<em>Pax</em>, Writing, and Change

Pax, Writing, and Change

2008-02-29

Stuart Moulthrop argues that Pax answers John Cayley’s question, “What would textual instruments look like?” Moulthrop maintains that one plays this electronic text (in the manner of a musical instrument) as much as one reads it.

1.

These brief notes are offered in place of something longer and more fully considered, for which there will probably never be time. These days, reflection is a luxury in most working lives, and it comes particularly dear for those who work in cybertext, which can claim neither the high-cultural entitlements of literature nor the market appeal of video games, but subsists on the margins of those worlds, among others. Most who move in this edgy space are amateurs, obsessives, and/or academics, people driven by, if not to, distraction. We are always “of two minds,” as Michael Joyce (1975) put it, though two is by no means a maximum.

While obsession and compulsion come with the territory, it seems impossible to be single-minded about cybertext. Writing in this context necessarily takes in more than traditional literary composition, so that staying alive in craft demands an ever expanding mastery of concepts, tools, and techniques, from object-oriented programming to database integration, from sampling and looping to 3D modeling and CAVE painting. In this sprawling poetics, grammar and rhetoric must make room for interaction design and information architecture, an adjustment that seems more accommodation than displacement. At the same time, though, earlier assumptions about voice and vision, narration and presentation collide with the ethos of play, as we find ourselves inevitably edging across the boundary between literature and ludology. In this case, compromise or “remediation” seem less eligible. It is tempting to say, always of course with a fortifying dose of postmodern irony, that we have reached the end of a certain literary history, if indeed we do not stand outside it altogether.

That history always had its problems. It was hard enough to be a writer in the old century, when cinema, radio, and television controlled the cultural agenda. Then, literary people could at least invoke a purity of critical detachment, lampooning the world of broadcast media and other Airborne Toxic Events as if these monstrosities could not touch the core concerns of writing. That was an illusion, to be sure, but like most magic tricks, no less powerful for its emptiness. Now, though, as the mass of media morphs in so many ways to multi-, this Puritanism seems harder to sustain, at least in my neck of the marches. Some of us think that writing itself has changed, transformed in far from superficial ways by its contact with digital culture. The change affects writers as well. Like Thomas Pynchon’s Scurvhamites, we may find ourselves looking longingly into the machine, embracing its profane possibilities, choosing to defect from the Elect.

Increasingly, these moments of reflection when one writes about new media provide distinct relief from the main task of writing in the new media, in structures at once ominous and utopian. Lawrence Lessig describes the threshold of a new order in communication, one that might revise the balance between reception and production to create a new common ground for creativity, a “read-write” culture (Lessig 2005). At the same time, recall that al Qaeda means the base, as in database. One man’s rhizome, another’s tool for militant jihad.

Through all this turmoil runs the quicksilver essence of language, now as much performative as magical, adding to inspiration or incantation the banal sublime of cybernetics. John Cayley declares that “programming is writing,” a proposition I hasten to endorse because I also believe in its converse, namely, the transformation of all words anywhere into cybernetic operators (Cayley 1999). But of course this maneuver raises no end of questions. What can it mean to write in dynamic and emergent systems, designing networks for playful readers who will twist, permute, and otherwise change all our clever regimes? Or to turn the lens outward, how can we continue to satisfy that irresistible critical impulse, situating ourselves within a moment, a history, and a history of resistance? How can the calling of the writer be responsible to a common experience that seems increasingly consumed by war, catastrophe, and indeed revolution, however we choose to define that most slippery term?

As always, questions are the simple part. Answers come harder, and as I have previously apologized, this piece is far too easy. The remarks that follow come at these big questions only in dim and cursory ways, and really only in respect of my cybertext called Pax: An Instrument, which no one could mistake for the best of its kind (Moulthrop 2003). Nonetheless, for what it is, Pax did emerge in large part from an attempt to frame and respond to large concerns like those named here; so perhaps the exercise can have at least some diagnostic value.

2.

Thematically, Pax traces back, like so much else these days, to the late summer of 2001, when agents of al Qaeda turned commercial airliners into terror weapons, touching off a panic about airline and “homeland” security, along with an interminable war against enemies to be named later. In other words, Pax began on that terrible day the world ended; or strictly speaking, several months into the end times that followed. As I say in the introduction: “’Pax’ is a lesser apocalypse that began to unveil itself one stormy spring day near Dallas when someone closed the terminal and the guns came out.”

The events behind this remark bear no comparison to the sufferings of 9/11 victims, or those caught up in the deadly hurricanes of 2005, or any calamities that may have ensued between this writing and your reading; but they will nonetheless be familiar to anyone who has been a frequent flyer in these first years of the new century. Passing through Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in March 2002, I was among a large group of people stopped at gunpoint by National Guardsmen and prevented from entering a part of the terminal whose security had somehow been compromised. Possibly someone had run through a checkpoint or displayed other alarming behavior. There may have been a threatening phone call. For all we knew, someone may simply have ignored posted warnings and made a joke about a bomb. These were the days when irony was dead.

We never learned the particulars. Confusion was general. An hour or so into the incident, I watched a soldier call his girlfriend on his cell phone, asking if there was anything about us on CNN. There was not.
We were held up about four hours, all told, during which time the crowd grew larger and less patient. Various conflicting announcements were made in person and over the P.A. system. Buses were coming to take us to connecting flights, or to hotels. They never arrived. At one point we were told to exit the terminal. We could leave the airport, presumably on foot and without checked luggage, or we could stand on the sidewalk in the warm prairie rain, as most of us did, waiting to see what came next. I had a brief conversation with a couple of troopers who seemed as puzzled as the would-be travelers, though considerably more patient. This was good, because there remained between us the awkward fact of their orders, which probably included shooting us if we tried to re-enter the terminal.

Eventually the whole thing dissipated. The guards stood aside. Someone had resolved the problem, whatever it was, or erased it from the official version of the day. Nothing had happened, after all. We hurried off to our flights, which were ready for immediate departure. Everyone flew away.
By luck or grace, no one’s world actually ended. The worst of my troubles amounted to temporary inconvenience, and I eventually made it home without so much as a lost bag - hardly an apocalypse, one might object. Still, if presidents can sideline the literal in search of a deeper truth, why not writers? I mean the term in its strict sense of revelation or unveiling, of the end of concealment, or nakedness. There is always a certain exposure or vulnerability in travel, particularly in flying; and this sense is all the more acute when my travels take me to Dallas, another place where the end of the world once played, where the curtains were pulled back, for a brief and fatal moment, then slyly restored. You can learn a lot there.

Transiting Dallas that particular day, I picked up some important lessons about the new America, with its penchant for armed response on the one hand and secrecy on the other, with its silent bureaucracies and its need not to know. Pax then was born as a meditation on flying and falling, on judgment and its lapses, and the terrible eschatology of airports; but above all, it configured itself as a system of imperfect information.

3.

Technically speaking, Pax is a relatively compact cybertext built in Macromedia’s Shockwave Flash environment for delivery via the World Wide Web. Combining animations derived from rendered 3D graphics with written text, the project explores a space between hypertext on the one hand, and video games on the other. Its technical motivation came from a remark made in early 2001 by John Cayley, who noted that we play many things besides games, including musical instruments. What, he wondered, would textual instruments look like? One possible answer is Pax.

In this work, the reader/player elicits and assembles text by interacting with characters who drift through the main section of the screen. These floating figures cycle through animations that make them seem to spin through the air. At first the figures move from the bottom of the screen to the top, though later they reverse course. They appear only faintly until the player brings the mouse pointer close to them, when they become more substantial. Moving over the outline of a character arrests that character’s progress and fixes the character within a superimposed clock face.

Clicking at this point causes the system to retrieve a passage of text and add it to a scrolling field on the right-hand side of the screen. The text comes in two flavors or types: a generalized, algorithmically generated near-nonsense that represents the random babble of the unconscious; or a more coherent prose passage that represents some focused comment on the character’s predicament. The type of response is determined by the relative awareness of the character. When the player clicks on the floating figure, an image of the character’s face appears toward the bottom of the screen. Initially the eyes are closed, but if the player clicks the floating body repeatedly, the eyes open and track the player’s mouse movement. This change indicates that the character has become focused, so that a further query will call up some more coherent or meaningful text. Or perhaps it will not, because after a certain number of clicks, characters go dormant again and the player must re-engage them.

After text appears, the character drifts away, and the player may either let that character go or hold for further questioning. Once a character has been clicked, he or she will return within a few seconds. Since the number of characters who can appear at any given point is limited, engagement with one figure entails an opportunity cost, since others will remain offstage. Reading/playing thus becomes a matter of selection and filtering, a trait inherited both from hypertext and games.

There are strong temporal elements as well. Apocalypse implicates the clock as well as the calendar, as Alan Moore showed in Watchmen. While all this play of text and graphics unfolds in Pax, a clock is running. The time advances against real time at a standard multiplier, but jumps ahead whenever the player interrogates a character. Interaction carries a time cost. The current clock reading is displayed in various ways, including a digital timestamp that accompanies every bit of retrieved text, an analog clock face superimposed on the drifting characters when their progress is arrested, and a steady darkening of the graphical space on the screen as the time grows later. There are twelve hours to any full session with Pax, after which the system displays a final graphic and shuts down.

In addition to the temporal features, which probably show the strongest connection between Pax and games, the design also has two spatial registers, whose derivation owes more to hypertext fiction and its theory. One of these is the graphical space, the anomalous but steadily darkening blankness through which the characters rise and fall. The other is the text field, which displays items not in isolation but in a single, accreting scroll. This design feature responds to a challenge by the poet and theorist Jim Rosenberg, who has defined “spatial hypertext” as an attempt to build structures of simultaneity and contiguity, instead of the binary replacement characteristic of the World Wide Web (Rosenberg 1996). On this level at least, Pax works by addition, not disjunction; though to be sure, its general architecture strongly emphasizes fragmentation.

In terms of its design pattern, Pax is a sequencer: a program that selects textual elements from a database and presents them to the player/reader in response to certain choices. When I was younger and yet more foolish, I once described Michael Joyce’s afternoon as an invisible, automatic railroad (Moulthrop 1989). I suppose I meant this critically, but it did not keep me from hopping the next available freight. Thus, Pax is also a “robotic” textual system, and has its own set of invisible rails. Departing from the classic hypertext model, it adds two elements not available in Joyce’s Storyspace environment: the progressive play clock, and a random value generator. Text is selected from a database identified with the character who is currently detained or in focus. The selection is based on a pseudo-random number. In turn, each character owns several source databases, which are rotated in and out of use as the play clock passes through six phases, each comprising two hours of the text’s unreal time.

Thus, Pax is really not much like a musical instrument, but closer to a kind of 31st century dim sum joint run by a gang of vaguely malevolent robots. Imagine the text bits as covered plates, wheeled through the establishment by silent, glowering automata. The diners can stop the mechanical staff at any point to request a serving of the mystery dish, but they can never know exactly what they will find when the cover is removed. They can only be sure that the menu will shift gradually through six “movements”: “Shaken Out of Time,” “American Flyers,” “Home Land,” “Evil Ones,” “Falling,” and “Total Information.” In each of these thematic clusters, the writing channeled through the characters falls into certain patterns or rhetorical positions. Though I have my own way of thinking about these patterns, I leave it to reader/players to find their own definitions. Hopefully, a certain broad, architectural outline should be evident. On any given run, the trajectory of the text is meant to display the parabolic symmetry of flying and falling, a pattern with a certain terrible necessity.

Excerpt from a Pax Transcript

SO …

Can you imagine emptiness without falling stars?

I.W.
… … … … … . .
L’entre-jeu. The hand pauses in the arc of a million unmade moves. The mind overflows with emptiness.

The more we see, the less we understand.
Before the dogs began to bark, we didn’t read much as a rule.
References: future, homeland, patriot, nowhere, watchword.
It has more and more been hard to embrace pain.

e*star
… … … … … . .
This isn’t what I expected … all this whiteness … so much nothing. Let me guess, the boys in black got it wrong - how totally not surprising.

With weapons like this, who needs leaders?
References: last call, more time, from hell, turbulence.

MM
… … … … … . .
Dance macabre, dance bizarre, the greatest show not of this earth.

How can one think of belief without beer cans?

MM
… … … … … . .
Like a bird she circles, like a fish; or like something she hasn’t begun yet to imagine.

You have the money to descend.

03:44:26
PASSENGERS ARE ASKED TO REMAIN WHERE THEY ARE UNTIL THE AREA IS SECURE.

Wait there’s more.
How can there be disbelief without chicken legs?
The more we comprehend, the more we truly know.

Rafe
… … … … … . .
I’ll answer for all of this someday.

After this, the American century becomes meaningless.
Before the crows ate all the corn, this country never really dreamed.

Slowhand
… … … … … . .
Rosemary and sweetmeats tartine in port wine reduction (Bistro bistro, 1992).

Think about this: channel, state fear, uprising, company, precaution, official.

NGOfer
… … … … … . .
Who made the world? I have no idea.

Before the mail arrived, I hardly saw into next week.
Before the shares were called in, America never thought about the matter.
You have the necessity to believe.

Di Laffing
… … … … … . .
Once I did not believe in the concept of evil. That was before I got legal representation.

It has unluckily been necessary to live with falsehood.
Now this.
Before the mail arrived, this country knew nothing.

Blackbird
… … … … … . .
What do you do about the blood?

Our concerns include: peace, annoyance, zero sum, suicide, war speak, suspect.

Di Laffing
… … … … … . .
Fear no evil.

Can you conceive of fear without junk mail?

Di Laffing
… … … … … . .
So maybe I am dead, and so are all those other confused-looking folks who by the way don’t seem to have read the memo about casual dress in the afterlife. Did someone do this to us? Do I care?

After this, all they taught us comes to be radiant with hope.

mira
… … … … … . .
Was there in fact always something terrible lurking here in this blank playground of empire’s unspeakable fantasy?

It has often been conceivable to understand belief.
With enemies like this, who needs enemies?

Di Laffing
… … … … … . .
I was never much for the physical stuff but I can do falls as well as the next girl, just you watch.

The less we learn about the struggle, the more we know what home is.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of security.
A free people do not hide.

Nathan
… … … … … . .
What if we’re just going?

Before we knew, the subject never looked much into the sky.

Butcher
… … … … … . .
He feels no more susceptible to this perception of ‘falling’ than he was to ‘rising’ before. The claim remains ungrounded; as the newspapermen say, an unsourced quote.

Items of interest: pass over, anxiety, nice day, struggle, interrupt, taken up.

Di Laffing
… … … … … . .
Reasons to suspect God doesn’t have a very well developed ability to laugh at himself: (1) penises (2) uncircumcised penises (3) Tammy Faye is naked under her clothes (4) land mines (5) the city of Burbank.

Items of interest: thanks jc, going up, alliance, stormcloud, defend.
After this, the American century gets empty as an old lost shoe.
It has momentarily been conceivable to escape life.

Di Laffing
… … … … … . .
Further evidence that Sigmund Freud did a better impression of God than George Burns ever could: (1) having to put condoms on sex toys (2) what can happen if you forget the condom (3) you can’t call yourself Queer these days unless you’ve got a Theory (4) so-called celibate priests.

Items of interest: air miles, voicemail, live, innocence, bulletin, bulletin.
Under the circumstances it seems best to look out.

END OF RUN

4.

Very little else about Pax, considered as a literary object, is likely to seem so formal or coherent. On most runs, the text might be described as a blog or wiki of the apocalypse. I will say more presently about this family resemblance, but first it bears noting that, like the text of most blogs, the words produced by Pax are meant for momentary consumption. They are not designed for permanence, or even much persistence. Cayley has asked why I did not enable the player/reader to save or print the results of a session. The omission was deliberate. I could have made the text field in Pax unselectable, but deliberately left it open to allow the possibility of copying output to an editor or word processor. The results of a run can in fact be preserved, should anyone want to. However, I do not point out this fact in the published instructions, and intentionally built no facilities for printing or file export, though the first at least was within my abilities. This decision has something to do with my feeling that litterature potentielle best deserves the name when it remains essentially fluid, evanescent, and unstable; but it also raises an important question about cybernetic writing, at least as I understand it.

To put this question plainly: if the text remains volatile or impermanent, why is there text in the first place? Joyce, John McDaid, and I once tried to distinguish our work by loudly repeating, this is not a game, but lately I have at least partly recanted. Many things are games, when you come down to it. So why not build an actual structure for play, following the main evolutionary line of motion graphics into some more familiar form of video interaction? Several innovative designers have done just this, most notably Ian Bogost of Persuasive Games. His microgame Airport Insecurity, designed to be played on a cell phone while standing in long security lines, lets the player simulate an attempt to smuggle a weapon past TSA screeners. The odds of success in the game are ostensibly based on the published records of security checks at various U.S. airports, giving frequent flyers something interesting to ponder as they wait to remove their shoes. Though this diabolically effective game does use text at various points, its primary medium is graphical. Using simple directional controls, the player maneuvers a low-resolution figure through a serpentine queue while trying to decide whether to leave the butcher knife in the carry-on, or slip it discreetly into the next trash bin.

Arguably, Airport Insecurity engages many of the same questions and social issues I claim for Pax. On might also say that it works much more subtly and elegantly, without having to haul (or discard) the clumsy baggage of literary convention. Take a few more steps in this direction, and we might well conclude that writing and gameplay need to remain clearly distinct: let writers do their thing and let the games be games, leaving each to its established rituals. There is a lot to be said for this position, but like all territorial barriers, it poses a danger. As I have argued elsewhere in more detail, segregating writing from game design could lead cybertext to a new “dissociation of sensibility,” as the elders of our tribe once called it (Moulthrop 2005). It could encourage us to identify writing as the medium of reflection and argument, while graphical interaction becomes the exclusive domain of play. The outcome could be a significant restriction of horizons both for games and writing.

We have much to gain by keeping the borders free and the boglands open to smugglers and tramps. Much of this potential is already apparent in the work of people like Adam Cadre and Nick Montfort (literary smugglers, perhaps, but hardly tramps), who have brought the art of interactive fiction to a very high state of refinement. It is also evident in stranger parts of the creative landscape, in phenomena like alternate-reality games, where what John McDaid used to call “modally appropriate” in-game communication often takes the form of e-mail, blog postings, and other forms of writing. Working a different angle, Jill Walker has recently coined the term “feral hypertext” to refer to similar forms of self-organizing text, and this category may be of great help in understanding the present evolution of writing (Walker 2005). All these developments suggest important new ways of understanding the structure of text in emergent systems, certainly including things like Pax.

Though text sequencers do not really belong in Walker’s menagerie of untamed forms, their ability to mimic those species is at least suggestive. If we look beyond relatively crude attempts like Pax toward more ingenious conceptions, like Noah Wardrip-Fruin and David Durand’s News Reader and Regime Change, we may recognize a promising line of development (Wardrip-Fruin and Durand 2004). In Pax, the granularity of selection from the database is very coarse, often amounting to multiple sentences or entire paragraphs. In this respect, it does not differ all that much from node-link hypertext. Wardrip-Fruin and Durand’s work, based on the much more dynamic construction of character strings or “N-grams,” augurs a more genuine revolution in writing: not the composition of text, but the writing-as-programming of systems that themselves compose text - in other words, not writing by itself, but the writing of artificial writers. To be sure, this ground was well prepared decades ago in projects like ELIZA and Racter, but these precedents make current work all the more significant, suggesting that they may bring new advances to a neglected evolutionary line. Given a few more rev cycles, the intersection of artificial writers, games, and feral hypertext might bring us to an interesting place indeed.

It goes without saying that this unknown destination will be subject to the torque and stress of history, and that even self-organizing, “feral,” and cybernetically programmed writers will need to respond to these forces as best they can. Apocalyptic wikis, textual marshlands where wild writing mixes with ghost words from the machine, may offer at least a possibility of new approaches. If nothing else, they suggest intriguing models of communication in a plenum of signs, or form out of noise; and in an age of read-write culture, this may well become the dominant paradigm.

For some, no doubt, these possibilities will look like nothing less than the ultimate collapse of structure, an end to the humanistic conversation, if not of legitimately human experience itself. But that experience has always been subject to punctuation. Our time has ever been about to end - or going about its ending. Deep in the machine, the wheels are always turning. The waters around us have grown, just as the prophet said they would, and so we will need to keep changing to ensure our place in new ecologies. This seems all the more reason to build channels and flow lines between writing and the moving image, to maintain crossing points from new media to old, and to keep the word in play.

References: Literature

Cayley, John (1999). “The Writing of Programming in the Age of Digital Transliteration.” Cybertext Seminar. Jyvaskyla: University of Jyvaskyla. January 9, 1999.

Joyce, Michael (1995). Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lessig, Lawrence (2005). Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity. New York: Penguin.

Moulthrop, Stuart (1989). “Hypertext and ‘the Hyperreal.’” Proceedings of the Second ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia. San Antonio, TX: ACM Press.

Moulthrop, Stuart (2003). Pax: An Instrument. Iowa Review Web. June 2003.

Moulthrop, Stuart (2005). “After the Last Generation: Rethinking Scholarship in the Days of Serious Play.” Forthcoming in Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Copenhagen, 2005.

Rosenberg, Jim (1996). “The Structure of Hypertext Activity.” Proceedings of the Seventh ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia. New York: ACM Press.

Walker, Jill (2005). “Feral Hypertext.” Proceedings of the Sixteenth ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia. September 6-9, 2005. New York: ACM Press.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and David Durand (2004). “Two Textual Instruments: Regime Change and News Reader.”

References: Games

Airport Insecurity. Ian Bogost; Water Cooler Games. 2005.

Ben Underwood:

The reference to an “Airborne Toxic Event” is an allusion to Don DeLillo’s White Noise

2008-02-29