The Emergence of the Digital Humanities

About the book by Steven E. Jones. See the publisher's page and Amazon page for the book. Read the Introduction.

Feb 22

Digital Shakespeares on EDH

A good, clear, brief summary and review of EDH was posted last month by Dr. Erin Sullivan on her Digital Shakespeares blog. The author aptly paraphrases the book’s main premise, that “digital life is material, located, and social, and most fundamentally that it can no longer be clearly separated from what we might be tempted to call ‘real life’. Virtuality … is not a very useful way of thinking about what the digital is anymore, seeing as how digital tools are so enmeshed in so many very real aspects of modern daily life.” Then she connects that thesis to her own experience, so familiar to many of us these days, with mixed-reality teaching:

These questions are put into sharper relief this week as my university resumes teaching, and I find myself giving the same lectures and leading the same seminars on-site for campus students and online for distance learning ones. My approach has always been to combine and blend the two groups as much as possible, extending the on-site into the online, and the online into the on-site. But it would be silly to say that differences don’t remain. Which makes me wonder, are there limits to eversion, or is it simply a matter of time?
It’s my guess that the sense of teeming multidimensionality, of living in a mixed reality, isn’t being gradually reduced by the eversion, but that the “limits” are always being redrawn at different scales as our perception of them changes. It’s a messy, social process, in other words, so combine and blend.

Feb 15

British Library blog cites EDH

The Digital Scholarship blog at the British Library recently cited EDH in explaining the current mixed-reality environment of the Library itself:

… scholarship is responding to massive changes in the world around us. Not only has the distance between online and offline all but disintegrated – just think how archaic the once ubiquitous phrases ‘log-on’ and ‘cyberspace’ sound today – but this lifestyle shift has had massive repercussions for academic research. As Steven Jones eloquently puts it:
The emergence of the new digital humanities isn’t an isolated academic phenomenon. The institutional and disciplinary changes are part of a larger cultural shift, inside and outside the academy, a rapid cycle of emergence and convergence in technology and culture.
Just look at the British Library. Whilst we still collect, preserve and provide access to all manner of physical stuff, over the last two decades we have become a vast resource of digital objects. These data range from digitised text, sound, visual, and philatelic material, to born-digital collections of personal archives and web content: so data representing both our past and our present. Together these data are transforming research and setting the agenda for future research, with new tools and computational techniques used to wrangle, process, share and analyse these data generating new discoveries and new understanding in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Feb 11

Lovecraft in EDH

I’m pleased to see that David Haden’s blog on H.P. Lovecraft, Tentaclii, recently noted that chapter 2 of The Emergence of the Digital Humanities “[h]as several pages on ideas of ‘Lovecraftian dimensionality’ in relation to knowledge.” Well put. In fact, I see in Lovecraft—as he’s been adopted by science fiction and geek culture in general in our own time—as a kind of “premediation” (to use Richard Grusin’s term) of the kind of parallel-universes, multidimensional feeling often associated today with the Internet and its eversion (as William Gibson puts it).


Jan 16

EDH is ATG Book of the Week

The Emergence of the Digital Humanities was named book of the week this week by the publishing and libraries journal, Against The Grain.


Jan 11
At the Routledge booth, MLA 2014, Chicago.

At the Routledge booth, MLA 2014, Chicago.


Dec 9

Talk at Indiana University’s CATAPULT center

A thoughtful post by Justin Hodgson follows up on a recent talk I gave at Indiana University.

My sincere thanks to everyone who attended and to the CATAPULT Center for Digital Humanities and Computational Analysis of Texts for inviting me. It was good to see friends there from both textual studies and DH.

As Justin notes, the conventions of book publication dates make it look as though The Emergence of the Digital Humanities has appeared, as if though some kind of wormhole, from the near future (2014). In fact, given all the generous and interesting responses to the book I’ve already experienced, August seems like only yesterday.


Oct 29

Against the Smart City

Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware, has a new “pamphlet” out, Against the Smart City, a kind of first installment of a larger book in progress, The City is Here for You To Use. It’s a valuable polemic against the rhetoric of “the smart city” as presented especially in the marketing and publicity of corporate urban planning projects based on ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things. Like William Gibson, Greenfield recognizes the importance of a shift, a new context for understanding such technologies (and the hype surrounding them), what Gibson calls the eversion of cyberspace.

In an earlier time, during a period in which the physical world and the virtual were widely believed to be separate and autonomous spheres of being, this lapse of sensitivity [on the part of “smart city” planners] might have passed without comment. Both history and whatever urban texture that history gave rise to were thought of as impediments, sources of friction. things that might safely be discarded.
In the last decade or so, he says, things changed.

But sometime between the Clinton administration’s 2000 decision to offer a clean GPS signal to non-military operators and the rise of Facebook as clearinghouse for unitary identity, circa 2008, the virtual was folded back onto the physical very decisively. In the process, much of what had once “passed into cyberspace” passed right back, if it had ever truly left. Far from dematerializing the self into a permanent state of “bodyless exultation,” our technologies of biometric recognition now increasingly moor it in and to the individual body. And as the world has, block by block and building by building, been translated into ones and zeroes—both mapped in ultra-high resolution by Google’s fleet of Street View cars, and parceled into discrete, geocoded Foursquare venues—we can see that the virtual realm those embodied selves occupy is one largely layered onto the actual, even at many points coextensive with it. As they have always been, then, the urban design challenges we find ourselves confronting in the networked era remain to a very great degree those associated with the movement of real bodies through real spaces. [Kindle edn., loc. 305]
“Layered onto the actual” is right, which is why I don’t think the metaphor of the world’s being “translated into ones and zeroes” really serves the argument. As Greenfield said in the first place, it’s no longer assumed that the physical and the virtual are “separate spheres of being.” What Street View cars are doing is more like tagging for their own use (in both the markup and graffiti sense) an already data-soaked environment. Real spaces, with real radio waves radiating out from those houses, WiFi to be snooped on while wardriving. Anyway, it’s a stimulating and important book (or pamphlet).

Sep 27

sample chapter 2

You can read the Introduction at the publisher’s Website. Chapter 1 is posted in its entirety here. So here’s chapter 2 in its entirety. Enjoy!


THE EMERGENCE OF THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES

Steven E. Jones

2

DIMENSIONS

The digital network and the physical world are still sometimes talked about as if they were separate, parallel universes, or different “dimensions” of reality, in the popular or science-fiction sense of the term. But in recent years, the metaphors behind the term have been foregrounded, made obvious, because their premises have been everywhere disrupted. That way of thinking about the digital and the physical has begun to lose its transparency, as it were, so that, newly opaque and in front of us, the idea of the dimensional divide has been exposed. That explains I think the often-reported sense that a rift has opened between the supposedly separate worlds of the digital and the physical. Not that people consciously believe the divide is real, necessarily, but that the divide has in the past felt real and that it feels now as if we’re living at the breach.

So the language of two dimensions, and therefore of the possibility of interdimensional experience, persists, often paradoxically arising at just those places where the doubleness of digital and physical is breaking down. James Bridle, designer and leader of the New Aesthetic movement, has said, “The Internet is not a space … the network is not a space—it’s like a whole other dimension.”1 I think he means that the digital network is an already available perspective on the existing world, just one that has been difficult to perceive as such but is now increasingly breaking into our field of perception. Contemporary networked environments, city streets or airports or workplaces or homes, often feel interdimensional, as if points of contact with digital data were wormholes or tiny rifts in the fabric of everyday life, revealing (sometimes with a chill of uncanny recognition) how close the digital dimension has been for some time, now. If the network has everted, as William Gibson says, has “colonized” the physical world around us, then we know this because signs of increasingly ubiquitous data are everywhere we look. In the words of another science-fiction author, H. P. Lovecraft, “strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows,” but the increasing presence of the digital network all around us in the world has begun to “break down the barriers” between what had seemed separate realms of existence, the digital and the physical.2

The Semiotics of QR Codes

It may sound surprising, but I think there may be no better example of this interdimensional experience in everyday life than QR codes, those inscrutable little squares printed on everything that you scan with a smart phone, “quick-response” triggers or gateways between physical objects or places and the data of the Internet. They’re like a (one-dimensional) bar code with an added second dimension, their marks laid out on a 2D x-y grid instead of in a line. The darker squares in three corners are visual anchors that allow the scanning phone’s camera to properly align the view, and various regions inside the larger square are set aside by the conventions of the ISO standard for the encoding of different kinds of data, using the tiny black tile-like or pixel-like squares in varying patterns. More than the older bar codes, at least in their most familiar uses QR codes face outward, toward the public. So far they’ve been less about inventory management, for example, than about marketing, taking people to the URLs of products or companies. They became widespread shortly after the introduction of smartphones in 2006-2007 gave large numbers of people a way to scan them wherever they were encountered. You see them in shop windows, on real-estate yard signs, on business cards, paper cups, stickers on your banana, flyers for campus events, the back of business envelopes, badges at conferences. They mark up the world and link it to data. However, at least so far, they have stopped short of creating what Bruce Sterling calls “spimes,” fully networked objects, with metadata attached to them, that can be tracked and managed (Shaping Things). They offer some real affordances, at least theoretically. They scale efficiently and can encode data at fairly high densities, for example; a tiny square can contain a great deal. And of course they do save time spent typing URLs (and are more accurate than typing).3 But so far, more often than not, the little squares have seemed to function as magical talismans of connectedness, of expressions of the desire for connectedness, really. They say “this thing or place is networked,” or “data is here,” but often in the predictable, simplified form of opening an URL on your phone. Often their appearance and display betray the general uncertainty surrounding their use, the suspicion that they’re nothing but a gimmick. For example, some are given a image shadow so the cryptic square itself looks like a 3D object, as if they were large black and white stamps stuck on the posters or print ads of which they’re a part. Sometimes you see them printed on an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper with instructions added in large black type, just in case users are still unfamiliar with the concept: “Scan This With a Mobile Phone App.” (Just printing the URL would be easier and save toner). Maybe it’s assumed that at this stage the relative novelty of QR codes will entice some people to try scanning them in situations where they’d never stop to type in or write down an URL. Advertisers are always interested in any attention-getting device. There’s a Guinness pint glass with a QR code on it that can only be seen when beer fills the glass (and can be seen most clearly when the beer is dark stout). Scanning it links to a Foursquare check-in link and additional Web content advertising Guinness. Some companies have incorporated them into printed logos—in print ads the department store Macy’s red star, for example, sometimes has one in the center—so that every act of branding is also linked to online data, or the public’s awareness that some such data exist.

Many complain that the codes are pointless, non-functional. since they are so often used as short-cut substitutes for printed URLs. Sometimes they’re placed on a Website as a link to yet another Website when a simple HTML hyperlink would do, or on in-store displays linking to the store’s own Website. Web designers denounce them, people seem baffled by their sudden proliferation, but as I write this, QR codes show no signs yet of fading away. If anything, they seem to have become more accepted, more mundane, just another banal feature of the data-soaked urban environment.

Like other banal found objects that send interestingly mixed messages, QR codes have of course been picked up by artists. They look like etched tattoos and, like UPC barcodes before them, they have been turned into tattoos, which when scanned show an animated GIF or the wearer’s most recent tweet. Whether they ever come with some of the (cyber)punk anti-consumerist associations of the barcode tattoos is another question. An article on the Style Blog of The Washington Post, December 19, 2011, condescendingly advised that,

when it comes to tattoos, which will be on your body presumably forever, an emerging technology that is almost certain to become obsolete within your lifetime may not hold up over the years. When the bearer of a QR code tattoo is 60 and the scanners have long been replaced with something more efficient, that tattoo will be a quaint but non-functioning reminder of simpler times in the first decade of the century.4

But surely the point of such tattoos in most cases is to flaunt the friction between permanent and ephemeral, to mark one’s body with a cryptic-looking fast-changing sign of rapid change itself. The irony is being engraved in the flesh with a mark of the technological present, already looking a little dated, like a body augmentation in an 1980s cyberpunk story. The desired effect may be, not the conventional, fashionable “cool” that the article assumes, but the darker irony of using a permanent marker for such a fleeting link to ephemeral (and presumably etherial) data.

Dutch new media artist Sander Veenhof combined the format of the QR code with a working animation of John Conway’s Game of Life simulation program. An actual URL can be typed in to produce the source-image QR code, which immediately begins to mutate as tiny square dots appear or disappear, the pattern shifting algorithmically.5 At the top of the Web page, the results of each new mutation—new codes—are printed in rapid succession: mostly bad, random-string URLs. This creates an odd feedback system, between (working and nonworking) URLs and (typed and generated) QR codes. The whole work suggests a metaphorical association between the little dots of artificial life, representing the emergent complexity of evolving organisms in a constrained ecosystem, and the little dot matrices of data encoded all around us in our own environment, on signs and packaging and museum walls, signs of emergent data that may evolve into something more compelling if allowed to run their course.

One of the most dramatic uses was at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, where Russia constructed its national pavilion, made up of multiple buildings, the surfaces of which were covered in QR codes like hundreds of intricate tiles.6 Visitors walked around inside the large, sometimes domed structures, pointing mobile devices at the walls and ceilings in order to access materials on a planned futuristic real-life city, Skolkovo, which has aspirations to become a kind of Silicon Valley near Moscow.

And of course each new Google Books page includes a QR code with that book’s bibliographic information. At present, in the examples I’ve tried, the code on the page links to … the same page, so that scanning it produces a mobile version of the page on one’s phone, complete with a smaller version of the same QR code, an infinite regress with no apparent purpose. But as part of the metadata record of a book, the code could conceivably be repurposed in any number of ways. An advance video for Google’s Project Glass, the heads-up display and camera application for reading augmented reality tags and accessing the Network out in the world, showed a user wearing the product, which looks like a pair of glasses with no lenses, supporting the device over one eye.7 The user finds the music section in New York’s Strand Bookstore, then locates a book on playing the ukulele. All very physical, except for the directions to the store and the right section. What this video doesn’t show, but Google’s own earlier Goggles project has been used for, is the user scanning the book’s QR code and being taken to a detailed information page about the title. This would presumably make it even easier and less obvious to engage in what book retailers bitterly call “showrooming,” using the brick-and-mortar store to shop for what they buy online. Or you might go to the information page in order to see if there are newer titles in a popular series before buying a paper copy of the volume displayed in the store. Either way, the use of the QR code in such displays of books, as with any physical merchandise, would save time and keystrokes (and thus make it more likely the customer would bother looking up additional information). And, perhaps more significantly from Google’s point of view, it would control the results of the search, linking directly to whatever data file, image, or URL is encoded in the little printed square. If Google Books’ QR codes were actually used in such a scenario, the online destination would be the Google Books page, where the e-book might be on sale. The same device that scans the code displays the data that the code contains, all in a couple of seconds.

The significance of all these proliferating encrypted marks, like little canceled postage stamps stuck on various things in the environment, is worth thinking about. Even fetish objects can mean something–maybe especially fetish objects, and most especially when their practical uses are not clear. They are usually about desire. For example, just in terms of design, it’s intriguing that QR codes go the bar code one dimension better with their matrix layout–as if this might indicate something about the complexity of the data to which they’re linked (no longer just an inventory number, say, but an entire website or image, and in some sense the open possibilities of the web as a whole) and the trajectory of that data’s emergence into the world. One example in Seoul, Korea was created by sculpted objects out on the street, like a sideways architectural model of a cityscape, all in white, with obelisks of various heights standing out from the square surface. When the sun is at its height—during the downtown lunch hour—the shadows of the shapes form a matrix of squares that is a QR code and can be scanned for special sales offers in the surrounding businesses. Blatantly commercial, this is nonetheless an interesting example of the metaphor of dimensional transit that I think also helps to explain the semiotics behind QR codes: a 3D white object in the right light casts a shadow of itself as a 2D code that when scanned directs you to the surrounding physical buildings (which are modeled in an abstract way in the all-white 3D object with which you started). QR codes encode in more than one sense—they stand as signs for an unspoken idea, the idea that the network and its data are connected to the grid of the physical world and that those connections can be revealed by way of readily available, cheap and ubiquitous acts of dimensional translation. People pointing and scanning is how they work, and that may be the point for now: to get people to engage with the link in that relatively active way. You have to stop and point your phone and scan a QR code. This is weirdly redundant, and it annoys many people, but from a marketing point of view it may be superior to the infamous Minority Report-style micro-targeted augmented-reality ads that many now predict. You have to do something to reveal the data, so you’re already at least minimally engaged. And what you’re doing is triggering a translation from one code to another, and then to another, practicing the process, exploring the possibilities of such acts of decoding and encoding in today’s mixed-reality environment.

One example I saw was a QR code on the back of a white panel van for a construction company, but accompanied by a little glyph, the image of a cellphone emanating a series of nested curved lines, a semi-universal sign for WiFi signal or other radio waves, in this case the wireless connection of phone with code. It looked like a strange version of the iconic pictograms you see on warning signs (“falling rocks!”) or painted on lanes in the street (“no bikes”) or in instruction booklets (“nut connects to bolt”). In this case the QR code came with pictographic instructions saying “scan using your cellphone’s radio waves.” I know that, like other pictograms, it’s meant to be ergonomically efficient, a faster way to communicate (“dispose of trash here” or “don’t walk!”). But for whom is a glyph + QR code like this intended, really? Potential customers of this contractor who happen to be following the van but don’t know how to use their phones to read the code?

The image on the van made me think of the Pioneer spacecraft or Arecibo radio telescope message icons that Carl Sagan helped develop in the 1970s for communicating with aliens, etched plates with line drawings that “said” something like “male and female humans on the third planet from the Sun,” sent to eldritch Others who would be capable of decoding the semiotics of the images. But the QR code is an encoded protocol for accessing data, and is in that sense an act of encrypted transmission. With it included in the image, alongside the little picture of a cellphone, the whole thing is reminiscent of the related Arecibo message, which was also beamed out into space, but in the form of a binary string to be decoded into a pixelated pictogram saying the same sort of thing: “We are Earthlings.” In a sense, that is what QR codes like this are doing: beaming out encoded messages to unknown but nominally intelligent life out there on the streets—somebody with a cellphone who can figure out how to scan with it and thus link the truck to the less terrestrial realm of digital data (in this case, just a Website).

I’d submit that QR codes are an interesting phenomenon, in part because they’re so basic, because they so nakedly reveal the gesture of connecting data with the physical world, in fact reveal the cultural desire to make that gesture. QR codes like the one on the van are in effect visible glitches, signs of the uneven process of eversion itself. Sometimes they’re nothing more than glitches, nothing more than failed gestures. But they’re everywhere, reminding us what’s at the heart of the eversion of cyberspace: the process of encoding/decoding, of linking the world to a world of data. The QR code + pictogram I saw on the van is a symptom of a more general anxiety about the acts of decoding/encoding/decoding, the acts of translation, involved in this process–from digital to physical to digital again. That process is ultimately the point of the codes, the deeper purpose lying behind the explicit goal of getting someone who is parked behind the van at a stoplight to point their cellphone at the image in order to open the company Website. QR codes make more sense if we see interpret them as a cultural symptom—mundane signs that someone is trying to communicate with invisible, unknown intelligences out there somewhere in the ether—in “the digital realm.”

New Aesthetic Irruptions

If QR codes are the simplest, most blatant signs of the eversion out in the world (maybe with the exception of those tall, fabric teardrop banners standing on sidewalks that seem designed to look like flags in Google Maps), there are subtler signs everywhere, increasingly. One group of designers and artists looking for these signs goes under the umbrella term the New Aesthetic. In an essay on a panel presentation by some of those associated with the group at the South By Southwest conference in 2012, Bruce Sterling both praises the potential and critiques the limitations of what he calls the design fiction of this movement or aesthetic, and especially as represented in James Bridle of London’s Really Interesting Group, whom Sterling calls “the master of the salon.”8 Sterling is particularly questioning the group’s implicit focus on a kind of artificial intelligence, on how machines see the world, on the nostalgia of 8-bit or 16-bit imagery, and he judges that so far the movement has mostly collected an under-curated “heap of eye-catching curiosities.” But it’s clear from the ongoing collection and from Bridle’s talks in particular that the New Aesthetic is about spotting something emerging in a variety of cultural representations, about noticing signs of “something coming into being,” as artists and designers give “the real world the grain of the virtual.”9 These two worlds, Bridle recognizes, were once seen as separate but are now “eliding” everywhere you look, representing an “irruption of the digital into the physical world.” In other words, they are signs of the eversion.

And indeed, Bridle has said in a blog post that “[t]he network is not space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle), it is some other dimension entirely.”10 But, he adds, “meaning is emergent in the network,” and the New Aesthetic is about this emergence, which I take to be Gibson’s eversion under another name. Its signs are irruptions from this “other dimension,” as Bridle says, whether pixelated designs on clothing, umbrellas, or on the tail sections of airliners, or the increasing presence of flying drones overhead, whether for art, for surveillance, or for warfare, musical compositions using audio glitches, or works of 8-bit street art that look like objects from old video games that show up on a wall or the sidewalk. One vivid example of street art Bridle has included in his slideshow presentations is a piece called Pixel Pour by Kelly Goeller [see the cover of this book], made by converting a mundane curved black pipe on a New York street into a spout from which pixelated blue water with white foam appeared to be pouring. It was created in mid April 2008 on a sidewalk on 9th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues—and was quietly removed within a few days.11 Goeller created a second version, Pixel Pour 2.0, installed in SoHo, on Mercer Street between Howard and Grand. Goeller made the “pixels” (or “voxels,” really, since they’re 3D, though the painted surfaces are meant to look 2D from a distance) from MDF particleboard squares, then painted them with acrylic and pieced them together with wood glue. The illusion of a 2D pixelated irruption of the digital from the 3D black spigot in the physical world was, of course, created using mundane physical materials, the artist picturing in an imaginative overlay the “digital” water.

The 2008 work resonated widely. Besides Bridle’s (anonymous) use of it to illustrate the New Aesthetic, media-studies specialist Julian Bleeker photographed it in three stages—when it was new, after it was tagged with graffiti, and the empty sidewalk and spigot after the work was removed—and his Flickr set was noticed with a positive comment (“Dang”) by science-fiction author Bruce Sterling (brucesflickr).12 Eventually, a promotion for the animated feature film with a retro video-game setting, Wreck-It Ralph, turned a London street (Brick Lane) into a display of constructed 3D “8-bit” objects, including a knock-off (and unattributed) version of Goeller’s Pixel Pour.13 The effectiveness of the original work depended on the play between 2D and 3D, pixelated and “normal,” objects from a digital dimension out in the physical world. It worked so well because, as spontaneously installed (and uninstalled) street art, it figured, like a particleboard metaphor, the feeling of encountering sudden unexpected irruptions of digital realities into the everyday physical environment.

Bridle also cites in his litanies of New Aesthetic irruptions another example so mundane you see it every day online, the CAPTCHA security tests when you sign on to Websites, in which machine-read texts, one or two words at a time, are offered up as gateways for supposedly human readers (that’s the point). These are all for Bridle examples of our “collaboration with technology,” and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital,” the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine. It should also be clear that this “look” is a metaphor for understanding and communicating the experience of a world in which the New Aesthetic is increasingly pervasive.

Nowadays, it feels as though the digital network is breaking through to the physical world, to the everyday physical dimension in which we live, as if through cracks that have opened in the fabric we once believed separated the mundane world from cyberspace. The result is irruption, eversion, a new mixed reality in progress, still haunted by the earlier metaphor of different dimensions.

Multidimensional Game Worlds

It’s not all about retro-style 8-bit or pixel art for James Bridle and others interested in the New Aesthetic, but Bridle does remark that the game Minecraft, with its game world constructed by players out of volumetric blocks (more voxels than pixels, therefore, but with a similar aesthetic effect) “has a lot to answer for” (“Waving”). For me, games and game platforms offer particularly suggestive examples, not necessarily (as Bridle implies) because games teach us how machines see the world, but because games have for so long deliberately experimented with modeling the world, and have done so from a media perspective that takes as given the constitutive role of the digital technology. For obvious reasons, game designers tend to assume that digital technology constructs worlds, and they’ve often been highly self-conscious about the implications of that assumption. In fact, because the evolution of game worlds, crudely speaking, has been associated with increasing dimensions, from text-only forms—that might be thought of as one-dimensional because they are experienced in a linear fashion—to 2D and then 3D worlds, game designers have had to think about dimension as a design problem. In recent years, art games, such as Braid or Fez, along with some mainstream commercial titles (especially Nintendo’s Mario games) have self-consciously focused on dimensions and navigating their differences as themes. Braid and other platformer games with which it shares a family relation are obviously about movement through 2D game space, left to right, mostly, jumping or climbing up and down. The fact that 2D side-scrolling game worlds have in some cases been supplanted by 3D versions and in other cases have been crossed with them, making strange hybrids, suggests that the whole genre has continued to be about exploring the problem of dimensionality. The Mario franchise embodies the history of this exploration, from Donkey Kong to Super Mario 64 to Super Mario Galaxy. Super Paper Mario famously built in the ability to toggle between dimensions–the player can switch from 2D to 3D views for brief periods, adding a fresh perspective (literally) on its puzzles–and Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 made sandbox puzzles out of planetoids, each of which is a (game) world of its own, with sometimes weird physics the player has to deal with.

The preoccupation of indie art games with 2D side-scrolling platformers is in part about employing a knowing, lo-fi, retro aesthetic, often using an 8-bit graphic style, and is in part about what’s practical or even doable by a single person or small team on a limited budget. Either way, it’s a way of making a virtue of necessity. But it’s also often a way to return to foundational questions about game worlds, starting with the question of what happens when you add a dimension (literally) or are aware of multiple dimensions as possibilities for gameplay.

New media have always experimented with the border where different medial “dimensions” meet, with points of eversion. Think for example of early experiments with mixing animation and live action film, Gene Kelly tap dancing with Jerry the cartoon mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945), or Winsor McCay morphing from live performer on the vaudeville stage in front of the screen to realistic animated image of himself on the screen in one of the earliest animated theatrical hits, Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). When the live McCay stepped up to the screen, slipped behind it, and was replaced by his filmic image (in the same tuxedo and at the same scale), the illusion suggested that he had stepped through the looking glass, crossed over from the real world to the virtual world of animated cartoons (still in their infancy as a medium). Toying with the imagined portal between the real world and the virtual world was a very early device in film. One of the most famous stories in the history of cinema—in fact a story with the status of founding myth—concerns the Lumière brothers’ 1895 short film, L’arrivée d’un Train en gare de la Ciotat, in which a train comes into a crowded station, aiming out toward the audience as if the viewers were standing on the platform. According to legend, the moving image so terrified the original audience, who could not tell illusion from reality, that they leapt from their seats in a panic. The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it still tells us something about the historical imagination of media. In 1935 the Lumière brothers exhibited a remake of L’arrivée d’un Train in a stereoscopic 3D format.14 Knowing this, one might be tempted to read the traditional legend as proving that movie fans have always sought more and more realistic forms of total immersion. The legend assumes that the uncanny realism of the original film was its attraction and thrill—to the naive audience unfamiliar with cinematic conventions, the train appeared to be coming out of the screen and out into the room—and that thrill remained the point of the remake four decades later, only more so. But what if instead the story reveals that movie audiences, and audiences for other media, as well, have been for 120 years fascinated by the ambiguity between 2D and 3D, compelled by the irruption of elements of an artificial world into the real world (and, potentially, vice versa)? What if the point of the train and Gertie the dinosaur was imaginative play, experimental probing, at the permeable membrane between worlds, real and artificial, physical and virtual?

I think something like this experimental, exploratory urge motivates the design of many of today’s indie art games. But they possess a new urgency because today’s version of the boundary between worlds is volatile and porous—and it’s where we live, as we see all around us signs of the irruption of the virtual into the physical, of a mixed reality in which we’re called to negotiate between dimensions.

That’s how I understand the apparent design of Marc ten Bosch’s promised game Miegakure, for example, which has so far only been seen in preview glimpses. It’s an art game about adding a fourth physical dimension, rather than just thinking of time as the fourth. In Miegakure, the experience of multidimensionality is narratively or figuratively structured: as the irruption of one dimension into another, in other words, as a kind of eversion. The player swaps between dimensions, but usually the purpose is to cause a block or other object to protrude into a dimension where it was previously invisible or inaccessible. Warps, wormholes, cracks in the fabric separating one dimension from another, are where strategy unfolds and the key moves are made. In this respect, Valve’s Portal games can be seen as a related experiment: you play by discovering ways to tunnel through the 3D maps as if they had been folded or warped. The portals you shoot with your portal gun are in effect dimensional wormholes. But gameplay in Miegakure–and in many related indie platformers–is explicitly about negotiating the extrusions of one dimension into another.

Jonathan Blow’s much-celebrated game Braid (2008), though it toys with some 2D and 3D spatial transits, is most significantly focused on the fourth dimension of time. The game was prototyped using an avatar in blue with a red hat—clearly Mario—and its roots in classic platformers run deep. You play as Tim (whose name is close to Time), and you are trying to rescue a princess from an abducting monster. But the story feels more serious, based on the portentous soundtrack and layered background art, than the Donkey Kong plot might lead you to expect. In fact, Blow’s rather serious personality and the heavy thematics of Braid led one wit to create a video in which various indie platformer avatars run into Mario in a bar.15 Mario calls attention to all that he and his game have in common with Tim and Braid, while Tim, a stereotypically pretentious hipster, protests that he’s much too cool for the comparison and rails against Super Mario Bros. as a “sellout” and a “mainstream kiddie game.” Tim insists that Mario “wouldn’t understand” since he’s “just another suit.” Bemused, Mario objects: “but you are literally wearing a suit right-a now!” The story of Braid, looming ominously behind the platform and puzzle gameplay, involves hidden emotional and plot dimensions, murky depths in the relationship between Tim and his princess, who can be read as an allegory for the atomic bomb, or the elusive ultimate knowledge of the universe—combined with extreme secrecy—that made the bomb possible.16 Ultimate questions seem to lurk just behind the fabric of the game’s universe, so that the mechanic that allows you to rewind game time in order to recover from a fall, try again to make a jump, or back your way into a puzzle, has philosophical resonances, even early on in the game. At the end, however, the payoff comes in the form of a level in which Tim runs along the bottom of the screen, pursued by a wall of flames but aided in overcoming the various obstacles by the Princess, who is moving along above him, as he attempts to save her from the abducting monster. When you then must rewind the entire level, however, you are shocked to find yourself experiencing the chase in reverse: the Princess is running from Tim (you) and desperately attempting to throw roadblocks in his way (rather than aiding him). The monster becomes her rescuer as she leaps into his arms to escape from Tim. There have been intimations that the relationship was troubled all along, and these come to the surface as the final reversal plays out. Happening on one level of the game, this personal story is also allegorical of the larger story—about the fabric of the universe, ultimate knowledge and its pursuit. The simple mechanic of rewinding the action of a platformer game becomes (as Patrick Jagoda has persuasively argued) a procedural, playable representation of the meaning of reality and what might be concealed behind what is taken for reality (18-19).

Braid is one of the games featured in the 2012 documentary, Indie Game: the Movie, which also looks at the development and release of Super Meat Boy and Fez.17 At one point in that film (a moment that’s included in the trailer), Fez's developer Phil Fish describes the effect of being absorbed in making his own art game as a problem of perspective: “All we've been doing for four years is look at this—like this close, like [holds his hands right in front of his eyes]—you can't see anything else.” It's an appropriate comment about a game that's all about the need to see from different perspectives the possibilities that remain hidden in plain sight, possibilities you can't see or take advantage of until you (literally) turn the problem around, using the left and right triggers of the Xbox controller to rotate the whole game world 90 degrees in one direction or the other, shifting from 2D to 3D—or back to 2D. As the opening of the game says, you rotate the game world in order to change your perspective—in more than one sense.

Fez was announced in 2007, while Braid was still in development. It won awards in advance but was not released (on Xbox Live Arcade) until April 2012. You play as Gomez, a small all-white cartoon character in a colorful pixelated universe of giant tower-worlds floating in the sky, which, whether they’re styled as villages or castles, water gardens or islands in a sea, are often reminiscent of Magritte’s famous surreal painting of a castle in the Pyrenees, perched atop a giant rock floating suspended above the sea. (Fez's worlds often incorporate temples or altars or pavilions at their peaks.) But the pixel-based cubic forms of the worlds also invoke the tiled landscapes of Super Mario Bros., for example, or the birds-eye maps of early adventure RPGs like the Zelda or Final Fantasy franchises. Doors take you to interior rooms or other levels, cubes hover overhead until you grab them by jumping up to hit them. Negative-space niches, ledges, overhangs, look as if they were created by removing or rearranging the basic cubes with which the game world was created. (According to the interviews in Indie Game: The Movie, that’s often precisely how they were created in Fish’s image editor.) Fez sometimes looks almost as blocky as Minecraft, and as in that game, the blocks are metaphors for pixels or bits (there are 8 “cube-bits” to find in the first level and 64 cubes and anticubes in all), figurative primitive particles of the digital realm. The opening cutscene that follows your getting the magic red fez hat, with beautiful animated graphics, is glitchy in what we’d now call a New-Aesthetic sort of way, revealing in sputtering glimpses the digital realm behind the visible game world, then shifting to a “reboot” of the game, complete with logos. Fish has said that the game world is essentially a “computer world … and every now and then the universe becomes unstable and has to defragment itself and reboot” (Indie Game: The Movie). Though he describes the game world as existing inside a computer, of course gameplay takes place at the boundary of the imaginary computer game world and the player’s physical world. Every time you flip dimensions, you call attention to that perspective on the boundary. The glitchy moments are thus moments of self-consciousness that recall for the user at the controls, whose triggers change the dimensions of Fez’s world, that the larger game space of Fez is a hybrid digital and physical space, and that the game is a kind of allegory of the glitchy and interfused relationship of that hybrid space, which is to say, a lot like everyday reality.

Once you get the fez hat and reboot, you start once again in the same bedroom that had opened the game, but this time wearing the magic fez that allows you to toggle between dimensions. You navigate in the usual platformer way, by running, jumping, and climbing, looking for shiny golden cubes and the invisible anticubes that are their counterparts. The story goes that the cubes are the remnants or shards of a larger cube destroyed in a catastrophic explosion—that destabilizing catastrophe mentioned earlier. If you don’t find them all and put the fragments back together, according to the opening dialogue with the multicolored NPC helper-sprite, Dot, “the universe collapses with you in it. No pressure!” This is a pretext to gameplay, ironically inflected, of course. But the idea that the multidimensionsal fabric of the universe—of our hybrid digital/physical reality—is the object of the game’s exploration and deliberate construction is also the serious thematic premise behind this art game.

Until that fabric collapses, there are no serious consequences for merely falling and dying as you jump and run on the rotatable platforms. You just respawn immediately at or near your latest perch. And there are no real enemies or bosses to battle in Fez. You just explore, collect, reconstruct, and reveal the dimensions of the problem. At the very beginning of the game, you encounter a glowing Hexahedron, “a strange and powerful sentient artifact,” that “reveals to [you] the mysteries of the third dimension” by granting you the magical fez, which floats down from above in a column of light. The artwork is whimsically pretty—lighter in style, less pretentious, than the lush layers of Braid—from the shifting colors of the sky to the tiny details, including tributes to Mario and Zelda in the form of tiny mushrooms and treasure chests that emanate light when opened, vines you climb from one level to another, floating platforms you jump to and from, and cubes above our head you jump to collect. There are also animated birds (seagulls?) calling and walking around in niches in the side of towers, and tiny inchworms moving along the ground—lots of clever animated touches. The soundtrack music modulates in response to gameplay, and the sky cycles through multiple hues and shades, with abstract line-drawing clouds drifting by.

Playing Fez on an Xbox attached to a high-definition television screen is an aesthetically pleasing experience. But especially for a first-time player or uninitiated watcher, the most noticeable thing about the game—the visual feature that most stands out—is the repeated shifting in perspective triggered by the player as she searches for a platform to jump to or a way around an obstacle. And the rotation is striking precisely because it causes an alternation between 3D and 2D views. Click and, whoosh, everything is flat like a classic side-scrolling platformer. Click again and, whoosh, the same structure has depth, and the two square platforms you just jumped between are revealed in another dimension to be many feet or meters apart, one floating behind another in space. In that new third dimension, the same objects are transformed, either expanded or reduced, along with what they afford or constrain in the way of your gameplay. The most interesting thing about the mechanic is that the 3D world often affords fewer options for movement than the 2D world. What we think of as the optical illusion—that the two square ends of platforms viewed straight on appear to be alongside one another when aligned along the horizontal y-axis, even though they are “actually” cubes and are very far apart along the z-axis (once you can visualize depth)—turns out to be a navigable reality within the game, a kind of viable parallel universe of only two dimensions. Toggling with the controller triggers has a leveling effect, relativizing the 2D and 3D worlds, revealing them as interpenetrating dimensional realities, alternatives always available, despite the evidence of your senses, accessible with a simple but world-altering shift in perspective. Even your square heads-up inventory frame, which shows the number of cube shards and keys you’ve collected, can be rotated using the triggers to reveal that it’s actually itself a cube, with space to store other items—a treasure map, for example. And that map, in turn, though it looks flat at first, can be rotated to reveal its edges and the slight accordion fold of its paper surface.

It’s no accident that one of the devices you encounter in Fez is—what else?—giant QR codes. The game was in early development at around the time the codes first began to show up out in the world, so it stands to reason programmers and developers might want to play with them in a new indie game. But it’s interesting that Phil Fish and his then programmer partner, Renaud Bédard, saw them in the same context as other devices in the game: as puzzles linking different dimensions based on encoding and decoding. Users later discovered that even the soundtrack of the game, when opened in and editor that graphically reveals the audio waveforms, contains QR codes at the end of sound files!18 (They reportedly encode a series of four-digit dates, the meaning of which is unknown.) In the game itself, you find the image of one giant QR code embedded in a kind of temple wall between tall pillars, for example, as if it were an enigmatic glyph left by a lost civilization, partially obscured by what looks like scaffolding. When completed, the code is scannable. You point a smartphone at the TV screen, and the reader application opens up a simple text file containing a cryptic string of LTs and RTs—a controller-pad button combo code that when enacted flips and re-flips the gameworld several times in a pattern and moves your avatar Gomez in order to reveal a previously invisible multicolored anticube, glowing and rotating in the air in front of the QR-code wall.

Fez is a puzzle platformer, and most of its puzzles that are not directly about jumping involve decoding of one sort or another, from the QR codes to a cryptic secret alphabet you first glimpse in the opening cutscenes on tablet-like slabs, as if they were the dialog boxes through which the giant yellow Hexahedron speaks to you. The characters of the alphabet are clearly reminiscent of the Tetrimino shapes from the ur-puzzle game, Tetris. Tetris patterns are sculpted into surfaces throughout the game world, as Fish admits (Indie Game: The Movie). As with the 8-bit graphics, the tribute to Tetris is part of the game’s retro aesthetic, but it also calls attention to the importance in games, and in the digital world as a whole, of puzzles, acts of encryption and decryption—of encoding and decoding. When combined with the game’s central mechanic, rotating the gameworld, the puzzles reinforce the sense that Fez is about the need to decrypt the world in order to reveal its digital foundations. In the context of the New Aesthetic that appeared on the scene just as it was (finally) released, Fez looks like a meditation on the cryptic but ultimately meaningful relationship between different dimensions of the world, and the need to navigate between those dimensions in order to make meaning. The pixelated style, all the blocks, tiles, or bits in increments of 8, 16, 32, and 64—as well as its epiphanic glitches revealing the hidden digital infrastructure— suggest that the dimensions you must navigate are the physical and the digital, already intricately combined within a tricky, mixed-reality environment.

Art games like Fez, as well as the unreleased Miagakure and the critically acclaimed Braid, can be seen as exploring in procedural terms some of the same metaphorical territory as literary fantasy fiction like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, China Miéville’s The City & The City—or works by Borges and Calvino before that—but also traditional science fiction such as Flatland, in which denizens of a 2D world learn to grasp the weirdness of 3D existence, and perhaps most immediately, just in terms of its cultural influence on games and digital media in general, H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Of course science fiction has always explored alien worlds, parallel universes, time travel and the counterfactual worlds that are earth’s own imagined futures. But I have in mind a more specific variation of these themes: the paradox of living in two worlds at once, two overlapping realities, imaginings metaphorically based on what it’s like to grasp the multiple dimensions of space-time that we do live in all the time. I think, in the past decade, such imagining have often taken on an added significance, have often become allegories of the overlapping realities that now characterize our own present moment—the digital and the physical.

This significance is discernible even in older works that were not, of course, intended to be read in this way, none more so than those by H. P. Lovecraft, whose fiction of the early twentieth century has for decades, now, been re-read as relevant to emerging digital technologies. Lovecraft’s stories contain a repeated motif of “eldritch” horrors from another dimension, “from beyond,” that are only partly glimpsed when they break through briefly and extrude themselves into everyday reality: “strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers,” one character declares, then reports, “I felt the huge animate things brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting though my supposedly solid body.” Passages like the following one resonate in unexpected ways in our current media climate, a climate that includes New Aesthetic irruptions:

Suddenly I myself became possessed of a kind of augmented sight. Over and above the luminous and shadowy chaos arose a picture which, though vague, held the elements of consistency and permanence. It was indeed somewhat familiar, for the unusual part was superimposed upon the usual terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre… . I saw to my horror that they overlapped … . the newly visible world that lies unseen around us. (Lovecraft, “From Beyond,” loc. 2001-2011).

The augmented reality revealed in this horror story takes the form of overlapping worlds, momentarily inter-transpicuous, experienced with a frisson or chill of recognition, as having inhabited the same space all along.

If it seems odd that fantasy fiction from the 1920s would read so well as an allegory of our own technological moment, the moment of eversion, consider that our cultural relationship to the network has historically been partly defined by creative artists and writers, and by inventors and engineers who were inspired by artists and writers, and that many of those artists and writers were directly influenced by Lovecraft in particular, and by the fictional traditions he represented and to which he contributed in general, running from Mary Shelley through Jules Verne to Hugo Gernsback, and including Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson. In his DH work on graphing the discourse of the Website TV Tropes, Elijah Meeks associates the Lovecraftian uncanny, this breaking-through from a parallel dimension, with “the weird geometry of the Internet” itself.19 Lovecraftian dimensionality, “weird geometry,” was, I suspect, baked into conceptions of the network at its inception, when it was often discussed as a sometimes uncanny mirror world—culminating in the dominant metaphor of cyberspace. Lovecraft’s fiction now returns because it usefully figures the more recent eversion of the network, as the image of cyberspace fades. What had been relegated to another dimension is now colonizing this one, irrupting into our everyday reality. The connection is particularly clear in the case of augmented reality—or its mundane instantiations in mobile maps and QR codes, which, to use Lovecraft’s terms, superimpose digital realities—a “newly visible world that lies unseen around us”—on “the terrestrial scene,” suggesting that a weird geometry connects the two worlds, especially at points of extrusion, places where the unseen reveals itself as a potential layer of experience.

The idea of weird geometry is evident throughout Lovecraft’s work, but it’s probably most fully represented in a 1926 short story, “The Call of Cthulhu.” In that tale, a mysterious statue points to aliens who colonized the earth eons ago, The Great Old Ones, but are hidden in secret cities and waiting for their cue, the call of Cthulhu, to rise. Fez may not have been intentionally modeled on Lovecraft’s descriptions of the uncanny cityscape; the images are by now overdetermined in games, films, and literature. Nonetheless, certain passages in Lovecraft read like detailed descriptions of the game’s worlds. For example: “an unprecedented dream of great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror. Hieroglyphics had covered the walls and pillars …” (loc. 6217). Of course, on the surface, Fez may seem light rather than dark, cartoony rather than horrific. (The revelation of shadowy horrors is, by contrast, obviously at the heart of Braid, where time is the dimensional difference. (The difference between the tone of the two games is reflected in their artwork and soundtracks.) But a closer look and more gameplay reveals Lovecraftian undertones everywhere in Fez's iconic game worlds, some of which are tinged with undersea green light or darkened with thunderstorms, or look like abandoned temples etched with occult hieroglyphics. Actually, the game's dimension- flipping mechanic and initially sunny style can be read as attempts to counteract or keep at bay the anxieties represented by the fragmented, glitchy universe at the heart of its story. “The Call of Cthulhu,” like Fez, represents this sometimes anxious confluence of worlds in terms of weird geometry:

… broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces—surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs… . He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidian, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours… . crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity. (“The Call of Cthulhu,” loc. 6598)

The weird geometry emerges more and more as the story is told, exemplified in details like the “monstrously carven portal” that presents “a phantasy of prismatic distortion” (loc. 6617). Lovecraft inspired an important strand of fiction, films, and the popular imagination when it comes to the uncanny irruption of intuited but hidden dimensions of reality. No wonder the stories sometimes seem like premonitions of games like Fez—and of the larger metaphorical context of our present moment.

That context helps us see that the fascination of independent game designers with the side-scrolling platformer is more than simple nostalgia or convenience. It may have something to do with a desire to explore the theme of multidimensionality in a procedural, playable way. The weirdness of Lovecraftian geometry is the result of uncanny paradoxes. What seems outside is actually inside, what should be depth is surface (and vice versa), difficult to grasp aspects of dimensional space that were likely inspired in the first place by mathematical models of topology such as the Klein bottle, that mind-bending object whose inner and outer surfaces are one, a curved continuous surface always already turned inside out.

Another video game, Valve’s acclaimed Portal (2007), makes this kind of geometry the basis of its celebrated gameplay mechanic, in which you shoot entrance and exit portals into the surfaces of the giant buildings of the game world, creating wormholes you can navigate through folded space. In a 2009 paper, Patrick LeMieux and Stephanie Boluk place Portal (and Braid) at the center of a genre or taxonomic family that they call “eccentric games.” Against the trend in the game-design industry towards ever-increasing realism, eccentric games, they say,

employ spatiotemporal effects which give the player access to logics indigenous to digital environments… . These logics often reference pop-physics theories and paradoxes such as those related to time travel, parallel realities, navigating multiple dimensions, folding time and space, quantum mechanics, probability engines, and the conflation of virtual and actual space.20

They connect the famous portal gun (the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device) to the then-recently-emerged iPhone, when used as a handheld AR viewer. In particular they cite the Trover social-network app, which makes available people’s photos and videos linked to geographic locations. Trover tells you when you’re at a physical location that was the site of a recorded video, say, and allows you to play the video associated with that street corner or park or public building.

Thus, if positioned consciously, the iPhone transforms into a temporal window or portal linking the viewer to multi-layered past and embedding the present with a feeling of historicized place. Instead of folding space as seen in the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, Trover folds time. (Ibid.)

The authors go on to discuss Alternate Reality Games as well as augmented reality. The links between indie games that explore interdimensionality, Alternate Reality Games taking place out in the world as well as on the Internet, and AR applications that connect data (such as crowdsourced videos) to the physical world are, I believe, highly significant. What LeMieux and Boluk are describing is, I think, a media efflorescence around 2007-2008, including games and mobile apps, that was part of the larger phenomenon of the eversion, the collective sense that a kind of portal has opened up between hitherto separate dimensions, “the conflation of virtual and actual space.” As they conclude, “These objects colonize a new home in what was once uncanny borderland.”

As my earlier references to literary science fiction and the imaginative worlds of games should make clear, I’m using the term “dimension” in a broadly metaphorical way. The history of the word itself gives the term from mathematics, meaning “a mode of linear measurement, magnitude, or extension, in a particular direction,” these broader associations. The basic geometrical sense of the term is the basis of Flatland, a story which turned the difference between two-dimensional surfaces and the three-dimensional depth in which our own bodies live into a fable of different worlds, different perspectives on reality, parallel universes, and imagined worlds. But as the story and the O.E.D. remind us, even in geometry, when thinking about these differences, “the notion of measurement or magnitude is commonly lost, and the word denotes merely a particular mode of spatial extension,” of different ways of being in the world. Figuratively, different dimensions refer to different possible aspects or ways of looking at a given situation or abstract object. We speak of exploring the multiple dimensions of a problem, for example, or discovering a new dimension in a relationship. When an art game like Braid or Fez explores points of contact or portals of transition between dimensions, it means more than 2D vs. 3D. It encompasses the figurative and emotional meanings of the term as well, the sense that dimensions are meanings, that the irruption of a new dimension into a game world, or the real world, offers new ways of seeing. Of course Lovecraft and interdimensionality in video games have been around a long time, but the renewed and intensified focus on them around the time of the eversion—on this theme of interdimensionality as expressed across a variety of cultural forms—is, I think, illuminating.

Multidimensional Texts

As Elijah Meeks suggests, Lovecraftian weird geometry is an apt metaphor for the new dimensions opened up via the vast data of the Internet itself. On the Humanist online discussion list, Meeks wrote in mid January 2012, “I’m a fan of Lovecraft’s work and is concepts and think they are useful in framing our attempts to grapple with all manner of extremely complex digital objects.” As I’ve been arguing, the biggest and most complex such digital object at present is the network itself. Willard McCarty has suggested as much (also on the Humanist listserv dedicated to humanities computing and DH), connecting Lovecraft’s eldritch worlds with the emerging “vistas” of “total digitization” and the possibilities opened up by big data.21 As I mentioned earlier, Meeks’s remarks were in the context of a data-mining project in which he was engaged, a form of digital humanities research. Exploring the interdimensional nature of our mixed reality moment is something art games share with the digital humanities, especially the new forms of digital humanities work that have emerged in the 2010s.

Contemporary video games offer vital examples of digital humanities in practice, creative works of cultural expression in digital media, living examples of the contemporary liberal arts, not just born digital but created to be experienced on the latest software-and-hardware platforms. But the digital humanities, at least in some quarters, has been somewhat slow to embrace the study of games, even while many DH practitioners and scholars are themselves avid gamers, fans, and collectors of games. Part of my purpose in this book is to bring the relationship of games and digital humanities out into the open, where its potential can continue to be explored.

I also believe games have much to teach the digital humanities about today’s digital platforms and their cultural meanings, even in areas of specialization that may seem at first not at all gamelike, such as textual editing, text encoding, and the digitization of print texts and archival documents. All kinds of texts, including literary texts, poems, plays, novels, and stories originally produced in the medium of print over the past 500 years, are now being digitized. But “digitized” can mean many things, and I’ll have more to say about the way we conceptualize digitization in the next chapter. For now, digitizing sometimes just means being keyed in or scanned as digital files, more or less accurately transcribed, usually to be uploaded to the Web; sometimes it means that useful metadata are attached, sometimes not; sometimes such texts are made freely available, sometimes they’re bundled as part of collections, commercial products sold by subscription or outright to university libraries. In the more scholarly versions of the process, digitization involves thoughtfully considered metadata, markup, or encoding, most likely these days according to a standard such as the text encoding initiative (TEI), or according to one or another experimental methods of standoff markup, or in more granular form as proper database records. At any rate, scholarly digitization should involve re-conceiving of inherited literary works as they take on a digital mode of existence, not just transcribing the lexical content, the words of a text, but in effect “porting” a print text to digital platforms to be read and studied in potentially new ways, from different perspectives—in ways that may reveal its hitherto hidden dimensions. Note that the text already contains within itself innumerable possible dimensions of meaning, as textual theorist and digital humanities scholar Jerome McGann has argued for years.22 All texts, but most vividly those with a literary or imaginative role in the culture, are multidimensional, in the sense that they prompt innumerable performances, ongoing rereadings and re-interpretations, but also in the sense that their potential meanings can be accessed from many different (sometimes contradictory) perspectives. The simplest example is that a text can be read for its narrative content, poetic effects, or expository argument—or it can be accessed backwards, as it were, through an index or concordance that first atomizes that lexical content into its separate words (with some excluded) and then rearranges the results alphabetically or in a digitally searchable format, reordering the text as a verbal matrix. The same text, different dimensions. As I pointed out in the previous chapter, the digital humanities is often said to begin with the computer-assisted concordance of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas produced starting in the 1940s by Jesuit scholar, Father Roberto Busa. As Stephen Ramsay has suggested, there is a direct line between that foundational example of humanities computing and more experimental examples of textual interpretation in today’s DH.23 A text’s—any text’s—interpretive possibilities are always manifold, measured along different axes of relationship. Digital technologies can open up new views of those axes, those possibilities. So the goal of digital humanities work with texts is not simply to translate texts from print to digital environments, moving them from one world into another, and, as it’s often feared, relegating the husk of the physical object to the darkness of storage stacks. It’s to digitize texts in ways that reveal new dimensions and open up portals, modes of transit, between physical books or manuscripts and the digital transcriptions and metadata attached to them. The dimensions of texts include and are revealed by networked data, derived directly from texts or their various contexts. Such data now address themselves to texts as a matter of course, constituting a new dimension of textuality in the digital era.24

Jerome McGann argued, in a piece reprinted in the influential Companion to Digital Humanities (2004), for expanding the scope of digital textual practices, such as markup and archiving, but also visualization and analysis, in order to better represent the n-dimensional nature of texts (Imaginative texts in particular).25 Standard text encoding schemes (such as the TEI), he argued, are inadequate to represent the “markup” of various kinds, mostly in the form of invisible conventions and structures, that “pervades paper-based texts.” For one thing, such digital encoding schemes focus primarily on the presumed structure of texts as determined by their linguistic features, whereas, paper-based literary works “organize themselves along multiple dimensions, of which the linguistic is only one.” McGann proposes a partial ontology of his own, a list of six “dimensions” that should ideally be considered in the process of digitization and markup. Besides the linguistic dimension, these include the graphical, documentary, semiotic, rhetorical, and social. Obviously other lists could be produced. The broader point is that digitization should highlight and make accessible as many as possible of the multiple dimensions of literary texts and their meanings. A markup system such as TEI, according to McGann, is essentially two-dimensional: a map of discrete “content objects” arranged as nested trees (in an ordered hierarchy). But texts—especially imaginative texts—are autopoetic systems for generating their own possibilities, their own performed meanings, in a cybernetic/hermeneutic loop involving readers. In an experimental search for ways of representing (or triggering) that process in digital formats, McGann and his collaborators, including Johanna Drucker, Bethany Nowviskie, and others, made a significant decision: they designed a game. Ivanhoe was a role-playing game focused on texts as discourse-generating systems. It was first played via a text-only platform—in email exchanges. Although a number of designs were considered for interfaces, it finally appeared in playable form as a set of pie-chart style visualizations of “moves” made by players within a “discourse field” spun out of a shared text. Gameplay involved writing and rewriting, with every move tracked and visualized by the digital environment. Walter Scott’s romance-adventure novel, Ivanhoe, was just the first major work around which the game was played. As McGann says, the best models for this kind of self-conscious collaborative interpretation “descend to us through our culture in games and role-playing environments.”26

In the Companion to Digital Humanities essay, McGann replaces the term dimensional with “dementianal”—an strategic and ludic act of linguistic play influenced by the work of Alfred Jarry, whose “’Pataphysics” McGann takes as model for performance (or, the term he prefers, “deformance”) of critical discourse. But I want to stick to the vernacular first term, here, “dimensional,” in order to make a point of my own. McGann’s influential digital humanities work from this era treated the advent of digital technology as a productive irruption into print culture. Digital technology, he suggests, opened up a new perspective on the multidimensionality of texts, and it afforded an opportunity to more self-consciously and extensively represent and reveal sometimes hidden dimensions of the textual archive.

The areas of academic specialization, even within a multidisciplinary field like the digital humanities, often obscure larger trends. If we zoom out, as if to get a satellite view of the field, the concerns of the digital humanities in recent years appear to be part of a set of broader contours, not confined to the academy. That metaphor, of the new perspectives opened up in a long zoom, is itself a reminder of an important adjacent area of literary history now often understood as being part of the digital humanities, Franco Moretti’s call for a distant reading (as opposed to the close reading that has been central to literary studies since the late nineteenth century). In his influential 2005 monograph, Moretti defines for literary history “a new object of study: instead of concrete, individual works, a trio of artificial constructs—graphs, maps, and trees—in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction”27. The key shift in method is from texts to models—in part because modeling is what computers do best 28—so that Moretti’s distant reading is, in effect, an affordance of digitization and the consequent possibility of treating large bodies of texts as data to be modeled, mined, and analyzed. Moretti anticipated by some years the public interest in Google Books, or other large digitized corpora of texts, as a kind of “big data” to be mined and graphed, whether using simple Ngrams for frequency of words or more sophisticated techniques such as probabilistic topic modeling. The two-dimensional line graphs of Moretti’s literary history and the dynamic pie-graphs of Ivanhoe share an interest in revealing other dimensions of literary texts (though they focus on different dimensions or sets of dimensions). They both assume that the techniques usually associated with mathematics or engineering or the quantitative social sciences might provide the humanities with valuable insights.

Johanna Drucker (as we’ve seen, McGann’s collaborator in the creation of Ivanhoe), has more recently sounded a cautionary note. She warns that the quantitative techniques taken from the sciences and social sciences are ultimately inappropriate for humanistic inquiry: “the ideology of almost all current information visualization is anathema to humanistic thought, antipathetic to its aims and values.”29 Interpretation, she says, is the basis of the humanities, and interpretation is “performative rather than declarative.” In this way, “each instance or reading constructs a text; discourses create their objects; texts … are not static objects but encoded provocations for reading” (86; 88). It’s a useful reminder that contrasting methods still obtain across the disciplines, and that, for example, probability is “not the same as ambiguity or multivalent possibility,” as Drucker says (90). The latter are central to the humanities and have to be taken into account in digital humanities work. “Flexible metrics, variable, discontinuous, and multidimensional will be necessary” for sophisticated graphical analysis of texts from a humanities perspective (in the case of her own research, she has shown a particular interest in temporal relations) (94; my emphasis).

Probabilities are not the same as ambiguities. But on the other hand, methods such as probabilistic topic modeling might well be able to point to, or expose for interpretation, the kind of ambiguities humanists are interested in. Drucker is not arguing against all quantitative approaches, at any rate, but for more self-conscious and more critical uses of text mining, data analysis, and data visualization in humanities research, perhaps even for more visualizations of qualitative evidence, instead of only what is readily amenable to quantizing. But in the process of making the argument, she gives perhaps too little credit to both scientific and digital-humanities practitioners. Certainly, computer-science specialists working with data understand that graphs and other sophisticated forms of visualization make arguments (rather than transparently present positive facts). Likewise, most digital humanists who are seriously engaged with quantitative methods have no illusions about the tendentious and constructed knowledge such procedures afford. For example, Matthew Jockers, of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska, speaking specifically of Google’s Ngrams, cautions that “we must not be seduced by the graphs or by the notion that this data is quantitative and therefore accurate, precise, objective, representative. etc.”30 In fact, most serious practitioners see quantitative analysis as working in conjunction with more qualitative interpretation. Rather than naively opposing the supposed objective facts provided by quantitative methods to the subjective interpretations of qualitative approaches, DH scholars analyzing large corpora of texts tend to talk about differences in scale. This is a crucial distinction. Ted Underwood, of the University of Illinois, has begun to apply probabilistic topic modeling—via the technique known as Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA)—to available large corpora of texts, for example, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collection digitized by the HathiTrust project. He was trained as a literary critic, however, and he invariably argues that such analyses merely open our eyes to patterns not otherwise apparent, and that a feedback loop akin to the hermeneutic circle obtains in such work: You zoom out to look at the big data (or relatively big, in a humanities context), then you (or others) zoom in to interpret individual texts or authors in relation to the hypotheses opened up by the quantitative analysis, and so on.

Likewise, Matthew Jockers says that it’s “the exact interplay between the macro and the micro scale that promises a new, enhanced, and perhaps even better understanding of the literary record. The two approaches work in tandem and inform each other.”31 He prefers the term “macroanalysis” to Franco Moretti’s famous phrase “distant reading,” in part because it emphasizes this dual approach. Moretti has unfortunately contributed to the confusion by claiming that “quantitative data are useful” precisely because “they are independent of interpretation”—although he also adds that such data “are challenging because they often demand an interpretation that transcends the quantitative realm”—and can work to falsify existing theoretical explanations of literary history (30). This sounds like the kind of implicit positivism Drucker is criticizing. Nonetheless, Moretti too has suggested that it’s the shift in scale afforded by distant reading that really matters, not the supposed objectivity of the data. Quantitative analysis is for him only part of an overall approach that continues to require close reading, as well. Using terms from the discipline of history, he argues that “[e]vent, cycle, longue durée” are “three time frames which have fared very unevenly in literary studies” (14). Literary critics are comfortable with the first, the detailed event, up close, of the individual text, line, or word. Literary theorists are comfortable with the last, “the very long span of nearly unchanging structures.” But the middle term, “cycles,” has been relatively neglected. This is a scale of attention that might reveal patterns at the level of genres, for example, “temporary structures within the historical flow” (14; emphasis in original). He uses graphs to plot a particular “life-cycle” in literary history, the rise and fall of certain genres of novel, which he speculates may reveal a more common pattern—“a sort of hidden pendulum of literary history[.]” (18) Genres that are in effect at any historical moment “seem to arise and disappear together according to some hidden rhythm” (20)—and he later refers to “the cycle as the hidden thread of literary history” (26). He goes on to posit the changing of generations—and thus reading audiences and markets—as behind this (21).

It’s not only the shifts in scale—from close to distant, and theoretically back again—that offer the overall critical insights. Quantitative methods and the graphs that display their results are useful for revealing hidden dimensions of texts and of literary history as a whole. The new views opened up by data analysis of text-based archives have been compared to adjusting a magnifying lens to reveal, at different levels of granularity, what was there all along but hidden to the human eye. I’ve borrowed this metaphor from the report of the first researchers who responded to the NEH’s Digging Into Data Challenge,32 but it’s important not to think strictly in terms of differences of scale or size. Grasping the hidden data-rich dimensions of texts and of the physical world in general is also like shining lights of different wavelengths, infrared say, to reveal the invisible but present objects and features of what we normally experience only in the quotidian light of day. Quotidian experience (to extend that metaphor) is increasingly a multi-spectrum, multi-level experience. At least, it’s increasingly possible to toggle between different views, different dimensions of the everyday world. And this is, I think, central to the mandate of the new digital humanities: to make such perceptions possible and to provide a framework and tools with which such multidimensionality can be experienced, interpreted, and incorporated into humanistic discourse.

Popular writer Steven Johnson (who, incidentally, briefly studied with Franco Moretti) argues that our era’s “defining view” or way of seeing the world could be defined as “the long zoom,”

the Google maps in which a few clicks take you from a view of an entire region to the roof of your house; the opening shot in Fight Club that pulls out from Edward Norton’s synapses all the way to his quivering face as he stares into the muzzle of a revolver; the fractal geometry of chaos theory in which each new scale reveals endless complexity. And this is not just a way of seeing but also a way of thinking: moving conceptually from the scale of DNA to the scale of personality all the way up to social movements and politics—and back again.33

Johnson cites the famous 1977 educational film by Eames Studios, The Powers of 10, as an early embodiment of this dynamic. But his primary focus in the essay, what for Johnson is “the work that will fix the long zoom in the popular imagination,” is a video game just then being released, an ambitious sandbox game by Sims-creator Will Wright, Spore. (The game was released 2008, but was heavily demoed for several years prior to that.) The game’s levels step up from Cell to Creature to Tribal to Civilization to Space, each time, as in The Powers of 10, allowing the player to zoom out and radically expand their perspective. The opening level is a kind of 2D platformer not unlike various indie games of the same era with Pac Man cultural DNA (such as flOw, for example), where you play as a single-celled creature navigating the primordial soup. When you eat enough and avoid being eaten long enough to grow and “evolve,” the camera zooms out and adds a dimension as you shift from a 2D to 3D game world; then, an animated cutscene shows your creature climbing out onto land.

Spore uses procedural animation for its user-generated content (creatures at various stages of “evolution,” as well as vehicles, buildings, spaceships, etc.)—hence the “sandbox” nature of gameplay. Even in advance of its release, developers (and Wright himself) called Spore a “massively single-player online game,” a system of asynchronous content-creation and sharing, much like what happens on Facebook and other social media platforms that have grown up since Spore was first announced. (YouTube was directly integrated into the game on release so that user-made videos of their newly designed creatures and objects could be shared via that channel.) Players make and edit creatures (and their implements and tools); then the game engine animates them procedurally according to their in-built features. Once you’ve finished editing a creature (from existing primitives) the game’s algorithms take over and make a birdlike creature hop like a bird, or a three-legged lizard-like creature hobble around appropriately. Because the game’s programming animates the creatures, wherever they’re plugged into the game, the actual data files generated by users for each creature can be extremely small, highly compressed for easy uploading and downloading over the network. Each player plays locally but can share globally. User-generated content can be downloaded into any local game and the outcome of a battle, say, recorded publicly on the game’s network. Spore was conceived—clearly in imitation of then- emerging social network platforms such as Facebook—as a platform for asynchronous sharing and management of data. It’s essentially a content management system and social network platform with the game as its content. In some ways it’s very much like the classic game of collecting creatures and managing their statistics, Nintendo’s Pokémon. Creature files are like the details printed on Pokémon cards (there are even digital images in Spore made to look like paper cards), but with the key data encoded. I play Spore by editing data files (though, thanks to the WYSIWYG graphical editor, it looks as though I’m poking and stretching and shaping little creature-avatars) and then “publishing” my files to a server-hub, where they can be downloaded, shared and used by you in various cooperative or competitive scenarios. My peaceful creatures may populate your Tribal level as decorative NPCs, or they may serve as prey for your more aggressive creatures. The results of all these massively single-player interactions—the data generated—is then made available to me. According to the Wikipedia, Maxi released Spore's API (Application Programming Interface) as a series of RESTful Web services primarily in the form of XML files—which in terms of system architecture could also describe any number of new digital humanities projects. The idea is to give other developers or hardcore users access to player and game data. Spore appears to be a multi-tiered universe of animated worlds in which funny or scary cartoon creatures engage in mating, eating, fighting, building, exploring in a wide variety of environments. But behind that brightly colored visible game universe is a “hidden” digital universe (hidden to most players, anyway)—the code that makes up the procedural core of the game, a system for the generation and editing of encoded files that are then recombined, aggregated, collected, and traded in shifting constellations and nodes across a wide network. Each highly compressed creature file (in a loose metaphorical sense, its DNA) is brought to life, given visible dimensions in the (game) world, but your interactions—along with countless similar interactions—are collected, as with any such video-game property, as encoded digital data, to be decoded, analyzed, recombined, and downloaded, to irrupt into an infinite number of other worlds, overlapping across the network of networks. (In other words, it’s a lot like everyday life today.)

Minecraft (2009) is a game that appears very different from Spore graphically, but that is also a massive sandbox with a procedurally generated world and focused (even more) on the user-generated content. You play Minecraft by building things—almost any kind of thing you can imagine—out of voxel-looking primitives, 3D blocks. You mine them as raw materials of various kinds and then stack or connect them to make buildings, vehicles, objects, and structures. It’s reminiscent of playing with Lego blocks, since part of the challenge is to make something that looks organic or realistically rounded out of the blocky materials. Aesthetically, the results look decidedly retro-styled, pixelated in a 16-bit way, which adds to the appeal. Even more than in Spore, eschewing realistic graphics for stylized forms allows for a resource-efficient massive gameworld. You can travel very far in the virtual world of Minecraft. It’s technically not an infinite sandbox terrain, but it will feel that way to most players, since the game procedurally generates the part of the world you travel to on the fly, rendering it in successive “chunks” of data consisting of 16 x 6 x 128-pixel blocks as you get to them. Often, you can see this happening as you navigate and the world forms out in front of you. (I’ll have more to say about Minecraft and making things in chapter 5.)

Again, even more than in Spore, Minecraft allows for a sandbox style of play in which you just build and explore. When playing in Survival mode, however, you are prey to creatures that spawn at night, and you must build adequate shelter to protect yourself from them, or you’ll be attacked, lose health, and die. In this mode, the game can be won, in terms that resonate with the traditions of science fiction and fantasy—by navigating through portals among parallel dimensions. You “win” Minecraft (in so far as anyone tries to do that) by defeating a dragon who lives in another dimension, accessed via underground dungeon-like ruins. When you succeed in battle you are allowed to exit that dimension and return to the main world. As in most video games (just exaggerated in Minecraft's stylized way), the transparently metaphorical fantasy elements of ruins, dragon to defeat, a race of Endermen, etc., join the metaphors of portals, alternative dimensions, and, for that matter, the game world itself. These metaphors descend from the conventional genres and conventions of video games since Adventure and Zork (and before them, from board games and Dungeons and Dragons-style RPGs), but they turn out to be surprisingly apt, among the images that are particularly useful for thinking with in this era, when the master metaphor of cyberspace has given way.

On Metaphorical Thinking

Games and science fiction have from their inception imagined counter-factual situations, layered, multidimensional realities among them. And, likewise, cyberspace was part high-tech start-up hype, part cultural metaphor. There never really was another dimension apart from the material world, never really was a cyberspace. If it was always a consensual hallucination, does the eversion amount to a collective sobering up? If, as Nathan Jurgenson has argued, cyberspace was an “untenable” and delusional “collective fiction,” and if the “digital dualism” on which it was based is really no more than “ridiculous,” a “common (mis)understanding,” then does the eversion represent simply a final debunking, the stripping away of illusion?34 In that case, is the New Aesthetic actually just a series of satires, more or less conscious, aimed at debunking digital dualism, and are New Aesthetic irruptions of the digital into the physical cited as signs of an already-exploded notion of the digital realm as somewhere other?

I don’t think so, not quite. I don’t think the New Aesthetic, even, much less the larger phenomenon of the eversion, is anything so simple. Ambivalence is at the heart of both the New Aesthetic and the larger eversion. For me, the metaphors of glitch and irruption and eldritch extrusion from another dimension that the New Aesthetic has been collecting, and that are showing up everywhere in the world at large, are meaningful. These metaphors of interdimensional transit are signs of something real—real attitudes, ambivalences, conceptual struggles in response to specific technological changes. For this reason, I think the metaphors offer useful ways to think about our current situation. Jurgenson himself, in responding to New Aesthetic irruptions, asks: “How do we understand these objects? What do we call them? Why do they exist? What do these objects say about the complex relationship between information and material, digitality and physicality, atoms and bits?” (“We Need a Word”). Precisely. These questions are the point of these metaphors, I believe, though not always consciously or intentionally so. How do we understand this complex relationship as it’s in the midst of shifting? Although it’s true of course that cyberspace was never really another dimension, it’s also true that it was widely figured that way for almost two decades. Our experience of digital networks has during that time often felt as if it were interdimensional. In what many consider the first fictional representation of cyberspace (but not yet with that name), Vernor Vinge’s novella True Names, the protagonist, Roger Pollack (aka Mr. Slippery), describes his perception of his digital life from the perspective of his physical life, once he can no longer go online, no longer visit the Other Plane: “What he had become since the spring was a fuzzy dream to him when he was down in the physical world. Sometimes he felt like a fish trying to imagine what a man in an airplane might be feeling.”35 Pollack’s comic metaphor privileges the high-flying digital realm over the physical world, but it also captures the surreal feelings that can still, at this late date, characterize the border exchanges between the two. Dreams and metaphors, fictions and hallucinations, are ways for the culture to re-imagine its relationship to the network. In the past decade we have experienced (and continue to experience) “a rearrangement,” and we may well “need new terminology that makes reference to the enmeshed, imploded, overlapping, interpenetrating nature of the physical and digital,” as Jurgenson says (“We Need a Word”). But this isn’t a matter of simply discarding fiction for reality; there’s no point in trading a digital dualism for another kind of dualism—or a monism that devalues the power, even if it’s a negative power, of collectively accepted metaphors. Deconstruction is not debunking: It reveals the rifts and contradictions of a relational construction by putting into play the relationality and difference (as différance). The whole point is that such constructions are difficult (or impossible) to see, much less escape. It’s true that we now “live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online.” But for now, living in this AR still sometimes feels like living at the confluence of overlapping dimensions of existence. That changing experience is worth understanding.

To invoke another metaphor from speculative fiction: it’s like inhabiting the urban landscape of China Miéville’s noir alternative-history detective novel, The City & The City (2009), in which two fictional European cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, occupy the same geographic space but maintain separate identities, as if they existed in parallel universes or adjacent dimensions.35 Residents are raised to inhabit their cities without acknowledging the overlap, to “observe borders” that are invisible, to “see and unsee only what [they] should” (36). They must unsee the civic others passing by on the street, actively not perceive the architecture, city parks, vehicles from the opposing city that are right there all along in the same physical place—or, as the residents of both cities say when they mean crudely, physically adjacent, “grosstopically” close (80). To cross over without papers or even to see that your house is standing right beside a building from the other city, or that your street is literally, physically coextensive with its mirror from the other city (its “topolganger” [132]), is to commit “breach,” an ominously serious category of crime, like a state of sin (one is said to be “in breach”), to be punished by unseen forces (known simply as Breach). When breach happens unexpectedly, say when a bus from one city crashes in a way that it cannot be ignored, the Besź term for it is “protub”—short for a “protuberance” from the other city (a term that now invokes the New Aesthetic’s “irruptions” and the eversion more generally) (65). The City & the City is about political and social constructions, a way of representing ideology and institutional interpellation of the subjects of those constructions. On some level, therefore, it’s clearly about Jerusalem, Beirut, Berlin, and the partitioning of every major city in invisible ways along lines of power and money, so that one must learn to unsee the homeless sleeping in the subways, for example. I wouldn’t want to obscure those political interpretations. But even Miéville has said that while he rejects allegorical decodings of the book, he wishes to differentiate those from legitimate metaphorical readings, not because allegory “reads too much into a story, but because it reads too little into it” (320). Metaphor, he says, is “fractally fecund” (321), and in that spirit, I find that the novel’s controlling metaphor works as a figure not just for ideology but for technology, for how collective metaphors shape experience—and what it feels like to live in the midst of a shift from one dominant metaphor for technology to another, to live in (the) breach, as it were. The frisson of this experience, the chill of recognizing once-hidden data manifest as a series of protuberances into everyday life, is like living in those overlapping cities, straddling two alternative worlds or two dimensions of existence.

Dimensionality is a metaphor that allows us to think in meaningful ways about the layerings, and the degrees of invisibility, of the data and connections and objects that surround us. Such metaphors help us to grasp the process we are still undergoing in order to continue to work through what it means. We are still experiencing the eversion of cyberspace, and the “new” dimensions of existence opened up by the eversion are still in the process of being revealed. One of the roles of the new digital humanities in our present moment might be to help us all learn new ways to see some of these hitherto unseen (but always-present) dimensions of mixed-reality existence, the people, places, and things opened up by the conjunctions of the digital and the physical.

__________

Notes

1 James Bridle, “We Fell in Love in a Coded Space,” Liftconference, April 6, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuin-6DlRG8.

2 For this book it seems appropriate to cite H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction in a digital edition (Kindle in my case) compiled from public-domain texts by “a library worker and library student (Master’s in Library and Information Science, specializing in archives), a crafter, a reader, and a geek” who goes by the handle, Cthulhu Chick. Her edition is based on Project Gutenberg texts. Cthulhu Chick, ed., The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft (2010), http://cthulhuchick.com/free-complete-lovecraft-ebook-nook-kindle/ , “From Beyond” (loc. 1935).

3 My thanks to Nicholas Hayward and his students in Digital Humanities 400 (fall 2012) for reminding me of some of these advantages of QR codes.

4 Judkis, Maura. “QR code tattoo signals end of the QR code?” Washington Post The Style Blog, December 19, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/qr-code-tattoo-signals-end-of-the-qr-code/2011/12/19/gIQAJW7y4O_blog.html.

5 Sander Veenhof, QR of Life, http://exvirtual.com/qr/.

6 “Russia’s Futuristic QR Code Covered Pavilion,” My Modern Met blog, http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/russia-pavilion-venice-architecture-biennale . Extra credit for this one goes to the collective English 415 Tumblr, The Network Everts, http://networkeverts.tumblr.com.

7 Conceptual preview video, “Google Glass: One Day … ,” spring 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c6W4CCU9M4&feature=player_embedded . Since that video appeared, beta-test versions of Glass have been distributed and, as I write, Google is hoping to release a commercial product by the end of 2013. See Joshua Topolsky, “I Used Google Glass: The Future, With Monthly Updates,” The Verge, February 22, 2013, http://www.theverge.com/2013/2/22/4013406/i-used-google-glass-its-the-future-with-monthly-updates .

8 Bruce Sterling, “An Essay on the New Aesthetic,” Beyond The Beyond blog, http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/.

9 James Bridle, “Waving At the Machines,” Web Directions South 2011, http://www.webdirections.org/resources/james-bridle-waving-at-the-machines/.

10 James Bridle, “#sxaesthetic,” BookTwo blog, March 15, 2012, http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic .

11 Kelly Goeller, Pixel Pour, April 2008, http://kellotron.com. My thanks to her for permission to reproduce the photo used in the illustration and for her explanation of her materials and methods.

12 Julian Bleeker, Flickr, “Pixel Spout” [sic], April 18, 2008, http://www.flickr.com/photos/julianbleecker/2434362687/.

13 “Wreck-It Ralph 8-Bit Lane, Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London, 11-13 January, 2013,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=wQkE3VPUPuM#!.

14 Ray Zone, Stereoscopic Cinema & the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952 (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 141-43.

15 “Mario is Too Mainstream,” Dorkly, http://www.dorkly.com/video/30941/dorkly-bits-mario-is-too-mainstream.

16 Patrick Jagoda has produced the best close reading I know of this aspect of Braid, in which he argues that the game’s “secretiveness about the atom bomb does not exist for the sake of some empty Hollywood-style plot twist,” but that the “game’s surreptitiousness comes formally to figure the epic concealment of the Manhattan Project itself,” in “Fabulously Procedural: Braid, History, and the Videogame Sensorium,” American Literature (forthcoming, 2013), e.g., 12-13.

17 L. Pajot and J. Swirsky, producers, directors, Indie Game: The Movie (2012), Canada: Flutter Media.

18 Sal Cangeloso, “Fez soundtrack is Full of Secrets,” April 20, 2012, http://www.geek.com/articles/games/fez-soundtrack-contains-hidden-information-20120420/.

19 Elijah Meeks, “TVTropes Pt. 1: The Weird Geometry of the Internet,” Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources, Digital Humanities Specialist blog, December 21, 2011, https://dhs.stanford.edu/social-media-literacy/tvtropes-pt-1-the-weird-geometry-of-the-internet/.

20 Patrick LeMieux and Stephanie Boluk, “Eccentric Spaces and Filmic Traces: Portals in Aperture Laboratories and New York City,” Proceedings of the 8th Digital Arts and Culture Conference, After Media: Embodiment and Context (Irvine, CA: University of California Press, 2009), http://escholarship.org/uc/item/95b6t1cm.

21 Willard McCarty (willard.mccarty@mccarty.org) and Elijah Meeks (emeeks@stanford.edu]), “proof,” Humanist List Archives, January 13-14, 2012, http://dhhumanist.org/Archives/Current/Humanist.vol25.txt .

22 See Jerome J. McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 167-91.

23 Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

24 For born-digital texts, the issues are somewhat different, but there is always some physical dimension involved in these, as well, if only at a microscopic level.

25 McGann, “Marking Texts of Many Dimensions,” in Schreibman, et al., ed., A Companion to Digital Humanities, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.

26 McGann, Radiant Textuality, 164.

27 Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 1.

28 Willard McCarty, “Modeling: A Study in Words and Meanings,” in Schreibman, et al., ed., Companion, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.

29 Johanna Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” in Gold, ed., Debates, 85-95 (86).

30 Matthew L. Jockers, “Unigrams, and Bigrams, and Trigrams, Oh My,” author’s blog, December 22, 2010, http://www.matthewjockers.net/2010/12/22/unigrams-and-bigrams-and-trigrams-oh-my/.

31 Matthew L. Jockers, “On Distant Reading and Macroanalysis,” author’s blog, July 1, 2011, http://www.matthewjockers.net/2011/07/01/on-distant-reading-and- macroanalysis/. And see Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013).

32 Christa Williford and Charles Henry, One Culture: Computationally Intensive Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences: A Report on the Experiences of First Respondents to the Digging Into Data Challenge (Washington, D.C.: Council on Library hor’s and Information Resources, 2012), 1.

33 Steven Johnson, “The Long Zoom,” The New York Times Magazine, October 8, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08games.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

34 Nathan Jurgenson, “We Need a Word for That Thing Where a Digital Thing Appears in the Physical World,” The Atlantic, July 9, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/we-need-a-word-for-that-thing- where-a-digital-thing-appears-in-the-physical-world/259570/; and compare “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality,” Cyborgology blog, February 24, 2011, http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented- reality/, and “The IRL Fetish,” The New Inquiry, June 28, 2012, http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-irl-fetish/.

35 Vernor Vinge, True Names, first published in Dell Binary Star 5 (1981). Reprinted in True Names and the OPening of the Cyberspace Frontier ed. James Frenkel, 239-330 (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, TOR, 2001).

36 China Miéville, The City & The City (New York: Random House Digital, 2011; copyright 2009), Kindle Edition.


Aug 30

You can now read the Introduction at the publisher’s Website. Below is chapter 1 in its entirety:


THE EMERGENCE OF THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES

Steven E. Jones

1

EVERSION

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. (William Gibson, 2010)1

The eversion of cyberspace, or the shift in perception it metaphorically describes, has actually been going on for some time, now. When Gibson coined the term cyberspace in 1982–1984, it was a metaphor for the global information network, but in the decade that followed, it made a material difference in technology and culture, and in the perceived relation between the two. Now, as Gibson and others have recently noted, the term has started to fade like an old photograph, to sound increasingly archaic.2 In a Twitter exchange on November 27, 2011, @scottdot asked “Who the hell says ‘cyber’-anything anymore?” and in a few minutes Gibson himself (@GreatDismal) responded: “I have said that myself, many times.” The notable exceptions, perhaps significantly enough, are uses of the term by the military and governments, as in cyber-attack and cyber-warfare, and in the analogous case of cyber-bullying. In all of these cases, one might imagine that there’s a resistance to acknowledging the (frightening) breakdown of the distinction, the penetration of what had been conceived of as separate worlds. Even in this case, the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary, Jane Holl Lute, began her testimony before a congressional committee on cybersecurity in March 2013 by observing that “[c]yberspace is woven into the fabric of our daily lives;” and she has said repeatedly (in a paradoxical-sounding metaphor) that cyberspace “functions as the very endoskeleton of modern life.”3 No longer a place apart (some other “space”), it’s now seen as the infrastructure inside the “body” of everyday existence. For some years now, Gibson has been pointing out that “cyberspace is everywhere now, having everted and colonized the world. It starts to sound kind of ridiculous to speak of cyberspace as being somewhere else.”4 Although she continues to use the term, Secretary Lute would agree with Gibson that cyberspace has everted, turned inside out (and outside in).

In one sense, Gibson is just overwriting his own earlier metaphor (cyberspace) with a newer one (eversion). But despite his claim that “cyberspace is everywhere, now,” in fact, as one of his characters says in the 2007 novel, Spook Country, there never was any cyberspace, really. It was just a way of understanding the culture’s relationship to networked technology, in other words, a metaphor. As that relationship changed, so did the metaphor. Of course, most of the time people don’t go around measuring in figurative terms their shifting attitudes toward technology. Everyday technology is experienced in more literal, concrete terms. For increasing numbers of people, networked technology is becoming an integral part of everyday life they take for granted–and that’s the point. The metaphor of eversion is particularly resonant, particularly useful, because it articulates a widely experienced shift in our collective understanding of the network during the last decade: inside out, from a world apart to a part of the world, from a transcendent virtual reality to mundane experience, from a mysterious, invisible abstract world to a still mostly invisible (but real) data-grid that we move through every day in the physical world.5 If cyberspace once seemed a transcendent elsewhere, someplace other than the world we normally inhabit, that relationship has inverted as the network as everted. In a 2009 interview, Gibson described the eversion in this way: 

The ubiquitous connectivity that we’re all taking very much for granted, and are increasingly depending on, has become our Here. And the disconnected space, you know, when you can’t get your WiFi to link up, or when your cellphone won’t work, that’s become our There.6

The network is no longer normally imagined as a place you jack into in order to upload your disembodied consciousness, a place you “visit” as if it were another planet. It’s right here all around us, the water in which we swim. Moreover, we made it, or at least we contribute our own data to it daily, whether fully aware or fully consenting or not.

The term eversion is unusual, with medical and surgical associations appearing early (in which inner surfaces–of the eyelid, for example–are turned inside-out) and as the terms for a rhetorical figure in the seventeenth century (also called eparedos), in which a sequence of words or phrases is turned around and repeated in reverse order (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). Gibson himself first used a form of the term in print in a poem published in 1992, “Agrippa” (as we’ll see in chapter 3). There it simply described an umbrella turned inside out by the wind in Japan (“umbrella everted in the storm’s Pacific breath”). It’s perhaps interesting, however, that Gibson’s initial use of the word was to describe a physical object out in the weather. By 2007 he used it as a metaphor for the digital network’s turning-out-into the physical, out into the world.

More recently, in 1999, Marcos Novak, who is a theorist and practitioner of “virtual architecture,” used the term eversion in roughly the same way as Gibson later would.7 Novak begins with the premise that “we are tending toward a culture of ubiquitous virtuality,” a state beyond cyberspace and virtual reality. Novak argues, however, that the concept of immersion by itself is incomplete, that it “lacks a complementary concept describing the outpouring of virtuality onto ordinary space” (309, 311). That missing concept is eversion–“the obverse of immersion” (311). Novak’s anticipates Gibson’s use of the term in a number of ways, even before the implications of newer networked technologies in the new millennium were fully evident. He uses the same spatial metaphor, for example: “Eversion … signifies a turning inside-out of virtuality, a casting outward of the virtual into the space of everyday experience” (311). And Novak grasps what will become in the 2000s the crucial point of the eversion of cyberspace–the shift of focus to the everyday and to physical space: “the phenomena we are familiar with in cyberspace will find, indeed are finding, their equivalent, everted forms in ordinary space” (312).

For Novak at the time, the shift was primarily conceptual. He had not yet seen the eversion embodied in the banal ubiquity of mobile technology, or even of widespread and free, or inexpensive, fast wireless Internet connections. As a visionary architect, however, Novak was however used to modeling and thinking with imaginary objects, design fictions, including in his case hyperspatial or multidimensional structures that figure eversion in graphical terms. Furthermore, he was interested in design based on metaphors, and in what he calls the “poetics of new technologies” (309). For Novak, eversion is a concept for more precisely imagining “the cultural and poetic circumstances brought about by the exponential growth of information technology” (312). Since those early speculations, in a 2008 exhibit for example, Novak has explored the idea “that we live in a new sort of space, encompassing the actual and the virtual, and using the invisible as a bridge and interface between the two”–a formulation that sounds much like the mixed-reality state of the eversion as I’ll be characterizing it.8 Again, as an architect working in an auspicious time, Novak connects that experience to objects in space, what he calls “turbulent topologies,” and a sense of being surrounded by “strange geometries.” I’ll come back in the next chapter to that sense of the eversion as exposing weird, heretofore hidden dimensions of experience, and to the seemingly contradictory sense that the network is mundane, a fact of life all around us, but somehow still redolent of an otherness associated with its former existence as cyber-spatial. This double sense is what characterizes our moment of transition, of the eversion still in the process of working itself out and becoming more widely distributed.

In fact William Gibson is often credited with saying that the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.9 There’s a sense in which what Novak sensed with his future-oriented theoretical antennae around the turn of the century took a few years to be experienced by the preponderance of users. And that process continues. But I think we can roughly date the watershed moment when the preponderant collective perception fundamentally changed to 2004–2008. At about that historical moment the quintessential virtual world, Second Life, arguably peaked, was more or less taken for granted just as it began to decline, in terms of number of users and–more important–in terms of the publicity surrounding it as the paradigm platform for the future of the Internet as a whole.10 At around the same time, the idea that the network itself was essentially a virtual world, a second life, lost some of its power as network technology became increasingly intertwined with everyday activities. The MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) World of Warcraft was taking off at the same time as a mainstream entertainment, but the interface for that game was decidedly video game-like in its mixed menus, chat, and 3D graphics. The experience of playing it for many people, with their headsets on, talking to their guild, was closer to using social-network software than to immersive virtual reality as it had been imagined in the era of cyberspace during the 1990s.

Speaking of games, at about the same time, Nintendo’s motion-control Wii was introduced (2006) helping to usher in an era of mixed-reality casual gaming, matched only by the rapid rise of mobile gaming. The same massive increase in the use of mobile technologies contributed to the success of the so-called Web 2.0 social-network platforms introduced at the time, especially Facebook. As I pointed out in the Introduction, Facebook first appeared around 2004 (Myspace had preceded it by about a year), but it came into its own, reaching a mass user base, in 2006–2007–just in time to be joined by the microblogging platform Twitter in 2006. Geolocative social-network platform Foursquare, in which used check in to real-world locations using GPS, debuted in 2009. Indeed, as the work of Jason Farman (among others) has shown, the rise of mobile computing is in itself another way to characterize the shift I’m calling the eversion.11 Farman sees the rise of mobile media as a significant “cultural shift” and a force that produces and reconfigures “social and embodied space;” his work focuses on “the embodied and spatial actions to which our devices contribute” (1, 5, 2). The timeline of eversion, therefore, is marked by the appearance of Apple’s iPhone, for example, which was previewed in 2006 and introduced in January 2007; the Android OS and phones followed within a year.

Early in 2007, William Gibson’s novel Spook Country was published, in which he first articulated the eversion of cyberspace.12 Set in 2006, its story is based on the rise of mobile network access (though everyone in the book still flips their cellphones open and closed, rather than poking at a multitouch interface, a telling detail that dates the writing to the just-pre-iPhone era), and on the related confluence of augmented reality, locative art, viral marketing, pervasive surveillance, and the total security state. Like what happens in the novel (and the one that preceded it in the trilogy, Pattern Recognition), the novel itself is an act of “coolhunting,” a report from the interface of culture and networked technology. Characters in the novel execute works of art (and a direct-action protest) by leveraging the cellular data networks, GPS satellite data, and the mobile and wireless Web to tag or annotate the physical world, overlayering locations with data of various kinds, including surreal 3D artists’ images. The novel presents a media landscape in which the mundane trumps the transcendent, but it’s a mundane with a difference, and the difference is distributed and mobile networked data. In Spook Country’s vision of 2006, already there isn’t any cyberspace out there, because the network is down here, all around us. The book is about streets and buildings, shipping containers and remote-control drone aircraft, pills, guns, and religious fetish objects, objects of all kinds, because that’s where the network lives, now, as data and sensors and connections, built into and surrounding the myriad physical objects that make up the ambient world.

This condition, what Gibson calls the eversion of cyberspace, corresponds to a shift noted by a number of media-studies specialists working in different disciplines, what Katherine Hayles, for example, has identified as a fourth phase in the history of cybernetics (which began in its modern form with information theory in the mid twentieth century), from “virtuality” to “mixed reality,” to “environments in which physical and virtual realms merge in fluid and seamless ways.”13 This is the most recent shift in what Hayles sees as the history of cybernetics, moving from homeostasis (1943–1960), to reflexivity (1960–1985), to virtuality (1985–1990s), and now, to mixed reality: “A decade or two ago there was much talk of virtual realms as ‘cyber’ locations distinct from the real world,” she says, as embodied in the VR helmet of the 1980s. Such rigs have been replaced, now, by the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) of computers of various form-factors, increasingly experienced via the “pervasiveness, flexibility, and robustness of ubiquitous media.”

Instead of constructing virtual reality as a sphere separate from the real world, today’s media have tended to move out of the box and overlay virtual information and functionalities onto physical locations and actual objects. Mobile phones, GPS technology, and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, along with embedded sensors and actuators, have created environments in which physical and virtual realms merge in fluid and seamless ways. This fourth phase is characterized by the integration of virtuality and actuality that may appropriately be called mixed reality. (Hayles 2010, 148).

The history of cybernetics for Hayles began with information being separated from its material “body,” being treated as a mathematical abstraction. This has had the effect of a general emphasis on disembodiment that Hayles’ earlier work explicitly addressed. The mixed reality model, however, emphasizes the role of human and machine within complex environments “though which information and data are pervasively flowing” (149). In other words, like Gibson, she recognizes in this 2010 essay that what was once imagined as a realm apart is now discovered all around us in the physical world, as information and data are seen as complexly material phenomena, everywhere embodied.

To cite another example: in 2006, at the time that Gibson was writing Spook Country (just before it was published, although excerpts had appeared on his blog), Adam Greenfield used terms much like Gibson’s to describe what he called the condition of “everyware,” a “paradigm shift” around 2005 to ubiquitous or pervasive computing.14 This new distributed network offers a radical alternative to “immersing a user in an information-space that never was”–and amounts to “something akin to virtual reality turned inside out" (my emphasis) (73). Writing from the point of view of technology design, Greenfield cites Neuromancer for the earlier paradigm. In cyberspace, he says, the “nonspace of the interface” made it feel as though “each of our boxes [personal computers] [was] a portal onto a ‘consensual hallucination’ that’s always there waiting for us” (72). By contrast, so-called everyware works by “instrumenting the actual world, as opposed to immersing the user in an information-space that never was” (73). Moreover, the new everyware network “happens out here in the world” and is a social phenomenon (16). Science fiction like Gibson’s still plays an important role. Greenfield notes that “in everyware pop culture and actual development have found themselves locked in a co-evolutionary spiral,” and he cites for example movies and science fiction novels, as well as literary fiction, such as work by David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo, as imaginative representations of ubiquitous computing of the kind actually being developed in the 2000s (93–95). Recognizing this effect doesn’t require subtle cultural-studies methods. As he reminds us, sometimes audience members of imaginative films representing technology, for example the interfaces of Minority Report, “go on to furnish the world with the things they’ve seen;” in that way the “fantastic” is quite literally “made real” (95). In fact, as I’ll argue in the chapters to come, the central role of fictional designs or deliberate “design fictions,” and their closeness to being translated into actual, physical prototypes, is one of the features of the eversion, one of the ways the (imagined) virtual and physical are linked, not dual, separate realms, but two possibility states, always already available.

In a Foreword to Beth Coleman’s Hello Avatar, Clay Shirky praises her analysis of the network as finding a “means to escape the seeming incommensurability of two competing models”—the network as cyberspace and the network as a medium for social communication in the real world.15 Her preferred framing concept, which sets aside or avoids the presumed dualism, is “x-reality,” “x-media” or “cross-media,” a “landscape” held together for us by our construction of identities (avatars), and as Shirky says, it “crosses from the real to the mediated world and back” (xiii). In her own words, Coleman declares that she sees “an end of the virtual and the acceleration of the augmented” due to “the growing phenomenon of pervasive media engagement” (2–3). Augmented or “x-reality,” Coleman says, “traverses the virtual and the real” (3).

One more important example is the public writings of sociology student Nathan Jurgenson (a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Maryland), who in the past few years has argued in various venues against what he calls “digital dualism,” the fallacy that “the digital and the physical are separate,” and in favor of recognizing instead that “the digital and physical are increasingly meshed” in augmented reality.16 Jurgenson’s arguments about the network overlap with my own in many ways. He writes in response to what he sees as “the fetishization of the offline,” which he associates with retro fashions for analog media, for example, and a persistent ideology of cyberspace as a place apart.17 Against the analog backlash based on digital dualism, Jurgenson asserts that:

Our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. (“The IRL Fetish”)

This argument by Jurgenson (and others at the Cyborgology blog in particular) attracted the criticism of Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, who wrote his own blog post February 27, 2013 against what he called the “digital dualism denialism.”18 Carr equates offline existence with a pre-technological, more natural way of life: “We should celebrate the fact that nature and wilderness have continued to exist, in our minds and in actuality, even as they have been overrun by technology and society.” The constructedness of the idea of “nature” for the past 200 years–especially in reaction to the industrial revolution–and the presence in the “wilderness” of machines and technologies of various kinds for much longer than that, is glossed over in Carr’s account, revealing the very kind of idealization of “offline” life Jurgenson was addressing in the first place. But Carr’s call for “thinking more deeply about people’s actual experience of the online and the offline and, equally important, how they sense that experience” is I think useful. It’s true that at times Jurgenson’s rhetoric can sound like simple debunking rather than deconstruction, as if it’s merely a matter of exposing digital dualism as a silly illusion. He has, I think rightly, said that “[t]he clear distinction between the on and offline, between human and technology, is queered beyond tenability” (“IRL Fetish”). But, as with other forms of queering, that doesn’t mean that the relational constructions of digital and physical suddenly come to an end and are resolved into a unity, now that they are less stable, fixed, or natural categories. It certainly doesn’t mean that people no longer experience them as mutually co-constructed, as defined by differences that cannot quickly be resolved into easy unities. In one marginal note to one of the essays I’ve been citing, Jurgenson qualifies his own polemic: “To be clear, the digital and the physical are not the same, but we should aim to better understand the relationship of different combinations of information, be they analog or digital” (“The IRL Fetish”). Agreed. In this book, I’m deeply interested in pursuing that kind of better understanding of the relationship of digital and analog, in part by looking (as Carr suggests) at how people “sense” their experience of this relationship. I begin by reading the metaphorical significance carried in expressions of digital dualism, and by interpreting the shift from one dominant metaphor (cyberspace) to another. That shift characterizes the eversion for me, the move toward what Jurgenson calls enmeshed or augmented reality, what Coleman calls x-reality, what Greenfield calls everyware, and what Hayles calls mixed reality. So, as I further explain in the next chapter, I’m less interested in debunking cyberspace as a transparent illusion than I am in exploring what, after having had such a profound cultural influence, cyberspace’s dissolution and ongoing eversion might mean, now, for culture and the humanities. If cyberspace was a “consensual hallucination,” then that consensus was widespread (and remains in effect for some people), and the eversion therefore represents a significant but still unfolding shift in the collective imagination. Such a shift calls for interpretation.

I think the changes observed by authors such as Jurgenson, Coleman (and Shirky), Greenfield, Hayles, and others, all writing from different disciplines and different perspectives, reflect a broader cultural change whose effects we are still experiencing, a multi-platform shift in the nature of the collective experience of networked technologies. My focus is on that shift, as an ongoing process, and on its significance as a context for understanding the emergence of the digital humanities. It’s not that (to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf) on or about December 2006, say, the character of the network changed. Nothing that sudden and clear-cut took place, of course. But I do think that between about 2004 and 2008, the cumulative effect of a variety of changes in technology and culture converged and culminated in a new consensual imagination of the role of the network in relation to the physical and social world. In other words, the network was everting.

At about that same moment, the digital humanities rather suddenly achieved a new level of public attention, as I sketched out in the introduction, emerging out of a decades-long tradition of humanities computing and marked by the term “digital humanities” itself–which seems to have been coined in 2001 but reached a kind of critical mass, in terms of public awareness and institutional influence, ranging from the publication of the influential Companion to Digital Humanities (2004), to notices in the press, to the establishment of an Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment of the Humanities, between 2004–2007.19 While the earlier established practices of humanities computing continued, the new-model digital humanities emphasized new methods and new media, the analysis and visualization of large datasets of humanities materials, for example, including for the purposes of what Franco Moretti named “distant reading” (2005); it continued to engage in building digital tools and Websites and archives, but also began to experiment with using 3D printers and making wearable processors and other devices; and it responded to the geospatial turn across the disciplines.20 The new digital humanities also increasingly turned its attention to new media, including born-digital media, and, to a greater extent than has been fully recognized, began to study game theory and even to build video games and Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). So the concurrent eversion of cyberspace and the rise of the new DH was no mere coincidence. In one sense, the new digital humanities is the product of the same changes marked by the eversion, is arguably humanities computing everted.

In its newly prominent forms, DH is both a response to and a contributing cause of the wider eversion, as can be glimpsed in the substitution performed at a crucial moment (by John Unsworth and Andrew McNeillie, in titling a collection of essays) from digitized to digital humanities: from implying a separation between the stuff of the humanities–manuscripts, books, documents, maps, works of art of all kinds, other artifacts–and computing, to more of a mixed reality, characterized by two-way interactions between the two realms, physical artifacts and digital media.21 Instead of only digitizing the archives of our cultural heritage in order to move them out onto the network (thought that work continued of course), many practitioners began to see themselves putting the digital into reciprocal conversation with an array of cultural artifacts, the objects on which humanistic study has historically been based, was well as new kinds of objects, including born-digital artifacts. In new media, this kind of reciprocal interaction between data and artifacts, algorithm and world, has been effectively modeled for decades in video games. So throughout this book, I’ll cite games as the best examples of some the problems of new media that are especially relevant to the rise of DH.  

Transcendent Network, Mundane World

 First, to revisit cyberspace: Combining “cybernetics” and “space,” William Gibson coined the term in a 1982 short story, “Burning Chrome” as an imaginary brand name for a network device set in the 2030s, but it became famous in his 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. He later said that his vision of cyberspace–a disembodied virtual reality, a transcendent other world made up of “clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights receding”–was inspired by watching arcade video game players as they leaned into their machines, bumping the cabinets and hitting the buttons (in the novel a fictional documentary says that the “matrix,” the network, “has its roots in primitive arcade games”).22 Gibson, who, significantly, was not himself a gamer, imagined that the gamers were longing to be immersed in and to disappear into the virtual world on the other side of the screen, longing to transcend the body in physical “meat space” and be uploaded as pure consciousness into the digital matrix of cyberspace.23 Thus Norbert Wiener’s 1948 use of cybernetics, which was etymologically about “steerage” or human control of machines, was mutated by Gibson in 1984 to suggest a willing relinquishment of the bodily and the material in order to go to another place, another plane.24 In fact, the Other Plane was Vernor Vinge’s term for the 3D virtual world he imagined a few years before Gibson’s Neuromancer introduced the world to cyberspace, in the novella True Names.25 Vinge based his imagined Other Plane on his experiences logging on to a PDP–11 in 1979 through a dialup connection; creating the virtual world was a matter of “[s]caling up from that and imagining consequences” (Frenkel 16, 18).

One of the features of True Names is the notion that a worldwide computer network would be a kind of place for its users. I needed a word for that place, and the best I came up with was “the Other Plane.” Alas, that is a lightning bug compared with the lightning bolt that is “cyberspace.” (Frenkel 20)

(Vinge is referring to an idea he attributes to Mark Twain, that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”) Both Vinge’s and Gibson’s metaphors had to be spatialized. As Katherine Hayles has said, Gibson created cyberspace by “transforming a data matrix into a landscape”–a place apart from the physical world–“in which narratives can happen.”26 This newly three-dimensional imagined place, which Gibson characterized from the beginning in idealist terms as “a consensual hallucination,” looked like a glowing abstract grid, as seen in 1982’s TRON, for example, where, as in Plato’s world of the Forms, the contingencies of material reality and the body have been burned away, sublimated into green and amber phosphor.

This notion of cyberspace informed general perceptions of the Internet and of the user’s experience of digital media for most of the decade that followed. In 1996, Wired magazine’s style guide defined cyberspace as “[i]nformation space. The ether. The place between phones, between computers, between you and me,” before citing Gibson in Neuromancer.27 The Wired style guide was already calling “cyber” a “terminally overused prefix for all things online and digital” while itself serving as further evidence of that overuse. The idea of cyberspace carried with it a series of assumptions about the real network for which it served as a metaphor. For example, it was often taken for granted that the ultimate goal of users interfacing with the network was total immersion, meaning the loss of body-consciousness as one disappeared into the digital world on the other side of the screen. Only imperfect technology stood in the way. This assumption owed much to 1980s and 1990s experiments in virtual reality, in which a helmet or wraparound goggles replaced your physical sensorium as you literally buried your head in cyberspace. Some of these early environments were in turn directly inspired by Gibson’s vision of cyberspace. Katherine Hayles has said that his novels “acted like seed crystals thrown into a supersaturated solution,” causing inventions of user interfaces and VR applications to crystallize.28

However, in the first decade of our new century, as I’ve said, Gibson overwrote his own metaphor, first and most explicitly in Spook Country. Over twenty years after inventing cyberspace, he imagines in the novel a scene in which a journalist, a curator, and a locative artist are sitting in a booth in the restaurant of the Standard Hotel in Los Angeles, discussing art and new media and observing that in 2006 (when the story is set) cyberspace “is everting,” turning itself inside out and flowing out into the world (20). Significantly, the artist dates the beginning of the change from May 1, 2000, when the United States government turned off Selective Availability to GPS satellite data, making a larger set of that data available to the general public, not just the military, for the first time. Google Maps (the API or Application Programming Interface for which was released in June 2005) and better automobile navigation systems were the most immediate and widely experienced results, but the implications were profound. In the decade that followed, with the marked increase in the use of mobile devices and other pervasive processors and sensors, a cluster of activities emerged, circulating from artists’ and hackers’ subcultures to mainstream awareness and back again, practices that first came to prominence about six years ago but are still evolving: geocaching, hyperspatial tagging or spatially tagged hypermedia, locative installation art based on augmented reality, all overlapping with a larger trend, the pervasive use of embedded RFID (radio frequency identification tags) and other markers such as QR codes, as well as cheaper sensors, in and on everyday physical objects. This amounts to the beginnings of an infrastructure for the kind of widespread augmented reality many people first became aware of when Google announced Project Glass, an AR application using a field-of-vision lens supported by glasses-like frame and with location-aware networking technology. As I write it’s still in developer prototype stage, but reportedly it will contain a GPS chip and connection through WiFi to Google services, and Bluetooth connection to a cellphone, though not its own cellular radio receiver, and will provide access via touch and voice control, with voice as well as visual feedback–a hands-free, heads-up augmented-reality display.29 Marketing has stressed the ability to capture and then upload video and photos from a first-person perspective, all with voice commands, but have also shown AR features such as real-time location-aware data from various Google services. These developments emerged from long-pursued work in ubicomp (ubiquitous computing) or the Internet of things. The larger trend involves bringing together the data grid with the physical and social world–not leaving the one behind to escape into the other but deliberately overlayering them, with the expectation that users will experience data (and data-enriched media) anywhere, everywhere, while moving through the world–and mobility is a key feature of the experience. By definition, such technologies afford dynamic hybrid experiences, taking place at the literally shifting border, where digital data continually meets physical reality as the user moves through the world and its everyday objects. Although Gibson has characterized this as the colonization of the physical by the digital, this would seem too pervasive a vision of the network in our lives, now, too mundane a reality for many, to be experienced with a dark cyberpunk frisson. It’s just how increasing numbers of people move around in and inhabit the world. In Spook Country, a GIS-trained hacker who facilitates locative art projects explains that once cyberspace everts, “then there isn’t any cyberspace,” and that, in fact,

There never was, if you want to look at it that way. It was a way we had of looking where we were headed, a direction. With the grid, we’re here. This is the other side of the screen. Right here (64).

As mundane as this new networked reality might seem, in the next chapter, I’ll explore some signs and metaphors that suggest that it is still haunted by a lingering sense of the uncanny, of contact with a hidden dimension (“the digital”) that we once consensually experienced as cyberspace–and the status of which, as reality or hallucination, we remain unsure.             

The Emergence of the (New) Digital Humanities

 It’s the process of moving from one dominant metaphor to another, a direction or trajectory, from cyberspace out into the data-saturated world, which characterizes our sometimes tense and ambiguous relationship to technology at the moment. That’s why I value Gibson’s figure of eversion, a term for a complex process of turning. As a metaphor, eversion calls attention to the messy and uneven status of that process–the network’s leaking, spilling its guts out into the world. The process remains ongoing, and the results continue to complicate our engagements with humanities archives and new media. It’s an often disorienting experience, like looking at a Klein bottle, affording a sense of newly exposed overlapping dimensions, of layers of data and cultural expression combining with the ambient environment via sensors and processors, with a host of  attendant risks to privacy and civil liberties. This complex sense of promise and risk applies as well to the changing infrastructural networks of traditional as well as new digital-humanities practices. New Media scholar Ian Bogost has challenged the humanities to turn itself outward, toward “the world at large, towards things of all kinds and all scales,”30 and indeed, I think that’s the trajectory of the digital humanities in the past few years, as the infrastructure of humanities practices, from research on various fronts, to teaching, to publishing, peer review, and scholarly communication, is increasingly being exposed to the world, turned inside out, as never before. In that sense, the larger context of the eversion itself provides a hidden (in plain sight) dimension that helps to explain all the fuss–first documented for many outside the field of DH in William Pannapacker’s 2010 declaration in his Chronicle of Higher Education blog that the digital humanities was “the next big thing,” or in the coverage in The New York Times of “culturomics” and new digital humanities work in the “Humanities 2.0” series (2010–2011).

The eversion provides a context, as well, for some debates within digital humanities. This book will be concerned with one such debate in particular: If the eversion coincides with the rise of the digital humanities in the new millennium, the increased emphasis on layerings of data with physical reality can, I believe, help us to distinguish some aspects of the new-model digital humanities from traditional humanities computing. The two are clearly connected in a historical continuum, but the changes in the past decade open up a new range of activities and new problems for digital humanities research. It’s not a question of accepting the 1990s opposition between humanities computing and new media, but of recognizing the new imperatives emerging from changes in network technologies and cultural responses to those changes.31 Digital humanities scholars have responded to the eversion as it has happened (and continues to happen). This is reflected on many fronts, including work with (relatively big) data, large corpora of texts, maps linked to data via GIS, and the study and archiving of born-digital and new-media objects. These were various responses on the part of the digital humanities to the changes of the eversion, but the forms they took were also often effects of the wider eversion, were in the air, as they say, at the very moment the digital humanities emerged into public prominence. A series of simple juxtapositions is suggestive: Franco Moretti’s influential book, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, was published in 2005, the same year that the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) was founded–and the same year the Google Maps API was released. The open-access online journal, Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ) first appeared in 2007, the year of the iPhone, the publication of Gibson’s Spook Country, and of the completion of Kirschenbaum’s award-winning Mechanisms (published 2008). The NEH office dedicated to the field (the Office of Digital Humanities or ODH) and its funding were established in 2008 after a two-year staged development process. So Brett Bobley and others were working on establishing the ODH at the very moment Gibson was writing about the eversion and Kirschenbaum was applying his digital-forensics methods to, among other objects, Gibson’s earlier artist’s book (and harbinger of the eversion), Agrippa. Also in 2008, the first THATCamp “unconference” (The Humanities and Technology Camp) was sponsored by the influential Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. I could go on. But I want to stress that these juxtapositions have nothing to do with technological determinism. They’re just meant to demonstrate that the emergence of the new digital humanities isn’t an isolated academic phenomenon. The institutional and disciplinary changes are part of a larger cultural shift, inside and outside the academy, a rapid cycle of emergence an convergence in technology and culture.

Father Roberto Busa, S. J., who is frequently cited as the founder of traditional text-based digital humanities for his work with computerized lexical concordances, wrote in his 2004 Foreword to the groundbreaking Companion to Digital Humanities, that humanities computing “is precisely the automation of every possible analysis of human expression … in the widest sense of the word, from music to the theater, from design and painting to phonetics.”32 Although he went on to say that its “nucleus remains the discourse of written texts,” a qualification still being debated by digital humanities scholar, the capaciousness of “every possible analysis of human expression” should not be overlooked, especially in the context of the moment in which it was published (xvi). Rather than divide the methodological old dispensation from the new in ways that reduce both (such as opposing humanities computing to studies of new media, or merely “instrumental” to more truly “theoretical” approaches), I’ll suggest throughout this book that we’d do better to recognize that changing cultural contexts in the era of the eversion have called for changing emphases in digital humanities research, some of which have surely effected changing cultural contexts in turn.

It seems clear to me that some of the newer forms of supposedly practical or instrumental digital humanities, which are central to the field, were produced in the first place by younger scholars working with a keen awareness of the developments I’m grouping under the concept of the eversion, and with a sense of what these meant at the time for various technology platforms of interest to humanists. Leading digital humanities scholars had their ear to the ground, and some worked as programmers or designers in technology industries or new media, or in what are now called “alt-ac” (alternative academic) positions on the edges of the university, often in collaboration with researchers and vendors in advanced sectors of IT. Influence, like an infection, spreads through people. In the era of social networks, casual gaming, distributed cognition, augmented reality, the Internet of things, and the geospatial turn, one segment of new digital humanities practitioners were early adopters and observers of these new developments and, often deliberately brought them into their university research centers and projects. This is largely the reason for the central role of a hands-on, practical turn in the new digital humanities (“more hack, less yack,” as the notorious THATCamp motto goes), a spirit borrowed from the vernacular maker movement. But this practical turn was arguably based on theoretical insight, was often I think a kind of deliberate rhetorical gesture–a dialectical counter-move to the still-prevailing idealisms associated with the cyberculture studies of the 1990s. Much of the practical digital humanities work during the decade that followed, which formed an important core of the newly emergent field of activity, was undertaken not in avoidance of theory or in pursuit of scientistic instrumentalism, but against disembodiment, against the ideology of cyberspace. The new digital humanities often aimed to question “screen essentialism,” the immateriality of digital texts, and other reductive assumptions, including romantic constructions of the network as a world apart, instead emphasizing the complex materialities of digital platforms and digital objects. New digital humanities work, including digital forensics, critical code studies, platform studies, game studies, not to mention work with linguistic data and large corpora of texts, data visualization and distant reading, is a collective response by one segment of the digital humanities community to the wider cultural shift toward a more worldly, layered, hybrid, experience of digital data and digital media brought into direct contact with physical objects, in physical space, from archived manuscripts to Arduino circuit boards.

In this context, the digital humanities looks less like an academic movement and more like a transitional set of practices at a crucial juncture, on the one hand moving between old ideas of the digital and of the humanities, and on the other hand, moving toward new ideas about both. The new DH starts from the assumption of a new mixed-reality humanities, complicated and worldly, mediating between the physical artifacts and archives on which humanities discourse has historically been built, and the mobile and pervasive digital networks that increasingly overlay and make those artifacts into data-rich, tagged and encoded, sensor-enhanced things, what author Bruce Sterling (Gibson’s friend and collaborator) calls spimes.33 From its origins in the early modern era to today, the humanities has been in part a collective effort by scholars and others to discover, edit, archive, interpret and understand our cultural heritage as it has been transmitted–which is to say in the forms of inherited material objects, stone tools, runes, artifacts and works of art, manuscripts and books, new media and software. Encoding and decoding, augmenting, commenting on and interpreting the layers of data that surround those objects and make them culturally significant, has historically been the agenda (or call it the calling) of the humanities. Within the past decade humanities work and cultural heritage itself have been digitized, just as the larger collective understanding of everything that digitization means has undergone a major conceptual and practical shift. This process isn’t over yet, and the outcome remains uncertain, as anyone following news about Google Books (and HathiTrust), or shifting policies at Apple’s App Store, or traditional publishing in the e-book era, will recognize. As William Gibson remarked in one recent interview, “[t]he eversion continues to distribute itself, and here we are.”34 That distribution itself is inevitably uneven and not always well understood. One job for the digital humanities going forward might be consciously to engage with, to help make sense of, and to shape the dynamic process of that ongoing eversion (and its distribution) out in the world at large. The digital humanities should be about this work, as I’ll argue in the rest of this book, because the digital humanities is, in fact, the humanities everted.  

The Example of Video Games

 As I’ve said, in almost every chapter of this book I’ll cite video games as examples. For one thing, given the role of games in the history of computing, it would be surprising if I didn’t. Humanities computing and digital humanities work have often involved games and gamelike environments, from early MUDs and MOOs (multi-user dungeons and MUDS, object-oriented), to the experimental Ivanhoe game developed at the University of Virginia (the work of Johanna Drucker, Jerome McGann, Bethany Nowviskie, Stephen Ramsay, and Geoffrey Rockwell, among others), to Matthew Kirschenbaum’s inclusion of video games as among the objects of his digital-forensics approach (2008), including the project on Preserving Virtual Worlds.35 This is not to mention explicit video game studies by specialists in information studies, new media and digital media, or electronic literature–not all of whom always see themselves as working in digital humanities but whose work has unquestionably contributed to the field.

For another thing, video games are simply the most prominent and influential form of new media today, so it should not be surprising that they help to illuminate the larger culture’s relationship to technology. Unfortunately, anxiety about treating games as a serious academic subject, and the need of a newly emergent field like digital humanities to be taken seriously by administrators and the public, has meant that the study of games is often situated at the very far end of the spectrum from more traditional text-based humanities computing. My own interest in games met with resistance from some anonymous peer reviewers for the program for the DH 2013 conference, for example (though in the end, the enthusiasm of positive reviews won the day). I think it’s safe to say that games are at least recognized by many digital humanities scholars as belonging in the continuous spectrum of their area of practice. Again I want to assert: as a medium, video games are significant cultural expressions, worthy of study in their own right. But I also believe that digital humanities approaches, alongside approaches from other fields and disciplines, have much to contribute to that study. And to turn the relationship around, computer-based video games embody procedures and structures that speak to the fundamental concerns of the digital humanities. They are based on much-tested forms of creative, algorithmic, formally sophisticated systems, many recent examples of which model in interesting ways the general dynamics of the eversion. Games are designed to structure the fluid relationships between digital data and the gameworld, on the one hand, and between digital data and the player in the physical world, on the other hand. A number of recent fictional works in various media have explored the ways in which video games model the multidimensional relationships between data and the world, including for example David Kaplan and Eric Zimmerman’s short film, PLAY (2010), Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One (2011), and Neal Stephenson’s novel Reamde (2011), along with theoretical game studies by Jane McGonigal, Ian Bogost, or Mary Flanagan, for example. McGonigal, the creator of several of the most influential cross-platform ARGs (Alternate Reality Games)–played collectively across the Internet, phone landlines and cellphone networks, television, other media, and in real-world settings, as well, using GPS coordinates to locate clues revealed on websites, on TV, in trailers to films, etc.–has argued that we should apply the structures of games to real-world personal and social problems. As a result, she has been accused of indirectly abetting the “gamification” trend, most notoriously associated with Facebook games like Zynga’s Farmville, which critics see as colonizing players’ everyday lives for commercial profit by reductive, exploitative, and addictive games blatantly designed according to principles of operant conditioning. Gamification is bullshit, as Bogost says, a transparent kind of “expolitationware” based less on persuasion than on outright operant conditioning.36 But even this trend has unwittingly responded to larger changes in media and culture. It’s significant that the underlying premise shared by both McGonigal’s idealistic world-saving games and the most crass kind of gamification–and shared as well by critics of gamification–is that video games are now “busting through to reality” as never before (as Jesse Schell said in one notorious talk37), crossing over from the gameworld to the player’s real world. In its own unwitting way, gamification is yet another sign of the eversion.

Cyberspace was always gamespace in another guise, gamespace displaced. Not only was Gibson inspired by arcade gamers when he came up with the concept, he interpreted the gamers’ desires in terms of popular misconceptions about the motivations and effects of playing video games, in an example of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman have called the “immersive fallacy,” the assumption that the goal of any new media experience is to transport the user into a sublime and disembodied virtual world.38 On the contrary, Salen and Zimmerman argue, most gaming has historically taken place at the interface of player and game, the boundary of physical space and game space, where heads-up displays, controllers and peripheral devices, and social interactions are part of the normal video game experience. Salen and Zimmerman see a “hybrid consciousness,” a sense of being simultaneously in the game world and in physical reality, as the norm, not the supposed “pining for immersion” that many assume is driving the experience (458, 451–55). However deeply engaged players become, however riveted their attention, the experience of gameplay has always been more mixed reality than virtual reality. In other words, the relation of gamer to game world is more cybernetics than cyberspace, literally more mundane, more in the (physical) world than has been imagined by many, especially many non-gamers.

In the past six or seven years, a major development in gaming has borne out this multilayered view of gaming and has undermined the cyberspatial ideology of total immersion: what game theorist Jesper Juul calls a “casual revolution.”39 Though we now often associate the idea of casual games with mobile platforms, Nintendo’s Wii console, introduced in 2006, led the way into casual gaming by tapping into the mass market of first-time gamers or non-gamers and shifting attention by design from the rendering of realistic, 3D virtual game worlds to the physical and social space of the player’s living room.40 The Wii is all about the mixed-reality experience of using a sometimes klugy set of motion-control peripherals, connected in feedback loops that evert the gamespace. as it were, spilling it out into the living room, creating a kind of personal area network for embodied gameplay. It’s that hybrid, everted gamespace where Wii gameplay takes place–with a coffee table at the negative center of it, and perhaps other people playing along, as well as various peripherals beaming data to and from the console–not some imaginary world on the other side of the screen. When Microsoft’s Kinect appeared in 2010, it was marketed as gadget-free, a more transparent version of a somatic motion-control interface. It actually works, however, by taking the sensor system’s gadgets out of the user’s hand (or out from under her feet) and placing them up by the screen, looking back out at the room. In practice, Kinect play is a lot like Wii play in its focus on the player’s body and the physical space in which she’s moving around. A flood of hacks and homebrew applications for Kinect have for the most part focused on it not as a virtual-reality machine but as a system for connecting digital data and the physical world via the embodied player.

In this regard the Wii and Kinect, and casual gaming in general, have only re-emphasized a fundamental aspect of all digital games. Writing about text-based adventure games and interactive fiction, generically among the earliest examples of computer games, Nick Montfort has said that the two fundamental components of such games are the world model–“which represents the physical environment of the interactive fiction and the things in that environment”–and the parser–“that part of the program that accepts natural language from the interactor and processes it.”41 Although he is careful not to extend this model to video games in general, it offers an important general analogy. All computer games are about the productive relationship of algorithmically processed data and imagined world models–which include representations of place (maps, trees) and artifacts (weapons, tools, other inventory). One plays in collaboration or competition with other players, non-player characters, or the “artificial intelligence” that is the overall design of the game, negotiating between the two: data and world. At the same time, one plays from an embodied position in the real physical world. That betweenness is the condition of engaged gameplay, the “hybrid  consciousness” that Salen and Zimmerman refer to. Even a game with an apparently immersive game world, whether realistically rendered (Skyrim) or iconically rendered (Minecraft), is played between worlds, at the channels where data flows back and forth in feedback and feedforward loops. That’s why heads-up displays, representing maps and inventories and statistics of various kinds, and other affordances of gaming persist–not to mention discussion boards, constantly revised Wikipedia articles, and other paratextual materials surrounding gameplay–even in games that emphasize the immersive beauties (or sublimities) of their represented game worlds.

The digital humanities could do worse than look to games for examples of complex mixed-reality systems that reflect the contingencies of the network at the present moment. It’s hard to think of a more widely distributed and widely experienced set of models of the larger process of eversion that we’re now in the midst of than video games. And games are also useful models of the combined human-computer interactions by which all meaningful computing gets done. In the broader sense, the network doesn’t evert by itself. It’s not really turning itself inside out. That requires human agency, actors out in the world, just as games require players, and just as digital humanities research requires scholar-practitioners, working in the channels of the eversion, where the data network meets the world in its material, artifactual particulars.  

__________

Notes

1 William Gibson, “Google’s Earth,” New York Times, August 31, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/01/opinion/01gibson.html.

2 See for example Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), 195–96, who echoes Gibson on the term cyberspace and its fading from use. The notable exceptions, perhaps significantly enough, are uses of the term by the military and governments, as in cyber-attack and cyber-warfare, and in the analogous case of cyber-bullying. In all of these cases, one might imagine that there’s a resistance to acknowledging the (frightening) breakdown of the distinction, the penetration of what had been conceived of as separate worlds.  

3 Jane Holl Lute, written testimony befor House Committee on Homeland Security, March 13, 2013, http://www.dhs.gov/news/2013/03/13/written-testimony-dhs-deputy-secretary-jane-holl-lute-house-committee-homeland. She has used the endoskeleton metaphor for years, for example, in an op-ed co-authored with Bruce McConnell, “A Civil Perspective on CyberSecurity,” Wired, February 14, 2011, http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/02/dhs-op-ed/. (Thanks to Erik Hanson for cc’ing me in a retweet of Lute’s latest remarks.)

4 “The Art of Fiction No. 211: William Gibson,” The Paris Review 197 (Summer 2011), 106–49 (109).

5 By “the network” I refer to the notional composite that combines (and popularly confuses) the Internet, the Web, cellular data networks, the GPS satellite network, over copper, fiber optics, radio waves–in other words, the network as it’s experienced by most people in their daily lives. 

6 William Gibson interviewed by Robert Hilferty, 2009, YouTube (aitchayess), http://m.youtube.com/?reload=9&rdm=mfca6baq#/watch?v=GXaU_FLaSzo&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DGXaU_FLaSzo.

7 Marcos Novak, “Eversion: Brushing Against Avatars, Aliens, and Angels,” in Bruce Clarke and Linda Dalrymple Henderson, eds., From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art and Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 309–23. A version of the essay first appeared in Hypersurface Architecture AD 69 (London: Academy Editions, 1999), 9–10.

8 Marcos Novak, in exhibit sponsored by UCSB’s Media Arts and Technology program, 2008, “Turbulent Topologies”: http://www.mat.ucsb.edu/res_proj5.php.

9 Gibson has said this in various interviews, including on the radio in the 1999. For one tracing of the saying, see Brian Dear, Brianstorms blog, October 16, 2004, http://www.brianstorms.com/archives/000461.html.

10 On the decline of Second Life see Dan Heath and Chip Heath, The Myth of the Garage and Other Minor Surprises (New York: Crown Business, 2011), 2013, http://www.heathbrothers.com/the-myth-of-the-garage/.

11 Jason Farman, Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (New York and London: Routledge, 2011); and Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva, Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

12 William Gibson, Spook Country (New York: Putnam, 2007).

13 N. Katherine Hayles, “Cybernetics,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 144–56  (147–48).

14 Adam Greenfield, Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2006), 73. One of the virtues of Greenfield’s book is that it considers the legal and ethical implications for agency, privacy, and security of newly pervasive systems.

15 Clay Shirky, Foreword to B. Coleman, Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation (Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT Press, 2011), iv-xiv.

16 Nathan Jurgenson “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality,” Cyborgology blog, February 24, 2011, http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/.

17 Nathan Jurgenson, “The IRL Fetish,” The New Inquiry, June 28, 2012, http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-irl-fetish/.

18 Nicholas Carr, “Digital Dualism Denialism,” Rough Type blog, February 27, 2013, http://www.roughtype.com/?p=2090.

19 The advantage of the metaphor of coining is that it suggests bringing a term into currency, rather than that more elusive thing–invention and first use. Though some may have used “digital humanities” before 2001, I follow Matthew Kirschenbaum’s account of the term’s coming into currency in “What is Digital Humanities,” in Matthew Gold, Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 3–7; and “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?,” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 1–7, http://mkirschenbaum.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/kirschenbaum_ade150.pdf. See also Patrik Svensson, “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities,” DHQ 3.3 (2009), http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000065/000065.html.

20 Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell, “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities,” in Gold, ed., Debates, 75–84; Bethany Nowviskie, “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities,” in Gold, ed., Debates, 243–48.

21 This was for the collection, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/. On this shift from “digitized” to “digital” see Kirschenbaum, “What is?,” in Gold, ed., Debates, 5.

22 Gibson, Neuromancer, 51.

23 In a conversation with Timothy Leary in 1989 that was later edited for Mondo 2000, Gibson suggests that the cyberpunk protagonist of Neuromancer, literally addicted to cyberspace, has an orgasmic epiphany at the end of the novel, a “transcendent experience,” in which, interestingly, he recognizes the body, the “meat,” from which he has been estranged, “as being this infinite complex thing.” In the novel, it’s referred to as “the flesh the cowboys mocked” (239). Intriguingly, at the time Gibson and Leary were discussing the development of a video game based on Neuromancer. R.U. Sirius, ed., “Gibson and Leary Audio (Mondo 2000 History Project),” Accerler8or blog, December 23, 2011, http://www.acceler8or.com/2011/12/gibson-leary-audio-mondo–2000-history-project/.

24 Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1948).

25 Vernor Vinge, True Names, first published in Dell Binary Star 5 (1981), reprinted in James Frenkel, ed., True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, TOR, 2001), 239–330. Vinge’s story is set in the year 2014. Later, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (New York: Bantam, 1992) would imagine the Metaverse, which inspired the developers at Linden Lab to create Second Life in 2003. Both Vinge’s and Stephenson’s worlds are more explicitly gamelike than Gibson’s. Fittingly, Vinge’s more recent Rainbows End (New York: Tor, 2006) is set in a world of augmented reality, an environment closer to the actual 2014.

26 Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 38.

27 Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age, ed. Constance Hale (New York: Hardwired, 1996), 66–67.

28 Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 35.

29 See https://plus.google.com/+projectglass/. And see Joshua Topolsky, “I Used Google Glass: The Future, With Monthly Updates,” The Verge, February 22, 2013, http://www.theverge.com/2013/2/22/4013406/i-used-google-glass-its-the-future-with-monthly-updates.

30 Ian Bogost, “Beyond the Elbow-patched Playground,” author’s blog, August 23 and August 25, 2011, http://bogo.st/xy.

31 Kirschenbaum, “Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term,” in Gold, ed., Debates, 415–28 (418).

32 Roberto Busa, S.J., foreword to Schreibman, et al.. ed., Companion, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.

33 Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

34 August C. Bourré, “An Inteview With William Gibson,” Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ), August 17, 2011, http://notesandqueries.ca/an-interview-with-william-gibson/.

35 Jerome P. McDonough, Robert Olendorf, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Kari Kraus, Doug Reside, Rachel Donahue, Andrew Phelps, Christopher Egert, Henry Lowood, Susan Rojo, Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report, 2010, https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/17097.

36 Ian Bogost, “Gamification is Bullshit,” author’s blog, August 8, 2011, http://www.bogost.com/blog/gamification_is_bullshit.shtml.

37 Jesse Schell, “Design Outside the Box,” presentation, DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain), February 18, 2010, http://www.g4tv.com/videos/44277/DICE–2010-Design-Outside-the-Box-Presentation/.

38 Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

39 Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

40 Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal, Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

41 Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).


Aug 15
It’s a (paper) thing! First copy just arrived.

It’s a (paper) thing! First copy just arrived.


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