“There is nothing that human beings have created that cannot be represented in this protean environment,” Janet Murray writes of the computer environment, “from the cave paintings of Lascaux to real-time photographs of Jupiter, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Shakespeare’s First folio, from walk-through models of Greek temples to Edison’s first movies” (27). Putting aside, for the moment, the comically narrow slice of the pie of “human creation” those cuts would serve, I’d like to focus on the remarkably apt choice of “protean” as an adjective–especially as it shares a sentence with Shakespeare. Proteus, who betrays his love, attempts to kill his best friend and spite-rape a woman who rejects him, ends up as a self-hating parody of human interaction. He is unable to access “human” emotions; his speeches and behavior reflect a sociopathic desire to pursue immediate pleasures for their own sakes, turning relationships into abstract, interchangeable pieces. One might say that he attempts to construct “a virtual reality that is as deep and rich as reality itself,” to wrangle Murray’s phrase, unaware until the bitter end that he has forfeited meaningful reality itself–“virtual” and otherwise–in the process (28).
Well, I’ve stretched that moulding clay about as thin as it will go. But the “protean” problem is the productive paradox pervading Murray’s arguments, in which the computer & cyberspace become principally neutral media, a formless, infinite matrix awaiting the forming hand of its distinguishing, disseminating, disciplining “interactors.” Of course, the interactors–while active–are also in a sense neutral, merely responding to the “properties native to the machine itself” (64).
Several little spawned paradoxes:
- There is, presupposed in the logic of statements such as, “we are outgrowing the traditional ways of formulating [complex experiences] because they are not detailed or comprehensive enough to express our sense of… life,” or “to be alive in the twentieth century is to be aware of… alternative possible selves, of alternative possible worlds, and of the limitless intersecting stories of the actual world,” the idea of an eminently melioristic society based on evolutive principles (35-7). Let’s just call them “Western” principles. Not only are “we” (technologized Westerners) evolving yet further beyond the traditional (aboriginal) concepts of writing and speech, “we” are the only ones even permitted to be “alive.” Now, again, Murray’s vocabulary sort of writes the paradox for her. In order for “us” (and just imagine the quotes round these pronouns from here on in) not only to be alive but to be able to express our lives, we must use a computer to “capture [the] cascading permutations” (38). Indeed, to imprint our images upon the world, we must capture, subdue, and tame the cascade of potential meanings, killing or driving to extinction those wild “bugs” within and without our system that continue to resist. More succinctly, the point here is that a “limitless” wilderness of the “actual world” can’t be “captured.” It can only be hunted, colonized… subjected to violence. And that violence is itself the contour of the “cyber” world.
- Yes, yes, violence, just as violent as the early filmmakers, who, “by aggressively exploring and exploiting” their cameras, achieved an “expressive medium” (66). Let’s be clear. There are no “natives” living within the machine–there are only constructed nativities (like ELIZA); trapped conglomerates of physical data, subject & subjected to a set of rules… who retroactively prove their nativity as their imperfect ability to follow these rules. “The challenge”–yes, yes, the challenge!–“for the future is how to make such rule writing as available to writers as musical notation is to composers” (73-4). The secret here is that the resolution to that particular challenge is always deferred into the future. I mean, Jimi Hendrix couldn’t read musical notation. Neither, one assumes, could Blind Willie Johnson. Or Blind Lemon Jefferson. Or Blind Anyone, for that matter. Furthermore, Bach & Mozart would be at a loss with this.
- That’s not the end of the challenges for the future. “Procedural environments are appealing to us… because we can induce the behavior. They are response to our input… the challenge for the future is to invent scripts that are formulaic enough to be easily grasped and responded to but flexible enough to capture a wider range of human behavior than treasure hunting and troll slaughter” (79). Again, “we” like inducing behaviors… prodding into the wild environment and discovering how it reacts. We need to become cyberanthropologists, framing the incomprehensible native behavior in culturally explicable ways. It’s hard not to think of Marlow’s mission to fill in the blank spaces of Africa when reading Murray’s description of the computer’s spatial world, which is “realized for the interactor by the process of navigation” (80). Speaking of Heart of Darkness: “[another] challenge for the future is to invent an increasingly graceful choreography of navigation to lure the interaction through ever more expressive na…tive landscapes” (83). But, enough of that. We do necessarily become cyberanthropologists. But also autocyberanthropologists. Just take a look at that “Lexo TV” site!
Lexo TV–while (or perhaps because) largely incomprehensible to me–seems to perfectly capture many of our paradoxes. The creators of the site live unabashedly within a global capitalist context, which makes sense considering they’re Trinidadian, yet claim to speak to and for the “diversity of the Caribbean,” a region which–largely speaking–has at best a complicated relationship with global capitalism (yes, quotes). After watching some of the most recent video, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that many of the characters & their action reflect negative stereotypes or, worse, negative realities. But I’m not sure, because I am not subject to that reality. So this is good, in that it is a writing of difference and differentiation that articulates some Caribbean identity, but it is a problem–not to say “problematic”–in its relationship to political (lived, violent) realities. Certainly, the rule-writing has been made available here–but can the “writing” be said to be A) legible B) native C) productive? More importantly, does it follow the rules–perfectly or imperfectly–or does it (can it) break them? These aren’t so much questions as evidences that Murray’s future is never/always coming. We’re always in that “incunabular” stage between the camera and the movie… always struggling “for the conventions of coherent communication” (28-9).
But there are realities and then there are games… so we mustn’t forego the substance for the shadow.