A Hitchhikers Guide to the Cyberspace

Posted by Anirudh Sridhar at Oct 04, 2013 11:24 AM |
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This blog post explores what authors of various stripes have to say about the digital sphere. Directly or indirectly, it looks at the commentary that authors provide on raging debates and contentions within the Digital Humanities.

John Irving, while giving a talk on the role of authors in American society remembered a quote: “Writers are the engineers of the human soul”. After rummaging through his memory for the source, he recollected that Joseph Stalin had said that right before executing 13 writers for espionage and treason. Jonathan Franzen and Azar Nafisi shared his opinion that writers are no longer given this kind of attention or importance, at least in American society.[1] There was a time in the 60’s and 70’s when American writers, unlike British writers at that time, were sought after as the leading public intellectuals and thinkers on issues even on the periphery of their immediate craft. The most plausible explanation of this curious double standard looked at America then as a young country that was still wondering what it was; a society of immigrants; Italians, Jews, Germans, Brits, or a country with an identity and a soul. Subliminally at least, they knew that it would be the writers that answered these questions.[2] On the other hand, England is the land of Shakespeare and they had already lived that process hundreds of years ago, and didn’t need telling who they are from writers. If America was in a youthful process of self-discovery requiring writers to countenance its soul until recently, then the new Digital World with its Digital Natives is certainly at an infant stage, still affected by the cutting edge of Freudian formation. Therefore, we must turn to our writers to tell us what this world is and who the people in it are.

The Digital Humanities claim to be a post structural, post gender, race, class space where the nondiscriminatory HTML, SGML and XML potentates are beyond racism, sexism and heteronormativism.[3] If the first claim is true, then the digital sphere can not only be understood as a changed society but as an avenue for social change. An impartial technological government can allow people to progress regardless of the identity that may have encumbered them outside its jurisdiction in the ‘real world’ which lends them agency in the real world nevertheless. If a Tamilian in 1975, frustrated with the Sinhalese medium schools decided to get an education elsewhere and moved back to Sri Lanka afterwards, then the Tamilian may be discriminated against but remains educated. The second claim made by the digital humanities goes further and states that a discussion about identity politics isn’t even desirable in the Digital Humanities. Ian Bogost writes that a blind focus on identity politics can divert from the technical nature of the field.[4] In fact, Stephen Ramsay divides the digital humanities into two categories: Digital Humanities 1 which deals with text encoding, archive creation and text analysis and Digital Humanities 2 which deals with the reaction of the humanities to a technical event horizon.[5]

Basically, that the group concerned with the technical aspect is distinct from the humanistic inquiry into cultural aspects that have something to do with the digital. Drawing upon this distinction, Rafael Alvarado says that the machine ought to be the horizon of interpretation and not the political as type 2 theorists claim. According to Hobbes, identity and politics are another kind of discourse emerging from a special kind of machine; society.[6] In this paper, I want to look at what writers in the age of the digital tell us about these individual claims of the digital humanities through their narratives.

Writers tell us about the world they inhabit not only from what they write about but how they write it. The much heralded multi-media experience of the future story and narratives is exemplified by the computer game form. Studying computer games are essential for understanding Digital Nativity because the modern cyber denizens glean much of their assumptions from game tutelage or at its least subliminal messaging.[7] My game savvy friend was recently telling me about why I should come gaming with him and he curiously said, “I’m not saying it’s amazing (though it is), but it’s inevitable”. Indeed, Sherry Turkle states about video games that “Video games are a window onto a new kind of intimacy with machines that is characteristic of the nascent computer culture. The special relationship that players form with video games has elements that are common to interactions with other kinds of computers...At the heart of the computer culture is the idea of constructed, “rulegoverned” worlds. I use the video game to begin a discussion of the computer culture as a culture of rules and simulation.”[8]

Games are not a just limp space where anything goes, but a place which, although time travel and interplanetary warfare is possible, is governed stringently by rules and thus form narratives that can inform and teach. They represent modern epistemic shifts and as Turkle states it, “Some of them begin to constitute a socialization into the computer culture: you interact with a program, you learn how to learn what it can do, you get used to assimilating large amounts of information about structure and strategy by interacting with a dynamic screen display. And when one game is mastered, there is thinking about how to generalize strategies to other games. There is learning how to learn.”[9]

In this paper, we are less interested in the narratives of early video games like Space War or Pong because of the cost and size of manufacture which made them very esoterically available or limited by the incipience of programming in general that defined the narrative. Pong basically consisted of a blip or a square ball (which was easier than having a round ball) that bounced back and forth on the screen that crudely resembled Ping Pong. Space War, on the other hand could be played only in research environments like MIT. The designers’ dream was to create visually appealing games that demand a diverse and challenging set of skills. Turkle encapsulates this goal when she says “the ambition is to have the appeal of Disneyland, pinball, and a Tolkien novel all at once.”[10]

Games such as Joust didn’t have the ability to engender an imaginative identification with characters like real narratives in literature do. They instead relied heavily on a common pool of fantasies about medieval characters that players would have.[11] Therefore, the games we should be looking at for narratives are unfettered virtual world video games that are usually Massive Multi-player Online Games (MMOG) that tell their own stories and are not dependant solely on the player’s imagination for narrative.

TuurGhys has studied 4 different historical strategy games that have such narratives that we can explore: Age of Empires, Empire Earth, Rise of Nations and Civilization IV.[12]

In these games, the hierarchical visual representations of the possible sequences of upgrades that the player can take (better known as the tech tree), seems to be a forced sequence in the narrative that the writer takes. Basically a technology tree is a structure that controls and enables progression from technology to better technology allowing the players also to obtain better facilities. In all of these games, technology is depicted in the narrative as the sole enabler and progenitor of social changes within the political landscapes and eras and civilizations are thus determined by the kinds of technology they use.[13] Rob Macdougall, having studied the Civilization 4 technology tree observes that “the Civtech tree offers a range of choices but is basically linear in the end, and the fact that you really need certain technologies to win the game makes it more linear still.” [14] Due to this seemingly inert yet subliminally charged historical pedagogy, Tuur comes to the conclusion that the writers in the genre facilitate change through hard technological determinism[15]

This messaging coming through from the narrative is important as it helps to understand the implications of its prevalence in such an influential medium. Tuur Ghys says, “Determinism is more than a pitfall in historical thinking, when embodied in a mechanism like a tech tree it can form a script that influences the design and content of popular culture.”[16]

Technological determinism that is narrated in these stories has many implications on the player’s understanding of social progress and by extension; the humanities. Sally Wyatt states that “Even if STS analysts look upon technological determinism as an inferior model, it should be studied and treated seriously because it is the common belief by most actors.”[17] In describing this phenomenon, Karl Marx, in “The Poverty of Philosophy” said "The Handmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist".[18]

The idea that technology develops suomotu, void from social forces is one aspect of technological determinism and other aspect is that technology regulates and is the organizing principle of society and social change. Technological determinists believe that societies lack the autonomy to change in accordance with their self interest and evolving moral consciousness. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul posits that technology, through the potency of its efficiency, works in a Darwinian process of technological selection.[19] Technology allows those social systems; morals and philosophies to advance that promote it, leaving the Luddite ideas to the ashen tray of history. This leads the people who get their assumptions about society from pop culture and especially these games to ascribe to the second claim of the Digital Humanities. In this line of thought, Bruno Latour attempts to restore the place of technology from the place of mere means to what he claims is its ontological dignity by describing the ways in which it forms detours in our final actions from our original intent.[20]

“Indeed, the routine of habit must not prevent us from recognizing that the initial action, this famous ‘plan’ which is supposed to stand in for the programme materialized by the simple implementation of technology, has definitely mutated. If we fail to recognize how much the use of a technique, however simple, has displaced, translated, modified, or inflected the initial intention, it is simply because we have changed the end in changing the means, and because, through a slipping of the will, we have begun to wish something quite else from what we at first desired. If you want to keep your intentions straight, your plans inflexible, your programmes of action rigid, then do not pass through any form of technological life. The detour will translate, will betray, your most imperious desires.”[21]

Without technology, humans would be on a contemporary level with their actions and thus limited to their proximate interactions. Latour thus comes to the conclusion that “Technologies belong to the human world in a modality other than that of instrumentality, efficiency or materiality. A being that was artificially torn away from such a dwelling, from this technical cradle, could in no way be a moral being, since it would have ceased to be human – and, besides, it would for a long time have ceased to exist.”[22] Apart from possibly shutting down moral deliberation before the invention of a new technology, absolving us from any responsibility of the technologies we invent and being a self fulfilling prophecy in that this perception favours the ones making the new technology, this idea has another important consequence. The contention that technology arbitrates and facilitates individual moral decision making and society’s collective consciousness means that even in the digital realm, the horizon of consideration for the humanities should be defined by technology and not identity politics, thus vindicating Alvarado’s claim.

While geography and climate may have been the ancient factors, modern historical video games thus essentially posit that technology is now the raison d’être of social change. Taken to the logical extent of Civilization IV’s technology tree, [23] that mysticism leads to robotics and that the civics of the nation is unlocked by technology (Bronze working allows slavery) it marks a vindication of Stanley Kubrick’s nightmare vision of technology in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If technology, as these games claim, is one big HAL 9000, monitoring our urges, lobotomizing social movements then the humanities can no longer consider the digital space as a laboratory where social change is orchestrated. We can thus conclude that this narrative shows that the digital humanities cannot consider the digital space as an arena for identity politics to have its day, not because of critiques like Martha Nell Smith’s that the creators of tools bring in their philosophical stances and that the digital is dominated by English which is imperial in nature.[24] It is because technology will decide the nature of the arena and what will come into play there.

Let us now move to what more traditional narratives tell us about the digital space. Woody Allen, in the late 1970’s wrote a short story about a shy middle aged professor who longs for romance and finds a book into which you can be transported to any page.[25] The Professor, on choosing Madam Bovary enters Emma’s world and has a raging affair with her while simultaneously introducing us to an interactive novel. Michael Ende, the German novelist later wrote The Neverending Story which tells a similar story of a book called The Neverending Story, which was later adapted into many screenplays.[26]

One of the writers whom I’ve read who brings this narrative into his meta-narrative is Mark Danielewski. He engages in games of typography and layout in his first post-post modern novel ‘House of Leaves’ that is far outstripped by his latest Joycean riot; ‘Only Revolutions’.[27]

Though Joyce was a trickster and a prankster with his allegorical vortex, Ulysses, constantly subverting the implicit contract between the author, text and the reader, he did not possess the digital tools that Danielewski does. This novel tells the story of two characters, Sam and Hailey, whose stories have to be read in 8 pages each from front to back, back to front, up to down and upside down respectively. This architecture of a novel is only possible in the digital age. He writes two epic narrative poems of two individuals whose lives meet at the middle (literally) of the book and continue on their individual path, thus forcing the read to participate in the alienation of the characters. Danielewski set up a discussion board online before writing the novel where he asked his cult followers of ‘House of Leaves’ to tell him their favorite car, animals they respect and favorite historical events which he meticulously slipped into the final work.[28]

The question of where the novel ends and begins and where the writer ends and the reader begins is nebulous in this work. Danielewski seems to be showing us through his craft what ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ tried to tell us: We live in a constant flux between what is, what we want it to be and what will be. This narrative clearly tells us that technology can be subordinated for greater human participation in the digital realm. The idea that people can, and more importantly anyone can (regardless of their identity) participate in an online discussion thread and determine plot motifs and details while actively participating in the characters’ destinies moves us closer to the first claim of the digital humanities. This means that the digital realm can be an oasis for the stating of and thus the interpenetration of identity politics and a nexus for social change. Regnant in this narrative is the idea that though it depends on a technological event horizon (e-books, chat rooms etc), the change is determined less by technology and more by the hardware of the human brain and an operating system that makes the ioS7 look like a game of Pong; the human consciousness.

These conflicting visions of society, the humanities that countenance it and our role in shaping the future from different kinds of authors show us that we should be observing what they say very keenly. The digital humanities seem to exist in a primordial soup of pre-morphological uncertainty and the writers could be the involuntary torchbearers.


[1]. Monroe, Colin, dir. The Role of Writers in American Society. Perf. John Irving, Jonathan Franzen, and Azar Nafisi. Connecticut Forum Book CLub , 2011. Web. 30 Sep 2013.

[2]. Hughes, Mark. "Martin Amis: Britain doesn’t have enough respect for writers." Telegraph [London] 25 June 2012, n. pag. Web. 3 Sep. 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9352559/Martin-Amis-Britain-doesnt-have-enough-respect-for-writers.html>.

[3]. Martha Nell Smith, “The Human Touch Software of the Highest Order: Revisiting Editing as Interpretation.” Textual Cultures: Texts, Contexts, Interpretation, 2(1):2007, 1-15.

[4]. Bogost, Ian. 11 05 2013. POSTCOLONIAL DIGITAL HUMANITIES, Online Posting to OPEN THREAD: THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES AS A HISTORICAL “REFUGE” FROM RACE /CLASS /GENDER /SEXUALITY /DISABILITY?

[5]. Ramsay, Stephen. "DH Types One and Two." Stephen Ramsay. Disqus, n. d. Web. 30 Sep. 2013.

[6]. Alvarez, Rafael. 12 05 2013. POSTCOLONIAL DIGITAL HUMANITIES, Online Posting to OPEN THREAD: THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES AS A HISTORICAL “REFUGE” FROM RACE /CLASS /GENDER /SEXUALITY/DISABILITY

[7]. Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. 64-92. eBook.

[8]. See note above.

[9]. See note 7 above.

[10]. See note 7 above.

[11]. See note 7 above.

[12]. Ghys, Tuur. "Technology Trees: Freedom and Determinism in Historical Strategy Games." Game Studies. 12.1 (2012): n. page. Web. 3 Sep. 2013.

[13]. See note 12 above.

[14]. MacDougall, Robert. "Technology Grows On Trees." Old is the New New. N.p., 18 03 2009. Web. 30 Sep. 2013.

[15]. See note 12 above.

[16]. See note 12 above.

[17]. Wyatt, Sally. Technological Determinism is Dead; Long Live Technological Determinism. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. eBook.

[18]. Chandler, Daniel. Technological or Media Determinism.Aberystwyth: Aberystwyth University Press, 2000. Print.

[19]. See note 18 above.

[20]. Latour, Bruno. "Morality and Technology The End of the Means." Sage Journals. 19. (2002): 247-260. Web. 30 Sep. 2013.

[21]. See note 20 above.

[22]. See note 20 above.

[23]. See note 12 above.

[24]. See note 3 above.

[25]. See note 7 above.

[26]. Ende, Michael. The Never Ending Story. Dutton Children's Books, 1979. Print.

[27]. Poole, Steven. "O how clever." Guardian [London] 30 09 2006, n. pag.Web. 3 Sep. 2013.

[28]. See note 27 above.

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