What Do We Talk About When We Talk About The Computer?

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. Well. I certainly thank everyone for their disclaimers. And let me go ahead and remark that if anything I write misunderstands or in any way mischaracterizes the laudable comments published above, let it be known that I mean no disrespect. For we all are honorable women (and men).

    First, let’s be honest with each other. No one can be “people making things… simply for entertainment purposes,” Chy. Every entertainment is produced within a context. And the very point is that those ‘entertainment purposes’ lie on the axes of power: the fact that a given segment of the population (or an ethnic group, or a national group) is able, willing, and invested in creating an entertaining virtual reality is already a statement of inequity. The burden of representation falls equally (which is to say, relatively), and with equal (relative) damnation, upon those who can produce “for themselves” and those who cannot. In other words, an ex-slave is radically ABLE to produce things “simply for entertainment purposes,” whereas (and despite their legibility) these artifacts aren’t necessarily anti-slavery. Finally– who, exactly, is the “we” you include in the “we” who “made [or, dramatically] *make* the rules”? Creating around them seems to be the only option any ‘we’ have, and certainly the more we allow negative stereotypes, realities, and actions to occur around us (while cauterizing the allegiances we have in other fields) the less ‘we’ have any right to the mantle of freedom & justice, and the more we condemn ourselves to continual conflict (in the “name” of peace).

    Finally–and let us wade slowly here into Aaron’s similarly courteous assault–Chy’s idea that “the work that is produced are legible to those that enjoy it [sic]” and that “people who create, create worlds that are likely to be pulled from ‘reality’ and from their imagination [sic]” leaves me completely at a loss. I will tentatively move beyond the confusingly ambiguous lack of grammatical clarity.

    “Games are surely as real as reality, right?”

    Well, so asks Aaron. And, as someone who has lost a brother to war, I can’t help but agree– a “lost life” in a game is surely as real as a family member shot dead. The political reality in which a GAME takes place is at such a vast remove from that in which the relative “game” bears political significance that one is forced to wonder whether or not Aaron has ever stepped away from Candy Crush long enough to consider the long-term effects of such seemingly-innocuous imperial games.

    Quite forcefully, let’s return to the quote that Aaron uses to dispose of my argument. That “to be alive in the twentieth century is to be aware of… alternative possible selves, of alternative possible worlds.” Which alternative possible selves & worlds are allowed here? Of course, had the admirable Mr. Pinnix finished his “pining” quote, he would’ve come up with this: “To truly capture such cascading permutations, one would need a computer” (38). In other words, those myriad alternatives, for Murray, are locked within the technological milieux of the computer & the digital age. And this is obviously and notably written from the perspective of a western “multiplicity,” without consulting a Caribbean (or any other) perspective.

    Finally, I do not see a point in my entire post in which I separate the real-world effects of “naively meliorative” (as Maxine accurately notes) actions from the digital. CLEARLY I VIEW THESE EFFECTS AS INTERRELATIONS… but the WAYS IN WHICH THEY ARE rely on their mode of transmission. IN other words– the fact that a given sector of society “gets” to (or largely does) control distribution of a certain language, image-reservoir, or essential narrative impacts the “on-the-ground” impacts of the narrative. This is so obvious as to not warrant mention. However, I find it hard to discuss the difference between injury, death, or disease in an “online” world and the effects thereof “on-the-ground.”

    There is a REASON why the preponderance of GAMES and game-theory exits on the internet, and it lies heavily in the ability of certain classes and their agendas to supervene against others’. Shortly, it absolutely does matter what is “good,” and ESPECIALLY because it serves to cut and denature the traditional, hegemonic ‘qualitative orders.’

    The real world and the digital world are absolutely discontinuous, except in the sense that no “world” is “discontinuous” from another, Maxine. If we retreat into absolutism and relativism, sure: everything is everything and nothing is nothing. And, for the love of God, I am one of the strongest supporters of the digital world “bearing on” the “real,” and I believe (for instance) that the radical subjection of gender to play & performativity has been one of the transcendent hallmarks of the digital age.

    And so I believe–clearly, a reason for taking this course in the first place–that the digital has a strong and inextricable “hold” on the “real,” but I also believe that physical reality still maintains (perhaps ‘for the moment’) a different nexus than digital. Just as you all believe that “female” and “male” (perhaps rightly) belong in separate, permeable membranes until the physical barriers are completely eclipsed.

    Either way, thank you all for your comments, and the spirit in which they were posted.

  2. If we’re spawning paradoxes here —

    I’ve pulled out a couple of your statements that I’m wondering if you can or would like to talk more about. First, the following argument: that “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.”

    I can’t really figure out what you’re getting at here, so (like Aaron said above), please excuse me if I’m mischaracterizing your argument at any point. It’s difficult to tell if you are speaking for yourself here, or if you’re paraphrasing what you see as Murray’s “meliorative” view that technology improves (us). But, like Aaron and Chy, I’m left wondering how this is specifically a criticism (or even a characterization) of the digital as opposed to any form of knowledge production or “representation” in a more general sense.

    You go on to say that the violence you reference above — the capturing, the subduing, the rendering-extinct of “bugs” — “is itself the contour of the ‘cyber’ world,” no? In this case, what does it mean to suggest that “there are no ‘natives’ living within the machine” and therefore nothing to subject to violence? Which I guess just brings me (and all of us) back to the comment you end on, that “there are realities and then there are games.”

    Are you suggesting here — as Aaron seems to think — that “the real world” and “the digital world” are discontinuous, and that naively meliorative (or even violently colonizing) actions taken upon the digital are distinct from those happening in real life? If that is, indeed, the case, would you mind talking a little bit more about why you think so?

  3. Jeff, I have some trouble pining down what seems to be the relationships between a critique of Murray, the “spawned paradoxes,” and their relation to Lexo TV. So in my response please forgive me if I misunderstand or misrepresent your claims.

    To begin, I’m not sure I agree with your claim that “But there are realities and then there are games… so we mustn’t forego the substance for the shadow.” Games are surely as real as reality, right? The person who plays 100 hours of Game X, or the person on the subway playing Candy Crush- forboth the game IS (or at minimum substantially supplements) reality. The Candy Crush player replaces the subway reality with Candy Crush reality. Why draw a sharp distinction? To quote Chy (in a differing context) “The work that is produced are legible to those that enjoy it. And people who create, create worlds that are likely to be pulled from “reality” and from their imagination. But even their imagination informs their “reality.”

    Similarly, when Murray claims “we are outgrowing the traditional ways of formulating [complex experiences] because they are not detailed or comprehensive enough to express our sense of… life”- Couldn’t this be said to be true of all forms of the evolution of art? Traditional ways of formulating experiences are constantly found wanting, hence the progression from Romanticism to Modernism to Postmodernism, ad infinitum. Or of impressionism to abstract expressionism, etc.

    Also it seems that your critique of Murray that “’we’ are the only ones even permitted to be ‘alive.’” seems to expressly go against the intent of Murary’s claim that “to be alive in the twentieth century is to be aware of… alternative possible selves, of alternative possible worlds.”

    So in all of this I’m just uncertain on the distinctions you seem to be drawing between representation and reality. Perhaps you could clarify?

  4. **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?**

    You could pose this “problem” (above) to anyone who’s ever made anything. Of course, because the makers of the thing that you’re speaking of have a smaller (visible) space in which to operate, it becomes (perhaps?) more important to discern whether or not the things they produce are “good” or “productive.” Good for whom? Productive for whom?

    The burden of representation is *always* on the underrepresented group. They have to figure out how to “look good” or “be good”–they cannot be people making things–perhaps simply for entertainment purposes.

    The work that is produced are legible to those that enjoy it. And people who create, create worlds that are likely to be pulled from “reality” and from their imagination. But even their imagination informs their “reality.”

    Finally, I say “rule”-breaking all around. Or do I? Because we made the rules. We *make* the rules. So we should be able to break them. Or, at least, create around them.

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