Archival as Memory Relay

— May 2013

This was my lecture for the ongoing #Snarkmarketseminar.

Hello. I have two primary texts for my Snarkmarket lecture.

To start, I’d like to link you to this piece of interactive fiction by Christine Love: “Digital: A Love Story” and ask you to play through it. Try to get through the whole thing – it’s less than two hours from start to finish, and is fairly straightforward. (Here’s a walkthrough if you get stuck.) I’ll be here when you’re ready.

How you feel about the visuals and sounds may depend on whether you have memories from BBS networks or the early dial-up era.

All of which adds up to a portrait of how an era felt. This seems like a distinct kind of cultural anthropology – one that’s transmitted and absorbed with the senses.

Interactive fiction (and more broadly, videogames) are particular good at this kind of telling. There are plenty of successful interactive exhibits (say, in a gallery or museum) that integrate sound and video well, but videogames let you move at your own pace – which can stretch out as long as you need. People can act out the combination of boredom and excitement of waiting for new messages over an afternoon in a way that someone standing in front of an exhibit for a few minutes can’t.

Immersion is a common way to talk about this: put the player in a world they can explore as they wish. They often try to mimic life, and take a kitchen-sink approach to their world-building (own a house! get married! have kids!), as Matt touched on with the Skyrim game.

But I’d like to propose a different word: agency. More specifically, I think there’s micro-agency and macro-agency in interactive work. Macro-agency is about the overall boundaries – the setting, the arc of the plot (of which you can delay the timing, but not change the direction), the number of BBS boards and the text of the messages – which are fixed by the author, as a necessity. Micro-agency is about the particular actions the player can take at any time, and I think in Digital, that’s very satisfying – you can open and close programs at will, decide which boards to connect to, which messages to read or save, etc.

One thing you can’t do, however, is to control or even see what’s in the messages and replies you send. It’s easy to deduce what you wrote from the other’s person’s subject line and message, but I think Christine Love removed this bit of micro-agency to avoid moments of “Well, I wouldn’t have said that / said it that way” and to maintain the sense of her world’s consistency.

Consistency is as important to sense-memory-making as to any other kind creative work. But has agency been such a crucial element before? The crucial question seems to be how do you decide which pieces of micro-agency are worth keeping, and which pieces have to be sacrificed in the name of consistency?

And of course, are there interesting ways of breaking that consistency, of introducing dissonance?

Twitter’s made their entire public archive available to the Library of Congress in 2010, and in doing so, also gave each user their personal archive. Clearly, they spent a lot of time thinking about the experience of using the personal archive – links point outward to their original tweets, user metadata was preserved, etc – but what of the larger archive? How will that get conveyed to someone five, ten, twenty years from now? Seems like many of the same questions.

Welcome back. We left off the first part of the lecture with a brief mention of Twitter. For the second half of my lecture, I’d like for us to read an excerpt from Lady of Mazes. It’s a fantastically prescient science fiction novel written in 2005 – pre-Twitter, and yet touches on notions of separate “publics”, cloned pieces of self, and selective isolation.

Here are chapters 1 and 3.

Ok, ready?

So the society in the book is a fractured one – a group of people, by sharing a set of beliefs and culture, will spawn an alternate world that’s for them only (fancy machine-negotiated virtual reality, yada yada yada). Westerhaven is sort-of the cosmopolitan one, filled with elaborate rules in etiquette and politicking. Another one, by the drummers, centers around music while eschewing a lot of technology. There’s not much overlap in their worldviews, so people in the two different worlds don’t mix much.

When all the drummers died out – no one is left to maintain that particular reality – so their world collapses. This is not high technology – this happens all the time in our world, for example, when no one alive speaks a language.

And of course, people from outside come in and get to decide how to interpret and what to do with the remains. Which is about how it works with us, too. We call it archival.

When Twitter made personal archives available, it handed you a mirror of yourself. It seemed accurate, for the most part – there were many joyful or embarrassing rediscoveries, and a few gaps – but most people seemed to accept that it was an accurate portrait. I don’t think that’s very surprising – it’s yourself!

But what about the question of representation for the version that’s sitting in the Library of Congress? How do we decide whether something feels true to an era?

“…And yet you chose to speak for them in a situation of great ambiguity. That, I’m afraid, is what we can’t forgive.”

Journalists and historians are often the ones given this task. They do as much research as they can – do interviews, pore over source documents – and come up with some kind of synthesis. That’s their job, of course, and they’re very good at it.

Digital: A Love Story ends with a Homeric ballad by a historian character. It’s the same character who’d been posting short computer histories throughout the game – the start of the ARPANET, the first viruses, and so on. I thought this was very clever. Because you, the player, actually played through the events now getting recorded. Did it feel accurate? (Not was it accurate, but did it feel accurate? What was kept and what got left out?)

I asked in the first half of my lecture whether Digital felt faithful to your memory. I talked a little about the modem sounds and the scanlines, and Louis-Jean Teitelbaum talked about the bugs and complexities of interacting with the the dialer and the OS. A lot of it came from careful research and archival material, but the final result of all the pieces working together is a fuzzy kind of black magic, and part of it is filled by the player/reader/user.

In Lady of Mazes, individuals like Kodaly can move between alternate worlds by, temporarily, switching one worldview for another. She is able to embody another, and so acts as speaker, diplomat, trickster. How different is this from traditional storytelling (if at all), and what are the lines of acceptability for dramatic license?

Questions and more questions. Thanks for indulging, reading, participating.

Here’s my best attempt to recap the highlights – my thanks to everyone, especially Roberto Greco, Howard Weaver, Craig Gavin, and Matt Thompson for their generous input.