I have never been to the festival of hubris and chest-thumping that is the American video games industry’s yearly trade-fair E3 (a.k.a. ‘E Cubed’, a.k.a. ‘Electronic Entertainment Expo’), but the mere thought of it makes me feel somewhat ill. A friend of mine once attended a video game trade fair in Japan. He returned not with talk of games, but of the dozens of overweight middle-aged men who practically came to blows as they jostled for the best angle from which to take up-skirt photographs of the models manning the various booths.
As disturbing and sleazy as this might well sound, it still manages to cast Japanese trade shows in a considerably better light than a lot of the coverage that came out of E3. Every so often, an event or an article will prompt the collection of sick-souled outcasts known as ‘video game journalists’ into a fit of ethical navel-gazing: are their reviews too soft? are their editorial processes too open to commercial pressures? do they allow their fannishness to override their professional integrity? Oddly enough, these periodic bouts of hand-wringing never coincide with E3.
E3 is a principles-free zone as far as video game reporting is concerned: Journalists travel from all over the world to sit in huge conference halls where they are patronised to within an inch of their wretched lives by people from the PR departments of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. At a time when cynicism and critical thinking might allow a decent writer to cut through the bullshit and provide some insights into the direction the industry is taking, most games writers choose instead to recycle press releases and gush about games that are usually indistinguishable from the disappointing batch of warmed-over ideas dished out the previous year. At least the creepy Japanese guys had an excuse for wandering around a trade fair doused in sweat and sporting huge hard-ons.
This year’s most taxing Underwear Challenge seems to have been posed by Microsoft, who fleshed out their previously top secret ‘Project Natal’ plans. Now sporting the name Kinect, Microsoft’s new product ostensibly offers gamers little that they have not had access to before. Indeed, aside from the Nintendo Wii’s non-traditional motion-capture interface, the Wii remote, and Sony’s almost identical Playstation Move, products such as EyeToy and Playstation Eye have been kicking about for a while now without provoking the levels of excitement and hype generated by Microsoft’s venture into non-controller-based gaming. So, what is different about Kinect?
In my opinion? Ambition.
If you manage to make it through the entirety of Microsoft’s presentation without passing out or swallowing your tongue, what you will get is an image of a product that is intended to be quite a bit more than a non-traditional video game controller. Yes, Kinect can do instantly accessible sports and keep-fit titles like the Wii, but Kinect is not just about the games. In fact, the games are almost a distraction from its true purpose. Kinect is intended to make your XBox into the focal point not just of your gaming, but of your cultural and social lives, too.
The idea of using social media and watching films on your console is not exactly new. For example, the PS3 was sold (at the time) as the cheapest Bluray player on the market, and various products such as Playstation Home and Xbox Live Vision have also tried to convince people to do their online socialising via their consoles. Kinect, however, is the first platform that seems to bring all of these ideas together into one package: not only can you play games using Kinect, but you can play games with your friends… not only can you watch films on Kinect, you can watch films and chat with your friends at the same time… not only can you watch a sporting event using Kinect, you can watch it with friends and get the feel of being part of a big crowd… not only can you work out using Kinect, you can work out with the same level of feedback and encouragement you would get if you were working out with a real personal trainer…
Kinect wants to replace not only your DVD player but also Skype and your cable TV subscription and your gym membership and going to a bar to watch the game. Simply put, Kinect aims to be a delivery system for everything that we denizens of the 21st Century do for fun. This is no mere webcam or motion capture controller… it is a cybernetic augmentation of the pleasure centres of your brain. It is, quite frankly, terrifying.
The Wachowski brothers got it wrong.
Over the course of three films and a handful of games and short films, the Matrix series pieced together a future history fought along the lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). At the beginning of the series, Humanity finds itself cast out of the world and constrained within another universe. A secondary universe created by Artificial Intelligences in order to use the electrical energy in human brains in order to drive the machinery of a world now dominated by robots and AIs. Neo attempts to lead Humanity in a war on Heaven in the hope of reclaiming the world from the gods of the secondary universe they are trapped in, a universe designed to look exactly like ours but which is referred to as The Matrix.
The Wachowski brothers got it wrong by suggesting that The Matrix would be a place that humanity would have to be forced into. The truth is that, if someone were to build a Matrix tomorrow, humanity as a whole would be banging on the door, begging to be let in. Indeed, one could almost read The Matrix as a science fictional take on the rise of Al Qaeda, with Neo taking the bin Laden role of the holy warrior whose job it is to lead his people out of the comfortable jewelled cage provided by secular capitalism and into The Desert of The Moral, where shelter must be sought from the scouring heat of God’s merciless judgement.
Products like Kinect are responding to an increasingly universal desire by humans to retreat from the world and back into the womb. A womb provided by technology.
The internet has undeniably changed the ways in which we socialise; I say this as someone who first met his last two partners online. Websites, blogs and all kinds of social media allow us to connect with astonishing ease allowing the creation of world-wide communities built around common interests. Growing up in a small town in the 21st Century, you will never have to feel like an outcast, because people who like what you like – and who therefore like you – are only ever a tweet, a click or a blog post away. Even if you never meet any of these people face to face, you will still have them as your friends.
We have never been more connected as a species. And while this inter-connectedness makes it easy for us to enjoy the positive aspects of social interaction, it also makes it easy to minimise the unpleasantness that comes from engaging with other people. Indeed, if you have friends online, you do not need to learn how to relate to the people who share your meatspace locale: you will never need to learn how to talk to someone who has completely different interests to you. You will never have to acquire a taste for sports, films or TV shows simply in order to fit in and be able to make small-talk at the water-cooler. And should you ever actually encounter somebody weird or unpleasant in your peer group, then all you need do is unfollow them, defriend them, unsubscribe from their blog and block them from commenting on yours. You can make them a non-person in a way that you never could in meatspace.
Products like Kinect expand the bubble of comfort surrounding online communication so that it encompasses all kinds of activities which previously might have required some engagement with the frequently unpleasant and always unpredictable meatspace. Why risk being hit on at the gym when you can work out at home? Why go for a run in the park and risk seeing something new when you can jog in the comfort of your own home with an AI personal trainer? Why go to the cinema and deal with sticky floors and rude teenagers when you can just download the latest blockbuster and watch it there? Hell… you can even splitscreen with a friend on the other side of the world and watch it at the same time as them whilst making funny comments! Why should you ever have to deal with anything unpleasant or awkward ever again? Why should you ever have to leave your comfort zone?
Late-stage capitalism has managed to convince us that the world is something to be feared.
In a post sparked by Michael Winterbottom’s recent film The Killer Inside Me (2010), Richard Kovitch points out that, far from being desensitised to violence, our society has come to fear it more than almost anything else. Everywhere you look, the media is telling you how dangerous it is to step outside your front door. If the terrorists don’t get you then the feral teenagers will. If the cancer-causing properties of pretty much everything do not kill us then it will be the toxins in the air, in the food and in each other. If you live in a culture in which you are told to be afraid all of the time then the chances are that, eventually, you will become afraid – of everything and everyone. But the same process applies to the positive things in life, too.
In his legendary essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (1996), David Foster Wallace muses on the way in which we have come to see being ‘pampered’ as a good thing. An obvious synonym for the verb ‘to pamper’ is ‘to spoil’, but another way of understanding it as the act of putting someone in nappies – to infantilise them, reduce them to a state of baby-like dependence. This state of utter passivity is achieved by creating an environment where all desires are catered to instantly :
“But the infantile part of me is insatiable — in fact, its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the insatiable infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction. And sure enough […] after a few days of delight and then adjustment, the Pamper-swaddled part of me that WANTS is now back, and with a vengeance.” [p. 317]
To live under late stage capitalism is to be reduced to a roaring Id. We want more pleasure, less unpleasantness, more fun, less hardship, more praise, less work, more pandering, less confrontation. As DFW puts it: We WANT. But regardless of how much we get, it is never enough. This is what philosophers call the Paradox of Hedonism.
As ever, J.G. Ballard has singular insight into this problem. In his novel Cocaine Nights (1996), he describes an eerie scene in which the book’s protagonist visits a compound created for the wealthy fifty somethings who took early retirement in order to live a life of leisure. Far from describing a vibrant community filled with fun-seeking people, Ballard writes of empty swimming pools and well-stocked off-licenses, of immaculate tennis courts that never see ball or racket, and of row upon row of satellite dishes as everyone sits inside watching TV:
“An illicit thought never disturbs the peace. No tourists, no back-packers or trinket sellers, and few visitors — the people here have learned that it’s a big help to dispense with friends. Be honest, friends can be a problem — gates and front doors need to be unlocked, alarm systems disconnected, and someone else is breathing your air. Besides, they bring in uneasy memories of the outside world.” [p.212-213]
The challenge posed by technologies such as Kinect is perhaps the central political challenge of our age: Pleasure can never be complete, just as freedom from unpleasantness can never be complete. Our pursuit of easier lives and more luxurious living have nearly bankrupted our states and despoiled the planet, as our hunger grows continually. Clearly, our quest for comfort cannot continue… but how do we stop, and what are the alternatives? In his concentration camp memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), Viktor Frankl argues that :
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
I do not know which great cause can satiate humanity’s relentless hunger, but I do know that Kinect’s attempt to replace and muffle the real world can only add to the deep sadness and sense of emptiness that drives our species ever closer to the point of self-annihilation.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]