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Media

The poem is not, of course, in any way required to appear on the device. It may choose to appear in a more tactile medium – in the book, the magazine, the chapbook, the broadsheet – but the totalizing nature of the device means that this gesture is increasingly to choose irrelevance. Books and journals, magazines and newspapers, are more and more frequently available only in electronic formats. People demand that what they read appear on whatever screen they happen to be holding in their hands. In a culture where all eyes are on devices (rarely straying from them even long enough to cross the street, eat dinner, or make love), there is a real risk that the poem chooses irrelevance by not appearing through that medium.

Choosing not to have poetry appear as machine content also risks reinforcing more absolutely the division between a broader popular culture (for which poetry is at best a curiosity) and the narrow elitist culture of poets and their readers. This division has long been widening. Refusing to have poetry appear on the device threatens to make the distance untraversable. If poetry insists on being obscure, not only by way of form and sensibility but also by way of inaccessibility through popular media, there are few who will bother to go looking for it.

The choice that the device presents to the poem, therefore, is either to appear (and become content-image-data before poem) or not to appear (and risk irrelevance and elitism), and the choice is not without moral implication, because the purpose of content is to lead unreflexively from one swipe or click to the other (swipe, swipe, swipe – click, click, click). It is to facilitate rapid and effortless consumption, to put eyes on advertisement after advertisement. Its function is to distract and sedate so that its consumers can be analyzed and in this way better targeted.

In other words, it is no longer religion that opiates the masses. It hasn’t been since the television occupied the space formerly reserved for the household shrine. It certainly isn’t now that the handheld device occupies the space formerly reserved for prayer beads, each flick of the thumb counting another Instagram Hail Mary, another Facebook Our Father. We no longer need religion to sedate ourselves. We have pro sports and reality television, social media and augmented reality, all in the palms of our hands. Why should we rely on some future religious paradise to distract ourselves from our socio-political problems when the paradise of the present is available on our twitter feeds and our YouTube channels? Content is now the opiate of the masses.

To the extent that poetry subordinates itself to the logic of the device, therefore, to the extent that it becomes just another set of content to sedate and tranquilize users, something to flick through idly – neither active nor passive, merely idling, like a car with the engine running but the transmission in park – it ceases to perform the function of art. It ceases to provoke, to defamiliarize, to discomfort. It consents to serve an economic logic, not just of its own production (as art always does to one degree or another, whether serving the honour of a patron or the bottom line of a publisher), but also of the whole culture of the device, of content exchanged for advertizing and analytics. It becomes merely one more pill in the bottle of cultural sedatives that the device keeps ever close to hand.

The device reduces poetry, like everything else, to content. Which is to say, in order to appear on the device, the poem must become an image or a recording that is clickable, swipeable, sharable, and likeable. It must be susceptible to search engine optimization, to analytics, to data mining. It must become (at least in potential) the site for an economy of clicks, views, and advertisement. This is the logic of the device. It is the medium for which everything becomes content and for which no amount of content is sufficient, because content drives its economy.

In being reduced to content the poem simultaneously consents to become data, a file with a designation, a series of coded ones and zeros. To appear on the device as content, it must populate a place in the database, be housed as data on a server, be arranged and ordered by the server’s “back end”. It must become a series of bytes that can be instantly disseminated and infinitely reproduced. This is true without exception. Content and data are inseparable for the device.

This reduction to content-data is insidious because it appears like expansion. The poem is no longer confined to the brute physics of the page but is now freed into the far more fluid physics of the device. It can be copied and shared around the world, can be searched and found from any point on the planet, can be read by any device with access to the network – all without the time and expense of printers and papers and international shipping. The poem has been transmuted into pure energy, has left the restrictions of its corporeal body behind.

But this expansion is illusory, because it is an expansion of the poem only with respect to reproduction, distribution, access, and searchability. It comes at the cost of a commensurate reduction in its function as a poem, because the poem (as is true of anything) always appears on the device primarily as something other than itself. It does not cease to be a poem, but it appears first as content-data and only second as a poem, if indeed it ever manages to appear as a poem at all. It is unable to avoid its functional equivalence to a dick pic or a celebrity tweet, a baseball highlight or an algorithmically generated news article. Whatever distinctions might be said to exist between these things (and they are not many as we might like to assume), they are essentially interchangeable for the device. The device makes all things appear as content first, and only secondarily, if ever, as what they purport to be.

This has always been the case with every medium, of course, at least to a certain extent. In a book, for example, the poem appears first as book and page and only second as a poem, but the device adds additional layers of mediation. It contains the poem, certainly, but it also contains the books, the pages, and the apps through which the poem appears. It has likewise reduced these things to thumbnail images in a list, to items in a database, to locations for advertising. Authors of ebooks are now often paid by the number of pages that readers have read, which is to say the number of clicks made, the number of potential advertisements viewed. In this sense, then, the poem on the device appears first as application, then as image, then as page (or post, or tweet, or status update), then as site for advertisement, and only lastly as poem.

For this reason, the device might be better understood as a kind of arch-medium, a medium through which other media are made to appear. More importantly, although these kinds of arch-media have existed before (the television is a proto-device in this sense), the device is now so dominant, so totalizing in its cultural influence, that it is quickly becoming (if it has not already become) the only medium through which other media can relevantly appear.

The device enforces this reduction to its own logic to such a radical degree, not because it offers anything by way of speed or efficiency over other media (though it claims, appears, and sometimes may even actually do so); not because it is more immediate than other media (it is in fact far more mediated); not because it enables greater social connection than other media (though it might do so, at the cost of social relation); not even because it now occupies a more central cultural role than other media (though this is unquestionably true). Its totalizing influence is much more a function of the fact that it has made itself the only available interface between data and content, making it indispensable for accessing the content to which it requires all things to be reduced.

Whereas non-digital media like a book might be interpreted by anyone who can read, even (with enough labour) if the original language has been lost, the data of the device is in every case irrecoverable without the proper machine reader. The poem as image or text or audio file cannot be accessed without the proper program to read it, the proper hardware to run and display it. The device thus renders access to data entirely dependant on its own technology, ensuring that once a critical mass of poems (and family photos and tax returns and wiki articles and porno clips) has become data, we are no longer able to access the various elements of our lives without its intervention. Once we have written our poems as text files, once we have published them in online journals, posted them on blogs, or reduced them to a hundred and forty characters on twitter, we have become dependent on the device and its logic to recover them.

This is the fourth poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.


This is the third poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.


This is the second poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.


This is the first poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.


VRHelmetweb

I don’t often write about video gaming, first because I haven’t had much time for games since I was a teen, and second because even then I only liked certain kinds of games. Even so, I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities that gaming has for producing what I’ll call “open-worlds”, and some of what I saw from this year’s E3 conference started me thinking about how these open-worlds might be better accomplished.

I should probably start with some context.  The vast majority of games bore me, always have.  Sports games are the worst, and first-person shooters are close behind, but almost all games feel to me like little more than combinations of complex hand-eye co-ordination endlessly repeated. I hear all the time how video games are the medium that will tell this generation’s stories, but if so, this generation’s stories are largely pretty sad (A revenge story? Has it been done?).  At best, their used as a veneer to justify massive and brutal violence.  Often they don’t even manage that.

I hear also how video games create immersive worlds for players to explore and fuel their imagination, but again, these imaginative worlds are usually little more than pretty settings for whatever carnage that forms the game’s central focus.  Newer and better generations of technology improve the textures, the lighting, the AI, almost everything but the world in which the game takes place, which remains largely neglected.

That isn’t to say that I hated all games as a kid.  I enjoyed playing games like Mario Kart with my brothers, and there were two games that made me realize what games might actually achieve if they were made by people who wanted the same things as I did.  The ability to accomplish tasks in a non-linear way in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time showed me a first glimpse of what an open-world might be (even if its dungeons and its story were still basically linear), and Myst showed me the kind of story and mystery and originality that might make an open-world truly worth exploring.  I played both those games and their sequels to death, though always feeling like I wanted to combine them, to play in a truly open-world, with all the elements of story and wonder that this phrase means for me.

Then, in 2002, Morrowind was released.  Now, to be clear, first-person choppers don’t rank much higher in my estimation than first-person shooters, but when I saw the world of Morrowind I knew I had to play it.  The sheer freedom of the game play and the complexity of the intermingling storylines and the novelty of the world (which the Elder Scrolls series has yet to replicate), came the closest of any game to the kind of open-world that I had imagined.  In fact, for the first few days I owned the game, I turned on god-mode and just wandered around the world looking at things, before I went back and played it through.  It’s still one of the few games (despite its awkward combat and its many bugs) that produced genuine moments of wonder in me.

Just as important, Bethesda Softworks, the creator of the Morrowind, included a constructor set with the game that allowed gamers to mod the entire world, adding something as simple as a new pair of shoes or as complex as a whole new island, complete with stories and dungeons and monsters.  In one case, a group of modders used the tool to try and recreate a whole different world distinct from the game, essentially taking on the task of a game studio as an amateur community.  This constructor set pushed my conception of open-worlds to include the possibility of changing those worlds, to be involved in their creation, a possibility that has proven its attraction through recent titles like Minecraft. I realized that I didn’t just want to explore beautiful worlds and complex stories, I wanted tools to change and recreate them.

In this respect, many recent games, even ones that are otherwise open (the other Elder Scrolls titles, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Witcher, and so forth), or that have attempted more sophisticated story (The Last of Us gave me chills with the giraffe scene), or that have focused on experiential worlds (Journey is a personal favourite, and Elegy for a Dead World is an interesting experiment with users contributing to story), have done little to further the capacity of gamers to participate in the making of their own worlds.

Which brings us at last to this year’s E3 conference and, in particular, to Bethesda’s presentations.  Among Bethesda’s various titles they gave a lengthy introduction to DOOM (formerly Doom 4), which is the prototypical mindless shooter (Wow, look how realistic the chainsaw animations are!), so much so that I almost didn’t finish watching the presentation.  However, Bethesda then went on to announce the inclusion of Doom SnapMap, which offers gamers the tools to make incredibly complex game levels.  The levels being created still interest me hardly at all, but the tool itself is amazing.  I would pay for it on its own if it were expanded to include other elements beyond those from the game.  The ability to create interior spaces quickly and easily, to furnish them, and to create scripted interactions between NPCs offers gamers massive opportunities to create, not just more game levels, but also complex machinima, custom multiplayer story, and who knows what else.

Imagine being able to construct a story in a game world and then inviting your friends to join you in it, to watch it play out around you, to participate in it, even to experiment with how your interaction changes it. Imagine this tool being available for your favourite game, or your favourite movie, or your favourite book for that matter. What could you do with it?  What would your open-world become?

Another of Bethesda’s E3 games, Fallout 4, provided yet another possibility for building open-worlds.  Fallout 3, the first of the series to be published by Bethesda, was already pretty open in its story and its structure, a prototypical sandbox game that essentially transported the experience of the Elder Scrolls series into the post-apocalyptic future with a genre-saving dash of 50’s retro humour. It was easily good enough to amuse me (though the New Vegas follow up content seemed sub-standard), but it didn’t offer much in the way of allowing the user to recreate the world beyond limited customization of your home.

Fallout 4, however, more than just a re-hash of its predecessor on a new generation of console, includes two remarkable features.  First, some structures in the game can be torn apart and reutilized to make new structures, including houses, electrical systems, defensive positions and so forth.  Second, all of the items in the world (and Bethesda is famous for letting players interact with all of the  ridiculous numbers of mostly useless items that it scatters throughout its worlds), can be used for their component parts in order to create new weapons and other items. These two modes of engaging with the game allow users to customize it in interesting ways, making it more truly an open-world.

Both of these functions have appeared in other games, of course.  Bethesda is not breaking entirely new ground here, but in the context of the SnapMap presentation, it struck me how this form of game interaction has so many possibilities beyond just building houses and customizing weapons.  What if the expanded SnapMap open-worlds we were imagining also integrated the capacity to alter elements in-world, to take what the designer had created and recreate it? What if the open-worlds that we imagined were always susceptible to other players or even NPC’s using them in ways we didn’t expect? What if the materials of our open-worlds became available to us in ways that mimic real worlds?

Again, what could you create with tools like that? Given the opportunity to become the creator of an open and interactable world, what stories would you tell?  As I first glimpsed in the Morrowind Constructor Set, it’s this kind of freedom that I really want in a game.  I want to do more than just wander through a designer’s imagination (which is usually limited by catering to certain kinds of gamers). I want to change, recreate, and experiment with the game.  In the end, I want a game that is simply the tools for its own creation.