Friday, March 08, 2002

Lord of the Hackers? I Think Not

Sherry Turkle wrote an op-ed article March 07 in the NY Times on computers and Lord of the Rings, that I disagree with in almost every respect. The whole thing just seems like a stretch.

She suggests that Tolkien's universe is similar to that constructed by a computer programmer, because it is rule-driven and bounded. In short, an internally consistent universe. Now, Tolkien as computer programmer, just because he created an internally consistent universe? Nonsense. As readers, we require internal consistency in fantasy, science fiction, horror, all forms of work, or we refuse to suspend disbelief and insert ourselves into the story.

Turkle brings it up like Tolkien was the first or only person to do that, and further, that his work is inherently computer "programmatic" because computer geeks have a binary perspective and LOTR has clearly delineated good and evil.

My response to that is

a. Computers didn't bring binary perspectives into the world -- as soon as Og and Thag had their first disagreement about the best way to club some cavegirl over the head and drag her off by her hair, humanity's relentless fight over binary options ensued. Tastes Great! Less Filling! Allah! JHVH!

b. Oodles of stories have clearly delineated good and evil. Why, take religion, for example.

Now, I CAN agree that the type of person who gravitates to well-constructed fantasy universes, and role playing, gravitates to (computer) science. It takes, now that I think of it this way, someone obsessed with imposing internally consistent structure on a system [i.e., developing a program with logical flow, or conducting scientific research] and a person who has a high creativity [to see the software/hardware/experiment/whatever before it is ever built, and then call it into existence], in order to do this kind of work in a really top-notch way.

So I propose that geeks are a natural audience for work like Tolkien's [not the only one, to be sure], and where they tend to cluster [science in general, and certainly computers] is where you can see the earmarks of influence in support of and influence by work like Tolkien's. Elvish fonts. Middle-Earth based role-playing games. A zillion school or organization network domains named after Tolkien characters. Campus dormitories -- I lived in the Middle-Earth complex at UC Irvine! Yep, geeks helped keep Tolkien's popularity high, but they do that to all kinds of great stories, from Middle Earth to Red Dwarf to Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The fonts and Tolkienesque role-player games is just textual poaching in a non-fanfic kind of way.

Now, Turkle points up how easy it is to appropriate a Tolkienesque story into a computerized format, i.e., a role-playing game, and asserts that there is little room for variation and ambiguity in such constructs. I beg to differ. A colleague of mine responds to Turkle's remarks with the following:

If you read Gary Gyjax' books, he talks quite a lot about how to interpret the numbers assigned for strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. He gives explicit examples of how the same character stats could be played completely differently. The idea was that your character is like a character portrayed by an actor-- how it comes out is a matter of interpretation and of your own skill as a role-player.

The problem is that adolescent boys are LOUSY role-players. They don't want to delve into interesting psychological issues or character interpretation.

And then Turkle starts talking about gender in science and in Middle-Earth. She points up similarities between the computer world and Frodo's world, where men are together in a fraternity of sorts, and they bond and show affection for one another. The computer culture, is, by and large, a culture dominated in every way by men and their perspectives, sadly. But it is not the only facet of society that is.

The fact that Tolkien has few women in his work doesn't bug me. It was written in the 50's, for pete's sake, and a universe modeled on previous human societies. At least in Middle Earth, men love one another with true feeling, and actually can express it sometimes. That's a wonderful thing.

To suggest that Tolkien and computer games are similar because he has few women and games have few women -- heck, the US government and computer games are similar for that same reason. Tolkien and computer games are worlds constructed by other human beings. Sure, they're often going to share some characteristics, particularly if the writer of the latter is a fan of the former. That has nothing to do with Tolkien per se.

Turkle analogizes LOTR and computer games further:

"Like Tolkien's world, most computer games are about mastery through violence; they serve as socialization into the computer culture for adolescent boys." While I don't take odds much against the latter half of her comment, I do with the first. In Tolkien's world, the paradise of the Shire -- a peaceful agrarian lifestyle -- is interrupted by the introduction of evil, first subtly, and then by The Return of The King, overtly. Those who go on the great quest -- Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin -- are not warriors, they are not great heros, they do not seek these roles out, and while the quest, which does include violence -- which they again do not seek out willingly -- changes them forever, and while partly into warriors and heros it changes them so much they are literally unrecognizable when they do return home, and in the end, no longer fit there and there no longer fits them very well. The nature of personal growth, Tolkien pointing up that nosiree, you certainly cannot go home again. Old shoes never fit right after you lay them aside. Tolkien was writing about the end of an age and the beginning of a new one on multiple levels.

Turkle later asserts:

"Just as each episode of "The Lord of the Rings" presents a danger and each has its resolution, so many adolescent boys move from one block of intransigent code to another, from one screen to the next, declaring victory as they go."

I just don't buy this analogy at all -- the mastery of blocks of code and resolution and advancement of Tolkien's story? This is how humans go about solving problems, and how we tell stories. Small steps forward. Conflict, action, resolution, conflict, action, resolution, embedded [in a really complex story or program] in a larger arc or set of arcs of -- wait for it -- conflict, action, and resolution.

Basically, all of her comparisons of computer society, games, and Tolkien could be made with any other constructed universe. Star Wars, for instance.

Just about the only thing Turkle says that I do like is at the end of her article when she implies that escapist literature increases in popularity when life is particularly complex and difficult.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Poking fun at net.romeos

I've been lucky, I don't get many sweet nothings poured in my delicate, seashell-pink ear via email simply because I have a website. I have friends who do, thank god, so I get to lampoon the misguided efforts of their unsolicited email suitors. Feel free to insert an evil laugh here. Go on, I'll wait.

I have in particular one friend of both Pakistani and northern European extraction, who is

a. a woman of great inner and outer beauty, wit, and charm, and a great sense of humor;
b. raised as Muslim, which is apparent on her website;
c. with a photo of herself on her website.

And when a particularly choice Mr. Net D. Romeo comes a-callin',....oh, sometimes I just gotta. Now, you have to understand, some of the South Asian Romeos are simply incredible -- I get 'em now and then because of my name, but not often -- you get a marvelous sense of cognitive dissonance reading these things, assuming they're coherent at all.

But I digress.

One of the most amazing emails I've ever seen presented itself recently, chocked so full of possiblilities I hardly knew where to begin. I finally had to limit myself to the following, in response to an epistle sent by a self-described "rebel". The more familiar you are with net.romeos, South Asian ones in particular, the more likely this is to amuse you.

Wife Wanted

Please respond to my inquiry if you meet the following qualifications
for the position "My Wife".

Job Description:

Act as good right arm in battle against infidels of secular
humanism. Exchange witty, barbed repartee with senators and other
leaders during diplomatic functions in the US and abroad. Conduct
arm-twisting while wearing 5" heels and black seamed stockings.
Transition from highest social mileiu to hidden mountain or
salt marsh rebel bases on regular schedule. Multiple languages a
plus. Frequent travel required.

Job Requirements:

  1. Familiarity with computers and the Internet. Facility with
    programming languages not required.
  2. Take the wing off a fly at 75 paces with an M16.
  3. 2-3 years experience as a model -- runway or catalog.
  4. Toastmaster membership or other public speaking experience.
  5. Fertility.
  6. Bachelor's or graduate degree, or equivalent work experience.

Marshland survival and marketing techniques a plus!

Three Things

0. Been busy, not posting. It'll probably happen again, knowing me.
1. The Great Petrowski, by Gina Berriault. A short, endearing fable about an opera singing parrot who tries to save his native rainforest. Worth reading.
2. Tips when writing horror: be visceral. Imbue a sense of immediacy. Don' t be afraid of bizarre language. Think about how Steve King writes on pain at the beginning of Misery -- the pilings and the tide, sometimes they were covered but the pilings were always there. I'm going to carry that imagery around in my head until Alzheimer's or death kicks it out. That's serious staying power.

If it occurs to you I've been editing a horror story via the technique of asking WWSKD?, you may be right.