The Wet Paint Manifesto

I’ve been sorting through some files (real, paper files) and I came across something that I wrote some time around 1996-1997. This was before I wrote the Anti-Modal Manifesto (the location of which is currently unknown).
Wet Paint
A sign on a pole reads: “Wet Paint” and it is not true. The paint has dried.
Driving down the freeway, orange signs declare: “Under Construction” but no work is being performed. The act of construction is not at all visible.
Do these signs actually mean their opposites? Under Construction means: there is no construction. Wet Paint means: the paint is dry. Well, there is that small window of time when the signs are correct. But why do the signs remain?
Putting up signs and taking them down again when they have served their purpose is a human activity, it requires a human being present to do the thing. When we see a Wet Paint sign, we understand that it might be old, it may have expired. But we also know (infer) that someone was there to put up the sign.
After having seen the same Wet Paint sign on a pole for three days, one might be inclined to take it down. If not, it might stay there for weeks, becoming dust-blown and wind-ragged, falling to the ground and drifting to the gutter, its sans-serif letters fading and unreadable until some final catastrophic event, a seasonal rainstorm or a street sweeper, removes the final traces.

Virtual signs behave quite properly. They appear instantaneously:
“Connecting to network.”
They maintain themselves:
“Connected to network.”
and they throw themselves away.
At the same time, virtual signs never exist in a state of being unowned. They are owned and controlled by some electronic process. They exist only on a particular machine.
Looking at signs on other people’s machines does not give you the permission, the requisite ownership, to change those signs. You cannot make underlines on someone’s piece of virtual paper. Such an act cannot occur within the pure physics of the virtual.
Collaborative document creation, in which you are allowed to change someone else’s signs, is something that has to be built into virtual systems, and it is not something that can be built without cost. There are physics in the virtual world, the “laws” that are always in operation, with no computational cost. But these laws conflict with physics in the real world:
Real: Gravity causes objects to fall down.
Virtual: Objects stay where they are. Gravitational forces must be computed, and the operations can be changed dynamically.
Real: Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
Virtual: Objects can instersect freely. Collision detection must be computed and can be very expensive.
Real: The ownership of objects is socially constructed; violations of social rules can result in social punishment.
Virtual: Ownership is inherent in the digitial structure of objects.
Some attemps have been made to establish fundamental laws for the human inhabitation of virtual spaces. Prominent concerns deal with object collision, continuous (non-discrete) movement, speed limits. The basic nature of the proposals is an attempt to inject real world physics into the virtual world, strapping artificial physics onto the “natural” physics of the virtual.
Rather than making virtual objects obey virtual gravity, virtual objects that collide in a simulation of real world physics, I think we should give priority to creating virtual Wet Paint signs. Why?
1. There is currently no need to paint virtual things, ever. They are always “perfect” (and are usually excessively shiny). If we make Wet Paint signs, then we will have to remember the repaint our virtual things periodically, lest they start to appear shabby.
2. Putting up signs helps to remind us that there are other people in the world, people who might like the opportunity to, say, remove outdated signs.
So, let’s fill the virtual up with signs, with concert flyers, with lewd newspapers. Put virtual yard sale signs on virtual telephones poles – cover the virtual poles with a bristly fur of virtual staples.
Write virtual graffiti on virtual walls.
Rip virtual pages out of virtual phone books.
Carve your name on a virtual park bench.
Let’s trash the virtual.

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One Response to “The Wet Paint Manifesto”
  1. Jean Kearns Miller says:

    Hi Brandon. I teach writing at a community college and begin my Comp I class with a wet paint sign and the (trick) question, “Is this good writing?” I usually compare it with something like: “Because this wall has recently been painted it is necessary for you to avoid contact with it in order to protect your clothes from stains.” Point being fluent sentence-writing is sometimes bad writing. Blah-blah-blah. So I come upon your wet paint manifesto and I find it addresses whether good writing–like the wet paint sign–can really be good if it’s misleading. Would you mind my using it in my course pack? I can’t pay you anything and I get no royalty from the course pack. If yes, how would you like to be acknowledged? I mean other than “Printed by permission of the author.” (Any PR message?) Let me know.
    Jean at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan