I have a somewhat tortured relationship to literary and cultural criticism. I think that, like most people, some of my most complex and nuanced opinions are essentially aesthetic. I’ve written quite a lot about the nature of art, aesthetics, and what it means to engage with or opine about them over the years, but I’ve struggled to express my own opinions in the form I think they deserve. I’ve read far too much philosophy in which literature, cinema, or music is invoked as a mere symbolic resource, a means marshalled to lend credence to a sequence of trite points otherwise unjustified; and I’ve encountered far too much art in which philosophy is equally instrumental, a spurious form of validation, or worse, a hastily purloined content; art substituted for philosophy, and philosophy substituted for art. I care about each term too much to permit myself such easy equations.
I partially succeeded in writing about Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game, though the task remains unfinished. I also co-wrote a paper on the aesthetics of tabletop RPGs with the inestimable Tim Linward. I’ve got many similar scraps of writing languishing in my drafts folders, including an unfinished essay on Hannu Rajaniemi‘s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy, which is my favourite sci-fi series of the century so far. Science fiction is a topic so near and dear to my heart that I find it difficult to write about in ways that do it justice, with each attempt inevitably spiralling into deeper research and superfluous detail that can’t easily be sustained alongside my other work.
There’s one particular aborted post that’s been lingering at the bottom of my drafts folder for quite a while, which I’ve never quite had the time to elaborate in the way I originally intended. It’s a post about infopunk, which is my term for the proper successor to cyberpunk; a psychedelic virtual progeny that has been trying to claw its way out of the meth-ravaged ambulatory corpse of its progenitor for the last few decades. There’s a lot I would like to say about infopunk as a genre (e.g., how it reflects the ongoing conceptual transition from cybernetic control to information dynamics), the specific examples I think are out there (e.g., the posthuman personalism of Greg Egan’s Diaspora or the inhuman bureaucracy of Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide), and the curious evolution occurring in different mediums (e.g., the thematic shift between Cyberpunk 2020 and Eclipse Phase), but this is once more too much to articulate in the depth it deserves.
However, this didn’t stop me from expressing the following thought on twitter last week, about a significant, if not entirely exemplary instance of the genre:
This thought proved controversial enough that people wanted me to elaborate, and in the process I had to say something about the advent of infopunk.
Okay, since several people have asked me for my surprisingly controversial Ready Player One take, I’ll do my best to make it brief. I’ll start with a criticism of the usual takes, and then present a more positive analysis of my own. Threading begins…
So, I don’t begrudge anyone who didn’t enjoy RPO in either book or movie format. I am not going to claim that it is high art. Indeed, I think the fact that it clearly is not aspiring to such high art is both why the usual takes are wrong and there’s something interesting here.
What are the usual takes? They tend to fall into two categories: 1) that it is intrinsically bad because it reinforces all the problematic tropes of ‘ordinary boy saves the world’ narratives, and 2) that it is contextually bad because it reflects some rightist gamer mindset.
I think these are basically lazy: the low hanging fruit of critical theory. I won’t give loads of examples, as they’re easy to find. Here’s the first that pops to mind.
RPO is essentially a YA novel written for men aged between 30 and 50. The film is a Spielberg blockbuster that widens the demographic lens a bit, principally to include younger people. It also finesses a lot of the more specific wish fulfilment fantasies.
For all the cultural analysis we can throw at this relatively straightforward genre type, there is nothing all that specific to say about it qua genre piece that couldn’t be said (ad nauseam) about similar mainstream fodder. It is very much what it is.
This is one of my main problems with so much of the cultural criticism that’s being endlessly churned our online, sometimes as a substitute for culture: we should first ask what the thing is trying to do, and then assess it in those terms. This is the core task of criticism.
This is not the whole of criticism, but if all you can say about a book/film is that you wished it had been some different type of art, the question remains why you bothered with it at all. Bemoan that other things aren’t getting attention, but permit things to be what they are.
So what is worrisome or interesting about RPO considered as the kind of cultural product that it is? There are two further criticism here that I would like to address: 1) that it ignores the geopolitics of its dystopian future, 2) that it is nothing but an apologia for nostalgia.
I like that it doesn’t delve into geopolitics and the details of climate change, let alone make their solution the focal point of the narrative. This would most likely make it into a bad political film, as every complexity would be trimmed to fit the hero’s journey.
How many YA franchises or sci-fi films stop short of making the entire fate of human civilization rest on their heroes shoulders, or even just let the wider world they’ve created be? The boring dystopia of RPO is better left as setting than being dragged into the plot.
‘Like now, but slightly more, and slightly worse’ is one of the most interesting aspects of good cyberpunk. RPO inherits this, and manages to create a high stakes adventure that doesn’t swallow the scenery.
The second criticism is more important though, because I think it is exactly wrong. It comes from the same place as endless complaints about infantilised millennials (and geek culture especially) wallowing in cultural nostalgia. Again, these criticisms are usually shallow.
Here’s what’s really interesting about RPO: it engages with cultural nostalgia at the level of text rather than subtext. It is about the future of culture in the age of mechanical reproduction; personal identity in the era of simulacra and simulation.
RPO is less nostalgic than The Matrix. The latter embodies the nostalgia for an age of authentic humanity and unmediated reality that has festered in cyberpunk for decades: a sense of loss in the face of technological progress, sometimes accompanied by a call to turn back time.
Cyberpunk was once innovative and interesting, and it could have evolved in many different ways. Neuromancer gave us both the inhuman vista of cyberspace and the vulgar aesthetics of vice. The genre mostly subordinated the former to the latter.
How do we tell that something is cyberpunk? Neon and hookers, mostly. It’s not all bad by any means: Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series is an interesting take on all these themes that makes their endless, tiresome repetition the motor of the story while confining the scale to noir.
But The Matrix? It allows us to have the wish fulfilment fantasy while telling ourselves that it’s all fine, because the point is to get back to the real, to return to old fashioned human goodness before it was corrupted by technology which would always inevitably rebel.
This same conceptual sickness is why we can’t have Hollywood blockbuster sci-fi flicks in which Promethean technological projects are any less than expressions of hubris destined to fail. A weather satellite system can be naught but a Chekhov’s gun, waiting to make things worse.
RPO bucks these trends in an interesting way. It’s about saving the world, but it’s the virtual world, not the real one. It contains (almost) no hand wringing about the way virtuality is making us less human, but shows how it makes us different, through the lens of nostalgia.
There might be people in the RPO universe who think all this 80s nostalgia is totally passé and so spend all their time making and playing with weird and wonderful things we can’t imagine. There are no such people in The Matrix, only NPCs who are obstacles to salvation.
RPO is interesting not because it is great art, but because it’s the first mainstream manifestation of what I’d call infopunk: the genre that crawls out of the festering corpse of cyberpunk once nostalgia for authenticity has been lost, and reality is understood as information.
There are already some great works in this genre. Iain M. Banks is arguably a forerunner, @cstross’s Glasshouse is a favourite, and @hannu’s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy is my pick for the highpoint thus far. There’s much to be done to push it further into the mainstream though.
But RPO remains the most impressive pop culture manifestation of these ideas, and it manifests them unpretentiously and accessibly, in unapologetically low culture entertainment. Of course, this is why some really hate it, but they’re the real nostalgics.
Right, I completely failed to keep that brief. I think I got the point across though.
I don’t want to tie the concept of infopunk too closely to RPO. I don’t mean to rebuff all criticisms of either the book or the film, because I genuinely don’t think either is great, even if I do think they’re both fun. I simply want to point out the importance of understanding their cultural significance despite such criticisms.
One reason I have for picking The Matrix as a point of contrast is precisely that it was a staple example favoured by philosophy teachers for years, invoked to give students intuitive purchase on the extreme epistemological skepticism of Descartes’ Meditations, or the weird semantic worries of Putnam’s ‘Brain in a Vat‘. Anyone still teaching philosophy will already know that this no longer works: most of the current generation of students haven’t seen it, likely because it was released before they were born. This might simply be a contingent problem solved easily by showing it to them or picking a better example, but I find myself wondering whether the anxieties about the difference between reality and simulation upon which The Matrix is premised are experienced by these students in the same way as earlier audiences, and whether as yet unborn generations will find them ever more alien.
I attended a talk by Raymond Tallis earlier this week, where I found myself nodding along with his story about the distinctive character of human intentionality and the apparatus of personhood, right up to the point at which he dismissed the possibility of mind-uploading out of hand. This is a popular critique of transhumanism amongst academic humanists and critical posthumanists alike. However, I have yet to find an actual argument for the impossibility that did not collapse back into the very theological tropes that such thinkers are so quick to apply to transhumanists. There are often loud repetitions of the same old nonsense (i.e., Searle’s Chinese room, misapplications of Turing, etc.), but rarely is the mysterious quality that cannot be simulated actually examined in any depth. In Tallis’s case, he argued that intentionality required continuous social contact of a kind that any merely simulated subject would lack. The question I put to him was this: have you ever seen people play World of Warcraft?
I tried to argue that it’s entirely reasonable to imagine multiple simulated subjects interacting with one another socially, and interacting with a simulated environment updated by familiar forms of input/output, but the argument turned in a very small circle, insofar as Tallis believes that whatever social recognition is required to institute personhood must be granted by a real person, and there is thus no way for virtual persons to bootstrap themselves into reality. This neither explains how humans ended up as real persons in the first place, nor why it is impossible for us humans to extend recognition to our computational comrades. But this is somewhat beside the point, which is that Tallis and much of his audience instinctively distinguished between virtual sociality and real sociality. These instincts are being eaten by the increasingly complex forms of informatic mediation through which we live our lives, and I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing.
Once more, this is where RPO is interesting. It reflects this ongoing cultural elision of the boundary between reality and simulation. On the one hand, it presents a world in which the spectacle has continued to subsume every aspect of human desire, where the society of control has continued to fragment and delimit every element of human activity, or where the human security system has explicitly become a matter of cultural trends and marketing strategies. On the other, beneath the camp and the cliches lies a deep frustration with the present, and a naive belief in the potential of not just virtual, but augmented and alternate reality. That belief is indicative of the death of cyberpunk, the passing of meatspace nostalgia; the everyday desire for a better world, physical or otherwise.