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EDITORIAL - The Medium is the Medium
posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 04:59 PM Sat Jan 1st, 2000
last revision: 03:28 PM Fri Sep 23rd, 2005

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By Brandon Hall NORTHBOUND, Greyhound--just past Preston, UT (or ID or somewhere). Disclaimers have a tendency to strongly resemble either whining or lying. Having said that, the notes I just realized I needed for this piece are locked in the luggage bin of this bus (somewhere beneath the surly cowboy a few seats in front of me) traveling at the same breakneck 35 or so mph we are"plus or minus the shifting and crashing around it's undoubtedly doing, as our driver seems to drive worse when he hasn't had a cigarette for a while, and Logan was sixty or so miles ago.

And now, having disclaimed:

During the Sony PS2 press conference last Wednesday, someone (that's one of the facts being slowly pummeled to death as I write this) brought the name of Marshall Macluhan into the lengthy, admeister and investor oriented lecture on the wonders of Sony's "media machine". But even had they not, the entire event was palpably driven by the sort of teleprompter writing that straddles the narcissism/eroticism/visionary techno-grandeur that one found charming a hundred years ago in Henry Adams' "Dynamo and the Virgin" but less so during an overly long fiscal breakdown and world conquest strategy when all people really wanted to see was screenshots. But the food was excellent, and the metal notebooks almost made up for the lack of booze.

But Macluhan (whose Understanding Media was recently pressed in a new, swankily modernized edition"the old one looked more like a still from Tron or a Devo cover) does bring a number of issues to bear on the current state or gaming, as well as its future. He also serves as a good starting point for a conversation about E3 itself, a convention that tradespeople continually confided in each other outside in the smoking areas in resigned and weary undertones was "oh, you know?it's a trade show," and everyone else continually and vocally described as "fucking incredible!"

In "The Medium is the Massage", Macluhan's seminal chapter (it's not my fault, the puns are already there) from the aforementioned work, he makes a couple of statements that I think adequately summarize his position on media. The first reflects his idea that as the world becomes progressively connected, boundaries between media and life will become superficial: "All physical, psychic and social processes merge in constant play and replay, there are no more spectators in lab or life, only participants in the Global Electric Theatre." If Sony would have simply thrown this into one of their speeches, it would not only have gone undetected given the general context, but it would have given them some sorely needed theory that wasn't written by profit margin gurus. Although a certain amount of the conference was spent on presenting the graphical and gameplay advancements the PS2 is supposed to bring to the console market, much more of it was spent explaining how gaming was simply one aspect of Sony's proposed "revolution."

In fact, one speech was entirely devoted to dividing PS2 and PSX development into discrete market categories, the latter aimed at "strictly gaming" and the former at "the new era of entertainment", a division Macluhan, again, had already made to slightly different ends with his "hot" and "cold" media theory [not exact quotes]. The "new era", heavily sound-bit as the "broadband revolution" is the one we are all familiar with hearing about, where everything and anything can be achieved from the comfort of your home with a simple, easy to use, redundant interface. Certainly Sony looks to make good on the promise (as they insisted they had done with all their past promises, and with some justification), especially considering what looks to be a reliable broadband connection with, unlike some other attempts, competent and fully articulated software to back the whole thing up, plus a hardware run DVD player (new for the American release), and all the other out of the box stuff you've undoubtedly already read about or seen.

But some of Macluhan's points simply will not work given current circumstances"his oft cited and perhaps most conservative statement, that "the content of media is always previous media" now seems as tautological as "the content of books is stuff that happens". And while the statement may have had some merit when he used it to describe the relationship between television and cinema, the teleogical structures that allowed for such a reading have long since evaporated. To claim that FMV and cinematics in games are a reactionary hearkening back to cinema, and that CGI effects in movies are anachronistic, as one must claim under the constraints of the argument, is perhaps not the most beneficial way to look at the thing. It would be more appropriate to view the relationship along the lines of Donna Harraway's classic "Cyborg Manifesto" which attempts to explain how subjectivities are patchworked together rather than strictly driven by diachronic forces. The relationship between games and movies would in her scenario be more like what she explains (in a different context of course) as a "strange new form of bestiality." Or perhaps "symbiosis".

But even the latter two readings are still somewhat bound by theory that is not broad enough to account for everything the E3 had to offer. With the enormous success of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, for instance, the "medium" of skateboarding has at least been tweaked, if not altered. I honestly heard the following conversation:

Kid in a hat: "Do you skate, man?"

Kid without a hat: "Yeah."

Hat: "Cool. How long have you been doing it?"

No Hat: "Well, the game's only been out a year."

Of course, that's a pretty glib example, and wouldn't stand very long under rereading, but the point is basically solid, I think"the "media" of life and video games are convergently evolving in a way that would make Darwin squeal like Pikachu. The dancing game craze has become a dance form that inspires analogous forms that inspire new dance games, etc. Some sports players have admitted to playing games in order to familiarize themselves with pitching quirks, defensive plays, and other mimetic gaming algorithms. Shenmue operates in real time, and allows you to basically live an alternate existence that isn't really alternate, because it is fully articulated. In other words, with deference to Mr. James Tiptree, Jr. the "whole thing's a progressive feedback loop." The point isn't that video games are becoming more realistic. Only Newsweek would make a point like that. The point is that the technology is finally in place so there can no longer be any such thing as "virtual reality": an entire generation has grown up with electronic media and accepts it prima facia"not as something external to be mapped and conquered; not as Standish's "savage land"; not as the Turnerian "frontier"; not even with the same attitude's more recent incarnations in Star Trek"what had been "virtual reality" to a dying breed of enthusiastic thinkers and less redeemable media rags is simply life to twelve year old boys in first world countries (which reminds me, I've got some things to say about that situation in another piece) everywhere. At this point in time, we must dispense with catch-phrases, false dichotomies, and slippery logic. Either everything is virtual, or everything is real. Period. It looks like we're stopping, so I'd better smoke a pack of cigarettes.

It occurred to me that I had talked about Macluhan for three pages and not even mentioned Videodrome. If you haven't seen the movie, it's one of Cronenberg's early biological terror flicks, and very much the precursor to ExistenZ, his newest biological terror flick. At any rate the movie stars James Woods as a video producer who gets sucked in and addicted to a bondage/snuff show called Videodrome (get it?) and slowly loses the ability to distinguish "reality" from hallucination. Anyway, turns out the whole thing was an eleborate attempt by "Professor Brion O' Blivion" to infect the violent and sadistic with an incurable virus transmitted by the good old cathode ray tube (Mac's view of TV, curiously like the Sony press release: "Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.") O' Blivion is an obvious Machluhan riff, and intends to take over the world through television. Oh yeah, and he's sort of dead too. But that's another story. The point is, while the vision of companies like Sony is certainly based on a profit margin, ideology is inescapable. Luckily, the market being what it is, third party developers will"far into the foreseeable future"be out there to monitor things. Airplay, for instance, is pretty convincing in their argument for a wireless remote (which is really something Sony should have thought of). Digiscents is going the John Waters route with "digital" smells. So there will never be a final word. The End.