Nov 27 2010

Death And Infrastructure: Thrilling Wonder Stories II

The two hour delay I faced getting into central London yesterday seemed somehow thematic of the day. A “suspected fatality” somewhere on the Paddington to Swansea rail line had brought things to a standstill. (Surely someone is dead or not? Were they nervously poking the suspected corpse with a stick to see if it was actually a sleeping tramp that would leap up and roar at them? Or was the phrasing designed to not imply definite tragedy, therefore saving us the concern about the loss of a life?) Death and infrastructure: key themes for the Thrilling Wonder Stories II, a sprawling multi-disciplinary event at the Architecture Association.

I arrived with seconds to spare, just as the AA bossman Brett Steele began to talk about the inability of architecture to see through its grand designs for the future. (I sat down in an opened alcove – a peculiar set up that one of the speakers would later point out meant that one half of the audience sat in light, and the other in darkness.) Steele set up the day by observing that visions of the future almost always end up scattered through the layered reality of the past. There is no blank slate, no matter how confidently great thinkers might predict it. The concrete towers that range across London a mark out of that sort of vision – fragments of one future, one way of looking at the future, at the city – and even the building we were in: once an elegant town house, now a bustling educational facility, bears the affect of different ways of understanding its own existence. So the stage was set for some fresh speculations – not necessarily to predict the future, or even say anything credible about it, but to make sure that the idea of the future was entertained, and that it was entertaining.

The day was divided up into small panels, each consisting of a number of individual presentations, illustrated by slides and videos which appeared on a number of screens around the room. The first panel was “Counterfeit Archaeologies”. BLDGBLOG editor Geoff Manaugh started the events proper as a double-act with his wife Nicola Twilley. Their method – one of offbeat or accidental suppositions blossoming into wider speculations – was filled with the kind of material that has made their blogging so interesting. They talked about the titular counterfeit archaeologies (faked fossils, simulated plastic stratification), as well as anti-archaeologies, simulated archaeologies. The myth of a “cow tunnel” into the slaughterhouses of Manhattan, the idea of fabricating fossils to test theories about deep time, and how to build something that would deter archaeology. All themes that percolate through Manaugh’s interests. Manaugh and Twilley raised typically interesting conceits and play-on-ideas from current research: could bees be made to produce concrete in the manner of living 3D-printers? Manaugh outlined the idea of “animal printheads”, speculating that we could engineer social animals to build or modify our buildings by manipulating their natural systems – modified spiders printing out steel for new superstructures. All great stuff.

Next up were “design provocateurs” Dunne & Raby, who were working with similar material, albeit in a way that was presented rather strangely. I think I rather missed the point of their presentation, but they showed a series of designs for externalised digestive tracts for humans – suggesting that people could soon be modified to “forage” rather than relying the traditional modification of land and vegetation that we rely on in farming. A related idea saw them speculating that policing could be handled casually if mind-reading bazookas were deployed by the community at large. They explained how, having designed this stuff, they brought in a writer to fill out the backstories – a writer who humanised ideas that might otherwise have seemed rather alien. These ideas could happen, they seemed to be saying, and would create tensions if they did do. Tensions would create stories. It chimed with the narrative theme of the day, which was something all the speakers seemed to touch on, as if it was the nature of story that somehow connected or delivered their work through to usefulness.

The second panel, Cautionary Tales, consisted of two authors and an artist. The first author was Jeff Vandermeer, who explained how his book Finch – in which his fantasy city “Ambergris” reaches parity with the 20th century real world and is then colonised and occupied by a race of fungal intelligences – acts as a kind of “non-preachy” analogy for failed states and occupations in our own reality. Following him was Will Self, who was typically awesome and droll, grabbing the biggest laugh of the day, and also the most sinister reading. His piece on leaping to his death from the Bay Bridge in San Francisco seemed fine-tuned for the audience, but also for making a point about the ideas of the day. Psychogeography, for Self, is often a consideration of what buildings demand of us – his usual example of the airports demanding calm and boredom, despite the fact that we are about to be hurled across continents at 600mph, was also rolled out to supplement the tall tale from the bridge. Third to this panel was Paul Duffield, the artist on Freakangels, who described his personal project, Signal. This wordless graphic work was inspired by both the cosmic perspectives of Carl Sagan and the ongoing search for life at SETI. Signal is a short story about the last man alive searching for that signal from other life under the light of a “galaxy rise”. Does he find it? Perhaps. His transformation into a crane/heron delivers a cryptic ending. Duffield struggled a bit in the Q&A, but he was so close to making the point that he had presumably intended to make, which was that mathematics, which is the universal language we would probably use as a starting point for contact with extraterrestrial life, was also the thing that underwrites much of graphic art, since it is interwoven into the geometries that Duffield uses on the page.

(I’ve actually been thinking a lot about SETI recently. I wonder if it should be abandoned because of the potential for melancholy. It seems to me that we’re only ever likely to pick up a signal from some far away, long-dead civilisation, and then have to listen to it, possibly for centuries, without being able to do anything about it. On the one hand it could mean we aren’t “alone” in the universe, but perhaps it would only amplify our isolation. Here we are, trapped in our tower, able to catch glimpses of the living world outside and yet never touch it, never let it know we exist… We could end up stuck here on Earth, in love with a teeming universe that never bothers to acknowledge our existence.)

The third panel was Near Futures. A little closer to home for me – and yet still somehow alien by virtue of being an Xbox game – was the opening demonstration of Child Of Eden by Ubisoft. Visually spectacular, it is nevertheless Rez with motion control. I can see the appeal of it, but this isn’t what is exciting about games for me. Projects like this feel like a hangover from the 1980s, a sort of realised dream of what shoot ‘em ups could be, though the format ends feeling archaic even under the guise of this fresh technology. Also on this panel was the phenomenal Alex Rutterford, a film-maker responsible for videos such as Autechre’s Gantz Graf (below) and many other pioneering electronic works. What was interesting about his work, I felt, was that he used architectural forms without really having an considerations for architecture. It was all about surface for his work, as if he were an architect who worked purely in facades – something that I think is common with a lot of work in videogames, too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4ZwTUUue1w

Also on this panel was Matt Webb from BERG. This London design firm are rapidly becoming popular outside just the design sector, thanks to their over-arching philosophies, omnivorous interests, and thorough blogging of all the topics surrounding their research. They’re the kind of creative force that is fast making general design more interesting, purely on the level of ideas, than any other sector. Anyone who has been following Webb for a while will be familiar with the themes he touched on here – the inspirational value of 1970s space station illustrations, the idea of the macroscope, and the importance of Hello Little Fella in design. He also looked at “fractional AI”, the idea that AI isn’t turning up in the monolithic intelligences of Wargames or 2001, but instead in things like hamster toys that make “hilarious noises”. It’s not huge and all-encompassing, but cheap, tiny, and handling just a tiny fragment of what we might regard as intelligent. This led to a discussion of ubiquitous computing: what is interesting about technology now is that it is, thanks to be distributed and fractional, “disappearing” into the world around us. The screen is (possibly) become less important as the focus of all things hi-tech, because hi-tech, and the internet, is in everything from kids toys to washing machines.

I’m not sure whether this is a consequence of the last Thrilling Wonder Stories, or simply a factor of me being older and broader, but I was far more familiar with the interests and obsessions of this set of speakers – and, consequently less surprised by their ideas – than I had been at the first event. This is a purely personal observation, of course, but it was interesting to see most of the speakers setting up their obsessions as a kind of pitch stall, staking out their little landscape of ideas and offering up its fruits to others. As a consequence it felt more prosaic than the original Thrilling Wonder Stories, much more about showcasing work than about simply unloading ideas. Vandermeer and Self particularly were reeling off variants of their standard book pitches that I had already seen elsewhere. As beautiful as Vandermeer’s mind is, and as funny as Self remains, they were somehow less useful than last year’s participants, and had neither the same intellectual verve nor the same quotient of take-home ideas as the previous speakers.

Panel four – Apocalyptic Visions – was also largely familiar to me. Anthony Johnston, the author of the Wasteland comics, spoke about how the city in his novel had begun to tell its own stories, pushing him away from his original “wasteland” remit of telling stories out in the desert. The city exhibited so much pull, because buildings automatically tell stories, that he couldn’t – and shouldn’t – steer away from it. For Johnston, the value of buildings is how we understand them, as place that imply things, and ask questions. It is “the locked door”, the thing that instantly creates mystery. What is behind it? Why is it locked? Who locked it? And so on. Johnston handed over to the remarkable Rachel Armstrong. She too a science fiction author, but also a working scientist researching synthetic biology, and particularly metabolic materials for buildings. Armstrong’s work is fascinating – life like systems operating without DNA programming – and she is an extraordinarily vivid and glamorous character. It seems as if she could easily have been written into existence by one of the other speakers. The speculative project she outlined was using cell-like chemical systems to create a kind of reef-like deposit under Venice, and to thereby save it from sinking into the sea. Of all the ideas that were presented at this event, hers was the most extraordinary and – by virtue of her being a working researcher – the most plausible and pragmatic. Amazing, almost fictional, but edging into the real. As Manaugh pointed out, Armstrong’s work was less an apocalyptic vision, and more of an apocalyptic antidote.

Last up for panel four was Ed Stern from Splash Damage. He talked about the background for designing The Ark, the floating eco-city gone bad that plays host to Brink, their forthcoming shooter. Stern was at his best here, working hard to outline the commercial constraints of modern videogames as well as pointing out how its possible to be creative and provocative even within the tight templates of something as formulaic as a first-person shoot ‘em ups. His closing statement – the game’s trailer – got the biggest cheer of the day. Whatever the crowd, people seem to appreciate men with guns, and Stern had provided an illuminating glimpse of the difficulties that the Men With Guns creators currently face. Brink is particularly ambitious, trying to set itself apart with a mixture of hyper-realism and a scenario that had not been seen before in either games or film. The panel’s subsequent conversation also turned to Minecraft, thanks to Anthony Johnston, as they touched on the idea of whether the indie games scene equates to the same kind of things as Art cinema. Stern argues that it does not, and I agree with him. But more on that another time. A good outing from the videogame fraternity, anyway.

The final panel I recollect through a haze of exhaustion, as we had been going for eight hours at this point. Thoughts were starting to lose their glue. First up were Ant Farm, an “alternative” architecture practice founded in the 1960s and based in San Francisco. These chaps talked about their time capsule projects, ending with a recollection of a dream that one of them had, which didn’t really make much sense to me. This deliriousness might have been a consequence of their presentation being via Skype on a big screen in the room, rather than in person, an event that was simultaneously a super-modern instance of network power and baffling disconnected, or I might have just really needed a cup of tea. Also in the bafflingly disconnected camp was the final presentation from radical artist (and enormously accomplished sculptor) Joep Van Lieshout, who spoke about his speculative “free state” A.V.L.ville, which he had built as a kind of studio-cum-anarchist commune on a piece of land off Rotterdam harbour. Having declared themselves a free state, the AVL inhabitants began to try to operate as such until Van Lieshout made claims about the possibility of dog-fucking to the local press, and the authorities became involved. Having been frustrated in his attempts to build a real society, Van Lieshout moved his architectural art (via his key obsessions of mobile homes and sex) to a new city design: Slave City. This design, fortunately never realised, proposed a 60km2 ideal city, which was self sufficient, given enough slaves. The slaves would work in call centres, generating $8bn a year in revenue, while weak or unsuitable candidates would be butchered for food and biofuel. The audience laughed, astonished at these proposals for organised prostitution and cannibalism, all of which were delivered by Van Lieshout with a dose of good humour. It nevertheless ended up seeming rather sinister. If Roche had closed last year’s event sounding like the mad architect who would build the villain’s volcano base, then Van Lieshout ended this event by sounding like the villian himself. “It’s not my fault,” I imagined him saying, “it was all in the name of art!”

Art probably isn’t a good enough excuse for much of this stuff. Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh are producing a series of events (there’s due to be a third Thrilling Wonder Stories next year) that I suspect some commentators will see as weird or frivolous. Entertaining the notions of fantasy authors and fringe intellectuals seems at odds with some of the tasks that architecture faces, but, as Self pointed out, so many architects will end up having their work prescribed for them by forces beyond their control, ending up building boring airports or safe rail infrastructure, that any chance to push them towards genuine creativity must be snapped up. It isn’t just about art, because even art is never just about art. Nor is architecture just about buildings, or even just about the people who inhabit the buildings. It’s about everything. That seems to be what these events are designed to demonstrate. For the rest of us, particularly those of us in comparatively closed circles of interests, such as the games industry, Thrilling Wonder Stories represents a kind of challenge: to find out where interesting projects intersect with our own, and to see what we can learn from them. Perhaps we’ll learn nothing at all, but it’s worth finding out.


Sep 23 2010

The Prosthetic Imagination

This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.

“We tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.”

- Steven Shaviro, 2003, Connected, or What it Means to Live in the Network Society, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Videogames are the reason I could be considered a cyborg. Not in the sense that I have had parts of my physical body taken over by electronic or mechanical systems, but in the sense that I often have had my imagination taken over by electronic and mechanical systems. Gaming, particularly electronic gaming, often imbues me with some of the most essential properties of a cyborg.

The reasoning behind this idea unfolds as follows. Technology, each and every technology, is “an extension of ourselves”. Marshal McLuhan makes good that claim in his writings, and it is an idea that stands up to significant scrutiny. The poking stick that increases our reach, the car that increases our range and speed, the giant radio telescopes that extend our gaze into the heavens and through the electromagnetic spectrum: all are extension. They extend, or even replace (for the cyborg), our natural faculties. Technology is extension. Extension, then, is a core principle of the cyborg, too. The point at which extension and biological limits cross over.

Games are high technology, and so what do games extend? As items for sensory and intellectual interrogation, it seems to that they must extend our minds. More specifically, perhaps, our imaginations. This will be true of all games. Initially that extension might have been rather rudimentary – extensions of logic and chance with card games, extensions of the fantasies of childhood with wooden props and cardboard castles – but now, with the gaming Guttenberg press of the persona computer (those “personal idea amplifiers”), games are sophisticated systems that model incredible complex processes in splendid pixellated parody of both real and unreal worlds.

Listening to Alan Moore’s spoken word performance Snakes & Ladders, where he muses on how creative people are “importers” and “explorers” from the realm of imagination, I began to think about how games are, in a sense, shared imaginative structures that have been exported from a group exploration of that realm. The combined intellectual alloy of the design teams that produce them are fashioned, sold, and then experienced by gamers like me. Something similar is true of novels and movies, of course, but the game has an even more direct influence on the imagination. By enabling the brain to manipulate with virtual systems, to engage with simulation, it creates systems than span the mental and the virtual, the biological and the electrical. Also, even more significantly to my point, our imagination is not a description as a book is a textual description, or a film is a visual description. It is, instead, a model.

However incomplete a model the imagination may be, it shares this primary attribute with games. They too are models. The game designer Will Wright, of SimCity and The Sims, has spoken a number of times about how the “real” model of the videogame is in the player’s mind, with the models presented by the game itself simply acting as a kind of mental compiler. Ours is a capacity to internally simulate things, to model them in consciousness, and then to predict how the world might be different. It’s a faculty that came about through a natural selection of efficient systems of perception. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argues that complex animals’ ability to imagine has evolved out of necessity because they were required to be able to simulate their world, mentally, in order to survive it:

“Natural selection built in the capacity to simulate the world as it is because this was necessary in order to perceive the world. You cannot see that two-dimensional patterns of lines on two retinas amount to a single solid cube unless you simulate, in your brain, a model of the cube. Having built in the capacity to simulate models of things as they are, natural selection found that it was but a short step to simulate things as they are not quite yet—to simulate the future. This turned out to have valuable consequences, for it enabled animals to benefit from “experience,” not trial-and-error experience in their own past or in the life and death experience of their ancestors, but vicarious experience in the safe interior of the skull. And once natural selection had built brains capable of simulating slight departures from reality into the imagined future, a further capacity automatically flowered. Now it was but another short step to the wilder reaches of imagination revealed in dreams and in art, an escape from mundane reality that has no obvious limits.”

This offers a strange kind of realisation: that we are probably at our most human when engaged in acts of simulation.

Returning to that earlier notion of extension and replacement – the classic cyborg tropes – it’s interesting to swing by the work of Steven Shaviro, and particularly his book Connected. In that masterful musing on network society he talks about the notion of being a cyborg, and writes this:

“I extend the power of my hand or my mouth or my brain only at the price of excising the original organ-whether literally or figuratively-to make room for its replacement. Each time we extend ourselves technologically, some part of the real gives way to the virtual. This is why every cultural innovation is attended by an ambivalent sense of loss. And this is also why we tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.”

What would the implications be for our culture, Shaviro wonders, if prosthetic had been the dominant metaphor during the information revolution, rather than virtual? For games the ramifications are pretty obvious: prosthetic reality, prosthetic worlds. Not empty placebo realities, but useful extensions of this one. That also seems more apt when you look at the experience of gaming. You are not simply waving at passing spectres in the night, you are right in there, wrestling with the invented physics, unravelling the stories, ripping open alien monstrosities. The imagination is extended into this space, it spills back and forth from technology to mind. You can see this happening when you watch players at work. Their thinking is right there on the screen. As with the Clark/Chalmers model of “extended” cognition, players are thinking on the screen with the Tetris blocks, working out the peculiar physics of each game world in a loop that encompasses the electronic state of the computer and the brain in one recursive process.

There’s something else here too: the way in which games appeal to the pattern-completing instincts that are fundamental to our behaviour. The way they entrance, compel, and mesmerise. Electronic games colonise and inhabit the imagination in a way that’s analogous to the traditional image of electro-mechanical devices colonising/extending the human body in cyborg physicality. Taking over systems while they are engaged. Parts of my brain are tracking imagined, simulated spaces that are also tracked and mapped in the game. And do I remove an arm of my imagination to replace it with MMO processes when I can think of nothing else? Games are more than the tune you can’t stop humming because you heard it on an insurance commercial, and they are more than singing along to that tune on the radio. Games are, rather, like a system of scaffolding for the imagination, allowing to make its work more concrete, and for it to climb higher than it has even done before.

Of course most games are terrible, limited, unimaginative things, which seems to cast a gloom on all this speculative excitement. But that might not matter. The faked, regimented gardening of the Farmville player is just as much an instance of the kind of cyborg I am talking about, as the most poignant flow of light from Shadow Of The Colossus. What is important here is to recognise how the cyborg, and the nature of the cyborg in our world of information, is not the nature of Robocop and other such crude caricatures collisions of humanity and technology. The cyborg is mental, psychic. The new human which is emerging from the flows and processes that our technologies are surrounding us in is projecting itself into inner space, via physical space. Any and all games can do this.

Shaviro again, completing that passage that takes its cues from Haraway’s account of the cyborg.

“The cyborg is the very figure of this permeability. It is fully physical, but light and cool: a “subtle, fluid and tenuous” form of materiality. In their indifference to binary categorizations, their easy trafficking between real and virtual, Haraway writes, “cyborgs are ether, quintessence”.”

Ether, quintessence: the same words that writers end up using to discuss the immaterial boulevards of our imaginings. What videogames are is something fully physical, but it is also an instance of that easy trafficking between the real and virtual. It is, perhaps, as a playful technology, the easiest extension of them all. The prosthetic imagination.


Jul 25 2010

I’m Working On Something Fairly Big, And It’s Taking Some Time

Some of you will already know what it is. Hopefully I will be able to blog about it soon. The project should soon result in www.big-robot.com pointing somewhere other than this blog.

For entirely unrelated robot-themed happenings from my fingers, check out Total Eclipse Of The Reactor Core.

More soon.


Dec 12 2009

This Gaming Life, Paperback Now Available In Europe/UK

The paperback edition of This Gaming Life has been out in North America for a while, but it hits the warehouses of the UK and Europe next week.

TGL is a book about gamers and the games they play. It’s about the value of videogames, and about the stories I collected from three very different gaming cities: London, Reykjavik and Seoul.

Raph Koster, game designer and author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design, said: “This Gaming Life is a fascinating and eye-opening look into the real human impact of gaming culture. Traveling the globe and drawing anecdotes from many walks of life, Rossignol takes us beyond the media hype and into the lives of real people whose lives have been changed by gaming. The results may surprise you.”

Lots of other smart people said nice things about it too.


Jun 27 2009

Interzone

“The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market… minarets, palms, mountains, jungle… a sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed-grown parks where boys lie in long grass, play cryptic games.”

Yesterday’s Twitter musing raised the idea of a GTA game featuring an old man: wandering the streets, smoking, reminiscing. This led me to suggest a Williams Burroughs game, “Interzone”, where you battle the forces of control by distributing fucked up ideas across the city. So let’s outline a design for Interzone.

“No narrative, all side quests,” says Greg J Smith. That suits the Burroughsian idea, of course. And yet you can see how a Burroughs quest structure might work: a fragmentary mass of clues leading towards one inevitability. “The Old Writer would write himself out of death.” The endgame would be immortality, access to The Western Lands, and you’d find your way in the city. There might not be a story – perfect for the random sandbox play of the city in which a player is wandering, exploring, struggling – but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be an ending.

“A ghost in daylight on a crowded street.”

Visually the game world lands part way between Junkie and Naked Lunch. Part New York, part Tangiers. It’s a familiar city, but there’s something wrong with everything. Clearly the GTA city of Interzone would have to be far more tangled and jungloid than any game city we care to suggest.

“Our national drug is alcohol. We tend to regard the use of any other drug with special horror.”

Two game mechanisms for Interzone.

The first is morphia: addiction. The Old Writer will have have to make contact with various individuals across the city so that he can stay in control of himself. The longer you go without a hit, the harsher visuals and audio becomes, the more complex interactions are. But one contact will run dry, you’ll always have to search for another: following spectral junkies, looking for clues. Too long and you begin to lose control: the avatar wanders on his own, ravenous for junk. Eventually it’s unplayable: too bright and grating to look at, too difficult to control. And yet you’re facing a tricky kind of videogame resource management: take too much and you’re fade out, overdosing, resetting to zero. Wake up in a bed in a dark room, sunlight through a single dirty pane.

“A paranoid man is a man who knows a little about what’s going on.”

The second mechanism is the Cut Up. You are constantly under threat of being captured: seized by agents of control. They only way to deal with it is to disrupt their activities, to keep them off your tail, dealing with other things. You distribute fucked up ideas to key locations. Pamphlets dropped off with key people, reducing the likelihood of the forces of control appear to deal with you. At higher levels you begin leaving tape recorders filled with subliminal messages running, an area-of-affect attack, context bombs. Parasitic upgrades.

The last resort – a thing of brutal finality, and your most limited resource – are the handguns that Burroughs loved. Just nine rounds in your automatic. Nine chances to escape control. Nine lives.

Cut word lines — Cut music lines — Smash the control images — Smash the control machine — Burn the books — Kill the priests — Kill! Kill! Kill!


Jun 13 2009

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.


Feb 2 2009

Samurai Cat Armour

Jeff DeBoer is a genius. More armour for rodents and felines here.


Jan 31 2009

The Victoria crater

From these Mars images.


Jan 31 2009

Ghosts In New Photographs

Incredible: WW2 images reshot and blended with modern day Russia.


Jan 26 2009

Evolution