Category Archives: reading responses

Technology and Violence

In McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory this idea of the military entertainment complex is brought up a number of times.  Wark discusses a transformation of game play from a physical space to a virtual space; this shift is not limited to conventional games though this is also evident in war games.  As war becomes increasingly more digital, it becomes easier to remove the physical violence and human face of warfare.  This concept is interesting in the sense that frequently we hear of the digital age as bringing the ability to connect us all over the world.  Online social networking tools are growing as the primary choice for businesses, institutions and communities to connect people across the world.  How then is it possible to think of this technology as a tool of destabilizing the concept of humanity within our brains and facilitating violence into the lives of those we have never seen?

To consider how closely technology can be transformed from a tool into a weapon is a scary thought.  Just as we had read that many of the initial uses of internet and computer technology were for the purpose of military surveillance, it is only so long before we can no longer conceive of a global universe as being connected to the physical and emotional aspects of being human.  As the web and digital technology has the capacity to connect the lives of people across oceans perhaps there is a tragic loss of the human emotion that comes along with the loss of the physical being.  This brings to light the issue of as technology becomes more interactive will we become desensitized to more frequent and large scale uses of violence?

Body as Text

Shelley Jackson’s book Skin is an interesting concept because it brings the reader into this more sensory experience of reading.  In knowing that people can become words through the use of their skin it begins to do a lot to change this concept of reading, but it also does a lot to change the concept of our physical bodies as part of the reading experience.   This idea of investing one’s body into this piece of literature in order to consume and read the literature is the most corporeal experience of immersion that one can have when reading.  This makes me wonder if reading is an experience that needs to be bodily as well as mental in order for it to take on different forms and create different pathways into our cognition of the text.

This reminds me of this book called Tactile Mind by Lisa Murphy, which was created with the intent of creating pornography for the blind.  (Here is a CNN video about it) The $225 book is derived from images taken by photographer Murphy and then made the images raised of the page, with Braille text featured alongside the images.   This concept of using one’s hand to perceive a visual image is an interesting way to think about how our bodies and the text we read can become intertwined with one another in a number of ways.  If a body can become a book as in Jackson’s Skin and a book can become a body as with Tactile Mind it becomes increasingly more clear how easily our bodies and technology are evolving together.

Heavy Industries

The net art of YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES is different than many of the works we have discussed in the past weeks. The artists began working on these pieces in 1999, yet each work remains relevant ten years later. Each flash “movie” begins in a format we all recognize, the 10 second countdown and a screen with “Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries presents…” This iconic beginning gives the viewer a starting point to identity with – similar to many films we have seen before. Each work tells a different story using sizes of text, speed, and flashes of black to provoke emotion on an otherwise white canvas with black writing in a consistent font. The text moves at a rapid pace, a pace to fast that if you stop concentrating for a millisecond, you will miss something. With the many distractions of the the Internet and the way that we easily have five different tabs open simultaneously, consuming multiple pages on the Internet, the pace of these works keeps the viewer engaged on the Art, and only the Art. Unlike many works we have seen, these flash movies require no interaction, only concentration. We can decide which movies to watch, but the narrative is written and each piece is complete.

Each piece centers around a different theme – sex, surveillance, North Korean culture, politics, the Internet, technology, among others – and each piece seems to take a stance on these themes, relaying an opinion or statement. The artists translated the pieces into multiple languages, and while many of the pieces center on North Korea, they play off the Internet as a global epicenter. Underneath the loose narrative of each piece is a universal theme in which anyone can connect to. In one of the pieces “What Know?” they even state, “what now – our concerns become global.”

Each piece has it’s own score and the timing of each beat is perfectly tied to the display of words and sentences. As the words move quickly across the screen, the fast passed Jazz music keeps the viewer engaged and hyper attentive to the screen. It’s pretty amazing how perfectly timed every piece is. The importance of the music is reminiscent of film and the way both mediums of the Internet and film can create a full sensory experience by combining music and images. This was also central to “Flight,” in which the music added dramatic and urgent tones to the narrative.

The artists have also been able to present these works and others similar as installations in museums. Do you think this would add to the the experience (bigger screen, empty room)? Or is the web an integral part of the experience, making it more of an individual art consumption, rather than with a crowd.

The Big Plot

The Big Plot considers itself a piece of recombinant fiction: “This new method blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, swaps the roles between actor and spectator and plays with the idea of time-bound performances. It reverses-engineer the process of storytelling. Nothing is simulated, just transformed patterns for real-world actions. In the end the distinction between art and life collapses, and the artifact of human existence emerges.”

To achieve this aim, The Big Plot brings together YouTube video clips, blog posts, Tweets and Facebook messages. Through each technology medium we learn a little more about the characters of Brian, Vanessa, Mark and Paul. Each of the characters speaks to the camera sort of like a video diary, yet editing their response towards the other characters. Viewers of this narrative piece together pieces of the puzzle by sifting through “public” information. After reading the messages, reading the tweets, and watching the videos, the viewer comes away with a sense of “knowing all.” This feeling represents the Eurasia revolution that the characters speak of during the piece. As the “artifact of human existence emerges,” the viewer is hyper aware of the commercial culture the characters speak of as well as the culture that the viewer herself engages in. Vanessa heads the “Global Consciousness,” movement in which she is influenced heavily by Mark. Within this movement, “Now the only one solution for the planet is the Global Conscience. Nothing else.” This movement works in opposition the the Eurasia Revolution, American culture, in which “we bought its trashy dreams and now we can’t wake up.” In American culture today, the characters describe society as a place where “people say one thing and do another,” politicians speak half truths, the media gets excited about moral corruption, and there is no truth you can call objective. Global Consciousness would safe us from this society we have built.

Like Flight Paths, this piece focuses on real world issues. While Flight Paths comments on the plight of refugees, The Big Plot tries to bring awareness to  a new cultural movement. On the website are links to videos in London and Berlin of volunteers trying to spread information about Global Consciousness. I think that The Big Plot tried to mirror our everyday reality, the way we think that we understand a situation simple by accessing social networks. However, I found Flight Paths to be more effective in delivering a message. Maybe The Big Plot was too similar to our everyday reality. I consumed the piece as I would any other home made YouTube video, and found myself giving more credit to the artistic direction of Flight Paths. If The Big Plot tried to collapse the distinction between art and life, I think they achieved their aim. I am just not sure whether collapsing that distinction is effective.


Flight Paths and Implementation are both pieces that depend on collaboration to succeed. However, the collaborative aspect of these projects manifests in different ways. While Implementation posts pictures and descriptions of user involvement after the project debuted, Flight Paths used collaborative material from participants in order to create the project.

Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph were interested in the Guardian story, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” They created a blog in which interested users who shared an interest in the topic of the article could post videos, pictures, poems, and memoirs. When Pullinger and Joseph created the short flash videos that we watched for class, they used material that users had posted on the blog to formulate the characters and create visuals for the piece. This project revisits a current theme of our class: authorship. Who is really the creator of this piece? What constitutes as authorship – ideas or the editors eye that brings these ideas together? This piece shows an example of a successful (in my opinion) collaborative web based art project. What makes this piece successful? I think the set up of the blog brings together ideas that allow for collaborative brainstorming. However, the fact that two artists worked to achieve the vision and the final artistic direction allowed for the end piece to come out with a cohesive look and message. Are there examples of web projects that were entirely collaborative from start to finish – with no real “leader”?

Implementation takes a different approach. Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg wrote a sticker novel and then asked participants to distribute this novel and take pictures of where they had put the stickers. While Montfort and Rettberg created the original idea, collaboration occurs on the website with the uploading of photos. As a viewer of the project today, a vital part of experiencing the project involves looking through the material of how the story was implemented. Therefore, while Montfort and Rettberg may have created the original story, there are now multiple authors of the project. Pullinger and Joseph were able to take users stories and pictures and decide exactly what the finished piece would look like. On the contrary, Montfort and Rettberg relied on participant involvement and creativity to take the project to the next level. Both projects were “successful” in that that they gained media attention, and are now analyzed in the aftermath.

New media narratives allow for an expansion of the conception of authorship, which is what Web 2.0 as well as new Creative Commons copyright tools are all about. As a society, I think individualism and ownership dominate the way we think about intellectual and artistic property. With new collaborative projects, as well as pieces online that allow you to use the material, remix it, and re-post it, we are changing these previously held assumptions. What are the societal implications and benefits from this change? Maybe we will be able to work together, combine our ideas and creative visions, and produce tools, projects, and ideas never imagined or conceptualized before.

Sims and SimEarth in Gamer Theory

While reading GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1, I identified most with The Sims and SimEarth chapters, possibly because I am not a gamer and could not fully conceptualize the other games that McKenzie Wark alluded to. Both of these chapters focused on the game as an allegory for real life – The Sims as a parody for everyday life in ‘consumer society’ and SimEarth as an allegory for the imperfect balance of human life and the ecosystem.

Wark tells us that The Sims turn to the gamer as God while the gamer turns to the game to reverse time; the game can work as a critique of the unreality of the stakes of the game (35/42). While you are playing this game, you are entering in a God position where you can buy into the premise- play by the rules of “life” and consumer culture. Or, you can go against the rules, play the role of an evil manipulator and see what happens to your characters when you don’t follow the rules. If you play the game right, you really are doing nothing but “work.” There is no break from the grind of your real life and the grind of the Sim life. So what’s the point? Why is the game so addictive with so many characters? I think the game is similar to other simulation games, such a “playing house.” By entering into this pseudo reality game, the gamer has complete control. They are God. While we may live our own lives with a sense of losing control, we can regain that control and “win” in the game; something we may never do in real life.

SimEarth is a game that models the entire world ecosystem. As God you can control agricultural output and resource allocation to determine how your population will thrive or die. Wark talks about how the gamer can set the preferences and then leave the house for their own life, coming home to see how their simulation life “fared” at the end of the day. When this simulation life fails, the gamer is perplexed, “[the gamer] had always thought that if the economy in the real world cranked along at max efficiency, then the technology world would also bobble along at a rate sufficient to deal with the little problems that occur along the way” (210). Yet, technology cannot solve our problems. In the game though, if you are frustrated that your simulations only kill off the population, you can just uninstall and never play the game. Wark compares this to an allegory of the entire game world working in a quasi-Darwinian fashion. If games fail the “fantasy principle,” they are unfit for gamespace and cease to be played. We are constantly in search of newer, better, and more interesting games to quench our boredom and to transport us into a pseudo reality.

A couple questions that I walked away with after reading this piece: How did Gamer Theory actually function as a game? By going from each chapter (nicely organized with an exact number of paragraphs and certain color) I felt like I was checking off a new level that I “had” to get to. Also when reading the comments it seemed that other readers felt they were entering into this “comment” game. Another question I had was, what was the difference between “game” and “gamespace”? I felt that these were two important terms of the piece, but I did not feel that Wark accurately defined the terms that he wanted to dissect.

The Cave

First, a brief but hopefully fruitful digression: Julian Dibbell’s essay on the history of Adventure, the first computer role-playing game. (Dibbell posted a link to the essay in a comment on the first page of Gamer Theory v. 1.1.) The essay is pretty long, but definitely worth reading if you have time.

To briefly summarize Dibbell’s essay: an allegory of ‘the cave’ is intimately bound up in the history game design. In this case, the cave in question is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest known cave system in the world and model for Will Crowther’s pioneering computer game Adventure (the game that later inspired Zork, which we played in this class.) Dibbell suggests that ‘the cave,’ or rather, the cave network, is an important metaphor for life in the information age:

[…] Crowther’s role as an Internet pioneer suggested the cave’s new meaning and new centrality: it had become iconic of life in the fast-approaching information age, an epoch in which the occupation of open territory (and the exploitation of its resources) matters less than the knowledge of complex, hidden passageways and what they lead to.

Here, the cave network functions as a symbol of the possibilities of exploration and new knowledge in an age when the world’s surface territories have already been mapped. The cave network promised a new, invisible, and seemingly infinite chain of territorial discovery much in the same way as the computer network promises a seemingly endless web of information.

In Gamer Theory, Wark returns to the original ‘allegory of the Cave’–Plato’s, that is–but this time, the Cave is already a simulation. The introduction to Gamer Theory begins by more or less paraphrasing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with a few key details updated for the 21st century. Instead of being entranced by shadows on the wall of a cave, our hero is submerged in the games of The Cave(TM), a franchise-node in a network of Internet cafes. Here’s the twist: when our hero leaves the cave, he doesn’t find an ordered world leading him away from the shadows toward the Pure Light of Reason and disdain for the pitiable delusions that pass for reality in the world of the cave. Rather, he finds the world outside to be very much like the one he just left. The ‘real’ world is equally beholden to the digital logic of The Cave, where everything is commodity, spectacle, and competition. Utopian exodus from the cave is no longer a possibility.

Wark is interested in the ways that games model reality–model both in the passive sense (mimic, reproduce) and in the active sense (shape, reform, structure). Even the most fanciful game scenarios can function as powerful allegories for the culture and politics of the postmodern ‘gamespace’ that constitutes the world(s) we live in today: ‘The game has not just colonized reality, it is also the sole remaining ideal. Gamespace proclaims its legitimacy through victory over all rivals. The reigning ideology imagines the world as a level playing field, upon which all men are equal before God, the great game designer. History, politics, culture — gamespace dynamites everything which is not in the game, like an out-dated Vegas casino.’ (8)

(For another example of gaming-as-reality, I’d like to point again to the TED talk I linked to earlier: Jesse Schell on “When games invade real life.”)

If we’re trapped in a world of games-within-games, what’s a gamer to do? Wark suggests the possibility of subverting the system from within–finding ways to hack, tweak, and creatively break the rules of the game. True play isn’t playing to win; it’s playing to explore the full creative potential of the gamespace. And here’s where the Adventure/cave network metaphor (maybe) comes in handy. The Cave can be a space of darkness and delusion, or it can be a space for underground subversion. Or both.

What do you think?

I @ Other in Lexia to Perplexia

I have been playing around with Lexia to Perplexia for awhile – I am not sure I reached the end, but I have hit a point where I can’t click open any more new windows. I found it confusing and disorienting to remember which words and phrases I saw before in the project because there are many paragraphs and phrases that repeat themselves throughout the narrative.

Narcissus, a character from Greek mythology, appears repeatedly throughout the project. In the Greek myth, Narcissus is subject to divine punishment when he falls in love with his own reflection in a pool. While reading Hayles interpretation of Lexia to Perplexia, she thinks that Memmott tries to rewrite this myth:

“’I-terminal,’ a neologism signifying the merging of human and machine, looks at the screen and desires to interact with the image, caught like Narcissus in a reflexive loop that cycles across the screen boundary between self/other” (Electronic Literature 122).

We, as subjects interacting with the text, try to interact and control the images on screen; but the technology actually controls us and throws the user into a recursive loop of text and images. If the technology takes control in this circumstance, maybe as a user we are not supposed to fully understand this project…?

Hayles also talks about the signature of “Sign.mud Fraud” that Memmott uses throughout the piece. This signature shows how older forms of analysis and psychology cannot directly inform our understanding of these new technologies. Our interactions with new media create relationships that need to be evaluated on completely new terms. This theme is reminiscent of our discussions on Electronic Literature – You cannot analyze electronic literature pieces with older literary theory or technology theory; the pieces need to be approached with new, interdisciplinary analyses.

In a broad interpretation of this project, Memmott shows through text and images the exchange between the individual and computer interface. When we click around on a computer screen, we are blind to the multiple processes occurring behind the images and in the hardware of the computer. Memmott illustrates the process of coding that occurs remotely. This quote within the “Process of Attachment Section”: “Any| Every hum.and attachment is a col.lation of local and remote em.Urgencies,” exemplifies this phenomenon. Attachments are created by things we see – local, and underlying attributes we don’t – remote. ‘Urgencies’ can signify the relationship that users create with computer in which they urgently request the machine to process their every wish. The way that Memmott uses new uses of punctuation illustrates the ways that computer code changes the flowing structure of narrative, turning long sentences into short segments of code.

In Manifesto 3, the text says,

“The machine is build in expectation, more than as an object – the tangible machine…is dead already…tomorrow you will reject me – this is my destiny I know.”

I understood this manifesto to explain the way users of machines expect them to act perfectly, to understand any command. Users are usually ignorant of the real human that created the computer code in the first place. (A phenomenon we know understand through the reading of Ullman’s, The Bug.) As soon as the machine does not hold up to our expectations, we reject them – we depend on machines, yet we also love to hate the machine. In Manifesto 2, the text says, “I @ other; the re:peat ‘face to face; other to other’; the trans|missive miltiples; other @ I.” This sentence resonated for me as an interpretation of the “I” we use with the machine. We think that as an individual we have complete control over the machine, yet we forget that we are actually always interacting with the ‘other,” with the machine.

In the author’s note on the Electronic Literature site introduction, Memmott tells us that “text is the gap between theory and fiction.” The text of Lexia to Perplexia tries to evoke this gap between the literary, the mythical, the technological, and the human. While this project was created in 2000, many of these themes are still pertinent today, ten years later, in explaining and deciphering our relationship with the machine. If anything, themes of “interimacy,” “metastrophe,” and the repetition of echo and narcissus are intensified in today’s networked world of the machine.


Based on the title alone, I can’t say I wasn’t warned, but man. ‘Lexia to Perplexia’ is hard to read. Really hard. Maybe even to the point of doing a major disservice to the ideas Memmott attempts to illustrate.

Granted, most academic writing is ‘hard to read,’ in the sense of being intellectually challenging: the ideas are complex, the language highly specialized, the author apparently having spent the past ten years of his/her life locked away in a tiny windowless office with no one to talk to but other academics. (jk, KF! jk!) Now imagine you take that challenging academic writing, swap in a bunch of code-related symbols/character strings/neologisms, scatter the paragraphs around, and then display the text in borderline-illegible color combination with a gridded background or two (up yours, Cartesian dualism!). Extra zest: layer effects symbolizing ‘the collision of incompatible transmissions’ that will definitely give you a headache. Bonus: distracting ‘find the link to the next bit of the essay’ minigames! Bonus bonus: no back button! You have to read it in one sitting! Whee!


That’s basically how my ‘Lexia to Perplexia’ reading experience went. I can respect, in theory, the notion of enacting thru code the chaos/disruptive nature of kommunikation in cybersphere, but in practice it’s…really unpleasant to look at, and even less pleasant to unpack critically. The ‘encoding’ process is clever, but ‘decoding’ is unnecessarily painful. I don’t feel like I’m allowed enough breathing room to properly digest and consider Memmott’s arguments. ‘Lexia to Perplexia’ deals with some really interesting material, but it’s heady stuff that takes time to process, and I really, really do not want to spend any more time than necessary staring at 8-pt. magenta text on a gray background deciphering Memmott’s quirky nEo|(log).isms to figure out what the cyber.hell he’s cyber.talking about.

With all due respect to conceptual complexity and aesthetic experimentation, it’s just…too much. Unless I’m totally missing the point and it’s supposed to be a parody of bad postmodern academic writing, because really? That’ll do, Talan Memmott. That’ll do. He has a point and he makes it, but I’m not convinced it’s a point that couldn’t be made in a more reader-friendly format.

At what point does ‘the aesthetics of failure’ become a failure of meaningful communication?

The persistance of the bug

How many novels are there about computer programmers? I can think of quite a few about futuristic cyberpunk sci-fi hackers, but almost none about the real lives of programmers in the present day (or the recent past, as in Ellen Ullman’s The Bug), and even fewer that really delve in to the daily frustrations and messy private lives of their characters in quite the same depth as Ullman’s novel. Spending all day in front of a computer terminal doesn’t exactly seem like the stuff of punchy, action-packed prose. But it is precisely by taking a long hard look at daily slog of programming, from the perspective of characters just on the verge of the cultural shift towards a computer-ubiquitous ‘society of the screen,’ that Ullman succeeds in breaking through the surface mundanity of computing to reveal the deeper cultural and philosophical issues at stake.

The first part of the novel follows the parallel stories of Roberta Walton, a linguist-turned-software product tester, and Ethan Levin, an insecure computer programmer, as they become absorbed in the obsessive pursuit of a ‘bug’ in Ethan’s code in the face of personal lives spiraling out of control. Ethan, especially, turns to programming to regain the sense of order and control he has lost in his crumbling marriage. However, programming fails to yield the sense of order he desires. We learn that Ethan’s interest in computer programming arose from his fascination with The Game of Life, a simulation program that generates elaborate, unpredictable patterns of ‘cells’ based on simple rules. He begins designing his own version of the Game of Life, inspired by the notion that “if he could just work his way down and down into the heart of living molecules, he would find something simple and clean.” (29) However, as Ethan is eventually forced to set aside his pet project to get a job in the high-pressure world of business programming, he discovers a life much messier than the one he idealistically envisioned. The life of a programmer isn’t one of mastery and control, but of continual frustration, the obsessive reworking of the same small problems in an attempt to ‘debug’ the mechanism and keep the endless permutations of human error at bay.

In a thought-provoking passage early in the novel, Ullman writes:

“Bug: supposedly name for an actual moth that found its was into an early computer, an insect invader attracted to the light of glowing vacuum tubes, a moth that flapped about in the circuitry and brought down a machine. But the term surely has an older, deeper origin. Fly in the ointment, shoo fly, bug-infested, bug-ridden, buggin’ out, don’t bug me–the whole human uneasiness with the vast, separate branch of evolution that produced the teeming creatures who outnumber us, plague us, and will likely survive our disappearance from the earth. Their mindless success humbles us. A parallel universe without reason. From the Welsh: a hobgoblin, a specter.” (71)

The spectral “bug” comes to stand for the universal chaos and messiness of life–that which, despite our efforts to the contrary, continues to evade our control.

As Katherine Hayles points out in Electronic Literature, the more reliant we become on computers, the more essential it is to recognize “the bug” as a fact of life. Code both conveys and disrupts the sense of continuity in our engagement with the digital world: “One one hand, code is essential for the computer-mediated communication of contemporary narratives; on the other hand, code is an infectious agent transforming, mutating, and perhaps fatally distorting narrative so that it can no longer be read and recognized as such.” (137) Ullman ends her Salon interview on a similarly cautionary note: as American society grew increasingly paranoid and increasingly dependent on computer-mediated information in the early ’00s, we somehow arrived at a moment when Total Information Awareness seemed less like a terrifying Orwellian pipe-dream and more like a perfectly reasonable, plausible use of government resources. (Arguably, a “bug” in the voting mechanism got George W. Bush elected in the first place. Think about it.) Computer-mediated communication, and the fallability thereof, has serious political implications.