I called out to the Professor but he did not hear, and as he went to cross the road he seemed unaware of the double-decker that so nearly winged him. When he stepped onto the pavement I could see that he was not himself. He looked distracted, pained.
I placed myself in front of the Professor and waved; he nearly passed me but I caught his eye just in time. Turning, he smiled and offered his hand.
‘Ah, my dear friend, how good to see you!’ he exclaimed cried; too loud, even, for the bustling high street. The Professor’s voice carried the story of his life within its layers of acquired accents. A thin sediment of California covering a thicker French crust that itself sat upon a core of what? Polish? German? The Professor’s earliest years were a mystery of wartime migration to which he had never cared to provide any clear solution, his unusual name offering little clue. The Hitler Youth was a whispered secret that had followed him throughout his career.
‘I’m fine, thank you,’ I replied. ‘I’m glad I caught you actually, because I was meaning to ask –’
The Professor paused me with a raised hand. ‘Wait a minute please, I just have to –’ He fumbled in the pocket of his winter coat. ‘Ah, that’s it, no wait a minute… Ah, yes, that’s it!’
‘Yes, well, I’m glad I bumped into you because –‘
‘You must forgive me,’ interrupted the Professor. ‘I have this new gadget in my pocket which I am still getting used to. It is making me a little disoriented!’ He laughed.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘It is one of these new, what do you call them, M, 3… E players? No, that is not right…’
‘MP3 players,’ I corrected.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said. I could see now that poking out from under his scarf was a wire that led to a pair of headphones, lodged in his elderly ears, hairs escaping out from behind them.
The Professor retrieved the player from his pocket. Smooth and rounded like a pebble, its LCD screen declared ‘RANDOM PLAY’ in flashing letters.
‘I never thought that you’d join the digital revolution,’ I said. It seemed such a funny thing for an aging academic to want to buy, back then, when the product had not been long on the market. But then, I was forgetting the Professor’s specialised area of research.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I need it to understand the Dome. Oh, excuse me…’ Harsh-sounding music was again pouring out of the pebble. He fumbled with his headphones, getting them entangled with his scarf, while the pebble went spinning out of his hand, dangling from his coat pocket by the wire and swinging against his leg.
The Dome. Of course. The Dome was the theory that had made the Professor’s name back in the 1970s. In his seminal text, The Electric Sky, the Professor proposed that in our compulsion to create and transmit replicas of ourselves through technology such as photography, television, telephones and the like, we had inadvertently created a metaphorical prison around each of us - a dome, on which our electronic replica ‘selves’ were projected. Just as others could now only see the real ‘us’ but dimly, if at all, through the barrier of our projected representations, so our comprehension of others and the world around us was filtered through the images of ourselves we perceived within the Dome. The Dome not only controlled how we were seen, but also how we saw and, therefore, how we acted.
The theory was derided by many as being an absurd and imprecise fantasy that had little to offer in regards to any sensible analysis of the world, but for some, especially younger academics and art students, who saw poetry and beauty in the theory’s many contradictions, it was compelling. It was, for a time, hugely influential: a key text of post-modernity, its ripples felt in art, architecture, design and fashion, film and pop music. The Professor became something of a celebrity in France, appearing often on talk shows to discuss how ‘Dome Theory’ could be used to understand the latest political scandal and entertainment news from Hollywood.
As technology progressed throughout the Seventies and Eighties, the Professor updated his theory in subsequent volumes Fax Machine Communion and The Polaroid Soul. And then, save for the chat show appearances, there was silence. A long-awaited fourth volume that was rumoured to deal with the communications explosion of the past decade - particularly the Internet, which was seen by some as the absolute vindication of the Professor’s ideas – had been scheduled for publication two years before I first met the man. It had yet to appear.
This was at least in part due to the fact that n between the announcement of the publication date and our meeting, the Professor had run into a spot of bother. Long ensconced in the Sorbonne, where he had sat out both the Summer of Love and the riots of ’68 - disapproving of the former because of the hippies’ lack of a coherent Marxist critique of capitalism, and paradoxically also of the latter due to the rioters’ possession of one – he had by the late 90s accepted a post at a mega-university on the West Coast of the USA where, in exchange for the very occasional tutorial for post-grad students, he would be given the time and resources to research, develop and revamp Dome Theory for the post-post modern, post-theory and soon-to-be post-Millennial age.
Five years passed. The Professor published the odd ‘teaser’ article for his new work in journals, but they revealed little, and its actual content remained unconfirmed. But then, along with the tentative date of publication, a title, The Electric Sky Has Fallen, was announced. There was an instant buzz in the intellectual press. An instant, but cautious buzz. Was the Professor still relevant, they asked? Would his new work define the contemporary moment, or merely be a sad repetition of ideas designed to analyse a far more technologically primitive world? Commentators could not quite decide as to whether they should be excited or not.
The Professor was reportedly nearly ready to submit his finished manuscript to the publisher. Only some footnotes, the first time he had ever used them (and perhaps an indication of an uncharacteristic rigour with which the Professor was rumoured to have approached this definitive, probably final, volume), had to be checked. And it was his actions in regards to the post-grad student that was assigned to him in order to help with this task that ensured the project’s indefinite suspension.
First it was e-mails. Then it was texts. Then it was photo messages of himself. Naked. Erect. Smiling. Upon being presented with the said image, the Board of Governors immediately demanded the Professor’s resignation, or else face dismissal and possible criminal charges. The Professor refused to go, and attempted to use Dome Theory to escape penalisation, claiming that as the research assistant had only been distressed by electronic representations of himself, then it was these, and not he – who, in any case, thanks to the images’ influence, was no longer fully in control of his actions - that was at fault.
So he ended up here, in this small town with its little university that was once a polytechnic. There was little intellectual companionship for him in these parts: just me and a few others. His students did not appreciate or often even know who he was, and his fellow members of staff did not respect him. Indeed, for some, he was the father figure that they had slain in their own intellectual journey while writing their doctoral theses. The Professor would have been better off retiring, and in fact his post at the university was essentially honorary. Nevertheless, it meant that the book, his last great book, would finally come out, as the first publication of the university’s new press.
I would see him often in the high street, on the way to the university or the bookshop where we, the town’s self-proclaimed intellectual elite, would spend many an afternoon, creasing the spines of books we would one day surely buy. And there, on that winter day, the Professor fiddled with the MP3 pebble in his gloved hand and finally managed to stop suspiciously modern-sounding music pumping out of it.
‘So what have MP3 players got to do with the Dome?’ I asked him.
‘Everything, my friend, everything! They are the latest form of invasion on each of our individual identities from the Dome itself. No longer content to dictate to us through our means of self-representation, the Dome now controls us through our leisure devices, such as this MP, ah....’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘Here, let me show you.’ The Professor thrust the pebble into my hand. ‘You see what it says here: “RANDOM PLAY”. Now, when these players were first put on the market, they were surely intended so that a person controlled entirely what music they wished to listen to while mobile, yes? You would put the music in your computer, pick one piece off of one CD, two or three off another. And then you could decide in what order precisely you wanted to hear them. But look what happened. Nobody had the time to programme an order for all those hours of music. Instead, they asked their computer to select a whole load of pieces at random from a big list of all the music they liked or might like if they ever had time to listen to it. And that is not all. The Dome must have worked some of its little evil magic in the design stages, because these devices have this button, “RANDOM PLAY”. The pieces of music that have already been selected at random by the computer are thereby further randomised, and instead of having complete control as intended, the listener gives it up not once, but twice: first to the computer, and then to this device.
‘We have become slaves, but not to a greater will, but to no will at all. We are in the thrall of pure random sequences, generated by computer programmes. Cause and effect is over. Meaning has ended. It is the Dome, in a new form: the Net! Not just the Internet, although that is part of it, of course. But why did we not realise, that when you find yourself under a net, you are not linked, but trapped! And this wider Net that was once the Dome has trapped us: controlling our taste, our moods - everything that makes us ‘us’! Enslaving us to a purely arbitrary existence! The new world order is random order. We will all be caught in the Shuffle. No more choice, no more discernment, no more morality. No more right and no more wrong. And it all begins with this little pebble…’
‘But surely it is the listener’s choice to give up control,’ I interjected. ‘Nobody is made to do that. I doubt many people even use them like that. Nobody even has to own one.’
‘Oh, they do,’ said the Professor, proceeding to neatly ignore my first point, as was his way, ‘it is a biological imperative. For what young person will find a mate and pass on their genes if they are seen now with an old-fashioned CD player strapped to them? The Dome is clever. It knows that when it comes to sex all free will is an illusion.’
Although I thought that the Professor’s argument was certainly interesting, it struck me as being as intellectually dubious as his earlier writings. The rumours of the sharpening of his methodology were clearly unfounded. Not only that, I found myself troubled by the thought of looking for conspiracy theories in an MP3 player now that the world had experienced events such as 9/11 and Iraq. No doubt if I had thought to ask him, the Professor would have told me how he saw them to be connected. Yet, in a way, that seemed worse. Ideas that felt radical and subversive when conceived in a Cold War thaw now left a sour taste in the mouth. The forces of evil had revealed themselves to be real people, operating through armies, governments, terrorist cells and multinationals. To pretend that evil was an invisible current that flowed through the design process of MP3 players was quaint, silly - decadent, even.
He went on talking, there on the high street on that day, in the cold. He explained how multi-channel digital televisions meant that nobody now ever watched the programme they had intended to watch when they sat down, and the internet was a complex but failsafe system for hiding all information from whoever was looking for it. How global warming was subconsciously willed into existence by the patrons of tanning salons. I never did get round to asking him about the thing I had wanted to when I stopped him.
‘Well, my friend,’ he said, finally, ‘now I must leave you. There are many, many things I must think about. I have decided my book is not nearly finished, and maybe it will never be, if the Dome keeps up its mischief at this rate! Adieu, my friend.’
He clasped my shoulder in farewell and turned. As he went I could hear that his pebble was playing him the very newest form of urban music, very loudly. How did he get hold of any and why? I knew he liked chamber music, mostly. My only thought was that he must have found some way of selecting it at random from all possible music, no doubt involving a system of his own devising, and the assistance of a female post-graduate student.
In The Polaroid Soul, the Professor stated: ‘The only form of defence against the Dome is surrender. Only by submitting ourselves to its every whim, only by riding its newest wave, can we comprehend its evil. And only then can we begin to harbour the hope of breaking free.’
The idea has elegance, even if in today’s political climate it seems a little naïve, even dangerous. Despite this, I like to say it to myself sometimes, when I think of the Professor. For he is no more. He died: killed by the Dome, or was it the Net, as he planned his counter-attack. Stepping out onto the road, music blaring in his ears, I saw him, and I called out, but could not make myself heard, as the double-decker bus returned on its route, and did not stop as he disappeared under its wheels.