Sunday, November 20, 2011

Literally Literate

I wanted to do a post on this subject before, but I think I'll sneak around on it from the back, briefly. I'm reading Conversations with Octavia Butler, one of the University Press of Mississippi collections of interviews with a wide range of writers. It includes a transcript of a joint appearance by Butler and Samuel R. Delany at MIT in 1998 (which, happily, is also available online). The main topic they address is literacy, from a variety of perspectives. One person in the audience explains:
I'm in the computer entertainment industry. In the computer entertainment industry, literacy has vanished. Whereas in 1984 about one-third of the best-selling game programs were text-based games, by 1986, there were none--zero--on the market. And, in fact, I've just read a couple of interviews with John Romero and Ken Williams where they're asking, "How can we get the rest of the text out of the games. How can we get rid of these text-bubbles?" And there are still people writing text-games, but it's sort of goes on by samizdat; it's underground. And the thing is that the people playing these games are very literate; they're not unable to read. They don't want to read.
I was mildly annoyed by the misuse of "samizdat" and "underground" here. "Samizdat" means "self-published," but it originated among dissidents in the Soviet Union who copied forbidden material and circulated it hand-to-hand. When I read about it in the 70s and 80s, it involved typing the material on typewriters, often with as many carbon copies as possible (which meant a lot of barely-legible copies circulated). According to Wikipedia the practice extended "to printing on mainframe printers during night shifts, to printing the books on semi-professional printing presses in larger quantities." In any case it was illegal and dangerous for the people involved. "Underground" has similar origins. As far as I know, there are no laws against, nor any official suppression of text-based adventure games; the game manufacturers simply decided not to produce them any more.

Also annoying is the claim that "literacy has vanished" in the game industry. It's like saying that "literacy has vanished" in the movies since the advent of sound.

I never was very good at the text-based games, but I spent more time on them than I ever have with their all-graphics successors. As the speaker told Delany and Butler, the trend was toward "graphical violence games that introduced this concept of running around and killing everything you see and watching its blood spurt ... And I thought, 'This is interesting. This is the kind of thing that he wants to do and the kind of game he wants to make.'" This was socially acceptable as the US became an increasingly militarized garrison state that didn't mind if young males think of war itself as a video game.

Still, I think there were other issues involved. A popular buzzword at the time of this discussion (1998) was virtual reality, born partly of cyberpunk science fiction that imagined jacking in, direct brain-to-computer link that used the brain as both input and output device. Instead of a game controller, you used your thoughts; instead of a monitor, the visuals were generated in your brain, in your literal mind's eye. A year after this conversation, the Wachowski Brothers released The Matrix, which used these concepts to advance a postmodernist Gnosticism, though most of the fans didn't get it and just wanted to be able to do all those cool stunts.

Having already been infected by the heresies of various computer skeptics, I always viewed claims for this technology critically: as usual with computers and science, the claims always far outstripped anything that was actually possible at the time. I once had a funny conversation with an undergraduate who was thrilled by the possibilities of virtual reality. He didn't realize, and strongly resisted grasping, that any virtual reality can only be as "real" as the data that the programmers put into the host computer; he seemed to think that it would grow in there by itself somehow. I have some friends and relatives who play a lot of video games, so I've been able to sample the current state of the art; it's pretty impoverished, even worse than 60s TV sci-fi shows. I'm even less tempted to get one of these things than a smartphone.

Anyway, I think the reason why so many game programmers wanted to get rid of the text-bubbles (and I get the impression they haven't quite succeeded yet) was less hostility to literacy than a desire to engineer virtual reality: you wouldn't need a text-bubble to tell what is over the next hill, or what you're smelling or tasting or how many coins you have in your money pouch; you'd perceive it directly through your senses. If a guy who just wanted cooler 3-D blood fountains happened to be a talented game designer and programmer, so much the better, though of course it was convenient that he was in touch with the mindset of potential players and the Reagan/Rambo zeitgeist.

Another related topic that came up in the MIT discussion was "hypertext." The World Wide Web was touted at first as the advent of hypertext, and though it fulfilled its promise a little better than virtual reality, hypertext isn't the buzzword it used to be, for similar reasons. Delany pointed out, though not quite explicitly, that hypertext too is only as good as the links you put into it. He mentioned a few "hypertext novels" that he'd found interesting, but went on:
All texts, in a sense, are hypertext. You come to a word you don't understand, so you look it up in the dictionary. You read a passage and you stop and you think about another book; you may even put it down and go get another book off your bookshelf and read something about something else. Texts are not linear. Texts are multiple and for anybody who really reads and enjoys reading, it is an interactive process.
What hypertext and the interactive material do is make that a much less energy-intensive process; as such, on the absolute scale, they are less interactive than the ones we've got now because in order to interact with the ones you've got now, you have to put out more energy. Now I think something is gained by having the interactivity require less energy. It becomes a medium in itself that's interestingly exploitable.
But not only do you limit the amount of interactivity, you also limit the places you can go. So the interactive text is not an expansion of what we've got now; it's a delimitation of what we've got now. If you read, as I was doing a couple of days ago, Walter Pater's "Plato and Platonism," I stop every two pages or less and have to go read a section from Heidegger or read a section by Derrida where he's talking about Plato. "Is that where this idea came from? Oh! Why is he using this word 'parousia'? Didn't I see this word?"
Just bear in mind that the interactivity in the new different interactive art is less energy-intensive and there are less places that you go within it. It's fascinating, and it's lots of fun, but it's not more interactive than what we had before; it's less interactive.
Much of this linking is serendipitous. The writer of the text doesn't know where the reader will go from material the writer has put into the text, but the range of possibilities is much greater for just that reason. As Delany also said,
It's the same thing with the physical books on the shelves. Anybody who does actual research in a library knows that you look on this shelf and then you turn around and you look on this thing, it's not related alphabetically; it's not related subject-wise; it just happens to be the book you need. And if you don't have the physical propinquity of the way the books are arranged, you're going to miss out on this opportunity, and this limits the kinds of research gems that can come up.
This has happened to me many times. Something similar can happen when you follow a link to another page, which also contains links to some "related articles" generated by software. The possibilities of computer searching are also great -- I love the ability to search a book online for a word or idea that otherwise would take hours to find, if I found it at all -- but we need both virtual and physical libraries.

On a more cynical note, I have long believed that elites consider literacy dangerous. They'd love to limit it -- ideally, by direct intervention into the brain so that readers could only look for, read, or understand, approved texts. That's because elites need the rabble to have minimal functional literacy in order to serve elite ends; but once you teach someone to read, it's hard to predict or control what she'll read next. This is why schools teach reading and writing so badly, in order to get a few fluent readers and writers, and many who just stumble along, regarding text as something vaguely unpleasant. I'm not saying that someone sat down and consciously decided to do it that way; but our current, traditional approach works well enough for official purposes, to produce enough literates to do the necessary work while leaving the rest only half-taught. The ongoing drive by corporate and government elites to censor the Internet might just give a boost to physical print, though: the forbidden, as Butler pointed out in connection with slaves' great desire to learn to read and write, automatically becomes attractive.

And despite all the handwringing, the Internet hasn't killed literacy yet, and I see no danger that it will: people still need to know how to write so they can leave bigoted and misinformed comments on Youtube and their local newspapers' websites, after all.