Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature, University of Birmingham
In the first episode of the 1993 TV mini-series Wild Palms, the fictional media company Mimecom demos their new product to a room full of expectant potential buyers. The new product is a holographic broadcasting technology; a system which allows holographic simulations of characters to perform in your room, beyond the confines of the TV screen. The image of the hologram on screen conforms precisely to the hologram of the cultural imaginary. As Sean Johnston has argued, holograms are rarely represented authentically, rather holograms in popular culture are “recreations of an object from the past,” or “three-dimensional objects generated by a computer” that “flicker, buzz, and fluctuate.” 
Wild Palms was adapted by writer Bruce Wagner from his own comic book series of the same name and produced by Oliver Stone for ABC. The six episode TV mini-series followed the corporate and personal exploits (and exploitations) of a media dynasty and the various lawyers, scientists, programmers, and engineers who are absorbed into the public and underground actions of Mimecom. One function of the hologram in the series is both to allude to, and make visible, an imagined future of communication technologies. Holographic television in Wild Palms is both present and deferred – present, in that holograms are seen on screen; deferred, because the series ends before the system is ‘rolled out’ – the holographic future imagined in the series remains an imagined future. In the instances when a hologram is seen on screen it is also/always not a hologram: the hologram is a computer generated graphic effect, an act of postproduction rather than the filming of a hologram. The hologram in Wild Palms is perhaps always an instance of retrofitting – the film is fitted with the newer technology in both image (the spectacle of the hologram) and material (the application of digital postproduction methods). And as we might watch the series via YouTube in 2014, it is difficult not to view the image of the holographic future as itself retrofitted; a quaint iteration of a future yet to pass.
After the demo of Mimecom’s new product William Gibson makes an onscreen cameo. As the author of an earlier holographic future – the story “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” from the collection “Burning Chrome” (1986) – Gibson himself seems to complicate what kind of technological future we are dealing with in Wild Palms. Gibson has pushed back on the description of his own work as prophetic, arguing instead for its grounding in the present – he is, if anything, an author of the ‘zeitgeist.’  And yet holograms seem always slightly outside of the zeitgeist; never catching on as a fully realised image of the future. Sean Johnston refers to the hologram as a ‘seductive medium.’  The seduction doesn’t end well: across Johnston’s various studies of the history of holograms is the tacit acknowledgement that holograms have never quite lived up to expectations. If anything, William Gibson’s involvement in Wild Palms brings into the fold of that programme the hologram as a retro-fail: more like the alternative future history of Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum” (“Burning Chrome,” 1986), than the uncanny networks of Neuromancer (1984).
The history of holograms as scientific, technological, and media objects is not one of progression; or at least to think of the progression of holograms is not to think in terms of evolution. The hologram that is most ubiquitous today – that of the flat, or single plane hologram on bank cards – is not the hologram that continues to enthrall a culturally imagined techno-future.
In a letter written to Dennis Gabor in 1969, David Bohm, then Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck, wrote:
I have been thinking about holograms for a long time. It has struck me very forcibly that the hologram has an even greater significance for philosophy and for language than it has for technology. In short, as in the time of Galileo, the lens, under the relationship of image and object, became a paradigm of human thinking, especially in science and out, so it seems that the hologram can now lead us to a new paradigm. The lone order in the older paradigm was image-object correspondence. In the newer paradigm, it is a relationship of the whole to the whole. 
Key here is the idea that holograms reproduce the totality of a thing. In this way despite the image of holograms as a transmission, they more accurately function as signs of the potential to simulate a whole self in a space. This is the effect of holograms most explored by postmodernists – Baudrillard, Eco, Jameson. The holographic is the postmodern paradigm because it deals in total simulation. Although this text is not an attempt to deal in prophecies they are perhaps an indelible aspect of thinking about holograms: you are engaged in terms of deferral – the holographic day is always coming.
Recent holograms in fiction and popular culture have not been solely the domain of science fiction. Perhaps most famously Tupac featured as a hologram at Coachella in 2012 and Will.i.am as a hologram in the 2008 coverage of the US election. Neither of these were actually holograms; both to an extent another kind of optical trickery involving programming in addition to lasers, lights, and mirrors.  These holograms are the postmodern spectacle, but they are also more specifically digital spectacles. The secrecy that surrounded the technical processes for the Tupac hologram especially, might reflect the sense in which a hologram is an optical trick, a kind of seamless magic – perhaps one of the last places for it, as Snowden and others reveal the cost of that magic, that illusion of seamlessness, elsewhere in our lives.
In Takeshi Murata’s recent show Midnight, a video work OM Rider was accompanied by a hologram of the main character Wolf.  As of writing there are no images of the hologram in the gallery to accompany press and reviews for the show. I presume the hologram to have been real and present, but it may not have been; or it may have been a 3D data projection rather than a ‘true’ hologram. Reviews of the show were unwittingly playing into the sense in which a hologram is a cultural signifier and the digital art piece a material work. Reviews of the show mention the hologram only in passing and suggest it was presented as a kind of remainder of the video. The hologram was best encountered after the piece. It was, we are to understand from the reviews, there to prop up the work of the video. Unlike the digital material of the video, the hologram did not need attending to in a critical sense. 
In Dave Eggers’ most recent but one novel Hologram for the King (2012) and Jonathan Lethem’s most recent but one novel Chronic City (2010), holograms are emblematic of a post-postmodern environment that does not – as exponents for the new sincerity might argue – establish a new affect of authenticity; instead the hologram signifies a condition of failure to have imagined the world otherwise. In these novels there is not a resistance to late capitalism, but a mourning of a postmodern moment that failed to bring about some of the more radical alternatives imagined. It is worth dwelling over a section from Eggers’ book, to consider how cultural representations of the hologram might map onto critique of digital culture.
In A Hologram for the King, Alan, a middle-aged American businessman hit hard by all the consequences of the crash and recession, is on his last attempt to impress his boss at a digital communications company. Alan was once friendly with the nephew of King Abdullah of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and manages to get a meeting at the King’s new city – King Abdullah Economic City – to try and sell the King a new holographic teleconferencing system that Alan’s company has developed. Alan’s dad, Ron – a retired labourer – is, throughout the novel, disappointed in the fact his son does not work with commodities that are things, things that you can touch. There is on one level here a broad swipe of reactionary rhetoric at late-capitalist service and media industries. The following extract is a speech given by Alan’s dad, who Alan has phoned from Jeddah:
Everyday, Alan, all over Asia, hundreds of container ships are leaving their ports, full of every kind of consumer good. Talk about three-dimensional, Alan. These are actual things. They’re making actual things over there, and we’re making websites and holograms. Every day our people are making their websites and holograms, while sitting in chairs made in China, working on computers made in China, driving over bridges made in China. Does this sound sustainable to you, Alan? 
Given Dave Eggers’ documented scepticism of digital media it is easy to assume the tirade is meant to communicate something fairly un-nuanced about what ‘material labour’ is. That said, it unwittingly might give way to an alternative representation. Holograms and websites – by no means the same thing – also serve as territorial occupations that export US hegemony through the impression of borderless, neutral media. The exporting of what Alan’s dad sees as less substantial things are in fact alternative material ways of occupying culture elsewhere. The interface is the exported good and the hologram is the interface-signifier. The material labour in China, as is referenced in the novel, is at least in part the production of the material components of the holograms and websites; thus the material is not so much an import as it is the return of the export.
A Hologram for the King is in the mode of realist literary fiction. This is not science fiction, and not a speculative future: the 2008 economic crash taunts the subjects of the novel, framing the action in a moment approximate to our contemporary one. That said, holographic telecommunications are not a technology of the contemporary moment; the genre of contemporary literary fiction is here estranged through the unmoored referent. The hologram is both old and not-yet: an older image of future technological progress which has, data storage aside, become an image of the future unlikely to be. That the hologram is a postmodern paradigm in the writing of Jameson, Baudrillard, et al., binds it to the future-present/failing-future dialectic of the postmodern. Perhaps the hologram is in tension with, what Veronica Hollinger has called, “the idea of the ‘collapsed’ future,” or “the ‘bound to be’ of the ideology of progress,” as Zoë Sofia puts it; “a version of the postmodern disenchantment narrative.” 
Within the extract from A Hologram for the King cited above, holograms and websites are described similarly, but the material production of the Internet is a material good, which touches the world outside of the novel. The hologram as it is described in the novel cannot do this because there is no culturally recognisable reference point outside the novel other than the imagined one.
Writing about the film Delicatessen (1991), in reference to Fredric Jameson, Walter Benjamin, and accounts of ‘retro-futures,’ Christian Thorne suggests:
It is as though the film took as its most pressing task the re-enchantment of the object-world, as though it were going to lift objects to the camera one by one and reattach to them their auras – not their fetishes, now […] – as though the objects at hand had never passed through a marketplace at all. 
In the works discussed here the hologram remains an enchanted object, bearing the trace of imagined alterity. When the hologram is ‘lifted to the camera’ of the digital image it displaces some of that enchantment through the image, and simultaneously draws attention to its own status as empty signifier – to speak in Jameson’s terms – as blank. This is implicit in the 9/11 video which exists in flux between the pixel material, the holographic signifier, and a temporality that is in play through both; the flux enchants the conspiracy theorist. In Eggers’ novel the hologram often fails to appear at all, as Alan’s team struggle with installing the technology in the makeshift exhibition tent they have been allocated. There is relief when the King finally visits, and the technology works: the hologram works, the demo is a success. But this is already too late. Alan suddenly sees that they were being humoured, and that the contract always-already belonged to the Chinese delegation. The utopic ending that the hologram failed to deliver – rescuing Alan – was not about the technology. Instead the reader already knew that the hologram could not be a symbol of technological, or social, progress.
The hologram signifies its own absence. In popular culture the hologram may always signify the fact it is not ‘real’ and that a holographic future is not present. In addition, and in the case of the holograms of Tupac, Will.i.am, and the writing of Eggers and Lethem, the hologram signifies the digital technology that is hidden, in deference to the spectacle of the holographic emblem. The hologram may be a kind of retro-future-fail, a meme in the making, but this is not to say it lacks cultural pull or drag. The hologram hovers in tension with the digital material it is not. The dominant cultural narrative of the hologram, perhaps most evidenced here in the holographic transmissions of Wild Palms, supersedes an actual history, and the material difference to digital technology.
Despite holograms’ actuality, historical contingency, and authenticity they are also a novum – the thing that estranges. And, as suggested here, a thing that signifies the future that hasn’t been, the future as it is desired, and a present digitally inflected everyday.
1. Sean Johnston, Holographic Visions: A History of New Science, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006), 402-403.
2. William Gibson and Dennis Lims, “Now Romancer,” Salon, Saturday 11 August 2007, http://www.salon.com/2007/08/11/william_gibson/, (accessed 30 March 2014).
3. Sean Johnston. “A Cultural History of the Hologram,” Leonardo 41.3 (June 2008): 224.
4. David Bohm letter to Dennis Gabor, as cited by Sean Johnston in Holographic Visions, 441.
5. Cyrus Farivar, “Tupac ‘hologram’ merely pretty cool optical illusion,” Arstechnica, 17 April 2012, http://arstechnica.com/science/2012/04/tupac-hologram-merely-pretty-cool-optical-illusion/, (accessed 30 March 2014).
6. Takeshi Murata, Midnight, 8 November to 14 December 2013, Ration 3, San Francisco, http://www.ratio3.org/exhibitions/2013/takeshi-murata-midnight?p=pr
7. Kenneth Baker, “Takeshi Murata: Midnight, Animated allegory,” SF Gate, 22 November 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/art/article/Takeshi-Murata-Midnight-animated-allegory-5003221.php, (accessed 30 March 2014); Philip Sherburne, “What Does the Wolf Say? Who Knows, But We’re Terrified,” SPIN, 10 November 2013, http://www.spin.com/articles/takeshi-murata-om-rider-devin-flynn-c-spencer-yeh-robert-beatty/, (accessed 30 March 2014).
8. Dave Eggers, Hologram for the King (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012), 84.
9. Veronica Hollinger, “A History of the Future: Notes for an Archive,” Science Fiction Studies, 37.1 (March 2010): 23, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40649583 (accessed 30 March 2014); Zoë Sofia, “Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament, and the Sexo-Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism,” quoted in Hollinger.
10. Christian Thorne, “The Revolutionary Energy of the Outmoded,” October, 104 (Spring, 2003): 107, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3397583 (accessed 30 March 2014).
Dr. Zara Dinnen is lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Birmingham. Her research interests are in new media and contemporary American culture. She has articles and reviews published in a number of journals including Alluvium, European Journal of American Culture, Journal of American Studies, and Journal of Narrative Theory. Dinnen is co-convener of the Contemporary Fiction Research Seminar at the Institute of English Studies.