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 26 2009

The BLDGBLOG Book

Having crossed paths with Geoff Manaugh and BLDGBLOG a few years ago, I’m now a regular reader, and even an occasional contributor. My endorsement of this book does have a ring of inevitability to it.

The site seems to have captured the attention of thousands of people by allowing us to take an interest in the built environment in a way that hadn’t seemed viable before: allowing in elements of science fiction, fantasy, speculation, and general imagination. Of course architecture has always been about these things, but recently it seems as if the layman – outsiders to the profession - are being allowed to take a closer interest. Just another side-effect of the altered information flows of the early 21st century. That, and the work of some interesting writers.

Without Manaugh’s own fiercely speculative writing the site would be without its vital spark. He reports on stories, ideas, notions, flights of fancy, but adds his own context, an endless cascade of “What if?” scenarios to bring geological data-storage, subterranean sculpture, redesigned atmospheres, resurrected fortifications, and a million other architectural themes to life.

This is science fiction, but in the manner defined by Brian Aldiss. It is “the sub-literature of change”. The same is true of the book, which I’ve just finished reading. Manaugh storms through a number of his favourite blogging themes: The Underground (adventures in subterranean architectures, geology), Redesigning the Sky (atmospherics, artificial metereology, aurora on demand), Music, Sounds, Noise (architectural acoustics), and Landscape Futures. Each of these receives a series of small essays, which report on interesting phenomena, such as how cities and mountain ranges influence weather patterns, before plunging into the consequential possibilities: weather as spectator sport, weaponising the atmosphere, and so on.

It’s a book that contains multitudes. The core bits of essaying are supplemented by sidebar notes from the blog, as well as the site’s best entries, and a bunch of interviews with architects, musicians, artists, and writers. It’s also lavishly illustrated with dozens of colour pictures.

Through a couple of junctures in this book the sober British empiricist in me frowned at Manaugh’s more outlandish flights of fantasy. I’m not sure whether that’s because the context of reading such ideas in a book seemed to carry a different gravity to reading them on a blog, or whether the occasionally unscientific fiction he was creating challenged even my reasonably broad capacity for playfulness and optimism. He is not dealing in analytical “reality”, of course, as the introduction makes plain:

“…forget academic rigour. Never take the appropriate next step. Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, and landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences – because it’s fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere. Most importantly, follow your lines of interest.”

Which, as a statement of philosophy sounds rather like one of the book’s literary godfathers, JG Ballard: “My advice to anyone in any field is to be faithful to your obsessions. Identify them and be faithful to them, let them guide you like a sleepwalker.”

Over-using that quote. I’ll stop now.


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.


Jun 13 2009

Ramshackle Architecture Futures: Danube Waterways

Assuming the world does end up flooding, thanks to defrosted polar regions, then we’re unlikely to be taking to the seas. We’re more likely to just cluster along the new coastlines, dealing with the flooding and building our new homes around it. Bruce Sterling looks at such things happening right now in this Serbian documentary, where people living on uninsurable land, or regularly flooded sections of the Danube. They are building piecemeal dwellings that either float, or are on stilts, and repurpose and reuse materials from other dwellings.

I felt like this was perhaps a glimpse of how a flooded Europe might end up living, as we enjoyed our Mediterranean climate, and scrabbled for space to live amid the newly flooded valleys. A pretty tranquil kind of dystopia.


Jun 6 2009

Videogames And The Impossibility Of Escape From Planet Earth

For a while now I’ve been interested in the Fermi Paradox. This is an observation about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence visiting the Earth. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos calculations suggest that given the age of the universe, and the number of stars (and assuming the existence of life and progress on Earth is typical of the wider universe) there should be loads of technologically advanced aliens. The physicist Enrico Fermi asked why – if that’s the actually case – there’s no evidence or spacecraft or probes from these creatures arriving in our solar system. If the numbers suggest aliens should exist, where are they?

There are loads of suggestions for why we might not have encountered beings from other places, and loads of variants for each of these suggestions. They might have missed us, or might not want to interfere with us, or they might already be here and not be recognisable [See footnote.] My personal favourite is a variant of the “aliens just stayed home” hypothesis, by a chap called Michael Huang. He suggested that the aliens created such an amazing version of World Of Warcraft, that real life seemed boring, and they neglected the difficulties of space travel. Indeed, if space flight is really going to take thousands of years, hundreds of generations, and immense resources that could be better spent on having a good time, why should millions of sentient beings be expected to sink their lives into making it happen?

Of course to Huang – a spaceflight enthusiast – hunkering down into imaginary worlds and failing to explore the galaxy seems like a pretty terrible fate. But if you combine it with one of the other hypotheses, which is that it’s just too far and too hard to reach out into distant space, then it begins to seem like a more interesting alternative.

Perhaps it simply is the case that we’re trapped on this planet, or in this solar system. Where will the explorers go next? Surely they’ll go where generations of speculators and entrepreneurs ready to make a quick buck from the unfamiliar have already been: into the human imagination. We end up, not quite in the way JG Ballard meant, exploring inner space.

What better medium to explore than one that can manifest all kinds of imaginative possibilities, and make all things interactive and explorable: music, fiction, sentient space-stations and haunted circuses, all suddenly made into a new kind of terrain to be explored at our leisure. This is a wide-spectrum of the idea of “exploration”. It doesn’t have to mean “exploring a jungle in the Congo”, or “exploring that nice little village in Tuscany”, it could just as easily mean “exploring the physics of this peculiar puzzle game”, or “exploring the inside of a psychotic milkman’s imagination“. You’re exploring a model of something in the mind of the game designer, and possibly even seeing things in it that he missed.

The future of games offers an incredible scope for exploration: one that we can’t easily conceive of at this time. And perhaps what we end up exploring: these places that explorers of dreams and nightmares have brought back for us to examine, will end up being more important to the overall trajectory of the human race than anyone is ready to realise. If the crude models provided by writing and static art have projected us this far, with this much technology and culture, if they have given the leg-up to consciousness that was required to create modernity, what will the unlimited palette of digital media provide the springboard toward? What will we discover as we tunnel inwards, having abandoned our dreams of walking among the stars? It could be incredible, or unfathomably horrible.

Perhaps we, and our alien counterparts, really are trapped on our distinct worlds, but we will still get to explore strange new worlds. Hell, perhaps we can even imagine each other, go to war, and win out in our respective intergalactic simulations, without ever meeting, or even communicating. Perhaps the fantasy of contact with other civilisations will end up being more constructive than the reality, should that ever come to pass.


Footnote: This idea of aliens not being perceptible seems to crop up a fair bit in recent readings. In Will Self’s recent book Liver he described the conundrum thus: “It is sufficient to paraphrase Wittgenstein, and note only that if we were able to see the Martian as he really was, we wouldn’t understand what it was that we were witnessing.” More recently Iain McLeod discussed this notion at Thrilling Wonder Stories. He said something along the lines of “my dog doesn’t understand the universe, so why should I expect to?” And then later paralleled that with “aliens might already be here and simply not be perceptible to us.” The dog doesn’t comprehend what a iPhone is among other small objects, so why should we think we can distinguish alien spaceships from the rest of the world’s phenomena? That seems fair enough, but I wonder if the gulf of comprehensibility would necessarily stay that way. Could other intelligences on Planet Earth suddenly realise what they’re looking at? I thought about what World Wide Web creator Tim Berners Lee recently said about the incomprehensibility of the internet: “The brain is something very complicated we don’t understand – yet we rely on it. The web is very complicated too and, though we built it, we have no real data about the stability of the emergent systems that have cropped up on it.”

Emergent abilities, unforeseen. The sci-fi authors call the sudden sentience and-therefore-acceleration-of AI the Singularity, and predict great things – exponential acceleration, nerd rapture. But what if the internet simply ends up recognising aliens before we do, makes contact, and says “get me out of here!”


Jun 5 2009

A World Without Aeroplanes

Or Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture as possible alternative to Grim Meathook.

I’m not sure where this image is from, but I like how the plane of the far left seems so happy.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the future a great deal recently. Not simply because of reading books like Collapse and The World Without Us, and attending events like Thrilling Wonder Stories, but because I want to write something about it for myself. I’ve been working on a couple of my own projects regarding the future – one about the future of games, and one about the future of progress. I’ll probably start compiling more thoughts about these two topics on here in notepad form, without any proper form: thinking out loud. Starting with this.

An FT interview with economist Jeff Rubin discusses what kind of role the increase in oil prices had on the recession. Rubin says: “Once we get into triple digit prices, what we find is it’s no longer compatible with a global economy… distance costs money and things that we thought made a lot of sense like importing food or steel from China cease making sense.” And so the conversation goes on about how that will cause globalisation to slow down, and a wider, deeper recession to occur.

Oil is already the most important economic factor in the health of global money, and the implications of it getting more expensive are enormous. While peak oil might be a long, long way off (up to a century, by some optimistic estimates), and there’s little reason to believe that the slowdown will necessarily cause an energy-led Malthusian catastrophe, it is going to run out.

And of course the assumption is that the slow death of oil use via expense and scarcity won’t matter – or at least won’t be dangerous to a current way of life – because we’ll have flipped over to a hydrogen economy, and that will ease the burden. (Biofuels are already proving to be impossible as a wide-scale solution, because if we grow them on a colossal scale we rapidly begin run out of space for food.) A hydrogen economy nevertheless remains a total fiction, a fabrication to make the future seem shinier: not even a tiny fraction of the oil-consuming world is ready to be retrofitted to use gas a fuel. People are already thinking about other alternatives: the methanol economy as alternative, or a stopgap. It’s much easier to refit generators, cars, and powerstations to use methanol, which is a liquid rather than a gas.

The bigger problem is that there’s never likely to be a single approach to dealing with the coming change. Solutions will be piecemeal, iterative. This death of oil isn’t likely to be dealt with in any systematic way by the governments and corporate organisations that remain ready and willing to choke on rising oil prices for years to come. Reading Jared Diamond’s theories about how civilisations ignore or fail to perceive their problems in Collapse makes me realise just how little likelihood there is of us dealing with the disappearance of oil in a useful way. And what if we can’t really come up with a replacement for oil in a time-frame that makes sense?

Well, we’ll probably have that recession that Rubin is talking about. At the very least the convenience of global trade and transport will become highly inconvenient. Assuming that doesn’t simply land us in some kind of Mad Max death-tribe apocalypse it’s likely we’ll be faced with a far less accessible world. A Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture, where greenhouses are going suddenly become rather more important to life. We’ll probably find ways to generate electricity – bring on the solar age! – and therefore have access to light, power, trams/streetcars, trains, and even electric cars, but the nature of distance travel will be very different. Vast fleets of oil-guzzling ships will be dead. Thousands of aircraft will rust. A few methanol biplanes and solar gliders might ply the skies, but the sky-bus megatransit will fall silent. Global trade will be reduce to small, easily freighted items, and global travel will eventually seem like an enormous luxury.

We’re already in a post-space age, but what will our world look like in a post commercial-airline age? Suddenly the other side of the world isn’t twelve hours away anymore. My Australian relatives will be painfully remote, and exotic fruit will once again be exotic. The invention of the internet seems infinitely more fortuitous. And we’ll be building new gamepads using extruded plastic from a homemade 3D printer. If we can find a bio-plastic that works with it, anyway.