Geek as Villain of Geek Culture

Looking around, I wondered why Halliday, who always claimed to have had a miserable childhood, had later become so nostalgic for it. I knew that if and when I finally escaped from the stacks, I’d never look back. And I definitely wouldn’t create a detailed simulation of the place. (103)

At the time of writing 51% of the 236038 ratings on Goodreads for Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One are five stars. Most commentaries on the novel are celebratory. I think it is one of the most condensed representations of contemporary hegemonic masculinity organised around geek/brogrammer culture. For those who have read it, think of the story and all the main characters. The ‘James Halliday’ character wasn’t the benevolent tech genius, entrepreneur and lovable anti-social geek, but is, in fact, the super-villain. His character is premised on the social norms for reproducing the kind of toxic masculinity that has come to characterise a number of recent fronts in the culture wars.

The novel is set in the near future and Halliday and his business partner Ogden Morrow create a kind of mash-up of Facebook and World of Warcraft virtual world called Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS). The plot of the novel is driven by an elaborate meta-game in OASIS created by Halliday as a Willy Wonka-style mechanism for handing over control of most of his estate. That is, whoever ‘wins’ this meta-game, thus proving their ultimate geek credentials, inherits ownership of OASIS. The meta-game requires players to have elaborate knowledge of mostly late-1970s and 1980s popular cultural texts. The ‘Halliday’ character hid the meta-game as a series of elaborate ‘easter eggs’ embedded in the structure of the larger OASIS universe. It is the ultimate geek fantasy, not that you are simply ‘better’ than the normative social and cultural ideal, but that the new normal is premised on (alleged) geek ideals.  As Nicholas Mizer explains:

The geeks of the story race through an “easter egg” hunt in the OASIS, the winner of which controls the fate of the virtual spaces it  contains. In this story, geek cultural spaces are all known and mapped, in a totalized version of the geek dilemma I have described [of too much popularity]. Rather than directly confronting the corporate “egg hunters” that want to re-shape the virtual world to their own ends, however, the protagonist always manages to stay one step ahead of them because his intense love of the cultural spaces has driven him deep below their surface. Here power comes not through simply inhabiting the spaces of geek culture, but through intensive familiarity with every aspect of those spaces. (24-25)

Mizer goes on to describe this as the cultural tactic of ‘digging down’ into the context of a cultural text (or practice or artefact) to such an extent that the ‘geek’ becomes completely immersed and is able to discover new qualities of the text worthy of their interest. Hence, the cultural logic of the ‘Easter Egg’ meta-game that Ready Player One is based on. 

Ironic Imagination

Mizer’s essay explores the “disorientation felt by geeks experiencing the new power dynamics of a post-revenge [of the nerds] geekdom” (4). That is, geek culture was traditionally understood to be subservient to other ‘dominant’ popular cultural formations. Mizer is working to develop an understanding of geek culture after its ‘revenge’, which is to say after it has become hegemonic. Key here is Patton Oswalt’s 2010 in Wired magazine “Wake up, Geek Culture. Time to Die“. Oswalt locates the cause of the problem squarely with the ‘Internet’:

There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans. And I’m not going to bore you with the step-by-step specifics of how it happened. In the timeline of the upheaval, part of the graph should be interrupted by the words the Internet. And now here we are. The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the ’80s, you couldn’t get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend.

Ready Player One is a response to the democratisation of geek culture. Cline presents every aspect of Halliday’s taste as worthy of valorisation through the gamified logic of the competition:

“Canon” was the term we used to classify any movie, book, game, song, or TV show of which Halliday was known to have been a fan.  (40)

Jim [Halliday] always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that. (122)

Cline operationalises the dual cultural logic of the ‘Easter egg’: that there is secret knowledge regarding a shared cultural object and what matters is who is knows and who does not know about this secret. Geek authenticity is therefore a performance of ‘knowingness’ about the shared cultural object (that may or may not exist, such as the case with spoilers and the like). The ‘Easter eggification’ of geek culture encourages a paranoid, reactionary mode of cultural consumption that is forever defensive about protecting the conditions of possibility for the ‘Easter egg’.

Aurora and Artificial Intelligence Narratives

Aurora is primarily set on an inter-solar generational starship. What makes the book worth reading (beyond the regular high quality science fiction drama) is KSR’s focus on the emergence of true AI. Fascinating to think about in this era where we seem to be on the cusp of the so-called Singularity, KSR’s approach to AI is relatively unique. The two main ways AI is represented in science fiction:

  • Logic AI: As a logic-based entity that often becomes monstrous when faced with human decisions, think HAL or The Machines from the Matrix. AI dramatises humanity’s transformation by its reliance on technology into something almost vulnerable.
  • Awareness AI: As an awareness-based entity that develops a (post-)human perspective or awareness of itself and the cosmos, Ava of ‘Ex Machina’, most of the AI’s from the Contact universe of Iain M Banks, or the ‘rogue’ AIs, such as Penny Royal, of Neal Asher’s Polity universe. This is the Pandora’s Box version of AI.

These are not clearly defined categories. Skynet would be a combination of both logic and awareness-based AI. The various forms of intelligence that emerge in the multiple Ghost in the Shell films and series would also be a combination too. The AIs in Jack McDevitt’s Academy series seem to be a combination  but it is less clear and AI ‘rights’ is a background social issue in the book series.

  • Narrative AI: KSR develops a third model of AI organised around the narrative. This narrative-based conception of AI has been read by some reviewers as a kind of cheap postmodernism. They read KSR’s representation of the artifacts and traces of the emergence of the narrative-based intelligence as kitsch. They should probably engage with more science fiction with AI characters.

In  Literacy in the New Media Age Gunther Kress (2003) explores the shift from media modes characterised by writing to modes characterised by images. He argues that writing is time-based and associated with narrative, the novel, and is ‘modernist’. Our visual and image-based culture is space-based, characterised by visuality. I often talk about the shift in representations of information with the ‘desktop’ or ‘icon’ based layout of a computer folder location a good example. Kress is critical of competence-based models of literacy premised on standards of expected engagement with different media modes.

What if this historical shift has resulted in readers of Aurora not actually appreciating the creative work that KSR is doing? The narrative mode of AI comes after the logic mode (where Ship is merely a tool for the running of the various systems) and is a constituent part of the awareness mode. KSR implicitly answers the question, why would a logic-based system develop self-awareness?

Ship realises that when something happens there is an infinite number of ways that this happening can be described. Ship is trained in some simple aspects of narratology by the character Devi. Devi pushes Ship to work on isolating the events from what happens in terms of what is important. Appreciating the appropriate ‘sense’ of events has been a key philosophical problem of the 20th Century and in the contemporary era of an over-abundance of information that we are encouraged to attend to makes this an everyday problem. Just how much about the world should we engage with? What matters?

Ship’s approach begins with logic, which it (she?) uses to explore questions of causal sequence and through which it develops schematic appreciations of life aboard itself. ‘Schematic’ in this context is meant in the Kantian sense, whereby Kant sketched out generalisable ‘schemas’ eg of Reason and Beauty. Ship eventually isolates rhythms and cyclical feedback and eventually feedforward loops. On the other hand, humans begin with affect and ‘instinct’, which we use to isolate aspects of our immediate and extend context as mattering.

Ship realises that even causal sequences can be infinite with an appropriate appreciation of what matters. The key moment in Aurora is when Ship moves from awareness to intervention. Ship has isolated what is important not only from the perspective of extracting a narrative from the infinite threads of what happens, but also from the perspective of what should be considered and cared for. Ship works to transcend not only the instinctual character of human motivation, but the schematic maps of the cycles of action and behaviour that are based on these motivations, which are called ‘enthusiasms‘ in the novel. Ship is fundamentally post-human not because of some mysterious ‘hand wavery’ intelligence, which is basically a rearticulation of the instinctual drives to represent the unknowable in terms of a  quasi-religious  mysticism using scientific discourse, but because it is able to map the structural implications of human motivational assemblages. It can peer over the edge of the human finitude and the envelope of received wisdom. Ship also comes to appreciate that if it does not intervene then it and all aboard itself shall perish. Narrative and the ‘next’ of narrative is therefore driven by life, which is the contradiction that Ship has to come to terms with. It has to encourage ‘life’ even though it is not a homoeostatic system.

Virilio and Vision of the Self-Projectile

[This is an extract from a lecture on “Pics or it didn’t happen”.]

For Virilio dromoscopy is the art of the dashboard, which “displays inanimate objects as if they were animated by a violent movement” (105) and becomes “in some ways a video game of speed” (111). (Here is a translation of one of Virilio’s ‘dromoscopy’ essays. That essay is similar, but different to the text I am referencing below which is the dromoscopy chapter of Virilio’s translated book Negative Horizons.)

Virilio uses the literal and metaphorical concept of a dashboard to think about how 20th century technologies of movement have changed relations of visibility. Central to this is the emergence of a privileged actor — the voyeur-voyager. The voyeur-voyager ceases to be transported or the subject of displacement and instead becomes the locus of arrival. The pure projection of the voyeur-voyager inverts the passivity of the cinematic apparatus to become the pure immobilization of ‘polar inertia’. Virilio writes:

“In the speed of the movement the voyeur-voyager finds himself in a situation that is contrary to the of the film viewer in the cinema, it is he who is projected, playing the role of both actor and spectator of the drama of the projection in the moment of the trajectory, his own end” (106).

The voyeur-voyager is enabled by the technology of the dashboard; the dashboard both frames the screen and provides an immediate array of informational content. What is the sensory and semantic information allowed through the constraint of the screen (passenger window)? It is a “stage [scéne] where the signs of the places travelled through move past in the mise en scene of changes in the scenery from the change in the rate of speed” (107). Speed and its maintenance throttles the arrival of sign-places upon the screen. The speed of the voyeur-voyager dissolves the distance to the horizon or destination (108-109, 111) and modifies the regulation of appearances (114-117). Virilio discusses both of these in a negative sense; the relations of perception to the outside are diminished by speed. What matter or is counted are the opportunities for insertion — the ‘entranceways’:

“With the excess of speed, vision [la vue] becomes progressively the way [la voie], the entranceways [la voie d’acces], to the point that daily life seems to have become an ‘optical watch’ where vision [la vue] replaces life [la vie], as if, in waiting in front of the audiovisual device, hoping that the dromovisual device will attain in its turn the instantaneity of ubiquity…” (116)

I want to push this fertile concept of the voyeur-voyager in a slightly different direction, one that retains Virilio’s preoccupation with violence and thinking about the self-directed voyeur-voyager but in the context of the project of the self in a networked context. We use multiple dashboards not only to track what is happening in the world through various feeds, but we also use them so as to mount a campaign of the self. Following Virilio’s logic, this project of the self becomes a self-projectile. There are at least two consequences of this.

The first consequence of this is that the play of appearance and disappearance is premised on the speed of insertion in the complex media ecologies of multiple dashboard-enabled perception-feeds. The art of the dashboard shifts from making inanimate objects appear as if they are animated by a violent movement to an example of what Virilio calls chronologistics. Chronologistics is the orchestrated logistical effort of producing and participating in a “montage of dromoscopic sequences” (119, 118). The presentation of the online self is a logistical art of not only display, but also timing. For those who have worked as social media communicators where you post and participate in a corporate or institutional ‘voice’ (posting for a brand or service, for example), you will know the art of tracking engagement and posting at various times during the day to maximise engagement.

The second consequence of the project of the self thought as self-projectile is that for the voyeur-voyagers there is no singular destination as such, but multiple loci of activity. Virilio prefigures this in what he calls the accident of dromoscopy: the “catastrophe of collision [telescopage] arises from the fact that the arrival seems to counter more and more frequently the departure” (114). Or put another way “the departure for the meeting has come to an end, it is replaced by the arrival of images on the screen” (115). The passive relation to this is the “wait for the coming of what abides: the trees file past on the screen of the windshield, the images that rise up on the television” (115). But there is an active relation, one that Virilio does not discuss; playing the role of actor and spectator, but instead of the the end (or telos) is replaced by the target (or skopos). To follow Virilio’s preoccupation with military metaphors, the dashboard becomes a targeting apparatus of the scope.

 

Drones in the Cloud: Attending to Snapchat

I don’t know enough about you
To be kind, to be kind to you
Don’t you even think about me
Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The Cymbals’ electro-pop lament of unrequited attention (‘love’) has the same furtively repetitive energetics of yearning through ‘refresh’. Refresh the inbox, refresh the stream, refresh the wall. Repeat. Has the person responded? “Here is my attention; take it.” The “I” of the song is a single contact in a series of contacts presented as the natural world (or ‘milieu’) belong to the song’s second-person “you”.[1. As this reviewer on Pitchfork described the track, it is a “witty, sweat-salty pop song about the peculiarities of media-drenched modern life”.]

The expectation of being attended to is held by the “you” but it is also shared by the “I”. Obviously, the expectation is not held in the same way. Two perspectives on the same expectation indicates a certain kind of power relation. Teachers and students are meant to share expectations of what will happen in a classroom, but they will have radically different perspectives. The flip-side to the alleged passivity of narcissism consists of the capacity to excite or agitate the world. ‘Agitate’ not in the sense of arguing — there is that too, however — but more in the sense of an ‘agitator’ sometimes used as part of the viticulture process in great wine baths to ensure that the elements in solution continue mixing (and fermenting and so on). What does this mean?

There is a labour of sharing that requires an intensive strategic infrastructure to distribute collective expectations in asymmetric relations of attending and being attended to. The technology is part of this; ‘living with notifications’ in the same way you’d say living with some potentially painful but treatable condition. Snapchat operates purely in this realm. It is not what is shared so much as the anticipation of sharing. The just-in-time sociality of online relations often encourages a temporality not unlike the rhythm of waves, in the silent way the tide draws out the body of water — gathering in the potentiality of repetitive anticipation. Like the way a comedian waits for the audience to ‘get it’ (hoping beyond hope that their gag is, indeed, gettable).[2. I often feel very awkward around people when it is apparent they are not ‘getting it’, but that is something else…]

You decide what you want from me
We can hear the passing of time
And the sound that is in your mind
— Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The second-person “you” has a spectral composition, distributed across her agitations. (Obviously I am using ‘her’ when it very well might be a ‘him’; I know I present such a persona online sometimes.[4. EDIT a few hours later: For ironic emphasis I posted this image to Instagram and to Snapchat today with different text components. Not sure if anyone got the irony in the context of this blog post. A few people got extra annoyed at me thinking I was sexting them. I guess an ironic sext (not that it is a sext as such), is still a sext.]) Being attended to can therefore be experienced as endured, where the causal relation begins elsewhere; essentially, a passive relation to the actions of others. This is an abdication of responsibility, however. Participation in the anticipatory economy of sharing attentions is at the same time an impersonal cultivation of personal relations. This is a kind of existential wriggle. Impersonal because “you” engage with the cloud, which is nevertheless populated by (im)personal intentionalities.

Does the cloud have a face? What is the faciality of the cloud? I am tempted to suggest it is the drone: a being of pure intentionality — always a mission, always a target, its cybernetic perspective is pure HUD, baby — but one that is remote-controlled. Control is displaced across space for drone pilots; for the Cymbals’ “you” it is displaced across time in the anticipatory economy of sharing. The moral crisis of drone warfare is repeated online in the ethics of being attended to. The question of agency is therefore very tricky in such a scenario as it implies a degree of responsibility. What happens when the drones come home to roost? Can you be seduced by a drone?

Drone

A further, more pressing question presents itself: What if, instead of two people, the Cymbals’ track describes a process belonging to a single person?

That is, the agitations in question do not belong to some other (online) realm or ‘world’, but constitute that through which one’s subjectivity is individuated. I don’t know enough about myself to know if my own remote-controlled agitations are returning, repeating their anticipations. This would be the McLuhanist point (the way media technology “massages” the “human”): am I drone of my own affectations, a being of pure HUD intentionality, perpetually remote-controlled by a future version of myself (assembled by expectation and gathered through anticipation)?[4. Is this a mechanism to produce the absence of immediacy, most acutely experienced as the immediacy of personal responsibility?]

 

ebooks: or the

Appending ebooks to something is a practice belonging to subcultures on twitter and derived from the meme surrounding the horse_ebooks twitter account. Here are some notes on the cultural meaning of ‘_ebooks’.

 

[] [] []

 

Various ‘_ebooks’ accounts have been created. What they all have in common is the algorithmic act of sampling source material and turning it into a tweet. On the process behind horse_ebooks:

The algorithm that produces the horse_ebooks stream, like most spammic algorithms, relies on user interaction to grow more effectual. It interprets text as data, and determines which keywords might best promote an outcome like the sale of Cialis or Horse Medical Records. Just as with many of our more popular and less insidious internet applications, the more interaction the algorithm gets, the smarter it becomes. The growing popularity of horse_ebooks has reciprocally allowed it to become better at generating tweets like “The Fear Of lowlife criminals With Environmental Protection” (October 30, 2011; 49 retweets).

[…]

While it is true that the algorithm publishes tweets that were, at some point, somehow, written, it is non-author in the sense that it defies the binary border between ebook and reader. It imagines non-authorship in a way that even social media, with its dissolution of anonymity, can enable.

Sure. There is something else going on when _ebooks is appended to non-_ebooks; that is, something that is ostensibly not the algorithmic poetics actioned in the event-space between discourse and code. Something has been extracted from the _ebooks phenomena and has now been folded back into the social practices on social media.

[] [] []

What has been extracted? (Or what makes ‘_ebooks’ singular?) It is something that, firstly, plays with the relation between sense and nonsense. horse_ebooks enthusiasts are sometimes criticised for anthropomorphising the algorithm-based expressions. The non-discursive semantic sampling of source material is an algorithmic variation of the creative/aesthetic practice of producing and exploding disjunction. Contra the critics, this does not foreclose the possibility of meaning, only that the discursive dimension of the sample has also been parsed by the algorithm. What is this discursive dimension? The incorporeal materialism of all language. [1. See Foucault’s “Discourse on Language” on ‘incorporeal materialism’:  “If discourses are to be treated first as discursive events, what status does this notion of event have? Of course, an event is neither substance, nor  accident, nor quality nor process; events are not corporeal. And yet, an event is certainly not immaterial; it takes effect, becomes effect, on the level of materiality. Events consist in relation to, coexistence with, dispersion of, the cross-checking accumulation and the selection of material elements; it occurs as an effect of, and in, material disperion.”]

So a little nugget of sense emerging from non-sense. From the perspective of information theory, this is clearly irrational, because signals do not simply emerge from what is ostensibly noise, noise impinges on signals and so on. The meaning produced by _ebooks twitter accounts is (unintentionally?) meaningful but in a quasi-random manner. ‘Random’ because it is derived from the sampling algorithm, ‘quasi’ because it relies on coded text that otherwise belongs to the logical systems of language. That is, the _ebooks are never quite ‘noise’ because they are, at a minimum, sensible as nonsense.

The _ebooks tweets exist not just as a ‘text’, however. They are better understood as an event. Techniques and technologies of representation (language, media, etc.), like all kinds of communication, are forms of transport. [2. Raymond Williams was very clear about this in his ‘Communication’ entry in the iconic Keywords — where it can mean ‘transmit’ or ‘share’.] Representation brings a time and place into contact with another time and place. The singular quality of this contact is the event of sense. Practices on twitter materially enact this process of representational transport. Retweets are ambiguous, ‘favourites’ are less so.

The practical dimension of ‘retweets’ and ‘favouriting’ modifies the relations of visibility and the relations of valorisation inherent in all acts of communication. The normative content of a tweet does not have to be the content that is valorised; rather, more sophistcated twitter users often retweet in an ironic fashion. Twitter users can choose to participate in these processes of transportation by retweeting, this is obvious; less obvious is the purpose of retweeting ostensibly nonsensical tweets. In the passage of the retweet — the ‘journey’ of the communicational transport — what is gained or lost?

 

[] [] []

 

fulltimeinternet
One of Tim Lampe’s Horse E-Posters: http://horseeposters.com/

For a long time subcultural groups have created entire languages of meaning that appear to be nonsensical to outsiders. This is in part happening here as ‘_ebooks’ is a syntactic morpheme belonging to denotational practices of twitter-based subcultures. Retweeting can be understood as a practice of citation; think of that bloke everyone went to school with who knew every single line from the Simpsons. Citing the Simpsons produced a measure of cultural cache as a performance of cultural taste.

Retweeting does something similar, but with an additional dynamic dimension. The political economy of belonging in online networks not only means ‘following’ the right ‘people’ (or emitters of becoming-sensical content), but also of participating in the passage of meaning as meaning itself is enacted. Not only is the content shared, as per Raymond Williams’ definition of communication, but the becoming-sensical of the content is also shared.

Think of a joke that develops over the course of an evening. The release of tension signalled by the smile (weak) or laughter (strong) is triggered by a disjunction that produces the affective tension present in all humour. [3. “A horse_ebooks walks into a bar.” “The barmen says, “.] Such jokes cascade, but they are also repeated other nights, just as the possibility of such a joke developing is repeated. The algorithmic disjunction of sample text of the original ‘_ebooks’ twitter accounts is pregnant with a similar potentiality.

 

[] [] []

 

What does ‘_ebooks’ represent?

What happens when ‘_ebooks’ is appended to something?

It is an ironic signifier. Instead of signifying the becoming-sensical of the original algorithmic ‘_ebooks’ twitter acounts, it is signifying the (allegeded) becoming-nonsensical of an actual person’s expression.