The Destructiveness of the Digital

I’ve argued for a long time along different ways that despite its overt claims to creativity, “building,” “democratization,” and so on, digital culture is at least partly also characterized by profoundly destructive impulses. While digital promoters love to focus on the great things that will come from some new version of something over its existing version, I can’t help focusing on what their promotion says—implicitly or explicitly—about the thing they claim to be replacing, typically at profit to themselves, whether in terms of political or personal power (broadly speaking) or financial gain.

Note that it is in no way a contradiction for both destructiveness and creativity to exist at the same time, something I repeatedly try to explain without much success. In fact it would be odd for only one or the other to exist, and one does not negate the other, at least not as a rule. The fact that there is a lot of creativity in digital culture does not directly address the question of whether there is also destructiveness. Further, the continual response that creativity does negate the destructiveness shifts the terms of discussion so that we can’t really deal as directly as we should with the destructiveness.

I’m not going to go into these arguments in detail right now, but just want to present a particularly clear example of digital destructiveness I happened to hear recently. On April 11 on a regular segment called “Game On” of a BBC Radio 4 program called “Let’s Talk About Tech” (the episode is available for listening and download through early May), host Danny Wallace interviews Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CEO of CCP, the publisher of the MMORPG EVE Online (“a space-based, persistent world massively multiplayer online role-playing game”), on the occasion of that game’s winning a BAFTA award in the “evolving games” category.

EVE Online

Screen cap from the 2013 “largest space battle EVE Online has ever seen,” from the subreddit /r/eve via an article by Ian Birnbaum at PC Gamer

In the final exchange in the interview (starting around minute 23), Wallace asks Pétursson to reflect more generally about the nature of games and gaming. I’ve transcribed the whole exchange below.

Wallace sets the stage by invoking the defensive aggrieved entitlement of the gamer, which is symptomatically portrayed in the voice of the scolding critic who essentially declares video games not to be art (with no interrogation of what “art” means exactly–just not “frivolous”), but Pétursson’s response goes well beyond what Wallace asks. Asked to articulate the value of EVE Online, Pétursson turns to attack (literally) all other forms of media, and in particular to disparage the entire project of reading. The claim on the surface has to be that all the kinds of philosophical and narrative engagement one experiences in books can be better experienced in video games than by reading the books and other texts (and experiencing the other media) out of which all world cultures emerge.

So we move from a largely fictional dismissal of the value of one medium—games—to an explicit and disparaging rejection of all other forms of media. Further, this disparagement rests on an unsurprising and completely unsophisticated account of what media consumption is really like—a wildly undertheorized presumption that looking at screens and using a pointing device constitutes “interaction” in a way that reading or listening to the radio or even watching screens without a pointing device at the ready does not. That whole frame is inaccurate: it suggests something massively untrue about the experience of reading (and even more of listening and talking) that no careful study of the subject would support, and also a conception of what happens when we play games that is deeply interested. After all, anyone who has ever participated in a raid in World of Warcraft knows that the feeling of suture and of interactivity that players have is, at best, profoundly weird: most of what is going on in the game and on the screen is absolutely not under the player’s “control,” and what is under “control” is a highly limited set of device clicks and gestures that certainly give or go along with the feeling of being “in the game,” but are in fact very different from actually playing a game with one’s body (here thinking of a game like basketball or baseball). Further, that fictional relationship—the immersive sense that one is in the game and participating with the other elements of it—is philosophically much harder to distinguish than one might expect from the suturing relationship the viewer or reader has to text and media of various sorts. The questions of why and how I identify with my avatar in a video game as over against why and how I identify with the main character or analytical perspective offered in a book, or a movie, and so on, are fascinating ones without easy answers. Of course, digital utopians long ago decided that digital media are “interactive” in a way other media aren’t, a notion that is itself built on a serious disparagement of anything non-digital (or anything digital utopians don’t like).

Pétursson tells us that the testimony we have from thousands of years and literally hundreds of millions of people regarding narrative and visual and linguistic media can be dismissed, while the “thousands” of people who play EVE Online provides evidence that this new medium proves the fruitlessness of all other forms of media. In other words, the testimony of EVE Online players is valid, but that of non-players is not valid. It may seem subtle, but this privileging of the testimony of those one values and dismissal of those one doesn’t is one critical root of the development of hate. (Some readers will know that Pétursson’s complaint echoes a famously vicious and totally inaccurate assessment of Tolstoy’s novels [and a fortiori all novels] by digital guru and venture capital-consultant Clay Shirky.)

One of my main concerns with the destructiveness of digital culture has been precisely its disparagement and dismissal of all forms of knowledge that the digerati deem “traditional” or “out of date” or “fruitless,” typically with very little exposure to those forms of knowledge. I am especially concerned with what this perspective teaches with regard to politics. Politics is very complicated terrain for all of us, even those of us who study it for a living. Understanding how various political forces operate and take advantage of popular energy and opinion is among the most urgent political tasks of our time. It is beyond doubt that the rise of authoritarian populism in our time is fueled in part with a studied agnotology, with the promotion of ignorance about politics that makes people particularly vulnerable to manipulation.

So what politics does EVE Online teach, “fruitfully” as against the “fruitless” pursuit of political knowledge from reading and other forms of media? As a non-player of the game I’m in no position to judge, but it’s notable that the game is known for a fairly destructive take on governance. Here’s a bit from Wikipedia’s section on “griefing” in EVE Online:

Due to the game’s focus on freedom, consequence, and autonomy, many behaviors that are considered griefing in most MMOs are allowed in EVE. This includes stealing from other players, extortion, and causing other players to be killed by large groups of NPCs.

I don’t know if there’s any connection between Pétursson’s destructive attitude toward non-game forms of media and this overt hostility toward the ethical principles of social behavior that many of us adhere to. I don’t know whether players of EVE Online share Pétursson’s hostility. But it’s hard not to wonder.

And of course that isn’t even really the point. The point is that this  hostility to anything that is currently identified as not being part of the digital is visible all over the place in digital culture. It is far in excess of what celebration of cool new things requires. And it is completely unmotivated. Large-category new forms of media do not eliminate or obviate older ones: movies didn’t eliminate books, television didn’t actually eliminate radio, and so on. You don’t have to hate books and movies and tv to enjoy games. You don’t have to hate to be part of the “new.” Unfortunately, too many people apparently think otherwise.

Transcribed From April 11 “Game On” segment of  BBC Radio 4 “Let’s Talk About Tech”:

Question (Danny Wallace, BBC)

The old brain, the old parts of the media, for instance, and social commentators, and people who are cultural commentators, will say all video games, they’re just video games. They’re just for kids, or miscreants living in their parents’ basements. That is.. that’s firmly disappearing now, that point of view, isn’t it. You’ve lasted long enough to outlive the people who said, why on earth are you making, spending all this time and all this effort making something as frivolous as video games.

Answer (Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CEO of CCP, publisher of EVE Online)

Yeah, I mean, in some aspects, we’re making computer games. And many aspects of EVE are like that. But there are also aspects of EVE which is nothing like that, which are so fundamentally unique, you can’t really… you would have to scramble for analogies. It really is a virtual life, where people live out. They do work, they trade, they build social structures, they make friends, they succeed, they fail, they learn, they have lessons in leadership, trust. It’s an extraordinarily beneficial activity, I would argue. And that’s not just my own point. I have thousands, tens of thousands of people that just fundamentally agree with me. So it’s an element of truth, once you get enough people to agree with it. So I’ve never really looked at it like that. The fact that we’re classified as a computer game, I mean, doesn’t really bother me. It helps people understand what it is. It’s not like I have a very good classification for what we really are: something virtual worlds, virtual life, social economy, I mean there are many analogies you can bring to it. But yeah, we’ve never really thought of it as just being computer games.

I would then argue, I mean there’s a lot of other things in human endeavors which are frankly uninteresting. If you look at most media, it’s broadcast to consumer and there’s no participation. Why is reading a book considered a better activity than playing a game? At least in a game you’re participating. In a book you’re just wallowing in some other’s imagination. How is that a fruitful activity? It’s very equivalent to watching TV. I find reading books… I generally frown upon it. I would rather play a game. I learn more from computer games than books.

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