Category Archives: worldwithoutoil

of babies and bathwater

The open-sided, many-voiced nature of the Web lends itself easily to talk of free, collaborative, open-source, open-access. Suddenly a brave new world of open knowledge seems just around the corner. But understandings of how to make this world work practically for imaginative work – I mean written stories – are still in their infancy. It’s tempting to see a clash of paradigms – open-source versus proprietary content – that is threatening the fundamental terms within which all writers are encouraged to think of themselves – not to mention the established business model for survival as such.
The idea that ‘high art’ requires a business model at all has been obscured for some time (in literature at least) by a rhetoric of cultural value. This is the argument offered by many within the print publishing industry to justify its continued existence. Good work is vital to culture; it’s always the creation of a single organising consciousness; and it deserves remuneration. But the Web undermines this: if every word online is infinitely reproducible and editable, putting words in a particular order and expecting to make your living by charging access to them is considerably less effective than it was in a print universe as a model for making a living.
But while the Web erodes the opportunities to make a living as an artist producing patented content, it’s not yet clear how it proposes to feed writers who don’t copyright their work. A few are experimenting with new balances between royalty sales and other kinds of income: Cory Doctorow gives away his books online for free, and makes money of the sale of print copies. Nonfiction writers such as Chris Anderson often treat the book as a trailer for their idea, and make their actual money from consultancy and public speaking. But it’s far from clear how this could work in a widespread way for net-native content, and particularly for imaginative work.
This quality of the networked space also has implications for ideas of what constitutes ‘good work’. Ultimately, when people talk of ‘cultural value’, they usually mean the role that narratives play in shaping our sense of who and what we are. Arguably this is independent of delivery mechanisms, theories of authorship, and the practical economics of survival as an artist: it’s a function of human culture to tell stories about ourselves. And even if they end up writing chick-lit or porn to pay the bills, most writers start out recognising this and wanting to change the world through stories. But how is one to pursue this in the networked environment, where you can’t patent your words, and where collaboration is indispensable to others’ engagement with your work? What if you don’t want anyone else interfering in your story? What if others’ contributions are rubbish?
Because the truth is that some kinds of participation really don’t produce shining work. The terms on which open-source technology is beginning to make inroads into the mainstream – ie that it works – don’t hold so well for open-source writing to date. The World Without Oil ARG in some ways illustrates this problem. When I heard about the game I wrote enthusiastically about the potential I saw in it for and imaginative engagement with huge issues through a kind of distributed creativity. But Ben and I were discussing this earlier, and concluded that it’s just not working. For all I know it’s having a powerful impact on its players; but to my mind the power of stories lies in their ability to distil and heighten our sense of what’s real into an imaginative shorthand. And on that level I’ve been underwhelmed by WWO. The mass-writing experiment going on there tends less towards distillation into memorable chunks of meme and more towards a kind of issues-driven proliferation of micro-stories that’s all but abandoned the drive of narrative in favour of a rather heavy didactic exercise.
So open-sourcing your fictional world can create quality issues. Abandoning the idea of a single author can likewise leave your story a little flat. Ficlets is another experiment that foregrounds collaboration at the expense of quality. The site allows anyone to write a story of no more than (for some reason) 1,024 characters, and publish it through the site. Users can then write a prequel or sequel, and those visiting the site can rate the stories as they develop. It’s a sweetly egalitarian concept, and I’m intrigued by the idea of using Web2 ‘Hot Or Not?’ technology to drive good writing up the chart. But – perhaps because there’s not a vast amount of traffic – I find it hard to spend more than a few minutes at a time there browsing what on the whole feels like a game of Consequences, just without the joyful silliness.
In a similar vein, I’ve been involved in a collaborative writing experiment with OpenDemocracy in the last few weeks, in which a set of writers were given a theme and invited to contribute one paragraph each, in turn, to a story with a common them. It’s been interesting, but the result is sorely missing the attentions of at the very least a patient and despotic editor.
This is visible in a more extreme form in the wiki-novel experiment A Million Penguins. Ben’s already said plenty about this, so I won’t elaborate; but the attempt, in a blank wiki, to invite ‘collective intelligence’ to write a novel failed so spectacularly to create an intelligible story that there are no doubt many for whom it proves the unviability of collaborative creativity in general and, by extension, the necessity of protecting existing notions of authorship simply for the sake of culture.
So if the Web invites us to explore other methods of creating and sharing memetic code, it hasn’t figured out the right practice for creating really absorbing stuff yet. It’s likely there’s no one magic recipe; my hunch is that there’s a meta-code of social structures around collaborative writing that are emerging gradually, but that haven’t formalised yet because the space is still so young. But while a million (Linux) penguins haven’t yet written the works of Shakespeare, it’s too early to declare that participative creativity can only happen at the expense of quality .
As is doubtless plain, I’m squarely on the side of open-source, both in technological terms and in terms of memetic or cultural code. Enclosure of cultural code (archetypes, story forms, characters etc) ultimately impoverishes the creative culture as much as enclosure of software code hampers technological development. But that comes with reservations. I don’t want to see open-source creativity becoming a sweatshop for writers who can’t get published elsewhere than online, but can’t make a living from their work. Nor do I look forward with relish to a culture composed entirely of the top links on Fark, lolcats and tedious self-published doggerel, and devoid of big, powerful stories we can get our teeth into.
But though the way forwards may be a vision of the writer not as single creating consciousness but something more like a curator or editor, I haven’t yet seen anything successful emerge in this form, unless you count H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos – which was first created pre-internet. And while the open-source technology movement has evolved practices for navigating the tricky space around individual development and collective ownership, the Million Penguins debacle shows that there are far fewer practices for negotiating the relationship between individual and collective authorship of stories. They don’t teach collaborative imaginative writing in school.
Should they? The popularity of fanfic demonstrates that even if most of the fanfic fictional universes are created by one person before they are reappropriated, yet there is a demand for code that can be played with, added to, mutated and redeployed in this way. The fanfic universe is also beginning to develop interesting practices for peer-to-peer quality control. And the Web encourages this kind of activity. So how might we open-source the whole process? Is there anything that could be learned from OS coding about how to do stories in ways that acknowledge the networked, collaborative, open-sided and mutable nature of the Web?
Maybe memetic code is too different from the technical sort to let me stretch the metaphor that far. To put it another way: what social structures do writing collaborations need in order to produce great work in a way that’s both rigorous and open-sided? I think a mixture of lessons from bards, storytellers, improv theatre troupes, scriptwriting teams, open-source hacker practices, game development, Web2 business models and wiki etiquette may yet succeed in routing round the false dichotomy between proprietary quality and open-source memetic dross. And perhaps a practice developed in this way will figure out a way of enabling imaginative work (and its creators) to emerge through the Web without throwing the baby of cultural value out with the bathwater of proprietary content.

why is ‘world without oil’ such a bore?

I just had the following email exchange with Sebastian Mary about the World Without Oil alternate reality game (covered previously on if:book here and here). It seemed interesting enough to repost here.
BEN – Mon, May 14, 2007 at 4:59 PM EST
Hi there,
You found anything interesting yet going on at WWO?
I keep meaning to dig deeper, but nothing I’ve turned up is much good. Maudlin postcards from a pretty generic-feeling apocalypse is what most of it feels like to me. Perhaps I haven’t been looking in the right places, but my instinct at the moment is that the citizen journalist conceit was not the way to go. It’s “participatory” all right, but in that bland, superficial way that characterizes so many traditional media efforts at “interactivity.” Honestly, I’m surprised something like this got through the filter of folks as sophisticated as Jane McGonigal and co.
I think players need smaller pieces and hooks, elements of mystery to get their wheels turning — a story. As far as I can tell, this is the closest to intrigue there’s yet been, and it turned out to be nothing.
Would love to be shown something that suggests otherwise. Got anything?
SEB MARY – Mon, May 14, 2007 at 5:25 PM
Haven’t been following it closely to be honest. Up to the eyeballs with other work and don’t really have time to trawl acres of second-rate ‘What if…’. Plus, if I’m honest, despite my fetish for collaborative and distributed creativity I’m fussy about good prose, and amateur ‘creative writing’ doesn’t really grip me unless it’s so far from tradition (eg lolcats and the like) as to be good on its own terms. So though the idea intrigued me, I’ve not been hooked. I think it probably needs more story.
Which problem actually resonates with something else I’ve been pondering recently around collaborative writing. It bothers me that because people aren’t very good at setting up social structures within which more than one person can work on the same story (the total lack of anything of that sort in Million Penguins for example), you end up with this false dichotomy between quality products of one mind, and second-rate products of many, that ends up reinforcing the privileged position of the Author simply because people haven’t worked out an effective practice for any alternative. I think there’s something to be learned from the open-source coders about how you can be rigorous as well as collaborative.
BEN – Tue, May 15, 2007 at 12:50 AM
I don’t see why an ARG aimed at a social mobilization has to be so goddamn earnest. It feels right now like a middle school social studies assignment. But it could be subversive, dangerous and still highly instructive. Instead of asking players to make YouTube vids by candlelight, or Live Journal diaries reporting gloomily on around-the-block gas lines or the promise of local agriculture, why not orchestrate some real-world mischief, as is done in other ARGs.
This game should be generating memorable incursions of the hypothetical into the traffic of daily life, gnawing at the edges of people’s false security about energy. Create a car flash mob at a filling station and tie up several blocks of traffic in a cacophony of horns, maybe even make it onto the evening news. Or re-appropriate public green spaces for the planting of organic crops, like those California agrarian radicals with their “conspiracies of soil” in People’s Park back in the 60s. WWO’s worst offense, I think, is that it lacks a sense of humor. To sort of quote Oscar Wilde, the issues here are too important to take so seriously.
SEB MARY – Tue, May 15, 2007 at 5:34 AM
I totally agree that a sense of humour would make all the difference. There’s a flavour about it of top-down didactically-oriented pseudo-‘participation’, which in itself is enough to scupper something networked, even before you consider the fact that very few people like being lectured at in story form.
The trouble is, that humour around topics like this would index the PMs squarely to an activist agenda that includes people like the Reverend Billy, the Clown Army and their ilk. That’d be ace in my view; but it’s a risky strategy for anyone who’s reluctant to nail their political colours firmly to the anti-capitalist mast, which – I’d imagine – rules out most of Silicon Valley. It’s hard to see how you could address an issue like climate change in an infectious and mischievous way without rubbing a lot of people up the wrong way; I totally don’t blame McGonigal for having a go, but I think school-assignment-type pretend ‘citizen journalism’ is no substitute for playful subversiveness and – as you say – story hooks.
The other issue in play is as old as literary theory: the question of whether you dig ideas-based narrative or not. If the Hide & Seek Fest last weekend is anything to go by, the gaming/ARG community, young as it is, is already debating this. What place does ‘messaging’ have in games? Some see gaming as a good vehicle for inspiring, radical, even revolutionary messages, and some maintain that this misses the point.
Certainly, I think you have to be careful: games and stories have their own internal logic, and often don’t take kindly to being loaded with predetermined arguments. Even if I like the message, I think that it only works if it’s at the service of the experience (read story, game or both), and not the other way round. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how much interactivity you add, or how laudable your aim, it’s still boring.

the alternate universe algorithm

“What if you could travel to parallel worlds: the same year, the same earth, only different dimensions…?”

That’s the opening line to one of my favorite science fiction shows in the 90s called “Sliders.” The premise of the show was simple: a group of lost travelers traverse through different dimensions where history has played itself out differently, and need to navigate through unfamiliar cultural norms, values and beliefs. What if the United States lost the American Revolutionary War? Penicillin was never discovered? or gender roles reversed?
An aspect of the show that I found interesting was in how our protagonists quickly adapted to subtly different worlds and developed a method for exploration: after their initial reconnaissance, they’d reconvene in a hotel room (when it existed) and assess their – often dire – situation.
The way they “browsed” these alternate worlds stuck with me when reading Mary’s recent posts on new forms of fiction on the web:

Web reading tends towards entropy. You go looking for statistics on the Bornean rainforest and find yourself reading the blog of someone who collects orang utan coffee mugs. Anyone doing sustained research on the Web needs a well-developed ability to navigate countless digressions, and derive coherence from the sea of chatter.

Browsing takes us to unexpected places, but what about the starting point? Browsing does not begin arbitrarily. It usually begins in a trusted location, like a homepage or series of pages that you can easily refer back to or branch out from. But ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), like World Without Oil, which Ben wrote about recently, require you to go some obscure corner of the internet and engage with it as if it was trusted source. What if the alternate world existed everywhere you went, like in Sliders?
In college, a friend of mine mirrored and replaced key words and phrases with terms he thought were more fitting. For example, “congressmen” was replaced by “oil-men” and “dollars” with “petro-dollars.” He had a clear idea of the world he wanted people to interact with (knowingly or not). The changes were subtle and website looked legitimate it and ultimately garnered lots of attention. Those who understood what was going on sent their praise and those who did not, sent confused and sometimes angry emails about their experience. A
(I believe he eventually he blocked the domain because he found it disconcerting that most traffic came from the military)
Although we’ll need very sophisticated technology to apply more interesting filters across large portions of the internet, I think “Fiction Portals”, engines that could alter the web slightly according to the “author” needs, could change the role of an author in an interesting way.
I want to play with the this idea of an author: Like a scientist, the author would need to understand how minor changes to society would manifest themselves across real content, tweaking words and ideas ever so slightly to produce a world that is that is vast, believable, and could be engaged from any direction, hopefully revealing some interesting truths about the real world.
So, after playing around with this idea for a bit, I threw together a very primitive prototype that alters the internet in a subtle way (maybe too subtle?) but I think hints at a form that could eventually allow us to Slide.

benevolent conspiracy

“Fuel prices jumped this week, led by gasoline which gained over a dollar a gallon on average. Oil distributors pointed to several “renegotiated” delivery contracts as proof that a long-rumored shortfall in the supply of U.S. oil has finally arrived. Oil producers were tight-lipped about the adjusted contracts, and as I write this it’s still unclear how extensive the shortfall will turn out to be.”
And thus the stage is set for World Without Oil, the social consciousness-raising ARG (alternate reality game) launched today by Jane McGonigal and associates. I’m already in flagrant violation of the “this is not a game” convention that governs all ARGs, but since this something I and others here at the Institute aim to follow closely in the coming weeks and months, we’ll have to treat the curtain between fact and fiction as semi-transparent.
From the perspective of our research here, I’m deeply intrigued because the ARG is an entirely net-native storytelling genre, employing forms as diverse and scattered as the media landscape we live in today. ARGs don’t rely on a specific software application, game system or OS, rather they treat the entire Internet as their platform. Players typically employ a whole battery of information technologies — email, chat, blogs, search engines, message boards, wikis, social media sites, cell phones — in pursuit of an elusive narrative thread.
The story is usually spun through cryptic clues and half-disclosures, one bread crumb at a time, by the game’s authors, or “puppetmasters.” To have any hope of success, players must work together, sharing clues and pooling information as they go. The whole point is to make the story into a group obsession — to mobilize players into problem-solving collectives where they can debate and test different hypotheses as a smart mob. It’s sort of like surfing an alternate version of the net, using all the social search tactics of the real one.
Of course, the net is a murky territory, full of conspiracy theories, identity traps and misinformation. ARGs take this uncertainty and make it their idiom. The game (remember, it’s not a game) might involve websites that to the casual observer look perfectly real — a corporate home page, a personal blog — but that are in fact a part of the fiction. ARGs use the playbook of spammers, phishers and social reality hackers like the Yes Men to create a fictional universe that blends seamlessly with the real.
But we’re not just talking about an alternate net here, we’re talking about an alternative world. ARGs frequently assign tasks that pull players away from their computers and propel them into their physical environment (the phenomenally popular I Love Bees had people running all over San Francisco answering pay phones). This couldn’t be more unlike the whole Second Life phenomenon (which, as you may have noticed, we’ve barely covered here). Instead of building a one-to-one simulacrum of the actual world (yeah yeah, you can fly, big whoop), this takes the actual world and tilts it — reinterprets it. There’s imagination happening here.
World Without Oil takes this in a new direction. McGonigal has been talking for some time now about using ARGs for more than just pure play. She believes they could be harnessed to solve real world problems (for more about this, read this recent long piece in SF Weekly by Eliza Strickland). Hence the premise of oil shocks. The WWO website was set up by ten friends who met in the chaos of the Denver Airport during the blizzards this past December. During that time, they bonded and got to talking about citizen journalism and the potential of the web for organizing masses of people to deal with crises without having to rely solely on big media and big government. A weird tip about an impending oil crisis on April 30th got their paranoid wheels turning and they decided to set up a central hub for netizens to send reportage and personal testimonies about life during the shocks. Today is April 30 and lo and behold: the shocks have arrived!
The idea is to collectively imagine a reality that could very likely come to pass, and to share information and ideas — alternative energy innovations, new forms of transport, new forms of community — that could help us get through it. It’s an opportunity for self-reeducation and perhaps the forging of some real-world relationships. There’s even a page for teachers to guide students through this collaborative hallucination, and to learn something about energy geopolitics as they do it.
As an entry to the serious games movement, this has to be one of the most innovative efforts out there. But I find myself wondering whether simply getting everyone to report from their corner of the crisis — postcards from the apocalypse –will be enough to create a full-blown ARG phenomenon. Is this participatory in quite the right way? While I ecstatically applaud the intention here of repurposing a form that to date has been employed mainly as a viral marketing tool (the first ARG was built around Spielberg’s “A.I.” in 2001), I worry that the WWO construct seems to have been shorn of most of the usual mystery elements — the codes, clues and crumbs — that make ARGs so addictive. There’s a whiff of homework here, something perhaps a little too earnest, that could prevent it from gaining traction. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.
Still, even if this fails to take off, I think this is an important milestone and will be important to study as it unfolds. WWO suggests what could be the ideal dystopian form for the cultural moment: a mode of storytelling that taps directly into the present human condition of networked information blitz and tries to channel it toward real-world awareness, or even action. The ARG adopts tactics long employed in military war games and conflict exercises and turns them (at least potentially) toward grassroots activism. WWO is trying to rouse, as Sebastian Mary put it in a previous post, our “democratic imagination. In SF Weekly piece I link to above, McGonigal puts it this way:

“When you start projecting that out to bigger scales, that’s when these games start to look like a real way to achieve, if not world peace, then some kind of world-benevolent conspiracy, where we feel like we are all playing the same game.”

children_of_men_poster-764466.jpg Many people I know loved the film “Children of Men” by Alfonso Cuarón because they felt that it showed them, with the cutting clarity of allegory, the way the world really is. The premise, that the human race has lost the ability to reproduce itself (a dying world, without children, slowly self-destructing), was of course implausible, but all the same it felt like a layer was being peeled away to reveal a terrible truth. Probably the most unsettling moment for me was the lights rose at the end and we exited the theater into the street. Everything looked different, fragile, like something awful was being hidden just beneath the surface. But the feeling soon faded and I filed the experience away: “Children of Men”; a brilliant film; one of the year’s best; shamefully overlooked at the Oscars.
What would “Children of Men” look like as an ARG? What would a networked tactic bring to this story? Would it be simply dispatches from a dying world, or could we do something more constructive? Could the darkened theater and the streets outside somehow be merged?
Our first stories were oral stories. When we were children our parents read to us aloud stories that we listened to over and over again until they were embedded in our unconscious. We knew the stories inside and out, backwards and forwards. Reading became a ritual of call and response: a physical act. In the classroom too, teachers read aloud to us. We knew the stories inside and out, backwards and forwards. Call and response. At recess we ran out into the playground and re-eanacted the stories — replayed them, spun new ones. Those early experiences hearken back to earlier cultures — oral, pre-literate ones where the word was less the realm of contemplation and more the realm of action. ARGs seem to tap into this power of the oral story — the spark of the imagination and then the dash, together, into the playground.