Agrippa, the Eversion of Cyberspace, and Games

The Oxonian Review has just published today an interview with Kevin Begos, the publisher behind the experimental multimedia artist’s book and transmedia happening, Agrippa (1992). Agrippa the work included at its center a poem, “Agrippa,” by William Gibson, which appeared ten years after Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.” The poem was found on a floppy disk physically embedded in the book, and the text of the poem famously encrypted itself as it was read, disappearing as it scrolled down the screen for the first and last time.

(from The Agrippa Files)

Except that the text of the poem was very quickly released into the wild, out on the Internet, and remains available in various versions to this day, as documented and thoroughly analyzed by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his brilliant book, Mechanisms (the book takes its title from Gibson’s poem), and on The Agrippa Files website on which he collaborated with Alan Liu and others, a good example of what Peter Shillingsburg has called a “knowledge site,” a kind of collaborative, multimedia archive of the larger work that is Agrippa.

Back in the 1990s, the work was represented by many as a paradigmatic example of the immaterial, disembodied nature of the network and its hacker elite–a text that appeared to literally dissolve into thin air! It took Kirschenbaum’s forensic and materialist textual analysis to reveal that it was actually something very different, a prime example of multiply material textuality in the digital age.

I would add that Agrippa as a work–digital poem, physical book including artwork, performance and “transmission,” afterlife on the Internet–is the far-flung network it spawned, something like a distributed game of meaning, a view that would seem to be supported by remarks made by Begos and his interviewer, Courtney Traub, in today’s piece.

Begos: . . . I doubt that there would be any publisher ready to experiment with such innovation, which tends to be driven by artists and designers rather than the companies themselves.

I would contrast this to the enormous investment that online game makers have made. It’s come out of virtually nowhere to become this multibillion-dollar world market. Hypercompetitive but constantly evolving—there’s this incredible competition to make games more realistic and more experimental, and it’s attracting a lot of creative people.

Traub: I think many people might argue that much of the true narrative experimentation is taking place in the games realm. The experimentation people thought would be happening with books is going on more in gaming.

Begos: I think that’s completely true. That’s where the real developments are taking place and legitimate breakthroughs in terms of how people interact with artwork and with each other. They’ve built platforms that will evolve.

One way to further our understanding of Agrippa now, I’d suggest, would be to compare it to games, and especially trans-platform games such as ARGs, which deliberately play with the interpenetration of digital data and physical objects and spaces. Kirschenbaum recently suggested on Twitter that Agrippa anticipated the New Aesthetic. I’d argue that it’s an early harbinger by the inventor of cyberspace of the eversion of the network, its transformation out into the mixed-reality experienced most effectively and widely embodied today in games. Agrippa appeared in 1992, ten years after “Burning Chrome” introduced the term “cyberspace.” But The Agrippa Files, and thus the involvement of the new Digital Humanities with this mixed-reality artifact, went online in December 2005–a crucial moment when, as Gibson was just then on the verge of saying in print, the network was everting. The timeline is meaningful, and the connections between Agrippa, the new Digital Humanities, the eversion of cyberspace, and games, are richly suggestive, as I’m beginning to see.

Platformers and Dimensionality

Braid and other platformer games with which it shares a family relation are obviously about movement through gamespace, left to right, mostly, jumping or climbing up and down. The fact that 2D side-scrolling gameworlds have in some cases been supplanted by 3D versions and in other cases have been crossed with them, making strange hybrids, suggests that the whole genre has continued to be about exploring the dimensionality. The Mario franchise embodies the whole history of this exploration, from Donkey Kong to Super Mario 64 to Super Mario Galaxy. Super Paper Mario famously built in the ability to toggle between dimensions–the player can switch from 2D to 3D views for brief periods, literally adding perspective on puzzles–and Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 made sandbox puzzles out of planetoids, each of which is a (game)world of its own with sometimes weird physics to deal with. Yes, the preoccupation of indie art games with 2D side-scrolling platformers is in part about employing a knowing, lo-fi, retro aesthetic, and is in part about what’s practical or even doable by a single person or small team on a limited budget; either way, it’s about making a virtue of the necessities. But I think it’s also often an attempt–especially true in the case of Braid–to return to foundational questions about gameworlds, starting with the question of what happens when you add a dimension (literally) to the gameworld, or are aware of multiple dimensions as possibilities for gameplay.

This question is obviously what lies behind the design of Marc ten Bosch’s promised Miegakure, which has only been seen in preview glimpses. It’s an art game about adding a 4th physical dimension (Braid toys with some 2D vs. 3D spatial elements but most centrally plays with the dimension of time).

What strikes me about Miegakure is how its multidimensionality is narratively or figuratively structured: as the irruption of one dimension into another. The player swaps between dimensions, yes, but especially in order to cause a block or other object to protrude into a dimension where it was previously invisible or inaccessible. Warps, wormholes, cracks in the fabric separating one dimension from another, are where strategy unfolds and the key moves are made. (In this respect, Portal is a related experiment, and so is  Super Paper Mario, not to mention another indie art game, Fez.) In other words, gameplay in Miegakure–and in many related platformers–is about negotiating the extrusions and eversions between dimensions.

In this context, the plaformer as a genre explores some of the same metaphorical territory as novels such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or Pynchon’s Remains of the Day, or Murakami’s 1Q84, or traditional SF works such as Flatland and, most significantly, H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction, with its eldritch horrors from another dimension, “from beyond,” that are only partly glimpsed when they break through briefly and extrude themselves into everyday reality: “. . . strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers,” one character declares, then reports, “I felt the huge animate things brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting though buy supposedly solid body.” And passages like the following one really resonate in our current media climate, which includes the New Aesthetic, or the spooky live performance at Coachella by Tupac’s weird Idoru hologram:

“Suddenly I myself became possessed of a kind of augmented sight. Over and      above the luminous and shadowy chaos arose a picture which, though vague, held the elements of consistency and permanence. It was indeed somewhat familiar, for the unusual part was superimposed upon the usual terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre. . . . I saw to my horror that they overlapped . . . . the newly visible world that lies unseen around us”   (H. P. Lovecraft, From Beyond).

In his digital humanities work on visualizing the discourse of TV Tropes, Elijah Meeks associates this Lovecraftian uncanny, this breaking-through from a parallel dimension, with “the weird geometry of the Internet.” I can’t help but see Lovecraftian dimensionality as a figure for the general eversion of the network, which as Gibson has said, is “leaking out into the world,” especially via mixed-reality or augmented reality experiments, which, to use Lovecraft’s terms, superimpose digital realities–a “newly visible world that lies unseen around us”-on “the terrestrial scene,” suggesting that a weird geometry connects them at points of overlapping layers, extrusions, places where the unseen turns inside out and reveals itself as a potential layer of experience.

Anyway, it seems reasonable to speculate that art games’ fascination with platformers may have something to do with the possibility of exploring this kind of multidimensionality (and the eversion itself) in a procedural, playable way.

Signs of the Eversion II: the New Aesthetic

If QR codes are the crudest and most obvious signs of the eversion (except maybe those tall, fabric teardrop banners standing on a sidewalk that seemed designed to look like flags in Google Maps), there are subtler signs everywhere, increasingly. One group of designers and artists and others looking for these signs goes under the umbrella of the New Aesthetic. In a recent essay on a panel presentation by some of these folks at South By Southwest 2012, Bruce Sterling both praises the potential and critiques the limitations of what he accurately calls the design fiction of this movement or aesthetic, and especially as represented in James Bridle, whom Sterling calls “the master of the salon.” Sterling is particularly targeting their incipient obsession with AI implied in their interest in how machines see the world, and the nostalgia of 8-bit imagery, and the general sense that so far the movement has collected an under-curated “heap of eye-catching curiosities.” But what I like about the ongoing collection and Bridle in particular is the engaged curiosity that sees everywhere signs of “something coming into being,” as artists and designers give “the real world the grain of the virtual.” These two worlds, Bridle recognizes (in a fall 2011 talk I’m quoting here), were once contracted as separate but are now “eliding” everywhere you look, representing an “irruption of the digital into the physical world.”

It’s not all 8-bit or pixel art Bridle is noticing, but to me the examples that invoke game platforms are particularly suggestive, not because it’s how machines see the world, but because it’s how games have modeled it.

Signs of the Eversion: QR codes

QR codeIf the network is everting, turning mundane and imminent, there may be no better sign of the trend than the QR code. Mundane as can be, they currently serve mainly as “quick-response” gateways or portals between physical objects or places and the web. Mostly their use seems to be limited to advertising, taking people to the URL of a product or company. They became widespread shortly after smartphones gave large numbers of people a way to scan them wherever they were encountered. You see them in shop windows and on real-estate signs, on flyers for campus events or on badges at conferences. Often they’re just used as a kind of magical talisman of connectedness, or of the desire for connectedness. They say “This thing or place is networked,” or “data is here,” but often in the predictable, simplified form of opening an URL on your phone. Often their appearance and display betrays a general uncertainty surrounding their use, the vague suspicion that they’re nothing but a gimmick. Sometimes they’re given a graphical shadow so the cryptic square itself looks like an object, a large black and white stamp layered on the poster or print ad of which it’s a part. Sometimes you see them printed on an 8.5 X 11 inch sheet of paper with instructions added in large black type, just in case users are still unfamiliar with them: “Scan This With a Mobile Phone App.” Just printing the URL would be easier and save toner. Presumably at this stage the relative novelty of QR codes entices some people to try scanning them in situations where they’d never stop to type in or write down an URL. But if you think about it, the significance of all those QR codes seems worth thinking about. Even magic talismans–maybe especially when their practical uses are not quite clear–can have cultural significance. For example, just in terms of design, there’s something intriguing about the fact that QR codes go the bar code one dimension better with their matrix layout–and that they “encode” in more than one sense the idea that the network and its data are connected to the physical world and that those connections can be revealed by way of readily available, cheap and ubiquitous acts of dimensional translation.

Codename Revolution podcast (and a new project)

The MIT Press’s monthly podcast series featured our book Codename Revolution for February. Chris Gondek of Heron & Crane Productions interviewed my co-author, George Thiruvathukal, and me over the phone.  Chris was in an Oregon Public Broadcasting studio, I was in my English department office, and George was in the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities across campus, so there was something of a conference call feeling to the experience. (Once I was interviewed by Scott Simon for NPR; he was in D.C. and I was in a Chicago Public Radio studio, but there was at least a technician in the room with me.)  Despite that, the interview was fun, and Chris did a really good job of producing it to reflect the conversation we had in real time.

When I saw the link on the MIT Press podcast page I noticed we were preceded in January by B. Coleman. I took it as a sign, since I’m reading and enjoying her book, Hello Avatar, now as I research my own next book in progress:  The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. Coleman’s concept of  an “‘X-reality’ that traverses the virtual and the real” (3) is consonant with Katherine Hayles’s idea that mixed reality is the current, fourth stage in the history of cybernetics, and with William Gibson’s exploration in his most recent trilogy of the idea that cyberspace is everting, turning inside out and colonizing the physical world. I can’t help but notice that the recent rise of the digital humanities–at least its emergence into public consciousness and a new presence in the academy–has roughly coincided with this eversion of cyberspace, a shift in our collective understanding of the network: from a world apart to a part of the world, from a transcendent virtual reality to a ubiquitous grid of data that we move through every day. It’s not really a coincidence, I think. Digital humanities, in its newly prominent forms, is both a response to and a contributing cause of the wider eversion, and that’s the connection my book will explore.