In the past, when I’ve begun posts by disclosing that their titles and topics were dictated by the class I’m taking at UT, I think I tended to take a sort of humdrum tone about it. Well not this time! This title was dictated by my class at UT, but it has some poetic oomph to it! You can’t really go wrong with “Whither.”
But maybe you can go wrong with “The End of Cyberspace,” as cyberspace doesn’t seem ready to end just yet. Saying that the end up cyberspace cannot be envisioned yet may seem to betray a lack of imagination, so know that I’m trying hard to imagine it…but I can’t do it; I can’t imagine a digital future built from anything other than the extension of recent trends. I mean, the march of cyberspace seems ready to continue onward through what one might call the “foreseeable” future. For those on the cutting edge, desktops and notebooks were replaced with netbooks and ultrabooks, which have been replaced with smartphones and tablets (ultabooks lasted for all of a few weeks). There’s no reason to think that iPhones and Pads are the last digital platforms… I doubt that they will even be the last major Apple platforms. The power and physical arrangement of our digital devices seem as if they will continue to change, likely in favor of more power and greater accessibility. Indeed, the buzz this week surrounds Google’s “Project Glass;” here’s a very nice video demo (and some nice parodies). If anything, the domain of cyberspace seems to be ever expanding; the augmented reality offered by “Project Glass” seems to annex the entirety of physical space, or at least to cover all physical space with a blanket of cyberspace.
Though the physical devices that we use to connect to cyberspace are constantly being replaced or upgraded, the underlying concepts, the underlying cyberspace, doesn’t seem to be changing so quickly. For instance, Usenet newsgroups were replaced with instant messaging services and chat rooms, which were replaced by Twitter, Facebook, and Skype. It seems unlikely that today’s major cyberspace venues will be around indefinitely, but it also seems unlikely that communication will ever cease to be a concern in cyberspace. Likewise, advertising, news, entertainment, commerce, and many other categories of cyberspace activity seem very likely to remain major concerns, just as they will very likely remain major concerns in physical space. I could try to speculate about many particular forms that our future interactions with cyberspace might take, but in the face of such a general issue as “The End of Cyberspace” I can only give this relatively uninteresting answer.
But at the outset of this post I was excited about the word “Whither,” so maybe it will be productive to go back to that. I think “Whither” seems exciting in the context of this title because it sounds like “Wither,” and any progress towards the “End of Cyberspace” would indeed likely take the form of “Withering.” That gives “Whither,” and its almost aimless question of “to what place?” an appealing sense of desolation. For me the word becomes tied to empty (cyber)spaces that are dry and dead, maybe with a few cyber tumbleweeds rolling through. That’s the “Wither” part. The “Whither” part means that these spaces will exist in the future. I’m probably thinking this way because I’m such a fan of movies set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic futures; work with me if that’s not your scene. Anyway, the prompt led me to start wondering what a “Whithered” and desolate cyberspace might look like.
This thought was likely brought on not just by the particular title dictated for this post, but also by my recent encounter with a fairly interesting New York Times article on the sort of “stupid games” which have taken hold of smartphones and smartphone users. More striking than the article itself, however, was the image that ran with it, which turned out to be an interactive game which allowed me to “destroy” the very article I had expected to read (some coverage here). Thanks to a link in the caption for this interactive image, I came across its inspiration, a “bookmarklet” game called Kick Ass designed by 18-year-old Swede Erik Rothoff Andersson. Andersson provides an internet bookmark which, when clicked, turns any website into something quite similar to the classic arcade game of Asteroids. Andersson’s website and the Kick Ass Facebook page use phrases like “Bored? Click here to Kick Ass,” “Destroy the Web,” and “Tip: It works great for vaporizing annoying ads. Try it out!” The Kick Ass site even provides an AT&T ad, ripe for destroying. I briefly tried to find a way to link directly to the bookmarket itself on this page, as the blog and I almost certainly deserve a good Kick Ass-ing. Sadly, I was unsuccessful in this endeavor. Still, feel free to go bookmark the bookmarklet from Andersson’s page, come back here, and have at it. I’ve already strafed through the Twelve Os site twice myself, and I must say I’m glad I put in so many links; they make nice targets.
Kick Ass, in the context of a New York Times article and elsewhere, is fun in many visceral ways that are familiar to players of the original Asteroids, or of many other video games. It’s fun to swoop around a digital space in a representation of a rocket ship, it’s fun to fire a bunch of projectiles from such a rocket ship, and it’s fun to see things blow up in a shower of red and orange pixels when struck by those projectiles. This is basic video game stuff, with emphasis on the game, since the narrative aspects of video games that I’ve been interested in before aren’t present in this understanding of Kick Ass.
Then again, while there may not be narrative in Kick Ass, there certainly can be content. Rather than providing the vague or generic sorts of enemies and obstacles in Asteroids, Kick Ass lets players “Destroy the Web.” That’s the added attraction involved in destroying something like a New York Times article as opposed to a purely utilitarian target in a shooting gallery; interfering with a webpage this way lets players display (dare I say “perform”?) irreverence towards the webpage and its content. That’s why blasting away at online features like comments sections is so appealing. Putting, say, an image of an unpopular politician on the aforementioned shooting gallery target adds the same kind of attraction, but Kick Ass is even more successful in this vein. While players may not be able to destroy “actual” webpages all the way down to their servers (insofar as servers are where the “actuality” of a webpage lies) and the destroyed pages will refresh themselves with a push of browsers’ “refresh” buttons, destroying what you see when you go to nytimes.com seems much more direct than putting holes in a picture of Rick Santorum. Perhaps Kick Ass finds a sweet spot between docility and actual destruction. Come to think of it, that’s probably the same sweet spot that makes The Kids in the Hall’s “Head Crusher” sketches so effective.
That’s the irreverent element of the fun of Kick Ass. But, in playing around with the bookmarklet, I ended up finding yet another aspect which, for me at least, was even more compelling. Though I’ve never been the sort of video game player who is compelled to complete games in their absolute “100%” entirety, when it came to Kick Ass it seemed right to destroy everything destroyable on the webpages whose asses I set out to kick. This urge isn’t as easy to explain, but it seems embedded in the logic of Kick Ass: if some ass kicking is good, then more should be better, especially because more destruction will continue to change the look of a webpage.
And so I proceeded to completely Kick Ass on a few different webpages, and I found myself impressed with the results (click images to embiggen):
Kick Ass allowed for the removal of almost all of the content from these webpages, but left just enough for my familiar eye to be able to recognize each one very clearly (these are pages I have bookmarked and visit frequently, after all). Rather than reducing the pages to white nothingness, Kick Ass turns them into empty spaces that feel like wastelands rather than absolute voids. So, finally, this is something “Withered” cyberspace might look like!
The truly surprising thing here is that I really like looking at these emptied web spaces. In some ways I think they are improvements upon the pages in their original states. Looking at a wasteland of a webpage makes me realize just how much webpages tend to overflow with text, color, images, and information in general. Paring pages down to some of their basic graphic elements makes them much easier to look at and much easier to process. I don’t mean for this to be a nostalgic way of looking at cyberspace; a pining for the days when one didn’t have to process so much information so quickly. After all, I’ll probably keep going to these websites very frequently, even after kicking their asses and despite their overflowing. Rather, I think it’s possible to separate nostalgia out and simply say that, while I would hardly refuse to engage with cyberspace outright, I would rather not have to contend with quite so much overflow when I do engage with it.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think a lot of people profess nostalgia for life before the internet, but that they would certainly be happy with less overflow. So “Whither Cyberspace?” Maybe we should hope that it will “Wither” a bit.