dead bird, feet still on the sidewalk, head in the street, a crowd gathering. Someone walks up and says, "Did the cops shoot someone again?` The ambulance eventually pulls up and misses running her over by three feet. She has a pulse. She will live. Everyone back off; nothing to see here.
The place is biologically dense, "teeming` still the perfect adjective. Near Times Square a quartet of black evangelicals from the Israeli Church of Universal Practical Knowledge, Inc. - you have to love the "Inc.` - are standing on a platform, proclaiming a single line of Scripture: "Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated!` Their elliptical message seems to be centered on the notion of white people as devils, but the whole thing seems oddly like a show, a performance - hate as theater.
Nearby is a street performer who plays the drums and, according to his sign, takes traveler's checks as well as cash.
A crowd gathers around another street artist who, at a furious pace, paints images of the human future in space. His landscapes are thick with planets and moons and hurtling comets. We live in cities that are enclosed by protective domes. The man explains: "Inside this bubble here is New York City, in the future, to show that it does survive, contrary to popular belief.`
So nice to know, it's not all blown to bits.