No, seriously, the moral of the story – if there is one – is that this stuff always makes its way into other things. Companies need to have control over their devices so that they can maximize their profit however possible, but also just because – I think – they just sort of ambiently feel the need to maintain that control. For a corporation, a lease is always going to be more attractive than a sale. If they can turn owners into users, they will.
“To make brewing a carafe possible, and to continue to deliver everything Keurig lovers already enjoy – high-quality beverages, simplicity, and variety – our new Keurig 2.0 system will feature specially designed interactive technology allowing the brewer to read information about the inserted Keurig pack. With this interactive capability, Keurig 2.0 brewers will “know” the optimal settings for the inserted Keurig pack, for a perfect beverage every time, whether a single cup or a carafe. It’s critical for performance and safety reasons that our new system includes this technology. For those of you who currently own our K-Cup or Vue systems today, we are so happy to have you as part of our family. Rest assured that your brewers will still function as they always have and that your favorite beverages will still be available.”
On the face of it, this all seems rather ridiculous, and mostly just annoying. But again, what it really amounts to is precedent: We have DRM in our digital devices, we have DRM in our software and our firmware, and now we have DRM in our coffeemakers. Or one coffeemaker. Don’t mistake this as anything other than a test run for the future.
The hopeful thing here for me is – as happened with the XBox One and SimCity – customers are noticing it and they’re talking about it, a lot, and the talk is not favorable. People don’t want this. No one, as far as I can tell, is finding Keurig’s claims about the benefits convincing (because come on, they straight-up aren’t). Companies who implement DRM have adopted the tactic of insisting that it’s not actually DRM – recall EA’s insistence that SimCity’s DRM was actually about taking the burden of computations off players’ machines and placing them server-side, which was pretty much categorically disproved – but again, no one really buys that. Consumers, by and large, sense what’s happening. They know they’re being turned into users. And they don’t like it. We want to own what we pay for, and that means that we want to be able to use it how we want.
There are devices that we just sort of grumblingly accept will be sold to us pre-broken – cell phones, for instance – but when DRM shows up in something we’ve taken for granted as DRM-free, the results from the supply side aren’t good. When DRM is intrusive, that’s a net positive.
Also, as Cory Doctorow points out, the possibility of actual lawsuits over this might be a benefit as well, if it solidifies some aspects of this into legal precedent. Copyright law is fuzzy on this, and depending on the outcome, it might be a very good thing if it became less fuzzy.
So yes, I regard this as a misstep on Keurig’s part. As a trial run, I’m not optimistic that it will work out well for them. But I think that this stands as yet more evidence that DRM-creep is something to watch for. It’ll show up again, and next time it might be much less noticeable. And that will truly be something to worry about.
This is obviously something to which we Cyborgologists are again paying close attention, what with Facebook now allowing a plethora of new choices by which someone might identify their gender. There have already been a couple of great posts on the subject – the new ways in which Facebook is making it possible to self-identify and the ways in which gender is performed – by Jenny Davis and Robin James. But this is also something that’s very personal for me, and not just in terms of my Cyborgtastic journey of the last couple of years.
Looking back over that first post, I can mark a lot of the ways in which I’ve changed since then. Primarily, in the post I employ fairly dualist discourse in order to talk about the significance of self-identification with respect to gender on a website. I write as if certain things become important when we butt up against constraints on them – something that I still believe is true – but in so doing I suggest that gender online is unimportant the rest of the time and that we’re all just sort of floaty beings of pure light and intellect when someone isn’t telling us that we have to pick either “male” or “female” and shut up about it.
Which is clearly not true.
The performance of identity online – not that “online” and “offline” are at all separate, self-contained performances – has the capacity to be much more playful than the performance of identity offline. We can augment who we are and who we can be through new kinds of fluidity that were more difficult before. It’s easier to try on and discard certain kinds of identity, largely according to one’s whims. But that doesn’t mean there are no constraints, and while the complex play of gender in an “online” context is just as important as when someone attempts to constrain it, when that happens it becomes important in new ways. It ceases to be play and becomes a more profound kind of resistance. Or at least, I feel like it presents opportunities to do so.
As Jenny notes, this is a pretty major about-face (ha ha ha) for Facebook:
Zuckerberg (and by extension, Facebook Inc.) ignored throngs of social psychological research about self and identity. But more than that, remained ignorant to the reality that some identities are more troublesome than others, and that those who hold troublesome identities may need to maintain network separations for reasons having little to do with integrity. Or, as Anil Dash aptly summarizes:
If you are twenty-six years old, you’ve been a golden child, you’ve been wealthy all your life, you’ve been privileged all your life, you’ve been successful your whole life, of course you don’t think anybody would ever have anything to hide.
As I’ve also written before, while powerful corporations are by no means arbiters of the mechanics of reality, when they explicitly recognize something and build it into the architecture of how they function that can have profound effects on the culture at large. Facebook is recognizing that gender is very complex; that’s a political act and a political statement. It’s also an attempt to be more welcoming, at least so it seems to me, and in that respect it’s calculated. That shouldn’t be surprising, because everything something like Facebook does is calculated, though the calculations might be faulty.
I identify as genderqueer. But I have the privilege of not having that gender identity create much of a problem for me. Until now, I didn’t really care about what I listed as my gender on Facebook, provided I wasn’t locked into picking binary gendered pronouns (I prefer the singular they, awkward though it can be). But when I was able to select who I felt myself to be from that little drop-down menu, I’ll admit that it gave me some very mild warm fuzzies. I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook anymore, but something about being able to do that still meant something to me. That leads me back to my original point, obvious though it may be: self-identification online is just as significant when it’s allowed to happen as when it’s not, if not more so.
With the addition of that menu, Facebook reified my existence as a human being. That might seem a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not, at least it’s not to me.
We’d all like to believe that our sense of self is separate from things like Facebook, that they have no power to determine who we want to be. But it isn’t so. When marginalized people aren’t represented in the culture – especially in consumer culture – the result is a sense of erasure. The same is true of the websites we use every day, especially when those sites are locations for performance of the self.
Facebook recognizes that I exist. Part of me wishes that it didn’t mean something. But it does.
Sarah also exists as a floaty being of pure light and intellect on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry
In preparing to write this post, I found myself going back over Whitney Erin Boesel’s post a couple of months back on death and digital/social media mediation, and I found myself running into a lot of the same issues she discusses. She suffered from massive uncertainty regarding how to talk about what she had experienced, or whether to talk about it at all. I’m going through the same. I’m not sure I should even be writing this, or what it will mean when I have. At the same time, I’m not sure how not to write about it, and that in itself is part of what I want to talk about.
Note: this is not going to be particularly organized, or particularly intellectual. It’s in part personal Livejournal-esque navel-gazing, part working through some disparate observations regarding how we deal with traumatic life events on social media, part general flailing around. Please bear with me. Or, you know, don’t.
Two Fridays ago, I was in New York to take part in a talk/presentation/art installation on video games put on by a collaboration between the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and the Goethe Institut. I was pumped – it’s a topic that anyone who knows me knows I get excited about, and I was looking forward to some awesome discussions, to making new connections and new friends. And then I got a text from my mother telling me to call her immediately. So there I was, sitting in a Roy Rogers in Manhattan in front of a cooling roast beef sandwich with bizarrely loud jazzy R&B on the soundsystem, getting the news that a member of my family had taken his own life.
So that put an interesting spin on the day.
I should note that I’ve lost family members before, but never someone who wasn’t ill and/or elderly. I have been blessed enough to never lose someone like that until now. It was uncharted territory for me. How does one work through news like that? How does one process?
Along with the news, my mother delivered an iron-clad instruction: Do not talk about this on social media. At all. Not yet. Not everyone had been notified.
And the thing is, though I understood and respected and abided by the logic of that, my initial reaction was what? because I work through everything on social media.
This isn’t to say I have no filters at all, because I do. But I’m very forthcoming about what I’m feeling and thinking, to the point of being unprofessional. Since I began using the web in a social way back in junior high school, I’ve been using it as a sounding board for whatever I’m going through at the time. I put things out there via Facebook, via Twitter (especially Twitter), via my other journaling sites. Increasingly, I do that here. I’ve been doing it for so long that I don’t know how not to do it. It’s almost impossible for me to process powerful emotion without letting the world know that I’m feeling it.
I clammed up, at least for twenty-four hours or so.
But when I felt like I could reasonably start talking about it publicly – and I did, on Twitter – I found that I had profoundly mixed feelings about doing so. As Whitney noted, social media operates on an attention economy. Was I economizing on my own trauma? Was it my trauma on which to economize? Was I enjoying any of the attention I was getting – in the form of outpourings of love and support from my friends and even from mere acquaintances that I want to make it clear I am so, so thankful for.
What the hell was I feeling?
I found myself using Twitter as a mirror. I would write whatever I was feeling at the time, post it, look at it for a while and try to work through it from the outside in. I would study my own emotional output in an effort to make it all make sense. Suicide is at once nonsensical and profoundly rational, and as anyone who has ever lost someone that way knows tragically well, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile those two things. I was told over and over that there is no correct way to grieve, there is no right way to go about this, there is no particular thing that you should be feeling and yet I was gripped by the profound anxiety that I was doing something wrong. Then I would talk about that and try to understand it. Then I would worry about it some more. Now I’m talking about it here, and guess what, I’m still worrying.
I think this is what we do. Social media does encourage a kind of self-centeredness by its very nature, but I think it also encourages a deep connection with others – I doubt anyone here would really argue with that at this point – and I think both things are true simultaneously, because I think both things are true of almost all human communication, including just talking to someone else face to face. And how we express ourselves through social media is also how we make sense of ourselves, how we lay out our own narratives, how we explain ourselves to ourselves, even when we don’t actually make all that much sense – and we never really do.
But how do we do this? What’s appropriate? How should I have talked about this death, how specific should I be? Should I name names, should I detail the method, should I link to his memorial webpage? Whitney came to her own conclusions there, at least sort of:
It feels as though there is a certain degree of Very Close that one should be with someone before one steps anywhere near the limelight of their passing, and while I don’t know where the shadows stop and the light begins, I am certain that in that attention is not my place. In a way, new attention is like thermal energy: It flows from where there is more of it to where there is less of it. Were I quite a bit more well known than my friend, then linking would seem appropriate (even though we had long been out of contact): Here, pay attention. Here, help. In 2013, donations of social capital can be made in memoriam, too. Under the circumstances, however, I’ve been at an awkward loss—and unlike when I don’t know whether to send flowers or what to wear to a funeral, I can’t call my mom up to ask about this one. I don’t think any of us know yet. And the questions aren’t going away.
I want to talk about him in detail. I want to remember him like this. Social media is increasingly where we go both to remember and to forget, a place that is at once increasingly ephemeral, atemporal, and incredibly bound up in the passage of time. Things happen, people pass in and out of our lives, and we mark their passing this way. We record how they changed us, for better or worse; we understand them through how we lay out their pathways through our own experience. We understand each other. We understand what it means to lose someone, because we look at what we have of them and we know what they meant to us.
Except maybe we don’t. Because maybe there isn’t any way to do that at all.
The thing is, we weren’t in contact on social media. We weren’t Facebook friends. We weren’t following each other on Twitter. I don’t even know if he had a Twitter, though I know he had an Instagram account. So what I found myself dealing with on Twitter was entirely about me, entirely about what I was going through, and also entirely about this death and this loss almost as an objective fact unconnected to anyone specifically, simply an object out there in the universe like a rock or a star. On Twitter, it felt as if it was coming unmoored, drifting through my timeline without anything to anchor it.
Elaine Scarry wrote a book about pain, and in that book she talked about pain as something unapproachable, something in the face of which all our rationality and all our tools of sense-making break down. In the face of pain we have no language. Like a black hole, we can’t see it directly. We can only measure it by what’s around it and by what effect it has on other bodies.
His memorial service was livestreamed. I was there. Apparently a lot of people watched. I wonder what that was like, what they were feeling. I wonder if they were posting about it. Before the memorial service, I saw pictures on Twitter of prayer gatherings for him at his school and I broke down crying. I had to fly home before the burial but I saw pictures of his casket on Twitter and I broke down again. The memorial service was a kind of closure but it also felt profoundly unreal. He wasn’t there. But on Twitter I felt like I got closer.
So my mother said to keep it off social media. What the hell does that even mean? And I still can’t bring myself to tell you his name. So all you have to measure his death by is me, what I’m telling you about what losing him meant to me. If he’s the black hole, I’m the body swinging out toward the event horizon, the pain is Hawking radiation, and none of it really makes any sense even now.
Death makes no sense, and it doesn’t make any more sense on Twitter. But if something like Twitter is the means through which we live a great deal of our lives, then death can’t be kept off of it. It finds its way there one way or another. It is there. And we look at it, puzzling, trying to approach it and what it means.
Of all the games that comment on themselves – and it seems like there are more and more of those – I won’t say that The Stanley Parable is the best, but I definitely haven’t played another that made its intentions more blatantly clear or went for what it was after so aggressively. The Stanley Parable, originally a Half Life 2 mod, has a lot to say about games. But I think it also has a lot to say about everything.
Essentially, The Stanley Parable is the story of a man named Stanley (surprise), a mundane office worker in a mundane, soul-killing job that involves sitting at a computer terminal and pressing the buttons he’s told to press. One day, Stanley looks up from his desk to find all his co-workers gone and his office deserted. Confused and more than a little concerned (the narrator tells us), Stanley takes the outrageously courageous step of getting up and sallying forth to discover what exactly is going on.
At this point the player has a choice (in a sense). They can follow the pre-conceived script, delivered to them via instructions from the narrator framed as simple narration of Stanley’s actions. If they do this, they’ll encounter a mind-control facility hidden in the bowels of the building, which they will turn off, and emerge – free at last – into an idyllic, sun-drenched countryside. On the other hand, the player can disobey the narrator’s instructions, and alternately find themselves in scenarios involving, among other things, a game involving a baby and fire, a massive explosion, the total breakdown of the game itself, and a very erratic Stanley Parable Adventure Line™.
The game is obviously complex in terms of its critique, and is working on multiple levels. It can be understood as a skewering of Office Space-style labor, but also a criticism of the way narrative works in games to constrain player agency. The story of Stanley and the narrator is the story of a clash of wills, and when Stanley/the player refuses to go along with the narrator’s directions, the narrator reacts with bemusement, shock, confusion, and anger – as well as a jaunty instructional video concerning the importance of making good choices.
the lol elo boost will help to take your burden off by giving you the help. It gives you a lot of time for doing other things in life when knowing you are still on the way to achieving your goals.
The choice argument/discussion/thing in games has been going on for quite a while – a lot of games make selling points out of the fact that they offer so many choices, or a few meaningful choices, or multiple endings, or just giant sandboxes in which to play and murder people a la the Grant Theft Auto franchise. The thing is that choice in games is complicated by the relationship between rules and fiction, something on which The Stanley Parable also comments. If the game’s object is essentially to lead a player through a pre-determined plot, then the player can’t be allowed to deviate from the plot much, if at all, for fear of ruining the story – not just in the sense of the events of the plot itself, but in the sense of narrative flow. For instance, if the plot’s sense of urgency requires you to rush from point A to point B to prevent a character from being beheaded, taking your time to explore a few hallways and scavenge around for items diminishes that sense a bit.
In other words, a fiction-focused game is going to be very constraining in terms of its rules – the logic of the gameworld won’t allow the player very much in the way of meaningful action outside of what they’re “supposed” to be doing (I realize that there are a few exceptions to this, but I’m purposefully speaking in somewhat problematic generalities here). These games can be understood as progressive, while games that focus on rules and play without much emphasis on story are emergent. The former doesn’t allow the player much agency, and the game will proceed in pretty much the same fashion each time. The latter presents the possibility of huge variance in the way each game might go – the rules are established, and then the player is free to play the game in whatever way they would like, within those established rules. Emergent games don’t require stories at all, but progressive games do require rules. As Jesper Juul says, “Though rules can function independent of fiction, fiction depends on rules”.
This isn’t just true of games, it’s true of everything. Every story of any kind that we tell about anything at all depends on rules – in the sense of assumed conventions of what’s appropriate and possible – to make itself coherent.
One of the elements of the whole choice debate in gaming is the question of whether choice/agency in games is necessarily a good thing all of the time. Some players expect and demand choices in the games they play, and judge the quality of a game according to whether or not meaningful choices are available. The Stanley Parable riffed on this in one of its promotional videos, the “Raphael” trailer:
The difference between choice in emergent versus progressive games isn’t just about the sheer amount of choice that you have but about meaning – choice in a narrative game has – if the game is done well – the emotional weight and resonance that participation in a powerful story should have. In my own personal experience, in fact, powerful narrative makes choice irrelevant. I get so caught up in the story being told that I don’t notice the way the gameplay itself is constructed, nor do I care about it if I notice.
An example of this is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, which featured decidedly lackluster gameplay; however, I couldn’t have cared less because I was so enraptured by the story itself that the gameplay was simply a means to the next part of the story. I literally did not notice that I was really playing sort of a meh game. When I played The Last of Us, I had absolutely no say in anything that happened in the story – very little of what I did impacted anything related to the narrative at all. Again, I didn’t notice, nor did I notice that the gameplay became a bit repetitive; all that mattered to me was the story.
So the story – and the construction and flow and assumptions of narrative – were actually obscuring elements of design. These elements may or may not have mattered, depending on what type of gamer I was, but still.
We need to ask whether agency is always a plus. I’m not sure if it is, in a game like The Last of Us. But we also need to understand what we mean by agency.
An essay written a few years back by Steven Poole on games and labor questions whether the format of many contemporary games might not a problem. Poole suggests that games like The Sims and Farmville reproduce a normalized capitalist, wage-serf/data serf view of play, and therefore the world, and the ludic structure of these games forecloses on any possibility of meaningful resistance:
Be loyal, keep your head down, earn currency. Nothing could be a more perfect advert for what is sometimes called the “American way” than The Sims. Buy a Sim a large mirror and she will be happier, by virtue of being able to gaze at her reflection. Buy him a new oven, and he’ll become more popular after giving dinner parties. Help your Sim climb the slippery pole of a career as a politician or scientist. This is a game in which the brutal rules of free-market capitalism are everything. More money makes a Sim happier; social dissidents are not allowed. Do you want to drop out of the rat-race, wear charity-shop tweed suits and spend your days playing chess in the park? Sorry. Such gameplay possibilities are ruled out by the political assumptions buried deep in the game’s structure.
There’s certainly something about the activities in these games that’s somehow weirdly satisfying, even if they do replicate meaningless, repetitive jobs – why else would they be so popular? It shouldn’t escape our attention that, though games like Farmville are certainly more emergent than progressive, they still rely on at least a basic narrative foundation that makes activity within the game meaningful. In Farmville, you’re a farmer – very simple, but making explicit reference to narrative tropes of romantic simplicity and authenticity with which most of us are at least sort of familiar. In World of Warcraft, the mythos that backgrounds less story-oriented player action is Tolkienesque in its complexity and depth. In The Sims, the design of character interaction encourages players to construct their own narrative for the lives of their Sims – I know I used to create entire soap operas in my head around feeding babies and going to work and utterly failing to cook lobster.
Even in these games – again, more emergent than progressive – narrative plays a role, and an important one. On the surface it appears to simply be making games potentially more involving, more “fun”. But its secondary – and perhaps more important – function is to obscure the realities of the game’s design. You don’t really notice what it is that you’re doing.
I’ve had more than one moment where I’ve looked up from one of these games and realized that I wasn’t even really having fun anymore. And yet I had blown an entire hour on it.
So why does this matter, outside of games? Because it highlights one of the ways in which narratives and design work together toward ends that can be less than positive. The most powerful narratives that pattern our daily experience fade into the background of everything; they become so assumed that we never think to question them or wonder what it is that they’re really doing. David Banks recently made some incredibly important points about how the assumptions behind certain kinds of design come about, proceeding from an alarming location of power and privilege. The design of our objects might appear to have nothing to do with narrative, but in fact narratives about what’s good, right, and desirable provide a context for how the work of design is done. So narratives about an idealized – and attainable – middle class suburban/exurban lifestyle provide the context for a coffee machine whose light is way too bright.
If we don’t ask questions about what narrative does, about who it serves, we miss that.
I love stories. I think they’re one of the most worthwhile, important things that we do as a species. But that doesn’t mean that stories are an absolute good, or that narratives are always pathways leading to a positive end. Who tells stories matters, as well as why they’re told. Our narratives both constrain and are constrained by structures of power. If we don’t sensitize ourselves to that, there are all kinds of things we won’t see that we probably should.
Once, many years ago, a friend and I Got Into It via a series of Livejournal comments.
Yes, you already know that this is going somewhere good.
I’ve long since forgotten what the It was about, though it was probably something exactly as silly as you’d expect. I don’t remember how it resolved itself; that friend and I are not friends anymore and haven’t spoken in nearly a decade, so I can’t ask them without things getting weird. What I do remember was one thing this friend said, which I’ve remembered as long as I have because it might be one of the single most ridiculous things anyone has ever said to me in any setting: I mentioned that I didn’t like their tone, and they responded, “there is no tone on the internet.”
I’m pretty sure I never engaged with that statement directly, because I had no idea how to do so. On the one hand, of course there’s tone on the internet, as anyone who’s ever used the internet for more than about ten minutes should know. On the other hand, I had the vague feeling that they had some kind of valid point under the ridiculousness of the statement, though I had no idea how to articulate it to myself.
So getting away from trash-talking years and years after the fact, how do we talk about “tone” mediated by digital communication?
One way in which tone in this setting operates is obviously via the basic written word, which did not begin with AIM and email and LJ comments, nor of course would it ever end there. This is one reason why what they said made me go “wait, what?” Tone has been conveyed through writing since the beginning of time, as my students often regrettably write. See what I just did? There was some gentle scorn in that sentence (there has been some gentle scorn in the picture since I started writing this) and if I’m a good writer and my reader is sensitive to the cues of this kind of writing, that tone will get picked up and properly interpreted. Tone is carried in prose in all kinds of ways that don’t involve saying I AM FEELING THUSLY, and the system of organization of words and flow and connotation can get extremely rich and complex in ways that don’t involve voice or facial expression, and in fact allow for kinds of tone that wouldn’t be possible in a face-to-face setting. Like most writing, it’s a skill, and some of our historical figures most known for their acidic wit have been extremely skilled in this respect. Given that it’s a skill, though, there are a lot of ways in which to get it wrong. This naturally leaves written communication open to misinterpretation.
So none of this is unique to the comment thread in which my friend and I were engaged. It’s been a feature of human communication since we started writing notes to each other, and indeed since we started verbally communicating at all. There is tone on the internet because there is tone in every other facet of linguistic communication, whether or not it involves physical co-presence.
However, I do think my friend had a point in that even conventional written communication mediated by digital technology gets a bit more complicated than a letter.
Ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts say that the best conversations have a continuous flow, with each speaker picking up just as hir partner leaves off, barely overlapping. This kind of conversation requires intense engagement, and highly accurate cue-reading on the parts of interaction partners. Interruptions and extended silences disrupt the conversational flow, and create a less satisfying interaction.
She goes on to mention that communication like posts in a thread, which count as “asynchronous” communication, do away with some of the difficulties in maintaining the smooth flow of a conversation. However, those difficulties don’t entirely disappear, because of the temporal connotations that can exist between two or more people in a close-knit group who have, between them, constructed their own little complex system of tonal cues. A comment in a Livejournal thread might be asynchronous, waiting for me to answer it in my own good time, but if my friend can see or at least infer that I’m currently immediately present online – either because I usually respond quickly or because they can see me on their AIM buddy list – and I don’t respond for a while, that in itself might carry tonal connotations. It also might not, but either way its ambiguity leaves it open to the possibility of some major misinterpretation (in linguistics this use of time as a form of nonverbal communication is known as Chronemics, and can be used to express and maintain a variety of things, from intimacy to differential power relations).
Jenny points out that the telephone, because it removes all conversational social cues but voice, constrains the range of information available to the participants. Essentially, it narrows the band – the types and amount of information are reduced, and people are operating with less and more incomplete data than usual.
I argue that communication over the web and via other forms of digital technology are both more and less constrained than face-to-face communication. On the one hand, unless you’re using something like FaceTime or Skype (which I’m purposefully not addressing here), you don’t have access to any visual body-language data about what someone is feeling or possibly thinking, and you probably aren’t hearing their voice. You’re often just typing back and forth, and in that – like a letter – you don’t have the same or as many conversational tools available to you. On the other hand, because of the incredible flexibility, diversity, and creativity inherent in digital communication, you have many more tools available, and the toolbox is receiving new additions all the time. We can communicate via the time it takes to respond – I can’t be bothered with this right now, or I’m upset enough that I need to go away, or just I am passive–aggressively ignoring you – but also through emoticons, gifs, countless numbers of memes, “poor” spelling and grammar, and any number of other things that may be internets-wide or just existent within small social groups.
The problem with this wildly flexible, emergent creativity is that it can be difficult to get everyone on the same page about what these cues mean and how one should use them properly. While there are often generally accepted patterns of use, those patterns are subject to rapid change as people appropriate symbols and techniques of using them for their own specific needs. This obviously happens in any form of human communication, but this stuff is all new enough that we’re still figuring out how it works and how it can work. Again, this creates potential for disagreement and misinterpretation that doesn’t exist in the same way in physically co-present communication, or even on a telephone.
So yes, there is tone on the internet, friend-in-the-past. We just don’t always agree on what that tone is.
I still don’t like yours, by the way.
Sarah maintains a vaguely irritated tone regarding everything on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry
This is the second in a series of autobiographical accounts by Cyborgology writers of our early personal interactions with technology. Half autoethnography, half unrepentant nostalgia trip, this series looks at what technologies had an impression on us, which ones were remarkably unremarkable, and what this might say about our present outlook on digitality. Part 1 can be found here.
In order to understand my relationship with computers, you need to understand that I have terrible handwriting.
Do not try to tell me that yours is worse. It isn’t. I promise. My bad handwriting is a combination of a number of different things both contemporary and historical, including an inability to hold a writing implement in a way that even approaches comfortable, impatience, the fact that I literally never learned to form letters “correctly”, and probably some neurological stuff that goes formally undiagnosed. I don’t just write illegibly, I write illiterately: I skip letters, I place them out of order in words, I can’t space or block sentences. I completely abandon rhyme or reason when it comes to capitalization (my punctuation is impeccable, though). I’m not dyslexic, not that we’ve ever been able to determine, though again, there probably is something going on there. I just… can’t write by hand. At all.
And I’m a writer.
More, I’m a writer because of computers. I can’t emphasize this enough: Without digital technology, I would not be a writer, at least not the way I am now. I’ve written before that computers gave me my words. That’s true. That’s the backbone of this, the place from which we have to start. Everything else proceeds from there.
The first computer – the first digital anything – that I remember was my father’s little Kaypro. I loved that thing. I loved everything about it. I don’t remember when or how it entered the house, or if it was just always there, but I remember how big it seemed, how bright the green characters on the black display were, the sound of the keyboard, the louder and vaguely alarming rattly sound of the printer. I gave them names: They were Puter and Ticky.
I also used them. It started very early. Look:
God, I don’t even know how old I am there. It’s my parents’ old apartment, so I can’t be more than one.
The thing is, for a long time the idea that I could use the keyboard to assemble the various letters into coherent sentences was alien to me; I knew it was possible, I just had no idea how to go about doing it and didn’t yet feel a need to learn. What I did do was repeatedly mash my hands on the keyboard and then force my father to print out the resulting gibberish and read it aloud to me. I laughed. Oh, how I laughed and laughed. It was a simpler time.
Now this was quite exciting. There was color! There was a GUI! AND. There were games. I’d played games before at school – there was Odell Lake and a few other things I can’t remember, though I don’t think I came to Oregon Trail until a while later – but these games were complicated and colorful and weird and had involved stories and were so, so exciting. I should note at this point that I never had a game console or indeed a TV – growing up, though I did hang out with friends who did. But I never played. Until the computer.
This is the other thing you have to understand. For me, digital technology is about friends, about work, about connection, about entertainment, about research, about sex, about identity, about fandom, about politics, about all the stuff that it’s about for most people in various different combinations. But for me what it’s really about, besides words, is play. Play came before the words. In fact, if I’m being honest, play is part of what made the words themselves possible.
These weren’t just pixels. These were worlds. I’d spent years creating other universes in my head; now here they were in front of me, and so what if they were small and grainy and at best rendered in 256 colors? For a lot of kids my age it was no big deal. For me it was a revelation, and I had no idea – sitting there and playing the demo of a knockoff Star Trek game with a keyboard and trackball – the degree to which it would shape my life for decades after.
What really changed everything, I think, was Myst.
A lot of people don’t remember Myst anymore. Which is strange, because when it was released it was hailed as a new chapter in computer games, something that would forever alter what we thought was possible in the genre(s) and what could be done with the medium. Myst’s genre – point-and-click adventure – hasn’t died, but it’s definitely become a niche genre rather than the juggernaut that people were predicting. Nevertheless, for me it really was that kind of watershed moment.
Myst looks incredibly dated now – its pre-rendered background screens are static for the most part and clumsy to the eye. What movement there is consists of grainy in-screen Quicktime films. Yet it was amazing to me, a game that was fundamentally about an atmosphere and a sense of place, a space in which the entire point was to explore. It was also a safe space, where death was impossible, that nevertheless contained a definite sense of unease. It was made to feel open but was actually quite linear, plotted out beforehand, though there were several possible endings. One of them, the “best” one, led to the player being given Myst island and the freedom to return to it whenever they wanted. After I finished the game, I found myself booting it up many times after, simply to wander around and be in that place.
I think it was that open space that made me realize that I could create within it. I could fill this digital space with my own stories. A lot of people have regarded video/computer games as things that have made an entire generation imaginatively lazy; for me it was an explosion of imagination. These were tools that I could make use of, an imaginative space that I could use as raw material for the creation of my own fictions. Much later came consoles, came Half Life and Portal and Enslaved and Journey and The Lastof Us and Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line and The Walking Dead (point-and-click, appropriately), but I owe my entry into that world to a little pre-rendered window on my dad’s Apple IIci and a few crappy minutes of live-action footage.
But the last piece slotting into place was the internet.
I think I first recall using the internet with – as usual – the assistance of my father, who had gotten a home connection for work – like so many of us, the sound of a dial-up connection stirs deep memories in me. I didn’t immediately discover actual real-time interaction with other human beings until a good bit later, though I was vaguely aware of chatrooms. What I discovered was fandom – mostly fan sites for movies and TV that I loved (by then I had regular access to television), most particularly Star Wars and later on The X Files.
Star Wars was my first experience of fanfiction – in middle school – and I distinctly remember being confused about whether or not these works of fiction were actually canon in some way. What I first came upon was – of course – fairly sexually explicit, and I remember being both intrigued and vaguely troubled by that. But I was hooked. I soon gained an understanding of what exactly I was seeing and devoured whatever I could find. It was yet another moment of revelation. People could write fiction about the stuff they loved and share it with others. Not authors but just people.
People like me. And at last, a method of writing that for years had been awkward and painful was no longer an obstacle.
Right around this time I met someone who would remain my closest friend all through high school, though we later had a falling-out from which we haven’t recovered. She had AOL, and it was there that I discovered AIM, other fans, other friends who I had never met and might never meet, but as a weird, lonely kid in school, the sudden ability to make contact with a world of other people like me was intensely liberating.
At this person’s house were also yet more games – Zork Nemesis, Zork: Grand Inquisitor, and some of my first exposure to shooters in the forms of Rainbow Six, Quake and Soldier of Fortune. This was something else: games could be violent, and that wasn’t frightening to me but rather massively exciting (I had seen games like Mortal Kombat and Doom, but had only had limited contact with them). I now realize that, among other things, I was very angry during that time; here was an outlet for that anger.
High school was marked by an even deeper immersion into fandom and the friends I found there, partly as a result of the emotional difficulties I had in a transition from a small private middle school to a public high school that contained, as I recall, about a thousand students to a class. Life was not fun. Fantasy was an escape, and while I had made some clumsy attempts at fanfiction before, now I took to it with a kind of desperation. I could write things, and other people would like them. There was instant ego-propping-up-of. I think my parents were troubled by this – we now had a fancy new iMac and I was spending a huge amount of time on it – but at the time I insisted that I needed what I was getting from it and I maintain that that was largely true. It wasn’t indulgence; it was a survival mechanism. Digital technology, at that point, was a lifeline.
It was also play with identity in a sense that I had never done before. I discovered fandom roleplay, a perfect analog to the pretending I had done as a child. I could write and perform in digital space as other people. I could lose myself in that, try on different things, see how well they fit with my understanding of who my adolescent self was becoming.
I met my now-husband through the internet, via a comment on a message board about looking for other local fans of a band I was into. He contacted me. We became friends, and then more than friends.
Then the internet went away for a while.
After high school I “took a year off”, which turned into two years, which turned into relative poverty and a string of awful retail and temp jobs. During that time, I had an old PowerMac in my one-room apartment, but I had no connection to what I had come to understand as the larger outside world, and it was deeply isolating. After a year or so of this, I managed to get a cheap dial-up line, and that was better. Two years or so after moving out of my parents’ house I finally started college, which gave me access to on-campus computers and a faster internet connection – now I had LiveJournal and AIM and fandom again, and it was a profound relief, a sense of recovering a deep part of myself that I had lost for a while.
Right around this time, I also (finally) got a cell phone, a dinky little flip phone that I probably still have in a drawer somewhere. I could dial a number and that was it. But it was still a remarkable feeling, being able to call someone at any time, anywhere I wanted.
(You might notice that I haven’t said much about cell phones in this piece and I don’t intend to; they’ve never played that big a role for me in terms of forming who I am or shaping my day-to-day existence. I’ve never owned a smartphone and I still don’t. My experiences with digital technology have been almost entirely focused around desktop computers, laptops, and now tablets.)
This is the thing about me and digital technology, which I think holds true for so many of us: What too many people still talk about – and what I think my parents saw then – as disconnection was, for me, connection of the most profound kind. Yes, it was all a sort of escapism, but it was also a tether to the things that made life emotionally bearable. That’s no longer as true – I don’t need everything I find here to stay sane – but it’s still where I’m creative, where I make friends, where I play. It’s so much a part of who I am as a person, of how I understand myself, that I can’t imagine myself apart from it. I wouldn’t want to.
This makes me realize something else about the people who talk about digital technology in terms of disconnection and who puff themselves up about eschewing it: Access to it is a privilege, but being able to choose to push it aside is a kind of privilege too. It denies the experiences of those of us who really benefit from it, for whom it represents liberation. Those of us who are socially awkward, queer in deeply queer-unfriendly spaces, disabled, isolated, questioning everything we are, questioning everything period.
It can’t mean the same thing to every person. This is what it’s meant for me.
A quick recap: in these posts I’m attempting to establish some kind of loose theoretical framework for approaching the sexual aspects of “drones” as a concept rather than a specific technology, an enmeshing of surveillance, power, intimacy, and blurred boundaries. It’s that last that I want to close with, because when you combine technology and sex, something interesting always happens. And it’s no accident that the combination of technology and sexuality isn’t a rarity in contemporary society, or even in history.
In the last post I posited that the sexual power of droneness – and droningas defined on this blog by Robin James – is in fact gendered, because sexual power itself is gendered. Power exchange shifts its meaning depending on the assortment of different gender identities involved. I should note here that I’m treating this as more of a binary than I’m strictly comfortable with, and in future I hope this framework can be expanded to allow for a better approach to the diversity of gender, because I think there’s some fascinating stuff going on there.
But in fact, I do want to focus on transgression and gender, as well as transgression and bodies, because that’s where a consideration of sexualized technology invariably leads.
Recall in the previous post I briefly discussed the different meanings of a woman being subject to the penetrative surveillance of a drone versus a man being subject to the same. I also noted that in my own fiction writing on sex and drones, my attempt to render my drones genderless failed; I perceive them as masculine in nature, and I suspect that aspect of penetration has a lot to do with my inability to shake the idea. I think the fact that we often gender much of our technology in a masculine way also probably plays a role.
One of the things this opens up for me is the idea of a man under the sexualized surveillance of a drone as possessing connotations of queer sexuality. If the gaze of a drone is penetrative, a man subject to that gaze is being penetrated. He is rendered submissive and laid bare not only physically but internally, psychologically. So again, although I’m approaching this in a fairly binary sense, there’s no reason why it must or should be that way. Drone sexuality is generally heteronormative, given that it’s grounded in the problematic sexual power relations of a sexist rape culture, but it also contains the potential for being queered, and that potential might be powerfully subversive.
But we don’t gender all of our technology as masculine, and in fact when we make our technology feminine there are often deep-seated reasons for doing so. It can be argued that Siri, as an application devoted to the purpose of service and the anticipation of needs, has also been constructed with elements of sexist sexuality. As Jenny Davis put it:
The personification, feminization, and sexualization of Siri become especially problematic when coupled with the subservient role that Siri plays. As noted in the official description copied above, Siri knows what you say, knows what you mean, and is ready to be used in “more and more ways.” This is blatant in its sexism, objectification, and overall misogyny.
I think one has to draw connections here between this phenomenon and the long science fictional history of sexualized cyborgs and robots (sometimes popularly termed “sexbots”) that are given servile and/or sexually servile natures. Robots and cyborgs are of course also rendered masculine in science fiction, but the trope of the female/feminine sexual android is an interestingly common one (for a fantastic take on this that also gets a bit more nuanced in terms of gender, see A.C. Wise’s “The Last Survivor of the Great Sexbot Revolution”). I’ve written before about our persistent folklore of human creators falling in love with their mechanical creations, granting them human characteristics that, in the end, only comfortingly reify the dividing line between human and non-human.
But I also want to distinguish between something fully mechanical/non-organic and a cyborg as a transgressive enmeshing of organic and mechanical, because I think something particular is going on when cyborgs are sexualized. Transgression is erotic in itself, often powerfully so, and we tend to construct the blurring of the line between human and non-human as strongly taboo. Like all sexual taboos, we feel ambivalent toward it, experiencing fear and revulsion at the same time as we’re fascinated and deeply attracted by the idea. The art of H.R. Giger blends human, machine, sex, and horror into images of dark eroticism. In David Cronenberg’s Crash, the experience of bodies pierced and mutilated by technology is made transgressively erotic. He does the same in a slightly different way in Videodrome when the protagonist engages in sexual acts with his en-fleshed TV and later becomes a literal fleshly receptacle for a likewise organic videotape. To continue the Cronenberg theme, his son Brandon’s Antiviral explores the idea of people finding emotionally intense intimacy with their favorite celebrities by being injected with their diseases.
So cyborgian transgressiveness is exactly why we find it so sexy. A sexualized cyborg is at once submissive and potentially dominant, alluring and threatening, subservient and powerful. It is both actual and specific, and abstract and conceptual.
This is where we come back to drones.
Like the sexualized cyborg, a sexualized drone is transgressive, and that transgressiveness is erotic. A drone is not literally an enmeshing of organic and mechanical in the way that a cyborg is, but in terms of power, that’s exactly what it is. Although we tend to understand drones in a way that obscures the presence of a human operator, some part of us is aware that the human is still there, their control and surveillance melding with the godlike, inhuman watchfulness of the machine. A drone is also dehumanized state power mingling with abstract technological power, not that the lines between those two are clear at all; indeed, they’re connected at the root. If a drone is, in Adam Rothstein’s words, “a cultural node–a collection of thoughts, feelings, isolated facts, and nebulous paranoias”, then it contains the potential to do violence to accepted boundaries. There’s really no way for that to not be sexual.
In this sense, drones are cyborgian. But drones are not sexbots. Drones are not subservient in the same way that sexbots are. Drones are nodes for the exercise of social power. However, that’s not to say that drones aren’t subservient at all, because we can’t forget about the operator(s). Drones are still created and controlled things, and in that sense there’s the potential for the same sexualized relationship that we have with all of our power-laden technologies. Drones are locked in a powerfully intimate relationship with their operators, eyes and hands through which operators do literal and figurative violence to human bodies and watch the aftermath. We even see the same fear that we see in all our tech folklore, of the resistance and rebellion of created things. We talk about drones “going rogue”, and we’re all very uncomfortable about the idea of combat drones becoming autonomous, even though I think most of us regard it as pretty much inevitable. It’s clearly a short step from that to Skynet levels of self-awareness.
This is all to say that we shouldn’t just understand drone sexuality in terms of power – though I’d argue that that’s probably the most important component – but in terms of transgression, and the two are profoundly linked. Drone sexuality is both perverse and normative. It’s both dominant and submissive, consensual and nonconsensual. It’s both distant and deeply intimate. It’s both frightening and arousing, and in fact is arousing because it’s frighting. Drone sexuality is about both the maintenance of boundaries and their collapse. In that sense, it’s part and parcel of everything we understand sex to be, and it’s also not new. What I argue is new about it is the arrangement of its components and their manifestation. I think drone sexuality has the potential to alter the way we think about sex, what we do with sex, what sex does to us, and how its power works.
Again, I realize that there are a lot of ideas here that aren’t anywhere near adequately explored, and a lot that has yet to be teased out. I’m hopeful that this can serve as a beginning that might lead to a larger discussion. Anyway, sex is fun to talk about, regardless. Let’s do it.
One of the things about writing with as little possible between your head and your fingers is that things come out that you don’t consciously intend and that you don’t understand until much later. I believe it’s one of the parts of the process that causes some writers to say those (in my opinion kind of ridiculous) things about how they don’t so much create their writing as discover it. But everything we write means something, and it does come from some part of us that puts it all together and spits it out.
We—the dronesexual, the recently defined, though we only call ourselves this name to ourselves and only ever with the deepest irony—we’re never sure whether the humming is pleasure or whether it’s a form of transmission, but we also don’t really care…There are no dronesexual support groups. We don’t have conferences. There is no established discourse around who we are and what we do. No one writes about us but us, not yet.
What I said in the email was that I honestly wasn’t sure at the time where that came from or what it meant – it was merely the best word that I could find for what I was trying to talk about. Later – much later, really not until I was asked about it – I started thinking about what its actual meaning might be and what some of the implications of it potentially were.
The thing about “I Tell Thee All” is that, at least for me, it’s not really about relationships. I’m reluctant to tell anyone that their reading of anything I’ve ever written is incorrect, because I love it when stories can encompass a variety of readings that may or may not be intended by the author. If someone sees something, then for all intents and purposes it’s there. But a lot of people seem to have interpreted that story as being about romantic relationships, and when I was writing it, relationships really were not the point for me. The point was what happens to sexuality in a surveillance state. If one of the major elements of sex for us is a kind of Foucauldian self-knowledge that exists as a function and a reproduction of power, then what happens when our ways of knowing change? What happens when being known isn’t the task of human beings but of machines?
And what happens when the line between the two breaks down – or is revealed to have always been blurry?
One of the things that we often see in dystopian fiction – at least, in dystopian fiction that deals with a god-like, usually fascist state – is the idea of sex-as-resistence. Sex is presented as something unregulated and unregulateable, at least when sex is the result of the personal desires of the protagonists. It’s not uncommon in older dystopian fiction to see sex made into a kind of state-mandated “mating” solely for the purpose of social control and reproduction, but that almost always exists to contrast with the kind of revolutionary sex engaged in by the heroes (or rather, the hero and the woman who just can’t keep her hands off him, because of course it’s always a man wearing the hero-pants).
But something you see less often is a story that deals directly with power – at least state power – and the eroticism of being known.
I’ve written about this before, the erotic aspects of the Gaze, the ways in which the predatory nature of being seen drifts into the territory of possessive sexuality. There’s an intimacy in being known, and – again, to reference Foucault on a basic level – we often assume that anyone who fucks us gets to know something about us, at least when the fucking is coupled with emotional intimacy and connection. Someone really knowing us is sort of supposed to make us want to have sex with them. When someone has sex with us, they know us. This is naturally a massive oversimplification, but these are powerful ideas that underpin not only how we tend to conceive of sexuality but what kinds of sexuality we tend to identify as desirable and appropriate.
Drones have become a symbol of contemporary surveillance, a thing that’s always there and always watching and always potentially capable of doing harm. Sometimes this harm is through direct violence, and sometimes it’s merely the delivery of data to people who can use it against you. But either way, there are two aspects to the erotic power of drones, and they’re interrelated: Being known, and being controlled.
So, where the gaze regulates people by fixing them as objects (as, for example, Frantz Fanon argues the exclamation “Look, a Negro!” does), droning regulates people by creating the conditions that lead them to exhibit the wrong (or right) sort of profile, the sort of profile that puts you on watch lists, that disqualifies you for “discounted” credit, health insurance plans, etc…The gaze and the drone are absolutely not opposed or mutually exclusive; more often than not, they’re deeply and complexly implicated in one another. That’s why super-panoptic surveillance is above or on top of regular old visual panopticism; it’s an additional layer, not a replacement.
What I think that characterization requires me to talk about here is the kind of power exchange that we find in BDSM and other forms of kink, which get their sexual power from the eroticism of surrender and dominance, laying yourself bare to someone else and putting your body under their control, for them to give pain or pleasure or merely orders that have to be obeyed. There are many, many kinds of kink, of course, and this is another oversimplification, but I think for a lot of people, this serves as much of the underpinning. Surrendering to someone else sexually is itself incredibly erotic, and even if one isn’t truly known or truly controlled, the pretense of it is powerful.
Transferring this kind of sexual power to a state may be a bit of a stretch. But I don’t think we always explicitly identify the surveillant power of drones specifically with a state. I think that drones are both vaguer and more flexible than that, and for me the idea of droneness is something that isn’t reliant on a state for its existence. A drone itself is a manifestation of and a symbol for potentially any and all forms of surveillance, power, violence, control.
One of the things that makes a connection to BDSM (where consent and safety are held up as something like law) problematic is that this kind of sexual power is highly problematic: consent is questionable, and indeed assumed to be absent. Very few of us consent willingly to being surveilled. Very few of us actually want to be known in that way, much less controlled. But drone sexuality exists in the context of rape culture, where the lack of consent is itself eroticised. Violence is eroticised. As I wrote in the post linked above:
There’s also something darkly erotic about even the most violent kinds of death, penetrative in the most final possible way, a Gaze that figuratively dismembers becoming lethally and horrifyingly reified in exploded flesh.
The Gaze of a drone is penetrative, because all Gazes are fundamentally penetrative. Sexual violence is gendered: the aggressive performance of violence is masculine performance, and suffering the consequences of violence is constructed as a feminine act. Likewise, traditional forms of sexual power and control. Cisgendered men are powerful; women are weak and submissive. Men watch; women are available for the watching.
So drone sexuality itself is gendered through the processes attached to it. That suggests something else: that drones themselves are gendered. When I wrote my sexual drones, I tried to write them as genderless, and the attraction to them as something that transcended sexual and gender identities. But I don’t think I succeeded. My drones feel masculine to me. This probably reveals just as much about me as it does about how we construct sexuality, but either way.
So can we fetishize surveillance and its associated control? Are we doing it already?
Next week I’ll go into these questions in more depth, as well as attempt to explore the transgressiveness of drone sexuality and the ways in which it compares to other instances of sexualized technology in the stories we tell.
One of the most interesting things to watch in the usage trajectory of any form of technology are the ways in which it’s used that no one really anticipated, but that seem perfectly sensible and obvious after the fact. One of those that I actually found out about only this week – really, I should have known about it before – is Ingress, a game played on mobile phones that sorta kinda comes from Google, and whose players are intense enough about it that one of them flew to a remote location in Alaska in arguably dangerous conditions in order to complete a game task.
Essentially, Ingress is a game of augmented strategic geography. Players of two factions compete to “claim” locations and sections of land all over the globe, creating triangular links. The premise in terms of the game mechanics is relatively simple, but the game’s narrative is where things start to get complicated:
The game mixes the real world with science fiction. The player factions, the Enlightened and the Resistance, are more or less at war. More recently, they’ve been working at cross purposes to unite the shards of a broken man named Jarvis, ferrying these digital treasures around the world, to either unite them for one faction in San Francisco on December 14, if the other faction can’t unite the majority of them on that same day in Buenos Aires.
Again, one of the things that’s remarkable about the game are the lengths to which its players are willing to go in order to play, and the degree to which they become engrossed in the game’s world. It’s entirely possible that they would do so without a complex storyline in which the stakes are incredibly high, but I’d argue that it’s much less likely. Basically, what Ingress represents is an example of a technology being used in a way that was not explicitly predicted by its initial designers – though other designers came along and made use of existing affordances of possible design – and being given its power to engage through participation in an interactive narrative.
So one of the things I’m primarily talking about here is those affordances, and how they shape use in some unexpected ways. And also how important creative storytelling seems to be in a lot of these cases.
It’s useful at this point to think of affordances in two separate ways: designed affordances, or those affordances intended by the designer, and perceived affordances, or those possibilities for use identified by a user. There’s going to necessarily be some overlap here, but not always, and I want to talk about these things as largely mutually exclusive. Someone designs something according to an intended use, and a user comes along and does something else with it.
Again, Ingress isn’t a totally perfect example, because what we have here are designers building on top of existing design. But ten or fifteen years ago, this still would have been a fairly radical departure from the understood use of a cell phone. The designers of Ingress perceived affordances for their own design and took advantage of it. And they stuck a story in there, because people like stories.
People also want to tell stories. It’s a cognitive compulsion, a primary feature of how our brains work. We literally can’t exist as self-aware human beings in the way that we do in the absence of narrative, which is one of the reasons why studies of narrative often serve as places where literary theory and cognitive science intersect. Give us a technology and we’ll figure out a way to make narrative use of it, even if it’s only in the most individual terms, even if our perceived affordances in doing so are hugely different from the existing designed affordances.
This is where it’s appropriate to talk about fandom. Specifically, fandom roleplaying.
For those who don’t know, fandom roleplaying – “RPing” – is when participants in fandom take on the roles of pre-existing characters and play out interactions with other characters. These interactions are sometimes written out as conventional narratives – as found in traditionally written fiction – and sometimes as direct dialogue punctuated with brief descriptions of action (sometimes between asterisks). Plotlines can be simple or fabulously complex, with rich interpersonal relationships that include long played histories. “Games” can sometimes continue for years; one with which I used to be involved is almost a decade old.
The online media in which RP appears is diverse, though for a long time I was only aware of the “threaded” format found on LiveJournal, Dreamwidth, and similar sites. But there’s RP everywhere. There is RP on Tumblr. There is RP on Facebook. There is RP on Twitter. There is RP anywhere that fandom can possibly make the logistics work. There is even – and this is the one that blew my mind and to which I want to call special attention – RP on Goodreads.
Goodreads wasn’t designed for RP. But the affordances are there.
This is not to directly link affordances and narrative in every case – obviously these categories are much too broad for that to work. It’s just to highlight the ways in which human beings appear willing take advantage of just about any and every chance to work narrative into the use of technology. Affordances are, by definition, elements of use that reveal human creativity, and storytelling is a fundamental part of that.
So really, I shouldn’t have been so surprised to see RP on Goodreads. I still don’t get it, but I should have expected it. Nothing would be more “natural”, to the extent that we want to use that word at all.
One of those interesting moments where my writerly/SFnal life and my academic life collide happened yesterday with the announcement/demo of Prime Air, Amazon’s new (planned) product delivery venture that will make use of package-toting autonomous octocopters to get your stuff to you within thirty minutes.
I don’t think this really comes as a shock to anyone. Popular discussion about “drones” is still mostly dominated by Predators and Reapers and the potential for fully autonomous combat drones, aerial vehicles with the ability to make on the spot “kill decisions” without guidance from human operators. But domestic – and private and commercial – use is starting to become more of a factor as well. Drones already have a variety of uses, from ecological research to domestic policing to search-and-rescue, and the idea that they have practical commercial applications of all kinds should no longer be strange to most of us. This isn’t a new thing; rather, it’s simply another step down a road we’ve been on for a while now, and which we probably won’t get off of anytime soon.
Many others have already posed and begun to discuss the most immediately relevant issues here, a significant number of which still have to be solved: How will the FAA deal with this, in terms of regulation? What about the law enforcement issues when goods can no longer be surveilled through the postal service? How will Amazon prevent delivery drones from being hacked or simply shot down? What about liability issues? What happens when the first package gets dropped on someone’s head, or the first drone crashes through a bedroom window? Because you know that’s going to happen.
‘I give this book one star because the drone landed on my cat.’
All of these are very real concerns, and they’re concerns that Amazon is going to have to deal with. Interestingly – but not at all surprisingly – Amazon doesn’t seem to want to discuss the specifics of these concerns yet, and in fact their jaunty little announcement page is remarkably free of detail. That makes a lot of sense, firstly because a company isn’t going to want to sour their big dramatic reveal by listing all the things that stand in the way of actually making it happen, and secondly because it’s early days and I would be very surprised if Amazon has solutions to most of these problems yet, though they probably have some ideas.
But in fact, I’d argue that Amazon’s cheerful lack of specificity is important for another reason, that has to do with the biggest implication of this entire idea. And it is that Amazon did it the way they did it at all.
A while back, I wrote about another Amazon venture called Kindle Worlds, which was essentially a program for monetizing fandom by collecting the licenses for intellectual properties and allowing fans to legally sell fanfiction based on them. I had a number of problems with Kindle Worlds, but probably the biggest one, the one that underpinned everything else, was that it was Amazon. It was a monster of publishing and retail, a terrifying behemoth striding the land and devouring everything in its path (I know, I know, but seriously though). One of the things that goes along with being a powerful organization is that you get to exercise a lot of influence over discourse – even more, over what people regard as possible and appropriate. You get to set the terms under which people compete. You get to set the rules of the game, simply by declaring that these are the rules now. Amazon has done this with technology before; they aren’t solely responsible for the rise of digital publishing, but they’ve played a massive role, and they were able to do this in part because they decided that the world was going to work this way.
That doesn’t mean that Amazon is some kind of omnipotent retail Illuminati. Amazon can fail, or at least not be as successful as they hope. I haven’t seen much about Kindle Worlds since it launched, and its list of licenses is still pretty spare, though it’s certainly still around. But as I said at the time, that wasn’t even the point. Other attempts to monetize fandom had failed before and it was reasonable to suppose Kindle Worlds might as well. The point was that the giant that is Amazon explicitly decided that fanfiction was a reasonable and desirable thing to sell, thereby making it much easier for everyone else to see it that way.
Amazon isn’t talking about using delivery drones as if it’s a thing they’re considering or a thing that’s possible or a thing that might happen. Amazon is saying, in effect, “We are going to do this. The problems will be taken care of. It will happen.” They have a timetable, despite how optimistic it might be (probably very). They’re setting the terms. They’re placing themselves out in front of a huge amount of change, regulatory, legal, practical, and conceptual. If – when – Amazon drones start flying, other retail companies are going to have to decide how to respond. And that’s not even going into what it will mean for individuals and governmental authorities.
The history of technology and social change is incredibly complex, usually much more so than the narratives that surround it, but just as much as change occurs in small increments of practical discovery and adoption, it occurs when powerful people start talking about a possibility as if it were certain. Then it becomes certain. Social change and discursive change go hand in hand. That’s what Amazon is doing here, and that’s what has the potential to be most immediately powerful.
Sarah speaks with great certainty about unlikely things on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.