Input/Output

Having spent a couple of weeks working in an office for a magazine, I’m relishing the chance to gorge myself on research for my own projects. I hope I’ll never take for granted the incredible freedom that being a freelance creature has given me. And I also quietly pray that I never have to give it up.

I’m now busy trying to focus my curiosity and gather together ideas from a selection of fresh sources. In the months since This Gaming Life was released I’ve spent plenty of time developing some of the more interesting ideas that the book touched on: the significance of boredom, the value and values of escapism, generative systems in videogames, gamers in videogames, videogames as a new science fiction frontier, biography, philosophy and the future. All that means lots of dredging for data, spotting connections, and figuring out what needs to be said next.

A writer is a machine for turning tea into descriptions. And this writer’s head needs other materials to combine with the caffeine. I suppose some folks are more spontaneous and original, but I need to remix and recombine foreign elements to produce anything useful. So, as a set of notes and explanations, here’s a cross section of my current research materials. I’m thinking of the following as a kind of map of where my projects are in idea-space, which is actually what this blog has largely been about, over the years.

[Everything mentioned here is set to a soundtrack composed of Lustmord, Brian Eno, Tim Hecker, Belong, and, for a touch of energy, Lightning Bolt.]

Headthinks at the end of last year were dominated by reading and re-reading three books. The first two of these were Collapse and The World Without Us, which make up a kind of End Of The World documentary duo. They are both imaginative and well-researched, and constitute a strange kind of anxiety (the calmly compiled list of how we are fucked, in Collapse) and a release of tension (the realisation that human beings aren’t the only life on Earth, and that the writhing blue green would actually be a lovely place without us, in The World Without Us.) They’ve ended up defining a lot of what I want to do in the next few years, which is about redescribing progress, and trying inject some optimism into the world around me.

The other book was Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. Celebrity literary neurologist Oliver Sacks is consistently incredible, but this book hit me much harder than his others. There was something deeply inspiring about the fundamental nature of music in the brain, which made the stories of music and brain malfunctioning even more horrifying. I found myself putting the book down from time to time, too moved and disturbed by horrible possible fates of music-haywire brains to continue. What Musicophilia reminded me, however, was how much interest I used to have in the brain, and consciousness.

Subsequently I’ve been leafing through a bunch of older brain books, and have picked up this more recent work on the plasticity of the brain, Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. I’m only part way through it, but the notion of senses filling in for each other, and the brain adapting, or being adapted, to deal with tasks aside from those expected of it, is fascinating. And optimistic. Brains can do more than we believed. That aside, I’ve long been interested in the idea of what games might end up doing to rewire the human brain, particularly as we adapt to use various unusual interfaces, and I hope this book will lead me in the direction of more such research.

Thinking back, this reminds me how I became a consciousness studies junkie at university. I was so entrenched in the stuff that I ended up writing a squalid and stupid dissertation on consciousness, even though we’d not had any philosophy of mind or related materials featured in the three year course. Perhaps if I’d paid attention to what we’d actually been studying, I might have got more out of it. But anyway, the one person who did inspire me at that time is also on my current research reading list. He’s a professor called Ray Monk, and I’ve been reading a bit of his work – aside from the books he’s written – specifically a paper entitled “Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding”.

Monk’s thought is, I think, an example of an anti-philosophy of the kind that Wittgenstein wrote about, and that interests me enormously. Monk says that biography is a model of “the kind of understanding that consists in seeing connections,” as opposed to theoretical understanding, which consists in explaining something via a fundamental theory, and the attended methods, frameworks, and jargon. I spend quite a lot of time reading various philosophy and critical theory blogs, and I’m often astounded by the impracticality and complexity of the writing produced for them. Finding philosophy that exhibits genuine clarity can be a difficult task in itself, but it’s often necessary for me to get a new and useful perspective of the things I want to write about.

(Kieron and I were wondering about the motivation and purpose behind that entire high falutin’ philosophy scene the other day. He suggested it was some kind of metagame, in which the exponents of various theories scored depending on how much their descriptions and redescriptions stirred intellectual arousal on their peers. I suggested it might be explained via Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, who observes that snorting at high fashion’s impracticality and obsession with detail is foolish, because ultimately those motifs, colours, and designs will still filter down to street level and influence how people dress, whether we like it or not. The same might be said of philosophical theory.)

What interests me about Monk’s suggestions is that – by interpreting the old German chap – they offer a sense of the value of the kind of writing that is more biographical than theoretical. In writing about videogames I find myself interested more in those kinds of descriptions than in theory that tries to explain games in some way. In terms of the kinds of ideas I’m interested in, seeing connections is a lot more useful that coming up with theories that explain play, fun, or whatever. What I want to write isn’t, say, a theory that sums up and defines gaming in some practical way, but something more like London Orbital, where I’m reporting back with descriptions of the jungle.

The other thing I’m beginning to look at more seriously is a pet topic of one of my closest friends, who blogs regularly on science here. It’s the topic of automata. The history of artificial animals and people goes back centuries, and I suspect that the motivations of automata creators are tied to, or are analogous to, much of what videogame creators are trying to do right now. Finding out a little more about automata will, I hope, enable me to clarify and expand the kinds of thoughts that I’ve already jotted down for Offworld, about artificial life and the future of entertainment tech.

Brain dump energies exhausted. More later.


3 Responses to “Input/Output”

  • Jazmeister Says:

    I’m really glad I check here now and again.

  • Demian Says:

    It’s really interesting to know that you was a consciousness junkie student at university. I can now understand better why I like your articles. I like the field of consciousness, especially machine consciousness. I think that maybe Milo and similar characters could be a new platform of AI development, where we can translate the reality from your point of view to a future artificial consciousness. Great expectations maybe, but in this case I guess there will be huge volunteers work.

    As a student of the mind in my idle time I personally have a crush in the music, or more precisely the sound and it’s effect in our mental state. I guess maybe you already stepped in this article http://www.realitysandwich.com/holophonic_tunes
    Or maybe you find the approach of the site to mystical to read it, anyway, I was thinking in sound games and how they will look(not exactly) in these promising 4d sound. If all this is real so we can expect a very powerful way of rewiring our brain. Or scary, since I don’t know if I will try it.

    At last, the thoughts of Monk about biography, understanding by seeing connections, it’s interesting, and sounds to me similar to Taoism, in the aspect that The Way, could be a series of connections between different aspects of our common experience of reality, the life.

    Well i guess all development in the field of robotics and artificial life could be traced to an urge to amuse, entertain ourselves.

    By the way, nice map of your idea-space. Thanks to share with us.

  • Marsh Davies Says:

    Interesting stuff, Jim, particularly the points about opaque philosophical discourse. I think Kieron’s suggestion has some truth to it, but it’s not just that the discipline is predisposed to becoming a rarefied intellectual circle-jerk. There’s a genuine philosophical component to its apparent elitism too: I believe that Lacan’s brilliant and perverse discussion of language fundamentally poisoned philosophical writing from then on. Lacan’s acolytes have presented their ideas in purposefully obtuse ways ever after, believing that the process of unlocking the text is itself is an illustration of their thinking about the unconscious/language – and that this is as important as the meaning of their words in gross terms. This is why you get cunts like Ranajit Guha, shatting on for pages and pages before giving you the context which allows you to work back through the opening paragraph and finally understand what the fuck he meant.

    Clearly, I disagree with this line of thinking, partly because it evokes the arrogant self-elevation that criticism has undergone since modernism – critics of all kinds see themselves more clearly as creators and manipulators of cultural artifacts than they are its redactors and commentators. In many cases, critics present their discussion of a text as more important than the text itself, which is merely a vehicle for their ideas – hence the tub-thumping ideologues who present themselves as ‘Marxist critics’ or ‘feminist critics’. My feeling is that if you are performing a ‘whatever reading’ of a text, then you are not simply reading the text, but refracting its meaning to the denigration of the work. This process isn’t invaluable, by any means, but the vast majority of criticism (judging by what I read during uni and beyond) does little to serve the materials that it claims to criticise. There are few true critics, now, I think – but there are many intellectual self-evangelists in their stead.