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.

Aug 28

Review of EDH by Roger Whitson

Roger Whitson of Washington State University has just reviewed The Emergence of the Digital Humanities on his site. Among other insights, Whitson detects a potential chiming of “eversion” and “emergence” that the editor and I did in fact notice when coming up with the title, and he embeds a famous clip of Louis C.K. riffing on technology to get at popular reactions to the eversion. He also thoughtfully points out that the book’s arguments about the social nature of the network sometimes work against its own calls for respecting the widespread alien-feeling, uncanny experience of the eversion today. In the end, Whitson says the book is “a true gift” and that it “uncannily explained [his] own experience and thinking.”


Jul 31

EDH in Reviews in History


The Emergence of DH was just thoroughly reviewed in Reviews in History by James Baker, who’s a historian and a Curator in the Digital Research team at the British Library. It’s particularly interesting to see a historian’s view, and the review is quite positive. Baker’s right, though, to point to my own background in literary and cultural studies and to suggest that the emergence could be “mapped more widely,” including “work clustered around centres, faculties, departments and libraries across Europe, Australia, South America, India, work undertaken by historians, geographers, musicologists, archaeologists, linguists, and art historians, as well as literary and new media scholars.” Some of that mapping is already underway by other scholars, and I look forward to seeing more of it in the future.


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.


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