Thursday, April 21, 2011

In case anyone's curious about the post I mentioned in class

It's from Border House Blog (a site I love love love) and a relevant section is excerpted here.

It was because the game offered me the opportunity to stand in the shoes of a
woman character I had created, a thoughtful, strong woman modeled after my
newfound role models and representing a potential vision of myself. The
scholarly Night Elven Priestess who became my main character in WoW was how I explored womanhood, became a woman, and how I learned to take pride in being a woman. She taught me how to stand up for myself, how to fight back, and
eventually how to take control of my life.

--Quinnae, "Clicks on a Keyboard: Dungeons, Dragons, and Trans-Feminism"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Parenthood and Present

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken. The crowning touch, the one thing that really puts true world-class badmotherfuckerdom totally out of reach, of course, is the hydrogen bomb. If it wasn't for the hydrogen bomb, a man could still aspire. Maybe find Raven's Achilles' heel. Sneak up, get a drop, slip a mickey, pull a fast one. But Raven's nuclear umbrella kind of puts the world title out of reach.
Which is okay. Sometimes it's all right just to be a little bad. To know your limitations. Make do with what you've got. (Chapter 36, page 271-272)

"Their arguing–the same argument we're having now–was their downfall. The Nipponese caught up with them on a road just outside of Nagasaki... He raised the sword up above my father's head."
"It made a high ringing sound in the air," Raven says, "that hurt my father's ears."
"But it never came down."
"My father saw your father's skeleton kneeling in front of him. That was the last thing he ever saw." (Chapter 66, page 447-448)

tags: America, adversaries, historical context, legacies of war, the nuclear deterrent, parallelism

Seth has addressed the concept around human cpu, and the relation between binary and language in a better way than I could. Instead I will focus on the interactions between Raven and Hiro based on their fathers' shared past as POWs in Japan during World War II and the story they share in their final confrontation in the Metaverse. In many ways Snow Crash is about the conflict between Hiroaki "Hiro Protagonist"  and Dimitri "Raven" Ravinoff. Hiro and Raven are sort of shadow counterparts. Their shared background of mistreatment is integral in understanding the conflict of Snow Crash and what it means to our present.

Hiro straddles the racial boundary for two groups of people who were historically mistreated by the White racial majority of the United States. His father was black, the people who were brought over as slaves and are still mistreated by the bigoted racial supremacist burbclave of New South Africa. His mother was "Korean by way of Nippon" and his choice to identify with his Asian heritage, specifically with the culture of Japan or Nippon, recalls the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. One racially insensitive individual asks him, "Are you a lazy shiftless watermelon-eating black-ass nigger, or a sneaky little v.d.-infected gook?" (301). Hiro is both and neither, he is cross-cultural yet fundamentally American. Even after the fall of the government and its marginalization into the so called Feds that Y.T.'s mom worked for, Hiro functions as a representative of the cultural melting pot that defined the nation that was and still exists in the novel in some form.

In defining Hiro as cross-cultural, Black-Asian, we are really determining what is truly American. The end of the white-dominated culture is looming on the horizon. In fact, according to a recent article from the NY Times the number of multiracial children in the United States grew to 4.2 million according to the U.S. census[1]. The destruction of the U.S. as a metaphysical entity does not impede this metaphor of Hiro as representing a new kind of U.S. citizen. We only have to look at Raven to see that the U.S. still persists in a sense beyond its decimation as a political entity. For Raven lives for getting revenge on America, which he extends to not only a political organization but an entity embodying a set of ideals still present in the fragmented society of burbclaves, franchulates, and Mafia-run pizzerias.

Raven still harbors a grudge for the United States after his father was nuked not once but twice by them. This shapes his self-described "life long ambition," for as he says it "I used to have this plan– I was going to nuke America" (378). And in some ways Hiro and his final confrontation surrounds an attempt to "nuke" the power elite of society– the hackers. He makes this explicit right before Hiro executes him in the Metaverse saying, "[I] Realized my lifelong ambition" (456). Through his attempt to decimate the minds of the elite members of their futuristic society Raven is effectively getting his revenge on all of the forces of oppression that hampered his father and himself. His position as an Aleut harpooner, puts him in the position of an ethnic group that was mistreated and marginalized by colonial desires including having the government text nuclear weapons on their lands. Raven therefore represents a force with a grudge, legitimate yet leading to dangerous ends, against the established power structure of society and utilizes this technology only in so far as to cause the downfall of the whole establishment.

Raven proves to be "the baddest motherfucker in the world" and represents an ideal that Hiro cannot hope to match (271). The physical nuke that Raven carries in his sidecar makes him a literal nuclear power, which proves the deciding factor in their difference, meaning Hiro cannot hope to touch him without activating a city-buster. So instead Hiro attempts to live within his limitations. In so doing he achieves a virtual victory over Raven, while simultaneously stopping him from destroying the new cultural aristocracy by way of a Snow Crash nuke in the Metaverse. Thus it is ironic that this nuke never comes into direct play and the "nuke" he uses on what constitutes America is not one in the real world but instead the Snow Crash bomb.

Though by no means a post-racial society, the fragmented state of the United States of America is by no means a dystopia that deserves ruining by forces such as L. Bob Rife and Raven using the Asherah virus and Snow Crash to decimate and control the population. Hiro defends the right for the remnants of America to do the "four things we do better than anyone else
  • music
  • movies
  • microcode (software)
  • high-speed pizza delivery" (2).

Defining Androgynous Characters

(I misread the syllabus and accidentally posted about "A Rape in Cyberspace" last week, so I'm just going to repost it again here, hopefully this time it will be relevant)

The strangest aspect of the story to me, from a perspective gender, is contained in this excerpt: “And thus the woman in Seattle who had written herself the character called legba, with a view perhaps to tasting in imagination a deity's freedom from the burdens of the gendered flesh, got to read similarly constructed sentences in which legba, messenger of the gods, lord of crossroads and communications, suffered a brand of degradation all-too- customarily reserved for the embodied female” Somehow the lamdaMoo became a place (for characters such as Legba and other androgynes, at least) where gender is only defined by its violation. Legba defined herself as androgynous, a god who had no need for a sex in order to exist, and yet was raped as a woman. While this presents a unique and strange situation for gender to exist, it does not occur without some theoretical hiccoups, mostly relating to its inescapable relationship with the physical world.

Even if the internet society of MOO asks us to “behold the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our physical ones,” it is . The case of Mr. Bungle is continually considered in the sense of how its analogues would be found in the physical world (“consider how that wisdom would sound to a woman who'd been, say, fondled by strangers while passed out drunk,” for example). By doing this, the denizens of Lambda require some sort of consistency between the two worlds, and firmly ground their imaginary plane with the rules of the physical world.

Thus, when Mr. Bungle decided to violate androgynous characters such as Legba,
his inaccurate descriptions of their selves would remove the literality of his control over them. If Legba is truly androgynous, and why not, it is a god after all, the nature of Legba implies a physicality that would make the physical descriptions of his “rape” inaccurate, as they assume Legba is a woman (at least I think, I might be mistaken). Thus, the rape becomes a description of rape, rather than the literal act itself.

To be honest, I am not sure where this takes the story. It makes Bungle’s acts no less malicious or violative on a personal level for each of the victims, only making the crime less harsh technically. Perhaps viewing the situation like this confers some sort of “power” on the digital androgyne (which could also just be taken as any digital persona that has decided not to identify a gender, rather than specifically state they have ambiguous gender), in that their indefinability makes them more elusive in a world that relies on the accurate descriptions of each of its aspects to exist. Also, I don’t really know enough about gender theory to make any of these statements about androgyny with certainty or authority, this is just an argument I’ve made off of assumption, so correct me if im wrong.

Democratic Justice

Sorry for the lateness, I got sucked into my JP draft on black hole cosmology… Just kidding. I’m actually writing about bacterial population genetics in an experiment called the “death galaxy.” No joke.

Also I guess I should put up this SPOILER WARNING for Portal 2 because of the “revenge” link.

There is an ancient Greek formulation of popular justice as what benefits your friends and harms your enemies. Various versions of justice are discussed and refuted in the Republic, but it is in the “Apology,” the retelling of Socrates’ capital trial for his dubious crime of blasphemy (I think? I haven’t read it in a while), where we can see the greasy machinery of democratic justice fully at work. Socrates’ defends his own commitment to Athens while deconstructing his accusers’ arguments. But the most interesting part (at least, the one least characteristic of “Socrates” as I imagine) is Socrates’ not-so-subtle call for revenge at the hands of his young supporters.

Whereas the Athenian jury easily sentences Socrates to death, the netizens of LambdaMOO (λμ) fail to decide on anything during their protracted meeting. It takes one of the victims to even suggest the option of the Permanent Ban (or “toading” as they called it), and although up to around 50 players to concur with both the informal and the formal petitions to ban Bungle/Jest, neither go through. The topic changed from the simple “thumbs up or down on Bungle’s virtual existence” to a serious consideration of the community’s future political direction. The accused, Mr. Bungle, even stopped by the discussion and may have evoked some sense of pity or regret. The equality of users as citizens allows this kind of democratic participation in LambdaMOO, even if its proceedings are totally ineffective.

On the other hand, even with the addition of the petition system, the enforcement of the public will, of the “tyranny of the majority,” continued to be problematic. One problem is that of numbers: in a virtual community where an elite few are very active, and most are only somewhat active, what good does it do to define a total democracy? In Athens, the small participating part of public men were really only left with a choice among the most vocal and skilled orators. The idea of an online petition among a potentially fleeting user base, as opposed to some privileged group of senior members, amplifies the apathy of choice presented to the average person behind the screen, who may easily move on from LambdaMOO to a MUD of their preference. In other words, for any user who is not seriously socially involved in the online world, there is little commitment to its development so there is no rational incentive to participate in its politics. Users may easily come and go (as shown by Bungle’s easy reincarnation as Jest), so that pure democracy is ineffectual online.

Apart from the systemic problem of the dynamic user base, its constituency of “anarchists [and] libertarians” doesn’t help the maintenance of effective democracy. The technolibertarian solution of simply muting the offending user seems not to carry the same publicly, socially, democratically satisfying thump of the banhammer. These are the competing urges between democratic justice and the political independence afforded by participation within the Internet. Conversely, we also see the power wielded by the Internet technocracy—forum moderators, torrent seeders, PHP and SQL coders—those many who are technically competent and able to implement a vast change with a simple command or just a few lines of code. The technocracy is democratic in the Athenian sense though, but instead of the τεχνη of oration which the participating public admires, it is computer wizardry (edit: and also I should link to this post).

eXistenZ and Inception (duhnduhnduhnduhnduhn..WOOOOOAAAAAHHHHNNNN)

One thing that really struck me about eXistenZ was its similarity to Inception in the exploration and questioning of reality. Though other films have certainly incorporated such themes (e.g., The Matrix), both of the films in question layer many different “virtual” realities in order to disorient the viewer from understanding which one is, in fact, “real.” Even the realities from which the protagonists plunge into their virtual worlds are called into question at the end of both stories: Leonardo DiCapprio's spinning top and the Chinese waiter's inquiry as to whether or not the players are still gaming. In the latter case, the gamers already rose from a virtual reality that was introduced as the true reality at the beginning of the movie, further emphasizing the ambiguity of realism.

Another interesting parallel lies in the construction of the game in eXistenZ. That is, a player's preconceived ideas and unconscious desires apparently help shape the way the virtual reality, the characters, and the goals of the game are formed. As a result of such ideas and desires, the game we witness reflects an ongoing struggle between “realists” and gamers. In the “real world,” the former accuse the latter of “deforming reality” by creating an alternate one in which people can indulge their time, their energy, and their dreams. This introduces the notion that the virtual world is a dangerous vice that tempts many into limbo and apathy, while continuing the discussion with respect to questioning reality. Furthermore, the inception of these ideas into the virtual world highlight the dangers of virtual reality as well as the power of human will.

From a game designer's standpoint, the balance of free choice versus structure and control likely exhibits the greatest challenge in designing a virtually realistic system. Allegra notes at the beginning of the film that eXistenZ is meant to be an entirely new gaming paradigm; perhaps this was meant to reflect a shifting of such balance. As a gamer, I understand the dilemma. The linearity (or lack thereof) of a game often correlates with its replay value; at the same time, if the gamer is given too much freedom, the storyline often suffers. In The Matrix, the machines encounter a similar problem after the failure of their first, utopian virtual reality. Their solution was to create the perfect illusion of free choice to keep the minds of their human batteries content. To really drive home the relevancy of this balance, Pikul asks Allegra shortly after being “plugged in” for the first time if there is any free will in her games. She replies, “Only as much as real life.”

Bad acting and accents aside, eXistenZ appears to be the Canadian predecessor to Inception in the genre of virtual reality mind****s. While both movies certainly incorporate other themes (e.g., Pikul's fear of penetration and revulsion at the organic game consoles), they both focus on the power of ideas, the importance of free will, and the dangers of indulging in dream worlds. Both also force us to ask questions such as: What is reality? How can we tell if we're really in it? How does our understanding of it influence our understanding of consequence and violence? Finally, can we truly choose our own destinies, or are we all part of a bigger game designed by someone upstairs?

Also, this has nothing to do with my post, but in case you don't get my title...

The Female in Snow Crash


In last week’s class we discussed how Neuromancer was in many ways made for the teenage boy. While some members of the class didn’t have a problem with this fact, others defended their enjoyment of the book and others (maybe just Professor Montez) disliked the book based on the idea that it was inherently for thirteen-year-old boys. Snow Crash seems to me to be even more overly written for a young male audience. Combining pizza, skateboards and high-speed cars in the opening pages of the book, what more could a teenage boy ask for?

As the book continues, I was a bit surprised to see a female character enter into the action. But Y.T. with her non-gendered initials doesn’t seem to be screaming femininity (maybe she shows more lady-like qualities later in the book and I’m just not there yet). There just doesn’t seem to be many women in the book. Y.T.’s mother is kept in the dark about her daughter’s job as a Kouier seemingly because she would disapprove of the danger in Y.T.’s job. But Y.T.’s mother also has a dangerous and secrete job working for the Feds. Both mother and daughter try to protect the other by not disclosing information about their choice of career.

But Y.T. must change out of her manly Kourier uniform into a dress before returning home. She uses a female friend as an alibi to fool her mother into thinking she is harmlessly socializing with other females, as opposed to steeling cars, zipping around on skateboards and chasing murders around the city with an older man (Hiro). Y.T. must hide her femininity from the outside male world, by dressing and acting like a man, but she also must hide this manly side from her female character at home.

But even with Y.T. as a spunky female character, I don’t know how a female audience would relate or does relate to Y.T. and this book in general. Although I can relate to Y.T.’s desire to ride skateboards and act like one of the boys, I find her need to separate her male and female sides troubling. Snow Crash seems to force her to be one or the other, not incorporating her feminine and masculine sides into one strong character.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I haven’t gotten all the way through Snow Crash yet, but there were two things that struck me immediately when I began reading. One was the fact that I was being hit by a deluge of exposition – every acronym and aspect of industry and moment of technology (many which, in hindsight, I could understand without the assistance) got its moment of explanation. The second observation was that this amount of exposition didn’t inhibit my experience of the world of the book at all. In fact, it enhanced it. Though I was occasionally taken out for a moment to think, well, that was a lot of explanation, I was wholly engaged in the world that I was learning about in minute detail. I guess part of the reason I appreciated this level of detail is that, in my observation of the science fiction literature of the course, it often takes a while as a reader to get your bearings in a new world. Often I’ve spent a decent amount of a book’s opening passages overwhelmed by words and ideas I couldn’t quite get a hold on until pages later. This makes sense for stories about exploring the unknown or coming into contact with something alien. But since Snow Crash revolves around a world where nothing exists unless it is specifically coded, even a new explorer like me would have to be pretty well-acquainted with the world around her. The book uses words instead of code to build the Metaverse for readers, a decision which also makes sense in context, since words and code become so inherently linked later in the story.

My ability to build a world through written descriptions in the novel helped me to better understand the complicated questions posed by “A Rape in Cyberspace,” published just a year after Snow Crash. When I started the article, not paying attention to its date of publication, I imagined the rape taking place in an environment more like the Sims or I guess Second Life, full of visual representation of everything that had occurred. When I realized LamdaMOO was based instead on written descriptions of actions and characteristics, I was still disturbed by what happened there but initially had trouble understanding what it would be like to experience it. But the creation of the Metaverse for me as a passive observer in Snow Crash changed my perception. It was easy to become absorbed even if I was just passing through the world without changing anything in it. Looking back at the emotional impact of violent rape within Body Surfing, I shouldn't have been surprised that narration could be so affecting. If it has an emotional impact on people who participate by reading, it has an even greater impact on those building the story and casting themselves as characters within it.

I’m tempted to say that stories are becoming more interactive, and on some levels that's obviously true. The internet allows people from across the globe to build stories and worlds together, increasing everyone’s personal stake in the narrative because they built it. Any violation against a character is also a violation against a sort of unwritten contract that people will respect the process of crafting a narrative together. But part of the reason the process commands so much respect is because it isn't new technology at all. In light of Snow Crash’s fascination with the ancient, I'd rather connect our modern means of storytelling to the ones used before books were published or even written. Oral tradition allowed stories to continuously change and develop over time, with different people contributing and helping to build the world together. Thinking in the terms of colonialism we discussed from the beginning of this class, I think it would be a mistake to label our new ways of storytelling progress so much as a return to the way we’ve always told stories. Perhaps they are more powerful because we’re more fully engaged in our own version of the Metaverse, but I think stories can have a profound emotional effect any time we place ourselves in them, by relating to characters, becoming characters, or helping to construct the world of the story itself.

Signs of the times

Since the levels of simulation and reality in eXistenZ are pretty difficult to parse, it seems appropriate to abandon the usual mode of explicatory summary and simply re-present a number of the thematic “levels” on which I saw the movie operate, elaborating on each one even if I cannot put them into a hierarchy. These might be called “signs of the times,” the phrase by which Allegra named the mutant amphibian that proved to have been designed for the production of the simulation: wonders ultimately comprehensible by the logic of the narrative.

The nightmare of production. Here I’m thinking of what the project manager of sorts calls “the strong and deliberate anti-game theme” near the end, which guides the movement of the plot throughout. The play known up front as such (by which I mean to exclude the initial scene of “plugging in,” thwarted by the assassin, that we later learn to have been a simulation as well) begins with an act of consumption (the purchase of a new game system) that swiftly uncovers the nightmare of production (specifically, these systems’ manufacture). Cronenberg underscores the fantasy—that consumption might reveal something, however discomfiting, about production; some call this "the Kunkel fruit," after its most recent author—by redoubling it, insofar as it occurs within an interior simulation run on the purchased system itself. As it happens, that simulation occurs through a literal act of consumption, since the simulated game system must actually be absorbed within the body to function. And while the revelation of the (internally simulated) mode of production of the game system draws upon modern horrors of genetic modification and organ harvesting, it situates them in an oddly antique, even Californian setting: an airy and dusty wooden warehouse with a peculiarly large and unacculturated Asian population (more on whom shortly), as if the secret of late capitalist fantasy were its continuity with late American colonialism. Despite his disgust, Ted Pikul (Jude Law)—a “PR geek,” the model of a white-collar laborer and someone advanced modern enough into modernity to have developed a neurotic phobia of biological modification—finds himself laboring automatically, as an automaton. For all the truth of corporate malfeseance and biological exploitation may horrify us, it also comes to us consumers and producers quite naturally.

The masturbating, alienating woman. It’s difficult for me to elaborate on a projection of sexuality onto the scenes of “play,” in part because it’s difficult for me to interpret them in any other way. One distinction I could draw, however, would note the total absence of sexual tension between Ted and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) until they enter a level of simulation consciously understood as such—specifically, in the back-room of the video game store, where they seem to come onto each other despite themselves. Before then Allegra is alienatingly aloof, while Ted’s neurotically so. His reserve appears to be due to his “phobia about getting penetrated—surgically, I mean,” which needs little explanation (except to maintain that Ted’s repression reads more as square than closeted, to me, anyway). I can risk the appearance of sexist essentialism in saying that Ted’s too meek to introduce any element of sexuality into his relationship with Allegra—which we learn, at the end, is an ongoing real one, making the gradual reintroduction of interest appear more like therapy than anything else—because it’s explicitly a failure to, well, give her what she wants. Allegra insists at least twice on her desire to “play eXistenZ with someone friendly” because it takes that many for Ted to overcome his phobia; before then, she is shown retreating into the game in a scene that (given Cronenberg’s perversely nipply controllers) strikingly resembles an act of masturbation. (In confirmation of this reading, I can note that Allegra is introduced as someone who “spends all her time alone in her room designing games. I think she’d like it best if she never had to show them to anybody.”) This scene alienates Ted and aggravates his phobia, unsurprisingly; the penetration of the self through masturbatory fantasy both cuts to the heart of his problem and cuts away at the livelihood of their decayed relationship.

Multiculturalism as theater of the absurd. To finish without concluding, I’ll throw up my hands in bewilderment at the function accents serve in the movie. The characters themselves are bewildered, from Ted initially to the players/actors themselves at the very end. At a loss to closely read here, I’ll wildly speculate that the interior fiction stages multiculturalism as a kind of nonconsensual element within the consensual hallucination of late capitalism (or something). Imposed upon actors earnestly attempting to acquire a starring role, these “bad” accents at once throw the entire simulation into an uncanny valley and the starring white couple in flattering relief; whatever necessitates them is the same force that ineluctably carries the recognition of difference into the stereotype. Once explicitly addressed by the frustrated players/actors, they even come to seem like a technique for the subordination of the majority necessary to the elevation of the individual promised by capitalism and narrative fiction alike.

Going Where We’ve Always Already Been

First revolted and then delighted, Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ was an exciting, if confusing, romp through reality. The film follows Allegra Geller and Ted Pikul through a series of realities as they attempt to escape an anti-virtual reality terrorist group. To say that there is a single, consistent plot, however, is to ignore the multitudinous ways in which realities fracture and collapse throughout the film. Allegra Geller’s escape from persecution is the driving theme of most of the film but towards the conclusion of the film we realize that this was simply a part of the game, her persecution an element in Yevgeny Nourish’s game creation. And yet when this story arc ends and Allegra and Ted awake from their virtual slumber they are once again thrown into a similar plot, only the names are changed. It would be easy to read this film as a prophetic warning about the dangers inherent in tuning in, turning off and dropping out of our shared sense of reality but such a reading denies the clear emphasis Cronenberg places on problematizing easy separations of the real and imagined.

Cronenberg uses wrote, over the top dialogue to signal what we as viewers already know about the film. This tactic creates a level of self-awareness in the film which is atonce uncomfortable and familiar. The characters in the film act as if they are characters, well aware of the limitations and incompleteness of their own story arcs and the world they occupy. IN one scene Ted Pikul announces, to no one in particular:

We're both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.

Ted, like the movie watching audience, is watching a confusing array of events unfold before eyes with little choice in how they occur and what his actions should be. Like a movie-goer, Ted is told how to feel and how to react. Music, clothing, dramatic dialogue and over-the-top action signal game players and audience members which emotions and actions are suitable responses at any given moment in the film/game.

Incantatory VR

All three works for this week involve Virtual Reality, and feature the almost magical power of words in the creation of VR. On the one hand, this is obvious, that words have power in a construct made out of words. But with Neuromancer, the forms of interaction with VR were so visual, so tactile, that they almost obliterated the foundations of that interaction. Coding is words. Maybe some numbers, but in its purest form, is communication with a computer (add this, xor those).

In Snow Crash, the concept of the nam-shub becomes recast in computer terms, as it is the only present world in which it works in the same way as it did in the thousands of years past. The Metaverse looks like a globe with roads and buildings, but in its "actual" form is just blocks of code. When Hiro built his house, what he was building was text that described how he wanted the house to act, what he wanted it to look like, what capabilities he wanted it to have. When Hiro and his friends built the Black Sun, Hiro coded the sword-fighting algorithms and the tunnel system, both mechanisms that he uses (if not frequently then prominently in the novel). Having coded these gives him power over them.

In "A Rape in Cyberspace", the MOO is a virtual world entirely made of text. Every interaction with this environment happens through text (typical early MUD/MOO). The power of using text usually remains with the player, and part of the violation of the rape in cyberspace is the removal of that power from the player's hands. The player is reduced to an observer to the actions that their virtual body enacts. This position, however, is a parallel position to that of a reader or viewer, except for the attachment to the virtual body as a representation of their self.

In eXistenZ, there is that moment where Allegra and Ted are looking for a "country gas station", and then they find a "Country Gas Station". This moment reveals the power of words to affect the (virtual) reality in which they find themselves. Either their words affect reality on an instantaneous level (what they say becomes real), or their words reflect their construction of reality (whoever wrote the game knows its parts).

In Virtual Reality, more so than in Real Reality, words have power because the world is a construction that depends on words to exist. All of the texts for this week reflect this power, some more directly than others (I'm looking at you, Snow Crash).

Is this real?

In a movie, does it matter which world is "real"? I kept coming back to this question as I watched Existenz and found myself wondering, again and again, "Is this the real world or the game? Is he really dead?" The obvious answer, from an extremely cynical point of view, is that it was not the real world, and that the characters were not really dead, because all of the events only occurred with the context of a movie. The director yelled cut, the actors went home, and that was the end of that. But this pragmatic perspective jars with the experience of watching the movie, where I really cared, in each moment, whether the events were just the game, or were actually occurring in the movie's reality.

The typical explanation of this would be "suspension of disbelief." I was absorbed into the movie's world, was tricked into believing, at least on an emotional level, that the events were real, and so cared about the characters and their fates. However, although I think this explanation is good in general, it cannot explain my own reaction to Existenz, as my disbelief was not suspended for even a second. I found the dialogue unconvincing, the accents painful, and the two protagonists endlessly irritating. I never believed in any of the characters in their own right, and consistently thought of them as "Jude Law with a bad accent," "The Doctor" and "Bilbo Baggins." I felt no emotional connection to the story (and was frequently repulsed by it), and so shouldn't really have cared whether any one of them died "in the game" or "in reality."

I therefore think that movies like Existenz succeed in making us ask "Is this real?" partly because it constitute a challenge to the viewer's intelligence, and partly because it plays off viewer insecurities about their own perceptions of the world. I am the sort of person who cannot help trying to guess what the "twist" of the movie will be. I declared "all of this is a game" a minute into the movie, and enjoyed the puzzle of "Is this the game? Is this reality?" throughout the course of the film. Although I would enjoy the film more if it outsmarted me and gave me a twist I truly didn't expect (as indeed I was more impressed by this movie when it turned out that the protagonists were actually the "realists"), there is a sense of great satisfaction and security in knowing that you "outsmarted" the movie, and that you weren't taken in by the tricks that it played.

Yet I think it also plays upon the terrifying fact that none of us can always tell the difference between dream and reality. Have you ever had a dream that was such a perfect copy of real life that you thought it was real? Have you ever woken up from a dream and questioned whether it was something that actually happened, or remembered something and been unable to tell whether it happened in real life, or in a dream? Perhaps I am just particularly susceptible to such things, but I have been so unsettled by bad dreams that I have called my family to check that they were OK, and have yet to forget nightmares I had as a child where I "woke up," only to find the monster in my room. Even outside the context of dreams, people sometimes become disconnected from reality after traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, or world changing moments like 9/11. People ask, "Was that real? Did it really happen?" not only because they don't want it to have been true, but because everything begins to feel like it must have been a dream. When watching movies like Existenz, we therefore ask "Is this real?" and attempt to outsmart the movie because we want the reassurance that we can tell the difference, that we are smart enough to figure out when something is a dream or a game, and when something is actually happening to us.

Estranging Reality to Realize the Strange

When both watching EXistenZ and reading Snow Crash (although I’ll focus on the former here, since I’ve not quite completed the latter), I was struck not so much by the creation of such involved virtual worlds as I was the utter strangeness of the “real” worlds. For example, when I first began Snow Crash, I was convinced that I was reading a story about the day to day life of a modern-day pizza delivery boy whose devotion to virtual reality games had driven him to suffer a psychotic break. Once I realized that this explanation wasn’t sufficient—that Hiro was indeed living in a hyper-commercialized version our (very near) future in which pizza companies are run like the mafia and racism has become acceptable and commonplace again—I began to suspect that, in fact, the entire world I was reading about was virtual. After this flailing attempt to ground myself during the exposition, the transition to the metaverse was actually quite calming—finally, a version of reality that I knew wasn’t reality! Not only that, but, compared to “reality”, I found the metaverse to, surprisingly, be comfortingly close to my own perception of reality, or at least what I would expect a virtual version of my own to resemble, with its social hubs and motley collection of avatars.

The “reality” of EXistenZ (and here I’m referring to the world we think is real for most of the film) is similarly disturbing, with its grotesque emphasis on organic-looking technology, not to mention the thickly layered-on, unnatural accents and over-the-top dialogue. This confusion only got worse near the end, when EXistenZ and “reality” started to “bleed together”, making it impossible to distinguish between the two. Even the very end, which presents the most believable world (with technology that actually looks like technology, not perverted body parts, and legitimate accents), the eerie symmetry between situation and dialogue between that “reality” and the first “reality” casts everything into doubt. When Allegra describes EXistenZ as “a game everybody’s already playing”, she’s more right than she knows. Like in Snow Crash, the world that we know is virtual becomes, somehow, the most “real” option, both because of its sheer, dirty grit (real animals instead of technologies that seem to mimic their form but have no explained source) and because we know on which side of reality we— and the characters— stand.

As we saw in “A Rape in Cyberspace”, even lines of text on a screen can create a startling illusion of reality for those invested in the community. Once you add in a second degree of separation, though (reading a book or watching a movie), more drastic action is needed to force the reader or watcher to understand the level of involvement and devotion the characters feel to their virtual realities or games. By making the virtual space the ironically more concrete, understandable option while twisting the “real world” until it’s scarcely recognizable (or until it can’t be sorted into “real” or “virtual”), Stephenson and Cronenberg do a 180 on our perception of reality and, in doing so, draw us more fully into their characters’ lives.

Another Reality

MMOs, Virtual Reality, Addiction, Avatars

This week I'd seen and read all of the assignments in the past although I enjoyed revisiting them. Specifically because of the common theme of identity in a virtual world and distinguishing actual reality from virtual reality. This has a special meaning to me because while I was stationed overseas with the military I was a high-end raid/guild leader in World of Warcraft, logging at least 6 hours a day, 7 days a week in the name of bleeding edge progression.

I eventually quit the summer before I came to Princeton, but when a new expansion to the game comes out I still feel compelled to log back into the game and at least see what's new. I've invested too much time and effort into my Avatar "James" to not keep him current.

It's interesting what draws different people to MMOs like WoW. According to the Daedulus Gateway (, a site dedicated to studying the phenomenon of MMOs, "It is easy to dismiss video games as pointless activities that only teenagers indulge in. The truth is that the average age of MMORPG players is around 26. In fact, only 25% of MMORPG players are teenagers. About 50% of MMORPG players work full-time. About 36% of players are married, and 22% have children."

So there's no specific demographic that is particularly effected in terms of age. In terms of gender there is a noticeable split, 85% of MMO players are men. However, according to Amy Bruckman, author of Gender Identity on the Internet, Men are 3-5 times more likely than women to create an avatar of the opposite gender, particularly men over the age of 25.

Another interesting disparity noted by the Daedalus Gateway "is the difference in emphasis on character customization between Asian and Western MMORPGs. Asian MMORPGs typically have pre-defined character appearances while Western MMORPGs give the user the ability to customize many physical features. While this at first appears as if Western gamers care more about their appearances and individualism compared with Asian gamers, something more intriguing is happening. Full-fledged character creation systems frustrate Asian gamers because they do not like the fact that more skilled users can create avatars that are more attractive and appealing than theirs. Instead of individualism, the underlying issue is two very different views of egalitarianism."

For me personally, I was drawn to the leadership and competitive aspects of the game. My identity was more tied up in leading a guild and organizing 40-man raids than it was in being a rogue or a male, although those things were certainly true. But in the game I had the thrill of leading a large team to overcome initially insurmountable-seeming obstacles and the rush of defeating a boss for the first time through teamwork remains one of the strongest thrills I've felt in my life.

Afraid of extending reality

I’m still reading the last quarter of Snow Crash, but I’m finding myself curious about a minor aspect of the novel: what’s wrong with being a gargoyle? Hiro defines gargoyles (p123-4) with slight disgust: “Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies… They serve as human surveillance devices… Nothing looks stupider these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society…. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time.” So, aside from the obvious alignment to a “class” of “geeks” who in the past may have accessorized with fanny packs and pocket protectors and toted around graphing calculators, etc., I want to know what’s so “embarrassing” about a gargoyle. It seems that gargoyles are more than embarrassing; they’re ostracized and othered. For example, Y.T. notices very quickly that Hiro has turned into a gargoyle, and Hiro becomes very defensive, claiming that his device is the smallest belt pack machine ever made, which I guess makes him less obviously marked as a gargoyle (p.265).

And I wondered why this even caught my attention - I think it’s because this struck me as an inevitable part of Snow Crash’s future: if there’s a “Real World” and a “Metaverse,” and people are starting to collapse those two worlds by becoming gargoyles, it’s only a matter of time before that becomes the norm. Perhaps gargoyles are stigmatized in Snow Crash because, as Hiro mentions early in the novel, it’s possible to be very wealthy in one world and inconsequential in the other (although, of course, he also explains that only about 1% of people have enough funds to access the Metaverse regularly, so that’s already skewing the dichotomy of “superstar in the Metaverse/ pizza delivery boy in the Real Word”). If everyone became gargoyles, I bet this disparity between the Real World identity and the Metaverse would collapse (or at least become much more narrow), and the potentiality of creating a “new” virtual identity of “higher value” would also be less promising. So gargoyles are ostracized not because they’re nerdy, but they’re a threat to the higher ups in both the Real World and the Metaverse. (I could definitely be wrong here; I’m just speculating.)

The gargoyles, as well as Stephenson’s description of the Metaverse in general, both strongly remind me of Existenz and “A Rape in Cyberspace.” With gargoyles come the difficulties of discerning virtual reality from reality; virtual reality really just becomes an expansion pack of real life (for those who can afford it and feel pressured to buy into it). The virtual reality of Existenz is ultimately so convincing that it’s difficult to know where the game ends and where “real life” and “true agency” begin - and I’m not convinced that it even matters at that point. (And at one point in the movie, Jude Law agrees with me; he doesn’t want to kill people because it’s impossible to tell whether they’re in real time or the game.) I’m also afraid to ever play The Sims again. Similarly, “A Rape in Cyberspace” collapses “virtual reality” and “reality,” expanding the scope of where/how rape can occur. And becoming a gargoyle resists the separation of these terms.

On a related note - I just saw this on a blog today.
I’m not going to weigh in on the issue here, but it’s definitely an example of how “the real world” is expanding in ways that make Stephenson’s 1991 Metaverse seem almost prophetic: let’s think of online dating sites like as places where people are creating avatars that may or may not accurately reflect who they are in “real life.” If a person is a registered sex offender in real life, should that record follow them into the Metaverse? How about in Carole Markin’s case, where I’d argue that the avatar extended into reality, and she (like many other people on dating sites) decided to collapse the worlds, and was sexually assaulted?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Snow Crash: Action Thriller/Social Commentary

Snow Crash depicts a society in which the government no longer plays an active role in the provision of public services such as highway maintenance and law enforcement, those roles having been taken over by corporations such as Fairlane, Inc, WorldBeat Security and MetaCops Unlimited. While traditional economic theory suggests that government intervention is necessary to ensure sufficient provision of these public goods, as private producers would not find it profitable to supply such services, corporations are shown to have successfully taken over production of these services in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and no decrease in standards of living which might be caused by private underproduction is apparent. Stephenson’s depiction of this entirely laissez-faire economy thus appears to be denouncing the need for government intervention in markets, which we might have expected given how counter-culture themes are often present in works of cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk, as the case may be).

Of course, this abolishment of “big government” does not come without its costs, for the corporatization of America’s public space has caused both social and cultural fragmentation. Los Angeles has been divided into residential districts affiliated with different “franchise nations”, each with their own culture: the “technomedia priesthood” that is Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong is always welcoming to immigrants, while America’s middle class has retreated to “identical, computer-designed” Burbclaves, which only serve as a “culture medium for a medium culture”. This fragmentation is also present on the Raft, where people of different ethnicities occupy different ships, but whereas the franchise nations exist in an uneasy peace at worst, resorting only to stickers, guard robots and law enforcement officers to keep non-residents out, neighborhoods on the Raft are openly afraid that neighboring ships will “gang up on them and cut them loose”, showing how social tensions might arise from fragmented cultures being in close proximity with one another. Snow Crash thus suggests that while doing away with government intervention may be beneficial (or at least not detrimental) on the economic front, the resulting cultural fragmentation and loss of centralized law enforcement can cause social problems in their own way.

Another interesting point to consider is how Snow Crash and Neuromancer imagine cyberspace differently. In Neuromancer, only corporations and “console cowboys” can maintain presences in and manipulate cyberspace, implying that cyberspace belongs only to the economic and intellectual elite. While this same problem is also present to some extent in Snow Crash’s Metaverse, as only around 1% of the planet’s population has access to it, it is also much more inclusive than Neuromancer’s cyberspace, as untrained programmers such as businessmen, ordinary citizens and Kouriers can access the Metaverse just as easily as hackers can. Thus where Neuromancer imagines a future in which unrestrained capitalism and the rise of global megacorporations can exacerbate existing social inequalities by creating technological ones alongside them, Snow Crash suggests how free markets and technology can do the opposite, and insofar as the accessibility of our own Internet appears to more closely resemble Snow Crash’s Metaverse than Neuromancer’s cyberspace, I’d like to think that technological advancements can indeed be a force for social equality.

Psychic Doubles & eXistenZ

 tags: mind-body, psychic doubles, visceral reactions, the real vs. the symbolic 

eXistenZ is an uncomfortable movie. Despite the heads-up we got about the film’s bodily imagery at the end of class last week, I couldn’t help but squirm through much of the film. A good portion of the squirming might have been due to the terrible accents and the worse dialogue, but a good portion was definitely also due to the bodily imagery associated with the original gaming apparatus. And by a certain point in the film, I actually couldn’t help but physically react to the images on screen (specifically, I kept saying “Ow” aloud in anticipation of the moment when Ted cuts Allegra’s umbilical-cord-like connection to the diseased pod in the factory). A mild reaction, yes, but striking nonetheless, considering that nothing was actually happening to me – not IRL (in real life), anyway.