Why, How Cyberspace? (Or: Why Make A Video Game?)

Here’s another essay assignment for my course at UT Austin. The title of this post and the discussion of two or three artists are mandated by the assignment; the particulars beyond that are my own doing. By the way, skip at least the last bit if you intend to play Bioshock at any point, there are “spoilers” afoot.

Faced with the task of examining why and how a few artists have utilized cyberspace, I actually have relatively little knowledge to start from, at least as far as traditional (inasmuch as cyberspace can be “traditional”) fine artists go. While I refer to myself as a student of modern and contemporary art, my academic interests are mainly in painting and sculpture, and I have deeper knowledge of artists who came of age between the end of World War II and the around the 1970’s, before cyberspace made its way into mainstream culture. There certainly are plenty of artists both involved in cyberspace and the traditions of studio practice and museum presentation… the problem is that I’m not very familiar with them.

So, instead of doing myself and anyone else who might read this post a disservice by hastily scouring the internet for cyber-artists to subject to rushed and superficial analysis, I think it will be better to focus on a cyber-artistic topic that I know much better: video games. Since the days when my parents had to warn me against “inviting myself over” to visit friends with video game consoles, through getting a Nintendo 64 in the mid ‘90s, and up to currently living in an apartment containing an impressive (to me at least) eight video game consoles, video games have been a part of my life. Now that I’m increasingly interested in writing about art, I have also begun to occasionally write about video games on similar terms. I think this is exciting, as video games are somewhat overdue to be examined in greater depth than they are in the consumeradvicestyled consideration that they are typically given.

I don’t think it’s necessary to stage an “are video games art?” debate to begin this discussion. That debate, like any “is this art?” debate, gets bogged down and becomes uninteresting all too easily. And in the particular case of video games, the debate has the weird effect of always bringing Roger Ebert to mind.

At any rate, for this post I will focus on the narrative aspects of three video games, which ought to allow those with more traditional views on art to remain within their comfort zones. After all, narrative is very often present in film, theater, and literature, and is frequently present in painting, sculpture, photography, and dance as well, and each of these is considered an artistic medium (sorry if I’ve left anything out, I haven’t meant to). Video games’ ability to present narrative, to tell stories, thus puts them in close enough company with accepted art forms that to deny video games the status of art might be to demand an unpleasant sort of purism from these other media. But that’s getting into the debate that I promised I wouldn’t get into. Sorry.

When it comes to presenting a narrative, each medium seems to have its own advantages and disadvantages. The most striking such advantage (in my experience anyway) is literature’s ability to directly describe internal states of mind, which are often difficult to represent in other media. Clearly enough, film is typically an advantageous medium for stories that require visual impact (this probably wouldn’t be very compelling as a novel, but it makes for enjoyable cinema). Painting can display an advantage in telling allegorical stories which demand extended contemplation.

These advantages often answer the question of “why?” for media like literature, film, and painting. So what would be the “why?” of video games, the “why?” of cyberspace for this particular medium? What new options do video games put at their creators’ disposal, and how do those new options enable different sorts of storytelling? Rather than attempt to answer this question directly, I will present three video games and explain how they each present narrative in ways which are largely exclusive to their medium.

The first game up for consideration here is BioWare’s Mass Effect, the first game in a trilogy which premiered in 2007 and whose final installment is slated for release this March. BioWare has a reputation for creating games with strong employment of narrative elements; the conventions, mechanics, etc. found in BioWare’s games essentially make them into a sub-genre unto themselves, even as the games each deal with different subject matter, settings, and gameplay mechanics. A hallmark of BioWare games is thus that, instead of subjecting players to a previously prepared story, they allow players to experience a story that they control to a large extent, from the point of view of a main (player-controlled) character. This is no mean feat, as video game technology is not yet sufficiently advanced to allow players to actually engage with virtual worlds that are truly as complex as our own world, where rich new stories can be generated spontaneously (and even with unlimited computing power, the conceptual aspects of current game design would pose their own limitations). In lieu of this kind of interactivity, BioWare gives players enough meaningful choices that a solid sense of control is possible.

A key set of choices in Mass Effect occur through the game’s dialogue. Plainly enough, a character will seem more like an extension of the player if they take on the outlook that the player wants them to have. The different responses that the player can compel their avatar to give in Mass Effect’s many conversations don’t range widely, but they do allow for dialogue to branch out in different directions, and they do affect the course of the game’s larger story. By the end of the game, the total effect of the decisions that the player has made in dialogue is quite massive (I couldn’t resist), and this gives the player a sense that their character’s experiences, and thus their own experiences, have been uniquely shaped to their liking. It would indeed be difficult for two people to play through Mass Effect’s dialogue in the exact same way. Players will fall into typical archetypes because the game (limited as described above) is ultimately not all that flexible, but the sense of control certainly is there, especially if players’ disbelief can remain suspended (and it certainly must in a game full of space ships and aliens).

So, “why” should the story of Mass Effect be told in a video game? Because there really is no equivalently interactive medium available. The closest traditional alternative is the “choose your own adventure” book, which is rather clumsy by comparison. It’s not that a CYOA couldn’t include all of the permutations of Mass Effect’s dialogue… it’s just that the book would likely be prohibitively large.  Additionally, while a CYOA has the disadvantage of making its means of offering choice physically apparent to readers, a game like Mass Effect can make discarded options invisible to its players, yielding a virtual reality which appears seamless (minus the big but necessary seam involving the player, the screen, and the controller, of course).

Another game to consider is Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim of 2011, which is part of a series that dates way back to 1994 (a very long time in video game history). Like BioWare, Bethesda has established its own set of conventions, mechanics, etc. which add up to a sort of sub-genre. The most important element here is Bethesda’s “open world” style of game design, where players are able to traverse huge virtual spaces with minimal restrictions. Narrative elements remain fairly basic and almost always optional; players can pursue a large number storylines which vary in size and depth, or they can simply go exploring, earn wages cutting lumber, steal from unsuspecting townsfolk, etc. Once again the game is limited and certainly doesn’t feel like a true virtual representation of a world like our own, but quite a lot of wacky things are possible (with this openness leading to a significant internet sub-culture of memes, blog entries, and YouTube clips, some interesting, some uninspired).

“Why” Skyrim should be a video game is even more obvious; no other medium could offer such a font of interactivity and visual representation. Perhaps the closet equivalent would be an oral tabletop role playing game; games like Skyrim indeed trace their inspiration (and medieval aesthetic) back to games like Dungeons & Dragons. But tabletop games only offer what their players can bring to the table (sorry) and are clumsy in the same way that CYOA books are clumsy, insofar as their means of operation are necessarily apparent, and may draw players away from their narrative. Skyrim, alternatively, offers professionally designed stories and mechanics, as well as the same invisible mechanics and (essentially) seamless reality as Mass Effect. While tabletop games ultimately rely on players’ imaginations, Skyrim does all the work for you (whether that’s a good thing or not is up for debate). It’s also not possible to truly reproduce a past D&D game, while Skyrim can be experienced by more than a small group of people.

A final game to consider (as always; I usually can’t have a sustained discussion about video games without mentioning it) is 2K Boston’s Bioshock. While Skyrim and Mass Effect seem to be attempts at giving players as much control as possible while still presenting fairly compelling and technically feasible stories, Bioshock takes a very different tack, grabbing players by the scruff and forcing them to sit back and enjoy a largely predetermined ride. In Bioshock the player-controlled character is literally dropped into an underwater world gone wrong where violence is infinitely (another pun, for the initiated) more valuable than dialogue. Indeed the protagonist does not speak at all throughout the entire game. Instead, they progress through a long series of dangerous rooms. This, graphical polish aside, isn’t all that different from the long series of dangerous rooms much older games like Doom, at least as far as everything strictly defined as gameplay goes.

“Linear” if often a dirty word when describing video games today, but Bioshock’s master stroke is that it puts linearity to narrative use. The player begins the game thinking that they are helping another character fight against corruption in the aforementioned undersea dystopia. Eventually, however, it is revealed that the protagonist has been subtly brainwashed from the start. Now, while only the player-controlled-character was literally brainwashed, by definition, in a linear game, the player wasn’t given any choice either. They were, in fact, forced to unknowingly lead the protagonist down the single path offered by the game, come what may. Some players may find it frustrating that the game would, in a way, chastise them for taking the only option available (outside of turning off the TV). But the frustration or (if the player is truly engaged with the game) guilt that the player feels is very closely related to experience of the protagonist, and this allows players to experience Bioshock‘s narrative in a very direct way. That sounds like a groundbreaking form of narrative expression to me.

The “why” of Bioshock’s involvement with cyberspace and video games should thus be yet more obvious than the “why” of Mass Effect or Skyrim; it is truly impossible to create this kind of experience in any other medium. Video games allow players to control narrative progress step by step in a way that is impossible in any pre-determined medium like film or literature, and by responding to this control Bioshock dupes players in a fantastic fashion. The only rival here might again be tabletop role playing games, but there a feeling of arbitrariness might be unavoidable in a story like Bioshock‘s. At any rate, Bioshock suggests that, while Mass Effect and Skyrim can achieve impressive but ultimately imperfect openness in narrative presentation, presenting a perfectly linear narrative is well within the realm of possibility for video games. Bioshock thus succeeds by presenting a linear narrative which nevertheless takes advantage of the interactive nature of video games.

In concluding this post it is tempting to reach for some kind of generalization about narrative presentation in video games that might lead to an overall “why” for video game art. At this point, though, I think I’ll hold off on such a pronouncement. Instead, it’s better to just remember that a video game is different than a painting, a film, a dance, etc. and by that virtue alone it will have its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the presentation of a narrative may require the particular advantages and disadvantages of another medium, but in some cases presenting a narrative as a video game may be the most compelling course of action.

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Today in Cyberspace

I ran across a couple of interesting things online today and, incredibly enough, this seems to be a better space for them than my Facebook wall. Startling.

Interesting Internet Thing #*1: The POWER of the Internet (*not a hashtag, I’m taking back the pound sign)
This easy find was conveniently dropped into my virtual inbox by the faceless media presence of the University of Texas at Austin. The article immediately reminded me of our recent reading of “The Bioethics of Cyber-Medicalization” by Andy Miah and Emma Rich (available in their The Medicalization of Cyberspace and Pramod K. Nayar’s The New Media and Cybercultures Anthology).

That selection dealt largely with the questions raised by the online promotion of anorexia, also known as “Pro-Ana” (surprisingly easy to find via Google). Those questions may or may not be particularly difficult, depending on how much moral relativism one is willing to engage in. For those who prefer to think of the preservation of life as a universal goal, the UT article is a good reminder that the “medicalization” of cyberspace (that is, people’s ability to get medical advice or other forms of care via cyberspace) is certainly not always a “bad” thing.

Once this comparison drew me to the article, I started thinking a bit more about its relationship with more general cyberspace issues. For one, a fair bit of thinking about the internet deals with the nature of text-based online communication, but, with the advent of Skype’s free audio/video communication, text is now only one means to communicate online. In the survey discussed in the article, treatment for depression via Skype was similarly effective to face-to-face treatment, but significantly more effective that treatment via telephone. In all likelihood, text-based treatment would have been even less effective. Clearly enough, communicating with video is different from communicating without it; different sorts of communication need to be discussed in ways that recognize their differences.

After revealing this interesting bit of data, author Tim Green of UT’s media brigade managed to squander a good bit of the resulting good will (at least with me) with the article’s pithy closing sentence: “Who knows? When it comes to treating depression, [UT professor and researcher Namkee] Choi might have an app for that.” I don’t necessarily take issue with the medicalization of the internet, but I would take issue with the “app-itization” of medical care. “App” connotes an easy, downloadable, one-size-fits-all solution to a problem, hence the Apple slogan “there’s an app for that.” Medical care, by contrast, should be prepared to adapt itself to the unique needs of each patient, no matter how it is distributed.

Frankly, most services ought to adapt themselves to each beneficiary as much as possible. A “there’s an app for that” solution to a problem is only possible when people won’t realize the difference between a personalized approach and a mass-distributed approach. And even then, a travel agent will likely be more personable than priceline.com. The important thing to consider is what kind of communication will be best in a given situation. There can be an “app for that” when efficiency is preferable to personalization, but a personalized approach should also be on the table (especially if it happens to be an operating table). Ultimately Green’s slip from one mode into the other can be forgiven, but it points once again to the need to be careful with different sorts of cyberspace language. And, of course, once Facebook and Siri know everything about us, it will no longer be necessary to make this point.

I.I.T. #The Second: “Literally Unbelievable”
The discussion of I.I.T. #1 went on longer than expected, so I’ll keep this one brief(er). Literally Unbelievable promises “Stories from The Onion as interpreted by Facebook,” and thus catalogues instances where Facebook users believed that The Onion’s satirical articles were not satirical. Some instances are pretty impressive, especially the one where The Onion seems to have fooled a congressman.

This points to an aspect of cyberspace that has been on mind for a very long time: credibility and reputation. Not being able to tell the difference between satirical news reporting and straight news reporting is indeed laughable. But, if some people cannot make that distinction, there is likely an exponentially greater number of people who cannot make the distinction between good and bad news reporting, or between logical and illogical opinion. While thinking the Onion discusses real events may make a reader look like an idiot, believing slander or deceit over honesty can shift their understanding of the world.

In print, television, and other traditional media, whose expense prevents one from putting their thoughts into the public domain on a whim, it is easier for readers to keep track of the credibility and reputation of various outlets. Online, things are trickier, and readers are more likely to mistake The Onion for The New York Times (or the Heritage Foundation, take your pick). I don’t mean to suggest that traditional media (or elitism) are simply better, but some aspects of the internet seem inevitably troubling this way.

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What, Where, Whose is Cyberspace?

I know I promised to keep notices like this to a minimum, but… an important caveat: The title for this essay was dictated by an assignment for my course at UT Austin. Everything that follows is my own doing.

I think it may be best to address these three questions about cyberspace in turn, beginning with “what?” I alluded to this issue at the end of my last post: in literal terms, cyberspace exists only as a concept or a metaphor, as a way to describe the communications between networked computers. Speaking about computer and internet technology in metaphors is quite appealing because it can be very hard to discuss it otherwise. Just think of this blog entry; it is simultaneously electrical charges on a WordPress server somewhere, electrical charges in telecommunications networks, and electrical charges in your computer. But clearly that’s not all, as those charges are interpreted as/exist as binary data (1’s and 0’s), and then eventually as some kind of commonly used coding language (HTML, I believe), which is finally interpreted again and comes to exist as the arrangement of pixels that you see on your screen, which your trained eye can interpret as text.

This truly is a lot to handle all at once, but it seems that to describe how the internet really works without mentioning each of these things (and more) would be to leave something out. By contrast, I think “that’s a puddle of water, it rained this morning” would be a fairly adequate answer to the question “what’s that on the ground, how did it get there?” That’s a pretty straightforward, literal statement explaining the presence of some water. If someone looks over your shoulder right now and asks “what’s that on your screen, how did it get there?” it can be harder to know how to respond.

The cyberspace metaphor makes this sort of situation easier. It allows one to cut away many aspects of online experience which tend to be less important. Under the cyberspace metaphor you are no longer obligated to mention, for one, that the image on your screen is derived from binary code. Instead, you can say that someone “posted” this “entry” “on” a “web” “page” without worrying whether anything was “posted” or “entered,” if there really are a “web” and a “page” to be found, or if anything can be “on” them, in the traditional senses of these words. Conceiving of computer networks and the internet as users dealing with content in space (cyberspace) is easier to grasp than a literal explanation, and this conception holds a lot of commonly used language together.

If one truly embraces the cyberspace metaphor, the results can be quite fantastic… and I mean that literally. Descriptions of computer and internet technology can start to sound like supernatural fantasy. In cyberspace I can see all the way to a friend’s apartment in Egypt from my desk here in Austin, Texas. I can simultaneously attend an art exhibition, participate in a political protest, and lose money in an intensely competitive poker game. If I had more time and inspiration, I could use this very corner of cyberspace to become the author of a published novel. If I had the requisite skill, I could commit an act of terrorism by damaging property belonging to an evil corporation or government agency. I can, like a god, a wizard, or a shaman wrest truth from the void or create something from nothing. Control over time and space is at my fingertips, and it is up to me to use it. Cyberspace can seem magical when understood this way.

However, if one steps away from the cyberspace metaphor, many of these things fall apart: I wasn’t really in Egypt, I was just on Skype looking at video from a webcam. Then again, some things stand up a bit better: I was fighting for the 99% on Twitter, so I was only protesting in a limited way, but then again maybe my words or the mere addition of my online presence to a larger event taking place offline and online did have some impact. Other things stand up almost completely: I really did lose money playing poker (well, hypothetical money anyway). There are also some murkier areas: did I really create something from nothing, or did I just manipulate a few pre-existing pieces of computer technology?

“What is cyberspace?” thus remains a difficult question. Is it a misleading metaphor for internet technology, or is it a truer way to describe computer and internet technology? Cyberspace is certainly not going to be a means to literally describe how computer networks actually work; if you need help fixing your broadband connection or your website, you will probably need to find someone who is able to drop the metaphor and see things like HTML code. However, in describing human experience, the cyberspace metaphor can be a useful tool. On one hand, I’m not inclined to adopt the metaphor wholesale any more than I am inclined to say that I am doing magic in posting this blog entry. On the other hand, I cannot deny that there are times when I feel like I am interacting with something that isn’t someone’s attempt to represent something else through computer technology, and instead feel like I really am engaged more directly, even if that may not be literally true. If I may use another spatial metaphor; compelling description of human experience seems to lie somewhere between the literal world and the world of cyberspace. I personally lean towards the literal rather than the metaphorical, so I think it is necessary to be cautious in deploying the cyberspace metaphor, but it is also necessary to be willing to deploy it at least every now and again.

My discussion of the “what” of cyberspace went on longer than expected, but perhaps the “where” can be addressed more quickly. To me, this seems to be a relatively easy question among the three that have been posed. For my course at UT I recently read an essay by William J. Mitchell called “Post-Sedentary Space” (which appears in Mitchell’s Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City and in Pramod Nayar’s New Media and Cybercultures Anthology, where I read it). There Mitchell (perhaps a bit dryly) describes the progression of internet connectivity from wired nodes to wireless “fields of presence,” and the ways in which this progression has impacted various activities. In one sense, answering the question of “where?” simply demands this kind of analysis; cyberspace “is” wherever internet access is available. It thus exists in many nodes and fields. For those with 4G, satellite, or similar technology for internet access (which certainly isn’t everyone), those fields have come to cover quite a lot of our planet.

Using this blog entry as an example once again, the entry ought to be available over most of these nodes and fields. So where is the part of cyberspace that the entry occupies? In quite a lot of places, or across and through a lot of spaces. This is another moment where cyberspace can seem magical; while an entry in a diary is only available in one location, an entry in an online “web log” can be simultaneously available around the world.

There are some exceptions that trouble this sense of cyberspace being accessible wherever internet access is available. For example, some content is protected by passwords or select access. I’d like to have access to ESPN.com’s latest predictions on the 2012 NFL draft (go Browns), but I haven’t paid for the proper “Insider” account. In a metaphorical sense, the bit of cyberspace that I’m interested in is not “here” at my desk. And what if the Chinese government has deemed that predictions concerning the NFL draft are politically incendiary? Assuming (wrongly, of course) that the so-called “Great Firewall of China” is entirely effective, this bit of cyberspace wouldn’t be in the entire country of China either.

Still, these exceptions are so particular that they have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. They are also not a dominant trend, as the prevailing internet ethos encourages free and open sharing of information. Ultimately, the notion of simultaneous existence seems to be the best way to describe the “where” of cyberspace. This is a magical aspect of cyberspace, but it is also a confusing one. Cyberspace cannot be a simple blanket that covers the Earth, as the blanket would be twisted, warped, pulled, and multiplied in largely inconceivable ways. Literal descriptions of the “where” of the internet can be more direct, but a sense of magic is very necessary for this part of the cyberspace metaphor; magic is the only way that space can simultaneously exist in disparate nodes and fields.

Now I have come to the “whose” of cyberspace, which seems to be a difficult question, but one that may not demand (or deserve) a full answer. In order to describe who cyberspace belongs to, one clearly needs to begin with a conception of what ownership of cyberspace (in part or whole) would mean. Do you own a part of cyberspace if you can access it? If you can control access to it? If you can modify its content? If you can claim copyright ownership of its content? Describing cyberspace ownership must be taken on an entirely case-by-case basis, accounting not only for the particular area of cyberspace in question, but also for the nature of ownership in question. With this in mind, I would expect that a blanket (haha) answer for the “whose” of cyberspace will remain elusive.

For consistency’s sake, let’s use this blog entry as an example one final time. Do I own it because I have created and can edit its content? Does WordPress own it because they control its content and access to it? Does the government own it because some agency or other could shut it down if I say “nitropentaerythrite” one too many times? Does Anonymous own it (teh pwnzorz, even) because they could shut it down if I say “net neutrality hinders innovation” one too many times? Do you own it because you have access to it, and can freely share it with others?

Some interesting thoughts occurred to me while I wrote the last paragraph: 1) If multiple people can access one document simultaneously from different places, the multiplicity of its owners might be just as magical as the multiplicity of its geographical location. 2) The legal ownership of online content usually won’t have much to do with ownership of it in the metaphorical terms of cyberspace. 3) If cyberspace really is space, and not just content, then controlling how that space is structured is an important aspect of ownership. As such, sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube, which structure a great deal of the activity taking place in cyberspace, might be said to have some ownership of that activity. After all, most people weren’t interested in watching videos of cats or counting how many characters they were typing before YouTube and Twitter began encouraging these strange behaviors, directly and indirectly. Google, perhaps the subtlest of the aforementioned sites, need only make a simple animation coupled with a reference to a video game to see millions of people typing a predetermined phrase.

In the end, I will continue to hold any understanding of the “whose” of cyberspace in tension. You will not find me suggesting that cyberspace belongs to corporations, to governments, to the people, etc. in an exclusive way, or even in a dominant way, as others often proclaim it does. That is not to say that “whose” is not an interesting question; after all, I’d like to think that pondering it produced at least a couple of noteworthy insights above.

Really, the same could be said for the answers that I have provided to each of part of “what, where, whose is cyberspace?” none of these answers seems entirely complete or satisfactory. I’m actually quite pleased with this result; often enough the hallmark of close and careful analysis of something interesting, be it literal or metaphor, is that the analysis reveals its own inadequacy. Anyway, since cyberspace changes very quickly with the emergence of new technology and new ideas, I feel very little pressure to come up with a comprehensive definition which nevertheless might need to be thrown out in the blink of an iProduct (woof… if I can’t start with a bad pun, I might as well end with one, apparently). As I suggested above, I’m more interested in compelling descriptions of human experience than I am in final answers. With that in mind, the “what, where, whose” of cyberspace seems to be a space worth visiting and revisiting.

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Legally Blogged

Going with the first pun that comes into my head may not be the best way to title these things. Anyhow…

As it turns out, my entry into realm of blogging went even less smoothly than I might have imagined. Just when I had gained a sense that almost no one would be reading anything I was saying, and I had begun to develop the sort of quickly-written-yet-still-worked-over voice that I always do in such a vacuum, another human being reached out from the emptiness of the internet to “comment” on my new endeavor.

How strange it was to discover that WordPress wanted me to “approve” this mysterious written communiqué, and how much stranger to discover that its writer was actually commenting to voice their displeasure with my “use” of their blog, insofar as I had linked to it. I had actually linked to a post from their blog as an “example of lousy blogging,” (the link was contained within the word “example”) but my simple linking, rather than the flip criticism, was the reason for the complaint (at least as far as was openly expressed).

That’s just as well… their post really was an example of lousy blogging (I’ll leave specific names and web address out since backtracking and the all seeing eye of Google peer into even these inconsequential reaches of the internet, and I don’t wish to cause further aggravation, but one can find their way to the blog in question quite easily via the prior comment). And my low opinion doesn’t seem to have had much effect, as the writer has already added a second edition of the very post that I singled out. Haters gonna hate and bloggers gonna blog their unique-as-a-snowflake opinions on celebrities and fashion faux pas, I suppose.

A bigger realization for me, however, was that writing even a silly little blog like this one really is “self-publishing” in a somewhat formal sense, and as such may need to be taken seriously at times. By that I mean that one apparently cannot blog without some knowledge of the legal status of internet content. How unpleasant! It’s as if I’m keeping a largely private (because uninteresting) diary, but that I could be sued (hypothetically) for going about it the wrong way.

I asked the party offended by my link what rules I might have missed, and received this response: “For future references [sic], you will have to do your own research on the in’s and out’s of permission for sharing blogs. There is lots of fine print that I couldn’t possibly get into.” This immediately raised my suspicions. It would be impossible for them just to summarize the general idea, or the ultimate effect of the “fine print”? Come on, this sounds like refuge being taken behind the mere implication of jargon and litigiousness.

Still, to avoid stepping on any more electronic toes, I decided to do my own research. I discovered that, while linking to online content does not have a clear legal status, it is unlikely that linking would be understood as copyright infringement in court. The most compelling analogy, to me at least, is that a web address is not intellectual property any more than a street address is. Websites might be able to protect themselves from linking with “shrink-wrapped” user agreements (which users must go through in order to see any content, similar to a notice printed on shrink wrap around a physical product), but anything less is not likely to hold up in court. The blog to which I linked certainly falls into the “anything less” category; it has no posted user agreement or usage policy of any kind (understandable for a blog, but less understandable for someone claiming unusual copyright protection). As for asking permission to link to blogged content, it turns out that some people would find such a request annoying to deal with, or even a bit insulting (most believe that the internet is supposed to be an open community, after all).

So my intuition seems to have been right. The offended blogger, as far as I can tell, had no right to demand that I take the link to their blog down, nor to suggest that I had failed to gain proper permission before posting the link. Of course they had every right to ask nicely for me to take the link down, and I probably would have responded favorably to such a request. Hell, they didn’t ask at all nicely, and I still took the link down out of respect.

As real self-publishing, blogging may produce some unnerving moments like this, but I think the lesson here is not to be intimidated by someone taking a vaguely juridical tone. Obviously enough, if the legality of some kind of content is called into question, then someone ought to be able to point to a specific law, or at least a summary of one. Otherwise… just try to take it easy.

One final note: I became interested in the (probably not carefully chosen) language of the original complaint about my link. “Take me down from this site immediately,” they said “You do not have my permission to use my blog. Thank you.” The notable words there seem to be “me” and “use.” It’s odd that someone would refer to their blog (or indeed a link to their blog) as “me,” and to a link to their content as a “use” of that content. It seems clear that your blog isn’t “you” any more than your notebook is “you,” and that “using” an address wouldn’t be “using” the corresponding building or mailbox. Cyberspace, as something rather different from usual physical reality, seems to encourage strange metaphors like these, and some such metaphors might encourage people to be more attached to or protective of online content than they might be if online content were addressed more directly. I’ll probably pick this issue up later on…

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Welcome to (my small tract of) the Cyberspace.

As the astute may have already guessed, I am, in fact, not Twelverton O’Shankley from Seven Hills, Australia. You got me! In actuality I’m Jeff, a first-year Masters Degree student in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. I am chiefly interested in modern and contemporary art, and I wrote my undergraduate senior essay (at Wesleyan University in Connecticut) on Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross series.

Despite what the existence of this text and blog may initially imply, I am ambivalent (leaning towards negative) about blogs and blogging. My strong preference for vetted and formal publication over informal self-publication might be considered an elitist fly in my otherwise liberal and freedom-loving ointment. Cyberspace seems busy enough without everyone with a computer and a modem (myself included… myself especially) adding their own opinions or content at will. The generally low quality of the blogs that I have come across has only bolstered this opinion. I have recently discovered that the front page of wordpress.com is kindly furnished with “Freshly Pressed” examples of lousy blogging everyday. I do find better blogs occasionally, but they are rarely superior to mainstream content, at least for my purposes.

This first post thus seems to be the proper space for the glaring disclaimer which must accompany Twelve Os: I have been asked to write this blog for an art history course at UT Austin titled Visual Culture in Cyberspace and taught by Professor Moyo Okediji. Were it not for this course, I would not be writing a blog (and if I did somehow come to write a blog under other circumstances, it would almost certainly be somewhat different). Now that this situation has been disclosed I will attempt not to harp on it, and to make the best of my new Internet presence.

At this point I am quite unsure of what the actual content or direction of Twelve Os will be. My interests in art may come up at times, I may examine my experiences with “cyber” technology such as the internet and video games,  I may discuss ideas related to Professor Okediji’s course, or I may pursue subjects which are presently unforeseen. But, at the least, I will remember that the internet is not something that you just dump something on, and that if I am going to clog the series of tubes any further, I might as well clog it with something that I put some effort into.

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