This entry begins my week in the Snarkmarket Seminar, but even if you’re not a seminarian, you should feel welcome to comment here!
Hello. I’ve dubbed my lecture in our ongoing Snarkmarket Seminar “Worldbuilding: Mutual Acts of Creation.”
Before we continue, I’m going to ask you to play a game called Parameters, for at least 20 minutes, or until you beat it, whichever you prefer. I’ll warn you that the game is pretty cryptic, so you’ll probably need to click around for a while until you start to get the feel of things. But I’d ask that unless you completely hate the experience, you give it about 20 minutes before you give up. Here’s the link.
You can play for as long as you’d like, and truthfully, you don’t have to play to engage with the questions and ideas I’ll be presenting here. But I think it’ll help. So I’ll pause now, and wait for you to return.
How was that? Was it fun? I genuinely want to know, so if you’d pause one more time and take a quick survey — which you’ll find here — I’d appreciate it.
In case it’s not clear, Parameters is basically a spreadsheet. That’s reductive, of course. There’s a lot more to it than your average spreadsheet. And clearly plenty of thought went into the feeling of the game-ish aspects of it, the way the money and experience come bouncing out of the boxes all random and fun, the little animation of attacking the boxes with your mouse and watching the colors recede and rebound as you click.
But a determined developer with some time, elbow grease and Google Apps Script could probably create something reasonably close to Parameters in a Google Spreadsheet.
When I play Parameters, though, I recognize it as a deconstructed version of every role playing game I’ve ever played. So let me talk about role playing games — RPGs — for a second.
This is the opening scene to the game Skyrim — a pretty recent RPG. I’m just going to shut up for a second and let you watch it.
To me, this is kind of gorgeous and cinematic — slowly waking up to this wintry world, bound in the back of a wagon. As a player of the game, you have very little agency at this point. You can look around, but that’s about it. As the first 10 or so minutes of the game progress, they’ll start taking off the training wheels and unveiling more and more of the game’s controls bit by bit. This allows you to get a handle on the game’s basic mechanics and storyline before they send you out into this incredibly detailed world.
But once that tutorial is done, part of the majesty of the game is how thoroughly rendered it all is. Every tree, every mountain, every path that you’ve glimpsed during this little opening segment is a part of the world you’ll be able to visit and interact with. Many of the plants you pass along the side of the road during this opening wagon ride are actually available to harvest later if you’d like.
Skyrim is so extraordinarily detailed, you could actually sort of live in this world if you wanted to. You could buy a house, make a living for yourself hunting animals and selling their pelts to merchants, find a partner, get married. But so that you don’t get overwhelmed with all of that at the start, they introduce you to that world this way, bound by your digital hands, encountering one by one all the incredible varieties of things you can do.
It’s a pretty sharp contrast with Parameters, isn’t it? That opening screen written in Japanese wasn’t really that much more helpful to me after I found the “English” button. It’s hard for me to think of two more different introductions to a game than these.
Yet Parameters is essentially Skyrim boiled down to its basic essence. I’m being very reductive when I say that, but on a fundamental and important level, it’s true.
The fundamental structure of both of these games goes back to Dungeons and Dragons, and probably even before. You’ve got your hit points, your stats like attack power and defense power and endurance, you earn experience and gold by plundering caves and fighting enemies (or in Parameters’ case, yellow boxes). Parameters even presents the classic RPG phenomenon known as grinding, where in order to defeat more advanced enemies, you spend time hunting down and earning experience from lesser foes.
So when I first found myself playing Parameters and getting the basic concepts, I quickly started imagining that RPG world. I saw the boxes as monsters and the locked black tiles as caves. I pictured the big box at the bottom of the screen as a dragon. The squares that let you pay to up your stats or purchase keys I saw as your classic merchants. All of these basic elements that you’d find in Skyrim or a Final Fantasy game or any other RPG are present in this game that’s basically a spreadsheet, and being familiar with this language, I found myself visualizing it in my head.
This brings me at last to what I’m most interested in: that imaginative act.
My thesis is that works like Parameters and so many other texts similar and not involve two mutual, symbiotic creative acts — the world constructed by the author, and the world constructed by the reader.
By reader, of course, I also mean user, listener, watcher … this is “reader” in the sense that Beck might have meant it in his recent un-album “Song Reader,” which I’ll come back to in a minute.
What I’m most particularly interested in is that second act of creation, the world the reader creates.
Had I the talent and know-how, I could probably even take the world that Parameters inspires in my head and actually make a game engine that actually renders that big ol’ box at the bottom as a moving, fire-breathing dragon.
And then I would have created Skyrim.
But of course users actually do this with Skyrim! The game inspires them to build these hugely time-intensive, significant worlds on top of the worlds the game’s developers have already constructed. They’re called “mods.” There’s a mod for Skyrim that even turns the world of the game into the world of Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels.
That type of creation — modding Skyrim — is basically a form of fan fiction, which is the most obvious manifestation of this creative act I’m talking about. And this is one of my first and biggest questions: What are the conditions that best inspire fan fiction? Why do things like Skyrim and Game of Thrones provoke people to spin out these stories into these enormous extended universes? How does a creative work inspire so much creativity in its audience?
I’m interested in the fact that Parameters sparks this vivid world in my head, but I have no real desire to further manifest that in any essential way. It would seem that the difference between something like Parameters and something like Skyrim in terms of inspiring further output is that Skyrim gives you the foundation of this incredibly rich and detailed world. You don’t need to build the engine to turn the box into a giant dragon, the game’s engineers have already spent significant effort on doing that for you.
But then I think about Scott McCloud and his simplicity theory for comics, which suggests in part that the more room the author leaves us to imagine something, the more we can and do imagine, and so the more we can project ourselves into a world. He points out that our brains are hardwired to scan the world for this pattern: two dots in a circle. And that for most of us, we can’t see that pattern without imagining a face. This is why McCloud says he draws himself so simply: to help his readers with their worldbuilding. To give them more freedom to imagine him, and therefore to empathize with him.
It feels like this idea clashes with what happens with worlds like those of Skyrim and Game of Thrones, worlds so detailed, they’d ostensibly leave the reader little space to imagine on their own. We’ve seen Skyrim’s depth, but let me talk about Game of Thrones for a second.
This is one of those fantasy universes so richly drawn that the show’s producers have actually hired a nonprofit called the Language Creation Society to manufacture one of the languages used on the show. There’s a blog about making this language, named after the language itself: “Dothraki.” If you’re a nerd like me, this blog is actually sort of fascinating, delving into how the fictional history of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy universe would likely have unfolded linguistically, based on what we know about how languages evolved in our world. I’m going to quote a snippet:
According to ancient lore, the Ghiscari Empire fell some 5,000 years prior to the time of action in A Song of Ice and Fire. The empire warred five times with the Valyrian Empire, ultimately falling each time because the Valyrians had dragons. After the fifth war, the Valyrians decimated the old city of Ghis, burning down the buildings and salting the earth so that none would ever return.
So what happened then? Well, Ghiscari had been the language of the empire. As the diaspora spread, the Valyrian Empire took over (until its untimely fall several thousand years later), and the High Valyrian language supplanted the Ghiscari language.
Naturally, what would have happened is that the residents of Slaver’s Bay who spoke Ghiscari would have gradually moved over to High Valyrian, creolizing it along the way. It seems likely that an aristocratic class would have maintained a working knowledge of actual High Valyrian to use with emissaries from the Valyrian Empire, but the day-to-day language would have evolved in a way similar to French or Spanish (i.e. not like either of those languages, but evolving in the way that those languages evolved from Latin).
The post goes on to share some of the Dothraki dialogue that would show up in the Game of Thrones Season 3 premiere.
There are 46 comments on this post.
This is how many worlds have been spun out of that first giant world created by George R. R. Martin. A blog based on a language based on a show based on a series of books — each thing a whole lovely world of its own. This all suggests that rendering a world in extraordinary detail doesn’t seem to prevent others from building worlds of their own on top of it.
So there’s another question for you: what is the relationship between how detailed a world is and how much worldbuilding it inspires?
I’m interested in stories that cause their readers to build worlds because I’m interested in endlessness — for a long time I’ve been obsessed with stories that beget stories and worlds that don’t have boundaries. If you’ve been with Snarkmarket since the beginning, you probably recognize this as a theme of my thought.
I once thought it would be really fun to get a job managing the digital components of the show Gossip Girl, because of the worldbuilding potential there. I said:
Here you’ve got a television series that purports to be fully post-media — the central conceit of the show is the title character’s blog, which all the show’s characters interact with constantly from a stunning variety of mobile devices. Although it struggles for Nielsen ratings, it was picked up for a full season allegedly because of its popularity on iTunes (indicating where the series’ audience is). And importantly, the show’s entire telos is allowing its audience to eavesdrop on the lives of a glamorous subculture.
If any television show could have led the way for an immersive, cross-platform handoff between the boob tube and the cybertubez, Gossip Girl is it. We should be able to sign up for text alerts from G.G.’s blog, pinging us with the scandalous goings-on of the show’s principals. Whenever all the characters in the show are reading a missive from Gossip Girl on their cell phones, we should be able to read it on ours! There should be a Gossip Girl version of the Gawker Stalker, mapping the travels of Manhattan’s elite across the Upper East Side! The show’s website should be a dizzy wonderland of interactive innuendo, filled with voices (some, of course, claiming to be from the show’s fictive universe) commenting on the antics of the characters, all helping to compose and extend the show’s mythology.
So far I’ve only really discussed fictional texts, but of course I’m interested in things other than fiction. I might even be mainly interested in things other than fiction.
I think there’s something about texts that demand a lot of a reader — texts that require an investment just to enter the world of the text. It might be that that investment, once committed, is itself a spark to start creating. Parameters and Game of Thrones are both like this, in different ways. In Parameters, the demand is the opacity of the rulesystem; you have to spend some time just figuring out how it even works. In the case of Game of Thrones, it’s the very extensiveness of the world that makes it demanding, particularly if you’re actually talking about the books. But even the television series will stretch out over dozens of hours.
But then there are texts that require creation to even get into the game, like Beck’s “Song Reader,” which I mentioned earlier. This is Beck’s most recent collection of music, only it’s not actually an album, it’s a book of sheet music.
“Song Reader” fascinates me because it combines a pretty old phenomenon with a very new one. At one time, this type of thing was the entire music industry. Before records existed, artists didn’t release recorded music, they released sheet music. A piano was as ubiquitous a fixture in middle class homes as a speaker system or radio would be today. When a new song was released, you’d buy the sheet music, run home, and play it with your friends and family — a thousand little concerts happening in a thousand little homes.
But today, we’ve got this enormous, super-popular infrastructure not just for playing these songs, but for sharing them worldwide. Each of those thousand little concerts is likely to get uploaded to YouTube. You can’t really call them “cover versions,” ‘cause there’s no original, per se. So this, this right here, this YouTube query for the song “Old Shanghai,” is basically the equivalent of the single. This strikes me as a sort of worldbuilding as well.
Of course, several video games work this way, such as Minecraft and SimCity. They’re games that are actually canvases for creation. They’re more toys than games, even, like Legos or dolls. I think any creator can learn a lot from these things. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m most interested in texts that are both discrete creative works in themselves and tinder for the creativity of others.
Another question: is worldbuilding always valuable? I wonder about works whose creators actually sort of resist the act of worldbuilding. Mark Rothko, for example, asked viewers of his art to consider his works as complete, self-contained entities, not as landscapes or references to things outside the canvas. But whenever I see one of Rothko’s large, suggestive canvases, I almost can’t help imagining it as a window into a world. To do that, I have to consciously try to shut down the impulse in my head to read it as a landscape, to just dial it back to colors, textures, moods, and scale and that actually sort of disrupts my experience of the art. Let me build a world out of this, I want to tell Mark Rothko. But of course, he can’t prevent me, so I do.
Journalists — particularly investigative journalists — are in the business of worldbuilding, whether or not they realize it. They’re trying to discover and connect facts in order to create a model of our own world, to understand it better.
Just this week the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (by the way, this is basically a shameless plug for their work; I’m on the board) released a massive investigation in partnership with news organizations across the world giving us a look at the shadowy domain of offshore tax havens. This is a corner of international society that operates in near-total darkness. Wealthy individuals tend to pad their offshore holdings with layers upon layers of intermediaries and puppet companies. Much of this is perfectly legal behavior to protect giant wads of capital, but some of it is intended to obfuscate laws and cloak illicit businesses. Because it all happens in this shadow corner of the world, it’s very difficult to figure out what’s what.
Like many investigative projects today, this one has at its center a gigantic database, one that actually dwarfs the US State Department cables released by Wikileaks. So investigative journalists from all over the world partnered to take this data and construct it into a faithful and quite detailed model of reality.
When we crowdsource an investigation like this one, releasing a giant data set and ask people to play with it, what I think we’re asking them to do is build a world with us, to participate in the mutual acts of creation. To create fan nonfiction.
So there’s the essential question: How do authors of all kinds inspire readers of all kinds to build worlds? What are the magic ingredients of a creative work that let it yield more creative works?
As you can tell, I’m leaving you with nothing but questions. But I haven’t yet questioned my premise itself. Is what I’m calling worldbuilding actually just creativity — is it just that creativity begets creativity? — or are these actually overlapping but distinct concepts? And if there is a difference between worldbuilding and creativity, is it merely that some of the worlds we create manifest themselves as works of their own rather than just sounds and images in our heads? So then how do you create something that cultivates that leap from the imagination to the canvas?
Thank you for playing, watching, listening and reading. I’ll see you in the comments.
I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where I’m one of a host of speakers given a couple minutes to deliver a “big idea.” Here’s the idea I went with, lightly expanded and annotated:
I’d like to get a little meta about big ideas. As a journalist, I think a lot about how we develop and communicate big ideas (“big” in this context meaning “complex,” “weighty”). At NPR, we have no end of nuanced, complicated matters to unravel, and I’m convinced that the transition to digital will end up being a huge asset in this task, not a hindrance. But we need to advance in our understanding of how narrative can work online.
“Big” ideas, examined closely, tend to resolve into a series of little ideas accumulated over time. So here’s my argument: To make our big ideas real, we need to develop better mechanisms for collecting and organizing all our ideas.
Take TV as an illustration. Until the VCR began to go mainstream in the mid-‘70s, television episodes were essentially self-contained events. With few exceptions, shows had to frame each episode for a potentially new audience, one that wasn’t necessarily attuned to the show’s continuity.
As VCRs took hold, narratives on TV — ideas on TV — could become more complex. Because viewers could catch up on a series’ essential plot elements on videotape, it was easier for them to follow story arcs and keep track of important developments. Formula-driven shows like Dragnet (pre-VCR) gave way to complex dramatic narratives like Hill Street Blues (post-VCR).
As VCRs gave way to the TiVo (the DVR) storytellers could offer even more complex arcs for audiences, paving the way for narratives of truly literary complexity and heft, such as the Wire. As we move deeper into streaming, and TV episodes sit increasingly alongside YouTube clips, “shows” will become yet more nuanced networks of ideas.
Now think about the structures we’ve used to collect ideas on the Internet. Start with the RSS reader, the Internet’s VCR of ideas — fussy, difficult to program, but it too let us follow story arcs and keep track of important developments. And it was good enough to foster complex serial narratives like Talking Points Memo’s investigation of US attorney firings.
A lot of folks say they’ve moved past the RSS reader. It’s not uncommon to hear us media types say “Twitter’s my RSS reader now.” But tweets and hashtags have obvious drawbacks for communicating complex ideas. I can say, “We need a TiVo for ideas.” I can point you to the hashtag “#tivoforideas.” Hashtags, as we’ve seen, can have tremendous power for collecting ideas at a moment in time. But partly because tweets are ephemeral — they quickly fade beyond search and memory — hashtags are poor vessels for binding ideas over time.
Hence my big idea: We need to develop simpler and more powerful ways of collecting and following concepts across time. There’s much to learn from — hashtags, Storify, Wikipedia, Tumblr. But I suspect what we’re aiming for is a standard, not an app, a common convention, not a website. I want to be able to say, “Track the #tivoforideas conversation,” and watch this domain of thought develop over time as multiple thinkers add their input, and little ideas coalesce, gradually, into big ones.
- This, of course, ties in very much with the body of thinking I and others have been doing about the future of context.
- First Paul Ford and then Megan Garber have delivered powerful essays on the evolving nature of ideas in an era where streams have surpassed stories (e.g. Twitter replacing the RSS reader). I think about these two pieces all the time. Chase them with a reading of Megan’s essay on TED, ideas and authorship.
- PJ Onori started a similar conversation a little while ago at Adaptive Path, very much worth connecting to this one. (Thanks, @absi!).
- I still haven’t written my grand treatise about the nature of quest narratives and how that format enables grand ideas to develop, but you might find it interesting to click through these slides of a presentation I gave on the subject:
Eli Pariser’s op-ed in the New York Times, “When the Internet Thinks It Knows You”:
Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoints; the Internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.
The Times had run an earlier story on Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You. It takes the easiest possible reading of this idea, applying it to media choices and political disagreement:
If you want to test your own views on personalization, you could try a party trick Mr. Pariser demonstrated earlier this year during a talk at the TED conference: ask some friends to simultaneously search Google for a controversial term like gun control or abortion. Then compare results…
With television, people can limit their exposure to dissenting opinions simply by flipping the channel, to, say, Fox from MSNBC. And, of course, viewers are aware they’re actively choosing shows. The concern with personalization algorithms is that many consumers don’t understand, or may not even be aware of, the filtering methodology.
Reading Pariser’s op-ed, though, I got the sense that he’s not nearly as concerned about narrowing of opinions on the web as he is about the narrowing of interests.
“[I]f algorithms are taking over the editing function and determining what we see,” he writes, “we need to make sure they weigh variables beyond a narrow ‘relevance.’ They need to show us Afghanistan and Libya as well as Apple and Kanye.”
If you spend much time on the Internet, you know that there’s clearly no shortage of disagreement. But it’s more likely that you spend most of your time and energy disagreeing with people who care deeply about the same things about which you already care deeply.
You’ll argue about whether LeBron James or Derrick Rose should have won the MVP, whether or not Mitt Romney has a shot in the Iowa caucuses, or why Apple decided to pre-release information about the WWDC keynote.
We dive deeply into a range of pre-defined topics, tied to our professions, hobbies, needs, and histories, and sharpen our swords with opponents who do the same.
And on the margins, maybe that’s okay. Mass culture throws a whole lot of stuff at its audience that I, like you, have no intrinsic interest in. The time, energy, and cognitive surplus we once devoted to those things we used to consume only because “they were on” are all much better put to use tackling subjects we actually care about.
But it does mean that we’re often unaware of what’s happening in the next room, where there is frequently plenty of useful stuff that we could port into our own special areas of interest. We need to make sure we’re taking advantage of the web’s built-in ability to move laterally.
More to the point: those of us who produce and share content that other people read — and at this point, that’s almost all of us — need to trust that our readers are lateral movers too, and encourage them to do so.
I’m reminded of this blog post from last year, predicting the death of the niche blog and the rise of the lens blog. The lens blog can tackle any subject, but always from the point of view of a subset of enthusiasms or perspectives that find clever ways to find the same in the different, and vice versa.
Hyper-specialization, like information overload, is an old, old problem. But exactly for that reason, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up as a potential problem with our new tools and new media, too.
In short, if you’re really worried about search engines or social media overfiltering what you see, worry less about your reading being one-sided and more about it being one-dimensional.
Plenty of things worth writing about Kevin Kelly’s post on “Techno Life Skills.” Kelly’s point of departure is that learning how to master any specific technology is less important than learning how to adapt to, use, and understand any technology that emerges (or that meets your newly emergent needs).
Here are a few notes about how technology frames us, how we think, and what we can do:
• Tools are metaphors that shape how you think. What embedded assumptions does the new tool make? Does it assume right-handedness, or literacy, or a password, or a place to throw it away? Where the defaults are set can reflect a tool’s bias.
• What do you give up? This one has taken me a long time to learn. The only way to take up a new technology is to reduce an old one in my life already. Twitter must come at the expense of something else I was doing — even if it just daydreaming.
• Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.
And a few more about accepting the limits of your own knowledge, and how your ignorance isn’t a defeat:
• Understanding how a technology works is not necessary to use it well. We don’t understand how biology works, but we still use wood well.
• Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. To evaluate don’t think, try.
• Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.
I think these last three observations might be both Kelly’s most powerful and the most true.
Update: I forgot maybe the number-one smart, accept-your-own-ignorance observation, which Alan Jacobs rightly pulled:
• You will be newbie forever. Get good at the beginner mode, learning new programs, asking dumb questions, making stupid mistakes, soliticting help, and helping others with what you learn (the best way to learn yourself).
By popular demand, I’m liveblogging R/GA’s session about the Internet of Things, a.k.a. “everyware.” (Everyware, btw, is a much better name.)
Description: “Why have smart refrigerators failed to take hold? Where are the smart tables that were supposed to fill our homes? Smart products with embedded sensors are poised to share their intelligence, but lack of connections among products and services have limited their usefulness. Until now. In this session, we will showcase emerging smart products and break down the design and technology that will separate the wheat from the chaff. We’ll examine the connections these products will make with our lives by bringing more sensibility to sensor-based products.”
Speakers are Chloe Gottlieb, R/GA’s VP of Interaction Design, and Will Turnage, R/GA’s VP of Tech. Read the rest of this entry »
As a follow-up to my earlier compilation, “The Two Mayors,” here is the stunning conclusion to the story of @MayorEmanuel. He won the election and as predicted by Mayor Daley, vanished into a time vortex in order to save the multiverse.
I’ve also been boning up on my @MayorEmanuel backstory, and man, it is totally batshit in the best possible way. There are layers and layers to this thing that I couldn’t even guess at, and a few I’m probably still missing. In short, the anonymous author(s) of the thread have been building towards this science-fiction/comic-book resolution of the story for a while now, first planting the seeds months ago, then grinding them up like fine celery salt.
You can read a quick-and-dirty PDF of all of @MayorEmanuel’s tweets here, assembled by @najuu (h/t Carla Casilli). I’m not Storifying the whole thing, because 1) Twitter’s archives have a hard time going back that far in the Storify interface and 2) even if they did, I’m not stupid. But I would like to do my small part to gather the limbs of Osiris just here at the end. Enjoy.
At HiLobrow, Matthew Battles interviews Tim Maly about his 50 Cyborgs project, for which Robin and I both wrote posts. Tim (Tim M, the other Tim) has a lot of nice things to say about Snarkmarket, and the whole interview is in part a response to Robin’s call for a postmortem on the project, but the interview’s mostly interesting for the smart things Tim says in response to Matt’s smart proddings.
A fair amount of the discussion circles around the nature of language. Here’s a representative chunk, where Matthew asks Tim about whether or not nonfiction criticism needs (or already has) a “fanfic impulse”:
I’m thinking about how Bruce Sterling in particular has identified or refined a series of concepts—spime, atemporality, favela chic, design fiction, to name a few — which people who aren’t students of his, but fans of his critique, sort of take up and extend. Maybe “hilobrow” has pretensions to this kind of conceptul life; “bookfuturism,” too has fans, now, and a life of its own. Of course we’re always doing this sort of thing in public discourse; it’s just a notion I have now that “fandom” becomes another mode or style of relating, alongside classroom, chiefdoms/tribes, and mentorship, among other models. Call it “fancrit”? Or not…
Tim is game, and runs with the “fancrit” idea:
The interesting thing about this, I think, is that where fanfic is necessarily ghettoized (you are playing with someone else’s copyrighted characters and worlds) fancrit is fed by a long academic tradition of fighting for mindshare via vocabulary. Sterling coins spime and that’s a meaningful event only to the extent that he can lose control of it. He wins when people start using the word without bothering to attribute it to him. Clynes & Kline coin cyborg and they end up winning to the point where Clynes becomes irritated with the way the meaning shifts and is twisted.
If you don’t get that etymological/genealogical twisting of cyborg from Clynes and Kline’s original, limited meaning, you don’t get 50 posts about it; the term itself isn’t generative or potent enough to move beyond its first-generation instance. It’s a concept that can’t conceive, in the sexual/reproductive sense.
That’s the power of language, which can be a dangerous power — it’s always exceeding our ability to, Humpty-Dumpty like, determine once and for all what words mean.
But it also means that words can be put into motion without permission, without determination — that they can circulate without anyone needing to hold them fast, or play Pope to decide what’s in and what’s out. They have a life of their own.
This is what I also like in Bruce Sterling’s comment on TM and MB’s conversation:
Some remarkable stuff in this discussion about positioning for niche intelligentsia eyeballs in the modern post-blogosphere. I think people used to call that activity “publishing,” but nowadays it’s a creolized effort badly in need of a neologism.
We don’t have a word for this! Let’s make one up! We have an old word, but it doesn’t work any more; it doesn’t mean what it should, or it means too much. Let’s let it go! Let it mean something else — and we can all talk about this in a different way.
I have something that I’m fond of saying, and it’s totally drawn from my training in philosophy: sometimes the most important thing you can do in an argument is to point out that we don’t have to talk about it the way we’ve always talked about it.
If you asked me to boil down the “real meaning” of the Bookfuturist manifesto I wrote, I’d say it’s that. We almost always talk about the relationship between culture and technology in very predictable ways that don’t solve problems. So let’s not talk about them that way anymore.
If you want a better example, look at this post on education, pointed to me by Rob Greco:
The “problems” we face with schools are right now are less about the schools themselves and more about a lack of vision and a fear of change. Put simply, the age-grouped, subject-delineated, 8 am-2 pm, September-June, one-size-fits-all system that we have makes the process of education easy. The realities of personal, self-directed, real problem-solving learning in a connected world are anything but.
Still, the hardest reality right now is that there is no groundswell to do school differently, not just “better.” Seems it’s easy to see a path to “better.” “Different” is just too scary.
If you want to do philosophy, or to show someone what it means to do philosophy, even your grandma, or a seven-year-old, get a group of people into a room and ask them, “what is a sport?”
Quickly, you’ll get strong opinions. Some people don’t think golf is a sport; other people don’t think figure skating should be one. Is dodgeball a sport? What about “tag”? (Some people are really good at tag.) Table tennis? Video games? Cheerleading? If not, why not? Eventually, people will try to come up with definitions. The definitions will resolve some problems but inevitably, they’ll exclude something that everyone in the room agrees is at least a borderline case.
What’s great about it is that you’re not arguing about the fundamental nature of the universe, drawing on complex symbolic logic, or questioning people’s ethical or religious beliefs (you know, depending on how strongly they feel about baseball).
You haven’t assigned any reading. There’s no mathematical equation to be solved, reference work to consult, or tool to be used to solve the problem. But everyone agrees that you’re talking about a real thing, something that actually exists and is relatively important, and at least for most of us, worth having an opinion about.
All you’re doing is asking everyone in the room to ask themselves: when I use such-and-such a word, what do I mean? What am I assuming? What am I committing myself to? If there’s a dispute between two people about how to use a word or what it means, how do we resolve it? How do we decide with language how we use language? And how do we do this, for the most part, completely organically and without great complication?
It’s a wonder. And it deserves to be wondered at.
Tim Maly has a great phrase for the group he gathered to work on 50 Cyborgs:
I’m lucky to have this great community (clique?) that’s emerged around a bunch of people whose work I love who have a family resemblance of obsessions.
“Family-resemblance,” if you don’t know, is an important phrase in philosophy. It’s the phrase Ludwig Wittgenstein uses to describe just the process I described above — how words like “game,” “sport,” “cyborg,” “community,” “book,” or “publishing” don’t have a single fixed meaning, a picture of a thing that you can match to each word, like God’s own dictionary.
Instead we’ve got this sloppy, fleshy language that generates and regenerates itself over time and across space and forms new clusters and meanings, and we can’t even collect the entire extension of the concept; all we can say is this word is used in such-and-such-a-way, and, within the broad unspoken assumptions of the lifeworld of a particularly community, we know what we mean and we know how to resolve misunderstandings.
Blogs — the best blogs — are public diaries of preoccupations. The reason why they are preoccupations is that you need someone who is continually pushing on the language to regenerate itself. The reason why they are public is so that those generations and regenerations and degenerations can find their kin, across space, across fame, across the likelihood of a connection, and even across time itself, to be rejoined and reclustered together.
Because that is how language and language-users are reborn; that is how the system, both artificial and natural, loops backward upon and maintains itself; because that is how a public and republic are made, how a man can be a media cyborg, and also become a city. That’s how this place where we gather becomes home.
The Poke is a UK satirical site, a little bit like Chicago’s The Onion. Thursday, they published a fake news article about a version of Monopoly — complete with a fully-imagined and –illustrated fake gameboard — branded on the beloved HBO series The Wire:
“The Wire is all about corners,” says Hasbro spokesperson Jane McDougall, “and the Monopoly board is all about corners. It was a natural fit.”
Based around the journey a young gangster might take through the fictionalised Baltimore of the show, players move from corner to stoop, past institutions featured in successive series like the school system and the stevedores union, acquiring real estate, money and power before ending up at the waterfront developments and City Hall itself.
There’s a classic scene in the first season of The Wire where D’Angelo (nephew of the drug boss Avon Barksdale and one of the series’s many unlikely protagonists) tries to teach two young dealers who work for him (Bodie and Wallace) how to play chess. Chess quickly turns into an elaborate metaphor to describe the violent realities and unreal ideals of the drug world they all live in:
But of course, it turns out not just to describe the drug world, but any world seen through the lens of The Wire. The two sides of the chess board could be one drug gang warring against another — Avon vs Marlo Stansfield. It could be the police detail trying to catch and trap the leader of one of the gangs. In the world of the police, too, pawns are expendable, and the people at the top fall under a completely different logic. (Every so often, a pawn will be transformed — like Prez, the hapless street cop who becomes first an invaluable decoder and data-miner and eventually, a middle school math teacher.)
But the single-plane, A vs B world of chess is really only an adequate metaphor for the narrow world of The Wire’s first season, the immediate objectives that eventually get unravelled. As Stringer Bell tries to tell his partner Avon, “there are games beyond the game.”
That’s the world Stringer tries to navigate. You begin with drugs, fighting for corners. Then you step back, build institutions — other people work for you. Eventually, you transcend the street level and become a power broker, directing traffic but never touching the street. Then you take your ill-gotten capital — your Monopoly money — and turn it into real capital, by investing in (get this) real estate, political connections, legitimate businesses. Stringer Bell’s dream is Michael Corleone’s dream (which was Joe Kennedy’s dream). Power into wealth and back into power again. But it’s all just business.
That’s where Monopoly comes in. Like chess, Monopoly is about controlling territory. Unlike chess, it’s not neofeudal combat, with handed-down traditions and ideologies of strategy and honor — the illusion that everything is perfectly under the player’s control, that all the pieces in the game are visible.
Monopoly is transparently about money and greed. It lays bare the multiple, adjacent worlds and the interlocking systems that tie them together. (In The Wire, the worlds adjacent to drugs and cops include the ports, politics, the schools, and the media.) You gain territory and choose how you build on it, but you also roll dice and overturn hidden cards that can send you in a completely different direction. It’s actually absurdly easy for players to cheat — especially if you let them control the bank. And every time you pass Go, the game — at least in part — starts over again.
The Wire is about a lot of things — the decline of the American city, the futility of the war on drugs, the corruption of our institutions. It’s also about the gap between our ideologies of how things ought to be as opposed to the way they actually are. “You want it to be one way,” drug kingpin Marlo tells a worn-out security guard who tries to stop him from shoplifting. “But it’s the other way.”
Overwhelmingly, that gap plays out in the field of work. The second season, about the blue-collar port workers, is transparently about work — but really, every season is about workers, bosses, money, promotions, recognition. The innovation of The Wire with respect to its representation of drug gangs and cops is to present them as the mundane, kind of screwed-up workplaces that they are.
And capitalism has always been screwed-up about work. On the one hand, we’ve got Weber: the Protestant idea that work has an ethical value, that everybody has a calling and that we prove ourselves through our success. On the other, we’ve got Marx: the only way the system works is by extracting value from its workers, and the more value it can extract for less investment, the better the people at the top make out. “Do more with less,” as the newspaper editor, mayor, and police bosses say over and over again.
I think this is how I finally came to terms with The Wire’s last season, which added journalism to the mix. It’s about that disillusionment — the idea that the work of journalism has an intrinsic value, and the corruption of that through cost-cutting and self-serving behavior. And maybe that disillusionment is extra bitter for Simon, who couldn’t stand what capitalism did to his newspaper, his city, its employers, its politics. The gall is too thick.
Simon’s collaborator Ed Burns had a more reconciled view of it; he’d worked as a cop, as a teacher, then a screenwriter/producer, and seemed to find satisfaction in different parts of each of them. It’s Burns’s wisdom we get when Lester Freamon tells Jimmy McNulty — who (like Simon) unleashes his anger on anyone who tries to get between him and his work — “the job will not save you.”
A Wire-themed Monopoly board might have begun as a joke, but let me tell you, Hasbro: you definitely think about it. I posted the link on Twitter, and it was picked up by Kottke and then by Slate, who both attributed me. You wouldn’t believe the reaction people had to this. Just like the series itself, it struck a chord. Also, just think of all the quotes from the series you can use to talk trash while you play:
Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental character of the place. The Second Part comprises the modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be reminiscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in a lifetime.
– William Carlos Williams, “Author’s Note” to Paterson
[Note: This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.]
[Note 2: This is also very literary, and very weird.]
William Carlos Williams knew plenty about bodies. He was a pediatrician and general practitioner in Rutherford, NJ, and his great poem “To Elsie,” which begins “The pure products of America / go crazy —” moves seamfully from the flesh to aimless machines:
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us–
ungainly hips and flopping breasts
addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes
as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and adjust, no one to drive the car
And then there is the mighty fragment from Spring and All, “The rose is obsolete,” imagining a new, cubo-futurist symbol of beauty with the delicacy and strength of organic steel. We could go on.
But Paterson is the poem, the book to be reckoned with, which conceives of a body as a city and a city as a body and both as a flow of heteroclite information, the poem a machine containing them all.
To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
And this is what we see in Paterson. The italicized faux-definition on the first page in verso calls it “an identification and a plan for action to supplant a plan for action… a dispersal and a metamorphosis” but also “a gathering up; a celebration.” In other words, a book.
To make a start,
out of particulars,
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means–
Or as he would write (and repeat) a handful of pages later, “–Say it, no ideas but in things–” which is to say (he tries to refine) “no ideas but in facts” but also:
Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter–
Paterson, whose ideas are themselves cities criss-crossing his streets in machines made from the mind, is both the Passaic Falls (“the outline of his back”) and the bridge thrown across those falls, and the men who dare each other to jump from the bridge, the women who mysteriously disappear, and finally the fragments of texts from newspapers and letters Williams gathers (the gathering at the same time a dispersal, a release of the information confined in the archive) to make the outline of his poem.
So far everything had gone smoothly. The pulley and ropes were securely fastened on each side of the chasm, and everything made in readiness to pull the clumsy bridge into position. It was a wooden structure boarded up on both sides, and a roof. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon and a large crowd had fathered — a large crowd for that time, as the town only numbered about four thousand — to watch the bridge placed in position.
That day was a great day for old Paterson. It being Saturday, the mills were shut down, so to give the people a chance to celebrate. Among those who came in for a good part of the celebration was Sam Patch, then a resident in Paterson, who was a boss over cotton spinners in one of the mills. He was my boss, and many a time he gave me a cuff over the ears.
Such prose fragments are dropped into the text of Paterson like stones in the Passaic Falls, or like Sam Patch’s body when, after a career of daredevil jumps inaugurated in Paterson (“a national hero”), it’s found frozen downstream after a jump from Niagara.
Sometimes the language is reincorporated later (or before) in the narrative (such as it is) of the poem. Williams describes Paterson as a search for language, the river like the language itself, many languages, bearing many kinds of information:
A false language. A true. A false language pouring— a
language (misunderstood) pouring (misinterpreted) without
dignity, without minister, crashing upon a stone ear.
And with this we are on the terrain of Claude Shannon’s mathematical cryptography, elaborated in the 1940s with the help of John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and others, just miles away, the engineering and metaphorical aspects of which fascinated Williams. In information theory, the medium of information is immaterial (both in the sense that is abstract and not relevant to the calculus), only its degree of distortion, compression, storage, and loss. Signals with(out) the codes to decipher them.
Once we can abstract from the medium, information does not need to be a letter, a photograph, or a radio wave. It can be a body, or the movement of bodies across a city, or any system, whether synthetic, organic, or hybrid.
Williams is known for his work as a physician, for his friendship with avant-garde artists, writers, and photographers in New York (the Williams-Marcel Duchamp-Man Ray friendship was especially fertile), but his interest in science and engineering was equally profound. In 1945, the year he forged Book One of Paterson, he received an honorary degree from the University of Buffalo, where he struck up a long conversation and fast friendship with Vannevar Bush, who that year would write “As We May Think”:
Among the rest the man Bush, the head of the atomic bomb project, was the most interesting to me. I liked him at once. It is amazing what he and his associates have accomplished—looked at simply as work, as brains. He seemed curious about me and was astonished to know I was a physician. I told him that I was deeply impressed by the sheer accomplishments of the persons on the platform. He replied that it took a lot of energy also to write books
(see T. Hugh Crawford, “Paterson, Memex, and Hypertext”)
How could we retrieve disconnected fragments, to make their hidden connections manifest? This was Williams’s problem as a poet, Bush’s as a researcher, Shannon’s as an engineer. To create a network of things — to roll up the universal out of particulars, and make what’s long kept in storage MOVE, faster than microfilm:
Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed, in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass.… Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path
Or as Williams writes in Paterson:
Texts mount and complicate them–
selves, lead to further texts and those
to synopses, digests and emendations
A new line, for a new mind; a new mind, to be the mind of a city.
The library, the library is on fire by Book III of Paterson:
Hell’s fire. Fire. Sit your horny ass
down. What’s your game? Beat you
at your own game, Fire. Outlast you:
Poet Beats Fire at Its Own Game! The bottle!
the bottle! the bottle! the bottle! I
give you the bottle! What’s burning
Whirling flames, leaping
from house to house, building to building
carried by the wind
the Library is in their path
Beautiful thing! aflame .
a defiance of authority
— burnt Sappho’s poems, burned
by intention (or are they still hid
in the Vatican crypts?) :
a defiance of authority :
for they were
unwrapped, fragment by fragment, from
outer mummy cases of papier mâché, inside
Egyptian sarcophagi .
Knowledge cannot lie dead, buried in tombs, it must be transmitted, brought to action, by electrical means if necessary, by film if necessary, fire if necessary, every destruction a liberation, bearing with it the possibility of rebirth.
That is, at least — if one conceives of the body as something more than flesh — as network — as city. As a machine made of words.
A machine with a man inside.