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Stories define how we think, play, and understand our lives. In this comprehensive and readable book — already a classic statement of the aesthetics of digital media, acclaimed by practitioners and theorists alike — Janet Murray shows how the computer is reshaping the stories we live by. Murray discusses the unique properties and pleasures of digital environments and connects them with the traditional satisfactions of narrative. She analyzes the dramatic satisfaction of participatory stories and considers what would be necessary to move interactive fiction from the formats of childish games and confusing labyrinths into a mature and compelling art form. Through a blend of imagination and techno-wizardry, Murray provides both readers and writers with a guide to the storytelling of the future.
The birth of cinema has long been assigned to a single night: December 28, 1895. A group of Parisians, so the legend goes, were gathered in a darkened basement room of the Grand Cafe on the Boulevard des Capucines when suddenly the lifelike image of a mighty locomotive began moving inexorably, astonishingly toward them. There was a moment of paralyzed horror, and then the audience ran screaming from the room, as if in fear of being crushed by an actual train. This no doubt exaggerated account is based on an actual event, the first public showing of a group of short films that included Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station by the Lumiere brothers, who (like Edison in America) had just invented a reliable form of motion picture photography and projection. Film scholars have recently questioned whether the novelty-seeking crowd really panicked at all. Perhaps it was only later storytellers who imagined that the first projected film image, the novelty attraction of 1895, could have carried with it the tremendous emotional force of the many thrilling films that followed after it. The legend of the Paris cafe is satisfying to us now because it falsely conflates the arrival of the representational technology with the arrival of the artistic medium, as if the manufacturer of the camera alone gave us the movies.
As in the case of the printing press, the invention of the camera led to a period of incunabula, of "cradle films." In the first three decades of the twentieth century, filmmakers collectively invented the medium by inventing all the major elements of filmic storytelling, including the close-up, the chase scene, and the standard feature length. The key to this development was seizing on the unique physical properties of film: the way the camera could be moved; the way the lens could open, close, and change focus; the way the celluloid processed light; the way the strips of film could be cut up and reassembled. By aggressively exploring and exploiting these physical properties, filmmakers changed a mere recording technology into an expressive medium.
Narrative films were originally called photoplays and were at first thought of as a merely additive art form (photography plus theater) created by pointing a static camera at a stagelike set. Photoplays gave way to movies when filmmakers learned, for example, to create suspense by cutting between two separate actions (the child in the burning building and the firemen coming to the rescue); to create character and mood by visual means (the menacing villain backlit and seen from a low angle); to use a "montage" of discontinuous shots to establish a larger action (the impending massacre visible in a line of marching soldiers, an old man's frightened face, a baby carriage tottering on the brink of a stone stairway). After thirty years of energetic invention, films captured the world with such persuasive power and told such coherent and compelling stories that some critics passionately opposed the addition of sound and color as superfluous distractions.
Now, one hundred years after the arrival of the motion picture camera, we have the arrival of the modern computer, capable of hooking up to a global internet, of processing text, images, sound, and moving pictures, and of controlling a laptop display or a hundred-foot screen. Can we imagine the future of electronic narrative any more easily than Gutenberg's contemporaries could have imagined War and Peace or than the Parisian novelty seekers of 1895 could have imagined High Noon?
One of the lessons we can learn from the history of film is that additive formulations like "photo-play" or the contemporary catchall "multimedia" are a sign that the medium is in an early stage of development and is still depending on formats derived from earlier technologies instead of exploiting its own expressive power. Today the derivative mind-set is apparent in the conception of cyberspace as a place to view "pages" of print or "clips" of moving video and of CD-ROMs as offering "extended books." The equivalent of the filmed play of the early 1900s is the multimedia scrapbook (on CD-ROM or as a "site" on the World Wide Web), which takes advantage of the novelty of computer delivery without utilizing its intrinsic properties.
For example, one early version of a Web soap about a group of friends living in New York offers diary pages of text spiced with sexually suggestive photos. The wordiness of the journal keeps us constantly scrolling through the screens, impatient for something to happen in the narrated story or for something to do, like clicking on a link to get something new. There are, in fact, clickable buttons in the journal, but instead of offering new information they merely allow us to hear (after time delays for downloading the sound clip and for installing the necessary software to play the sound file if we do not already have it) actors speaking exactly the same dialog printed on the screen. The audio snippets are amusing novelties at best, and at worst they work like so many small apologies for the limits of the printed text. Just as the photographed plays of early filmmakers were less interesting than live theater, this early Web soap continually reminds us of how much less vivid it is than the romance novels and television dramas it draws upon.
A more digitally sophisticated Web soap would exploit the archiving functions of the computer by salting each day's new episode with allusions (in the form of hot word links) to exciting previous installments. Our clicking would then be motivated not by curiosity about the media objects (show me a video clip) but by curiosity about the plot (why does she say that about him?). The computer presentation would thereby allow pleasures that are unattainable in broad cast soaps. For example, we could follow a single appealing subplot while ignoring the companion plots that may drive us crazy, or we could come in at any time in the story and review important past events in all their dramatic richness. Instead of using audio redundantly to act out dialogue in a diary entry, a sophisticated Web soap might provide the audio as an integral part of the plotline -- perhaps as the wiretap of a murder threat or a political negotiation or as a phone message that carries information of hidden romantic Iiasons.
Some Web stories are already using such techniques, and no doubt all of them will in time. Their adoption is part of the inevitable process of moving away from the formats of older media and toward new conventions in order to satisfy the desires aroused by the digital environment. We are now engaged in thousands of such discoveries in all the subgenres of electronic narrative, the result of which will be the development of narrative pleasures intrinsic to cyberspace itself. Therefore, if we want to see beyond the current horizon of scrapbook multimedia, it is important first to identify the essential properties of digital environments, that is, the qualities comparable to the variability of the lens, the movability of the camera, and the editability of film, that will determine the distinctive power and form of a mature electronic narrative art.
Excerpted from Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet Horowitz Murray Copyright © 1998 by Janet Horowitz Murray. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction: A Book Lover Longs For Cyberdrama||1|
|Pt. I||A New Medium for Storytelling|
|1||Lord Burleigh's Kiss||13|
|2||Harbingers of the Holodeck||27|
|3||From Additive to Expressive Form||65|
|Pt. II||The Aesthetics of the Medium|
|Pt. III||Procedural Authorship|
|7||The Cyberbard and the Multiform Plot||185|
|Pt. IV||New Beauty, New Truth|
|9||Digital TV and the Emerging Formats of Cyberdrama||251|
|10||Hamlet on the Holodeck?||273|
All media as extensions of ourselves serve to provide new transforming vision and awareness.
Our various improvements not only mark a diminution of the function improved upon...but they also work to dissolve some of the fundamental authority of the human itself. We are experiencing the gradual but steady erosion...of the species itself.
The birth of a new medium of communication is both exhilarating and frightening. Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself. (Are people meant to move across the ocean like the fish? Are people's words supposed to be transmitted by dead paper or cold wires?) The boat, car, and airplane are seemingly magical extensions of our arms and legs; the telephone extends our voices; and the book extends our memory. The computer of the 1990s, with its ability to transport us to virtual places, to connect us with people at the other end of the earth, and to retrieve vast quantities of information, combines aspects of all of these. And as if that were not amazing enough, it also runs our warplanes and plays a masterly game of chess. It is not surprising, then, that half of the people I know seem to look upon the computer as an omnipotent, playful genie while the other half see it as Frankenstein's monster. To me -- a teacher of humanities for the past twenty five years in the world-class electronic toy shop of MIT, a Victorian scholar, and educational software designer -- the computer looks more each day like the movie camera of the 1890s: a truly revolutionary invention humankind is just on the verge of putting to use as a spellbinding storyteller.
It is somewhat surprising to me to find myself on the optimistic side of this pervasive new cultural device. When I first trained as a systems programmer, as an IBM employee in the late 1960s, I was only biding my time and saving up money for graduate school in English literature. I found the clean logic of computer programming satisfying, and I enjoyed deciphering the mysterious 0's and 1's of a "core dump" to reveal what the machine was up to when a program crashed (as they so often did). But there seemed no deeper purpose in this work than there had been in the intriguing geometry proofs I had enjoyed in high school and then promptly forgotten. For me at the age of twenty, the only activity worthy of serious human effort was reading novels.
Only once during my time at IBM did I catch a glimpse of a more inspired use of the computer. Although we did not use the terms at that time, the corporate world was clearly divided into "suits" and "hackers." The suits were running the company (better than they would in later years), but the hackers were running the secret playground within the company, the world of the machines. Computer systems in those days were mammoth arrays of cumbersome appliances kept isolated in ice-cold rooms. The tape drives alone (the equivalent of today's floppy disks) were the size of refrigerators. The noisiest component was the card reader, which jangled and thumped like a subway train full of bowling balls as it processed stacks of the punch cards that were the main form of human to computer communication in that era. Dealing with this machine was an unpleasant daily necessity. But one day the icy, clamorous card printer room was turned into a whimsical cabaret: a clever young hacker had created a set of punch cards that worked like a player piano roll and caused the card reader to chug out a recognizable version of the Marine Corps Hymn: bam-bam-THUMP bam-THUMP team THUMP THUMP THUMP. All day long, programmers sneaked away from the work to hear this thunderously awful but mesmerizing concert. The data it was processing was of course meaningless, but the song was a work of true virtuosity.
When programming was fun, it was a lot like that performance. Creating a successful machine code program made me feel as if I had communicated with some recalcitrant, stupid beast deep inside the refrigerator cabinet and taught it a new little tune. But my real work was waiting for me somewhere else, in the form of a long, thoughtful walk down an endless shelf of books. When I was offered a fellowship for graduate school at Harvard, I did not hesitate to accept it. My IBM manager wanted me to take just a temporary leave of absence. He gave me an article about how computers were being used to study English literature (someone was putting all of WAR AND PEACE -- to me the pinnacle of human wisdom -- into electronic form in order to count the number of words in each of Tolstoy's sentences). The article ended by referring to literature as "man's greatest output." I told my manager to write me up as a permanent resignation.
I began reading my own way down that long shelf of books. I agreed with D. H. Lawrence that the novel was the one "bright book of life," the measure of all things, although I much preferred the work of Jane Austen and the Victorians. My favorite critic was Northrop Frye, who combined detailed analyses of the structure of stories with a profound appreciation of their mythic power. Reading Frye it was possible to believe that the formal beauty of literary art is an expression of its deeper truth. Yet the more I read, the clearer it became that stories did not tell the whole truth about the world. As I researched the lives of women in the Victorian era, I (like others of my generation) was struck by the fact that much of what I was learning had been left out of the great novels of the era. Although my faith in the deeper powers of literature was unshaken, I learned from the feminist movement that some truths about the world are beyond the reach of a particular art form at a particular moment in time. Before the novel could tell the stories of women who did not wind up either happily married or dead, it would have to change in form as well as in content.
For the stories I wanted to hear, I looked in other formats, in feminist magazines and maverick novels. I compiled an anthology documenting the experiences of Victorian women -- prostitutes, medical students, circles of women friends -- who had not found a place in classic fiction. But the anthology format was as limiting in its way as the marriage plot. Frustrated by the constraint of producing a single book with a single pattern of organization, I filled my collection with multiple cross-references, encouraging the reader to jump from one topic to another. I simply wanted the reader to understand Mary Taylor's exhilaration in opening a dry goods store in New Zealand in the context of her friendship with Charlotte Bronte as well as in relation to the range of Victorian opinion on women's work. I did not think of this cross-referencing as hypertext because I had not yet heard the term.
Though I had been teaching at MIT since 1971, I was not drawn to computers again until the early 1980s. While I had been exploring social history and raising my two children, literature and academic feminism itself seemed somehow to have fallen into the hands of the suits. The new theoreticians no longer saw the novel as the "bright book of life" but as an infinite regression of words about words about words. Joining in this conversation involved learning a discourse as arcane as machine code, and even farther from experience. Truth and beauty were nowhere in sight. But at the same time that literary theorists were denouncing meaning as something to be Reconstructed into absurdity, theorists of learning methods were embracing meaning as the key to successful pedagogy. One conference paper after another celebrated the fact that students wrote better papers and learned to speak foreign languages with greater fluency when they actually had something they wanted to communicate to one another. The new research in cognition and sociolinguistics seemed to define what those processes of communication entailed. Thinking about teaching was much more satisfying to my earnest Victorian temperament than thinking about literary criticism. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if these practical and process-oriented methodologies could be transported into the world of the computer.
I was at that time the humanities faculty member in the Experimental Study Group (ESG), in which conventional courses were taught in an individualized manner. ESG attracted some of the most creative and self-directed students at MIT, many of whom were also ingenious computer hackers. They wrote their papers on-line, explored imaginary dungeons filled with trolls, exchanged wisecracks with computer-based imaginary characters, and engaged in a perpetual telnet tour of the globe by playfully breaking into other people's computers. They believed the particular programming language they were reaming was both the brain's own secret code and a magical method for creating anything on earth out of ordinary English words. They saw themselves as wizards and alchemists, and the computer as a land of enchantment. MIT was paradise for these hackers, who were largely engaged in navigating through an elaborate fictional universe. With such students as my guides, I got myself a network account and renewed my acquaintance with the digital world.
I had left computing in the age of punch cards and came back to it in the age of video display terminals and microcomputers. Nevertheless, educational computing had not advanced very far beyond the days of quantifying Tolstoy's "output." The computer was mostly seen as a drudge, a workhorse for word frequency analysis and for drill and practice teaching. However, to my students and my MIT colleagues, it was clearly something considerably more nimble. Seymour Papert had developed the LOGO programming language that allowed children to learn mathematical concepts by choreographing the actions of magic sprites that raced across the screen. A follower of Piaget, Papert believed that computers are tools for thinking and should be used to create "microworlds" where inquisitive students can learn through a process of exploration and discovery. Nicholas Negroponte's group had created a suite of dazzling demonstration projects (the seed work for the Media Lab) that included a "movie map" of Aspen, Colorado, and a "movie manual" for car repair. The combination of text, video, and navigable space suggested that a computer-based microworld need not be mathematical but could be shaped as a dynamic fictional universe with characters and events.
My interest in creating narrative microworlds coincided with the interests of foreign language teachers in creating immersive learning environments. Together we designed multimedia applications for learning Spanish and French, which motivated students by giving them a role in an unfolding story and allowing them to move through authentically photographed environments as if they were on a visit to Bogota or Paris. These projects and others that I have worked on in the past fifteen years -- including a Shakespeare archive and a film art digital textbook -- as well as many kindred efforts pursued by others elsewhere, have confirmed my view of the computer as offering a thrilling extension of human powers. I say this despite the often agonizing uncertainties of software development and the continual frustration over the gap between what designers want the hardware and software to do and what they actually support. For my experience in humanities computing has convinced me that some kinds of knowledge can be better represented in digital formats than they have been in print. The knowledge of a foreign language, for instance, can be better conveyed with examples from multiple speakers in authentic environments than with lists of words on a page. The dramatic power of Hamlet's soliloquies is better illustrated by multiple performance examples in juxtaposition with the text than by the printed version alone. Discussions of film art make more sense when they are grounded by excerpted scenes from the movies being discussed. Computers can present the text, images, and moving pictures valued by humanistic disciplines with a new precision of reference; they can show us all the different ways a French person says "hello" in a single day or all the passages Zeffirelli chose to leave out of his production of ROMEO AND JULIET. By giving us greater control over different kinds of information, they invite us to tackle more complex tasks and to ask new kinds of questions. Although the computer is often accused of fragmenting information and overwhelming us, I believe this view is a function of its current undomesticated state. The more we cultivate it as a tool for serious inquiry, the more it will offer itself as both an analytical and a synthetic medium.
My experiences in educational computing have also offered me evidence of how frightening the new technologies can be. Several years ago I was invited to talk with the committee that was then overseeing the production of a variorum of Shakespeare, a set of editions of individual plays with extensive annotation covering all known textual variants as well as notes on the significant critical commentary on the plays. The variorum format dates back to the nineteenth century and was still an endearingly Victorian endeavor. The pace of production was glacial, with many of the editors collecting their notes in stacks of index cards and filling hundreds of shoe boxes with twenty years' worth of investigation before publishing. The night before my appearance I was invited for a drink in a high-rise New York hotel room by two of the most computer-friendly committee members. I had already received an irate note from another member of the committee, and my hosts, an English woman and a Southern man, were anxious to prepare me for the kind of opposition that others might offer. My scrupulously polite colleagues displayed a courtly commitment to moving the variorum into the digital age while avoiding offending anyone. With the naivete of someone who had spent much of the past twenty years in the company of engineers, I told them that my remarks would be limited to the obvious practicalities of their work. Clearly, the pages of a book were a poor match for the task at hand. Often the text of the play took up only a single line at the top, with the rest of the page covered with footnotes in several numbering schemes, many of which were condensed to cryptic abbreviations that conveyed no information to the uninitiated. Thus, commentary for a line of text often appeared a dozen pages away from the line it referred to. The effort of compiling a variorum edition was clearly heroic, but the arbitrary limitation of the printed page was a disservice to the depth of information and expertise involved. At this point in my preview of the next day's presentation, my genteel hostess started to shake in her chair. "I love the book!" she cried. "If you are coming to talk against the book tomorrow, I will throw you out the window." And though she was considerably smaller than I, she looked quite prepared to do so.
Why should the prospect of a scholarly CD-ROM bring a mild-mannered Shakespearean editor to such paroxysms of violence? To my mind it was because she could not separate the activities of research from the particular form they had historically assumed. Her love of books (which I share) momentarily blinded her to the true object of reverence: the creation of a superb reference work. Her reaction was a sign that the new technologies are extending our powers faster than we can assimilate the change. Even when we are already engaged in enterprises that cry out for the help of a computer, many of us still see the machine as a threat rather than an ally. We cling to books as if we believed that coherent human thought is only possible on bound, numbered pages.
I am not among those who are eager for the death of the book, as I hope the present volume demonstrates. Nor do I fear it as an imminent event. The computer is not the enemy of the book. It is the child of print culture, a result of the five centuries of organized, collective inquiry and invention that the printing press made possible. My work as a software developer has made me painfully aware of the primitive nature of the current digital medium and of the difficulty of predicting what it can or cannot do in any given time scheme. Nevertheless, I find myself longing for a computer-based literary form even more passionately than I have longed for computer-based educational environments, in part because my heart belongs to the hackers. I am hooked on the charm of making the dumb machines sing. Since 1992 I have been teaching a course on how to write electronic fiction. My students include freshmen, writing majors, and Media Lab graduate students. Some of them are virtuoso programmers. Some of them do not program at all. All of them are drawn to the medium because they want to write stories that cannot be told in other ways. These stories cover every range and style, from oral histories to adventure tales, from the exploits of comic book heroes to domestic dramas. The only constant in the course is that every year what is written is even more inventive than what was written the year before. Every year my students arrive in class feeling more at home with electronic environments and are more prepared to elicit something with the tone of a human voice out of the silent circuitry of the machine.
As I watch the yearly growth in ingenuity among my students, I find myself anticipating a new kind of storyteller, one who is half hacker, half bard. The spirit of the hacker is one of the great creative wellsprings of our time, causing the inanimate circuits to sing with ever more individualized and quirky voices; the spirit of the bard is eternal and irreplaceable, telling us what we are doing here and what we mean to one another. I am drawn to imagining a cyberdrama of the future by the same fascination that draws me to the Victorian novel. I see glimmers of a medium that is capacious and broadly expressive, a medium capable of capturing both the hairbreadth movements of individual human consciousness and the colossal crosscurrents of global society. Just as the computer promises to reshape knowledge in ways that sometimes complement and sometimes supersede the work of the book and the lecture hall, so too does it promise to reshape the spectrum of narrative expression, not by replacing the novel or the movie but by continuing their timeless bardic work within another framework.
This book is an effort to imagine what kinds of pleasures such a cyberliterature will bring us and what sorts of stories it might tell. I believe that we are living through a historic transition, as important to literary history as it is to the history of information processing. My sixteen-year-old son will no doubt look back upon the moment at which we (finally!) got our home computer hooked up to the World Wide Web with the same delight with which my father recalled plucking voices out of the air with his home-made crystal radio set. My paternal grandmother, who started life in a Russian shtetl, jumped in terror when she heard that disembodied speech, thinking it must be a dybbuk or ghost. Yet only a few decades later, I sat in my crib, as my mother fondly reports, calmly enraptured by the voice of Arthur Godfrey. Today, my husband collects tapes of old Bob and Ray programs, which we listen to on long car trips, savoring the intimacy of what now seems like a touchingly low-tech format. Those of us who have spent our lives in love with books may always approach the computer with something of my grandmother's terror before the crystal radio, but our children are already at home with the joystick, mouse, and keyboard. They take the powerful sensory presence and participatory formats of digital media for granted. They are impatient to see what is next. This book is an attempt to imagine a future digital medium, shaped by the hacker's spirit and the enduring power of the imagination and worthy of the rapture our children are bringing to it.
Excerpt from Hamlet on the Holodeck copyright © 1997 by Janet Horowitz Murray. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster.