Scattered Thoughts on “Pry”

I’ve decided I’m going to try to list this as a database rather than a narrative.

  1. I’m glad Pry was left for last because I think this piece has the most sophisticated digital presentation of all of the platforms we’ve explored. We started with Ice Bound Concordance, which had the potential in my opinion to be the most sophisticated (should its digital technology have been the most up to date) for a few reasons: first, its embodied technology. Like Between the Page and Screen, Ice Bound Concordance used the built-in camera on digital devices to project additional meaning into physical space for the viewer/reader/player; second, the depth of its message. Unlike Between the Page and Screen, which made some strong and valid points about the meanings of language and life, Ice Bound Concordance took several hours to complete and made several new commentaries through each chapter and mechanism for engagement provided. Why do I think Pry was more sophisticated? It’s worth exploring the ways in which the dating of technology affects electronic literature. In my view, the aesthetic and functional performance of technology relative to other mediums of the time is paramount to its effect on the reader. Perhaps an affordance of most traditional books is that we expect very little regarding its display of words across the pages. Digital literature faces this problem more seriously. We must be captivated (as a function of our expectations of competitive technological storytelling methods of the time) by the presentation of the work, or the work’s meaning diminishes. Pry is sophisticated, beautiful, and created with cameras and digital platforms that appear modern and current in my imagination. For now.
  2. Speaking of, one of the most effective techniques available for communicating first-person narration throughout the story is the requirement that both fingers be attached to the screen for the viewing of the entire section. The story will progress if you don’t maintain active attention to keeping your fingers in the right position. That requirement of touchscreen technology on app-based platforms feels very relatively new to me, in comparison to the clicking and arrows of other stories we’ve explored in this course.
  3. Another effective technique was the ridiculously high quality of the camera work. I felt astounded that it was even showing on my phone at such a high quality. The role that this played in communicating messages involving loss of vision cannot be understated. When we are watching a first-person and the picture blurs, it is a stand-out moment, as the quality of the camera work feels so close to the normal experience of seeing that a blur registers as our own vision as readers actually failing. Or perhaps this game was just very effective in having me internalize the main character’s psyche.
  4. Lots to say about the unconscious versus the conscious. I’m sure we’ll talk about Freud in class. My favorite symbol of understanding and talking about these concepts comes from the idea of the iceberg, where the conscious are the thoughts and perceptions that are completely visible, the pre-conscious are the things that are within reach of bringing to the visible, and the un-conscious are the things so repressed and buried that we can’t even access them on a regular basis.
Graphic obtained from a personal blog explaining to their readers the Freudian concept of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels of the mind. Here is the link to the source.
[So it ended up being a list of narratives. I guess that’s how this goes.]

Pry: Between States of Vision

The first thing I want to say about Pry is that I regret starting it up at around 2am last night. The atmosphere created by the eerie sound affects and first-person filming method really freaked me out in ways that I haven’t felt since playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent many years ago. Though it is not marketed as a horror game, there is something thoroughly chilling about the structure and themes present in the game.
 

In a game focused primarily on the action of opening and closing the main character’s eyes, I found that, for me, some of the most interesting (and often upsetting) visuals were the ones that appeared when you were doing neither. The first time I let my fingers off of the touch screen and found that I was staring into an unfamiliar character’s face (and more specifically her weirdly moving eyes) I definitely jumped.

A screenshot from Pry, chapter 2.

I couldn’t help but be interested in these moments, though, because they are what the character sees without any additional push from the player. Normally, the game requires a good amount of effort to see anything. Generally, fully realized images like this one take more effort, as they are seen upon opening the character’s eyes, whereas squinting usually results in blurry colors and quickly moving text. To me, the fact that this image (along with some others) cannot be avoided suggests higher importance to the narrative. I have not gotten far enough to to know exactly who this character is (or maybe I have and forgot in my sleep-deprived state) but I feel it’s safe to assume that she is heavily featured in the main character’s psyche.

A Moving Story: Mentally and Physically

Danny Cannizzaro’s and Samantha Gorman’s Pry is an interactive fiction that explores the life of James, a demolitions consultant who returned from the 1991 Gulf War. Pry is truly embodied in that it utilizes various forms of interactivity to directly involve the player. The “game” requires the reader to actively participate in order to continue the story. However, this participation is well beyond trivial.

Many people take vision for granted. Early on in Pry, James’ vision begins to fail, as denoted by blurred visuals. This difficulty in James’ life is conveyed to the reader through the need to spread or pinch fingers on the screen. This movement by the reader mimics blinking and requires some effort, just as James tries to recover his vision with deliberate blinking.

This movement of spreading and pinching serves a second purpose by bridging the worlds of James’ subconscious, active thoughts, and surroundings. The readers exertions to transfer between these realms is akin to James’ own transitions. Just as James, and anyone for that matter, cannot focus on everything, the reader is forced to focus on one of these aspects. However, while James will never be able to go back and relive these experiences in hopes of piecing together every detail, the reader is welcome to replay a chapter to gather more information.

One particularly interesting form of interactivity was the swiping audio log where text is given in Braille and the reader must run a finger along each line to hear the story it contains. As James loses his sight, the reader must also adapt by resorting to alternate methods of receiving the story, namely touch and audio. Overall, Cannizzaro and Gorman utilized the embodied to better incorporate the reader and improve the experience, leading to a deeper and more pronounced effect.

Swiping along the Braille in this chapter will play an audio log. This image is a screenshot of Cannizzaro’s and Gorman’s Pry.

Nine: The Inadvertently Dysfunctional Probe

Nine’s awakening and development throughout Bois’ 17776 jumped out at me as a very good example of Ryan’s Inadvertent Dysfunctionality.  When Nine was created in the 1960’s, the scientists who developed them did not intend/ever consider they would become a sentient being floating through space. We can somewhat look at this as some form of glitch in Nine’s programming. Somehow after being isolated in space for thousands of years, a computer from the 1960’s was able to gain sentience. They were born into a world where they somehow had a massive storage of information but didn’t know why they were able to recall it, or how they acquired it in the first place.

A picture that was taken during the frigid 1967 NFL Championship game between the Packers and the Cowboys.

In an interesting turn of events, while observing how humans interact/function 15,000 years after being launched into space, Nine somewhat comes to the conclusion that Humans have become dysfunctional. Nine did not get to experience the gradual changes in human technology and development, so the drastic change that they witness from the 1960’s to 17776 would make anyone believe that humans had become dysfunctional, especially if they spent most of their time either playing or watching football. The changes that Nine and humans go through, almost mirror each other. As a reader/observer from an outside perspective, we are able to recognize that the changes Nine and humans experienced are not natural and probably should not have happened. But to both parties, the changes happened so gradually, that they did not notice and therefore do not question how/why they got there.

17776: Dysfunctional or Sublime? Both?

So… 17776 was pretty awesome! I honestly had no idea what I was getting into given the first couple of calendar pages, but the suspense kept me going. One of the most intriguing things about the work to me was the various forms it takes. From calendar based not-so instant messaging, to a more standard IMing interface, to the “what year is it video” to the choppy cut & pasted images interspersed throughout, it took me a while to wrap my head around what was really happening. Though I see where this work could fall under the theme of disfunctionality due to the fact that Nine just couldn’t seem to follow directions or understand what was happening,  but I felt that this work also felt like it belonged in a different category.

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something since we haven’t talked about this yet, bust based off of the intro video we watched for today and our past work, I couldn’t help but feel that this work felt more sublime to me. There was so much going on in so many different forms in so many different years that it became difficult for me to even remember that we were looking at something ‘disfunctional’. I think this is because, to me, it just seemed so remarkable and out of this world that I didn’t care how poorly Nine understood football or understood the concept of identity… I was far too focused on the fact that there was a sentient space prob with the ability to take (poorly focused) selfies and feel love and instant message like a genuinely confused human would!

From John Bois’ 17776 (https://www.sbnation.com/a/17776-football/chapter-1)

The maps & images, such as the one I embedded above, also made me feel a sense of the sublime. I began to feel that this was such an expansive work that I got somewhat intimidated by it. Admittedly overall I was distracted by the various moving parts in the work and felt more overwhelmed than anything. However, I’m excited to talk more about it and hopefully understand it a little better.

Mental Illness in Electronic Literary Tropes

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt once stated, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” In fact, she did more than state it. Arendt is most popular for her controversial book, The Banality of Evil, in which she makes the bold claim that evil is not in fact perpetrated by evil individuals, but instead the product of all uncritical individuals not questioning the evils of the systems they are complicit within. (It is also worth noting, she lived as a Jewish woman and Holocaust escapee in the United States. Her writing of this concept becomes most controversial due to its heavily implied suggestion that the cultural leaders of Jewish society at the time were at least partially responsible for the mass genocide committed against their people by their degree of compliance with their oppressors.)

In puzzling over the four categories of dysfunctionality in digital art, I’m most interested in the idea of the experimental dysfunctionality, which Dr. Sample describes in his summary as the idea that the dysfunction is in fact groundwork for a new type of functionality altogether. This seems to fit neatly into a genre of disability studies which argues that society frames what is considered disability by deciding what counts as functioning appropriately, or normally, and holding all else to that standard. In terms of the washing machine, the washing machine is dysfunctional because it cannot perform its function in the forest, on its side, unconnected to the electric grid. The experimentally dysfunctional perhaps then draws parallel to the Arendtian conclusion that it is not the individual that is dysfunctional (or evil, in moral terms) as much as the standard and system behind what is considered functional and normal which needs to change. Glitch art, for example, seems to speak to folks with mental illness across the spectrum because it shouts out a problem, an incongruence, a dysfunction that sits in contrast to what is expected, in an incredibly relatable way.

This contrasts to the, perhaps, alienating feeling produced from a few of the other themes and tropes we’ve discussed. To illustrate, much of our class discussion (and the larger internet discussion outside of the classroom) of Her Story focused on the possibility that either there was an evil twin sister involved, or the main character was just mentally ill. The mental illness we refer to loosely in this situation is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), though its name has changed several times with the new editions of the DSM. To what degree does the genre of the gothic and the theme of the uncanny require and depend on this trope of the double as the dissociative, as the mentally ill? I would hope not so much at all. However, even popular representations outside of this course — for example, M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film Split mirror such a depiction of individuals with DID as violent, as threats to society, as the type of unreliable narrator whose autonomy should be consistently undermined in favor of the larger societal welfare. Surely, most of the harm of this trope comes from the viewer’s internalization of the trope as generalizable to the larger population of real (non-fictional) characters living with mental illness, and yet, we still choose to typecast the individual as the dysfunctional villain in most popular representations of mental illness to date.

I feel that we should be cognizant of this problem in our discussions – we should bring it to the forefront – and problematize it – and we should just consider for a moment how people living with this disorder, or others, feel the impacts of being placed into the aggressively pro-social or anti-social serial killer box upon our first encounters. As a person who is regularly diagnosed as having varying forms of mood disorders, I can speak to the experience of being quickly condensed into the good mentally ill (the one that won’t off themselves in front of you, the one that can still have a conversation and perform the part, the closed doors only mentally ill) or the bad mentally ill (stay away from these folks, potentially violent, emotional drain, not worth your time).* Neither one of those boxes feels good. It’s something to work on, and our understanding of those who suffer and those who are not normal as inherently violent and dangerous is perhaps a good place to start our work.

*I am borrowing this framework from a great article by Sam Dylan Finch, available here.

Artificial Intelligence as a Dysfunctionality

Jon Bois’s work 17776 depicts one prediction of the future where much of the information is displayed as a conversation between sentient space probes such as Pioneer 9, Pioneer 10, and JUICE. These probes were not originally created to be self-aware or even capable of complex thought. Pioneer 9 was launched in 1968, well before computers had taken significant leaps forward, yet this story largely unfolds as Nine, Pioneer 9, wakes up and realizes it is capable of thought and emotion. In 17776, Jon Bois invokes the dysfunctional.

Dysfunctionality is not always bad. In the case of Nine, as well as the other probes, dysfunctionality resulted in its sentience. Having been designed to simply record data and transmit it back to Earth, the ability to ask questions becomes a significant leap forward. Additionally, communication was meant to be limited to the speed of light, hence the 257 years to relay communications between Nine and Ten. However, despite not having been outfitted with the necessary hardware, Nine becomes capable of quantum communication. This unexpected behavior could be categorized as an inadvertent dysfunctionality relative to Nine’s designers. Had they been able to, these engineers would have utilized such communication. From the perspective of Bois, this dysfunctionality is more ludic since his purposes are more playful. These tremendous achievements of human technology is paired with their development of artificial intelligence, yet they effectively become football commentators.

The pinnacle of human technology has achieved artificial intelligence. And it spends its time trolling humans. A screenshot of Jon Bois’s 17776.

Brokenness as a property is not only inherent to machines. Bois also incites a sense of dysfunctionality when Nine notes that the people seem so normal, as he remembers, yet also broken. The advancement of society resulted in significant innovations in so many fields. Consequently, there were significant changes in how society functioned.  To humans, slight changes in their daily routine would go unnoticed. After many changes, the beginning and ending points seem so different, yet the humans notice no change and everything is normal. Nine, on the other hand, saw only the starting point and present day. The change was abrupt and everything seemed out of place, just as one might see a washing machine in the middle of a forest. Nine’s perception of this abrupt change caused it to think human society was broken in some way, as if everyone suddenly decided to not go to work and just play football. It is rather interesting to consider how a dysfunctional space probe ponders the dysfunctionality of humans.

Nine considers human society to be broken in some way as compared to what he once knew, but realizes it’s situation is similar. Screenshot from Jon Bois’s 17776.

The Technological Element of The Sublime

Classifying something as sublime is not easy. There are many factors that go into classifying something as sublime, such as the thing/idea/event being overwhelmingly incomprehensible or the thing/idea/event having a some sort of sense that cannot be described other than to attribute its grandeur as undefinable and unable to be communicated accurately.  In his paper the American Technological Sublime, David Nye argues that for almost all of human history these defining characteristics could usually only be found in nature by way of large natural occurrences such as the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. These natural occurrences were seen as acts of god/gods and therefore were not only regarded as physically incomprehensible but were also religious events that inspired a kind of awe that humans could not recreate.

The Grand Canyon – Ben Davis

This seems to no longer be the case in the last couple decades. The modern world is much more secular and humanistic, nature is no longer incomprehensible but instead measured and metered in every way possible, which has started to eliminate the spiritual element of nature and replace it with an admiration of the technology that makes such measurements. This admiration for technology becomes sublime when the technology operates with numbers or in a system that make it seem incomprehensible or unimaginable. One such system that achieves this for me is the idea of the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT will be essentially a super large network of technology that is connected through the internet.  While it is still in an infant stage, it is expected to grow to 18 billion devices by 2022. The applications and implication of a system this big are huge. People would be able to basically control everything technologically based in their world at a moments notice. This would include everything from their coffee pot and air conditioning to their self-driving cars of the future. This level of control over the environment is unprecedented and is sublime to me to imagine how vast and controlling this system would be once it is expanded to the majority of people.

Crossing The Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley is a term originally coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970to describe human’s revulsion towards things that appear nearly human, but are not quite human. This revulsion usually involves humanoid robots, but can also include computer animations and other human-like structures like mannequins. A good example of an uncanny humanoid figure would be the widely known videos including Tara the Android.

Picture of Tara the Android on azureedge.net

Tara and other things falling in the uncanny valley have many different proposed psychological fear explanations in humans. One proposed idea sees the root of the uncanny valley laying in our evolution. This idea proposes that people naturally tend to avoid humans that appear “sick” as an evolutionary means to staying healthy and avoiding pathogens. The theory contends that the items falling into the uncanny valley unnaturally heighten this feeling because while they are clearly human-like they are also even more clearly not fully human. The brain compensates for these differences by considering the person very “sick” or repulsive. This theory is what I feel best explains the uncanny valley gap, because it also would hold true that reanimated dead bodies are the highest form of uncanny.

The Uncanny Valley Gap is what researchers from Image Metrics have been trying to cross and may have succeeded back in 2008 with a CGI program designed to mimic human expression. This video shows the tech demo for Image Metrics named Emily. It is a one minute interview with a CGI overlay that is eerily almost unnoticeable from first glance. While there are still remaining aspects of the Uncanny Valley in Emily’s CGI face, overall she is not particularly uncanny and is definitely  no where near on the same level as Tara. I think this technology is very exciting and I am surprised that I had not seen this earlier or heard anything break through since then.

Youtube user – Chrispy (Pikey26)’s video on Emily

I Want The Memories To Last

A screenshot from These Memories Won’t Last

There are many aspects to this piece of digital literature that are only really available inside of a digital space which allow the reader to reach a more personalized understanding of Campbell’s story and experiences. Having to scroll through this piece, for example,  instead of having to physically flip the pages of a book emphasizes the fluidity of our experiences and thought processes. One second the author is having a nice conversation with his grandfather about his antics during his time in the military, the next a psychotic episode is trigged and his grandfather is thrust back into WWII.

While scrolling through Campbell’s These Memories Won’t Last, the visual of the rope really helps the reader understand the grandpa’s struggle to hold onto his memories and perceive his present surroundings at the same time. I understood the rope to represent the synapses of his brain and as the dementia got worse, the connections between each memory became more and more knotted up. To help the reader further understand how straining this entire ordeal was, the reader can hear the physical straining of a rope when a section with a lot of knots comes up.

The music that plays as you going through the story and the way it changes as your progress through the story further pushes onto the reader not only how Campbell’s grandfather felt but how everyone around him as well. Music is a very effective tool to express emotion or to just set the mood for a story and by choosing to present his story through a digital framework, Campbell is able to enrich his own narrative with it.