If code is law, then platform is politics, or: the map temporarily becomes the territory

Paul Raven @ 20-06-2011

Pretty simple story, really, and one that says as much about the stupidity of military thinking and the arbitrariness of the concept of national borders in a networked and mediated world than it does about the flaws of technology, but anyway: Nicaraguan military brass invades Costa Rican town and demands lowering of Costa Rican flag because Google Maps inaccurately showed said town as being part of Nicaraguan territory.

It’s a chuckle-worthy little tale on the surface, though there are undercurrents of subterfuge if you’re keen to look for such things – the official maps of both countries display the border correctly, for instance, so why was this guy basing border dispute actions on Google’s offering? A convenient excuse for a political feint, perhaps, or an opportunity to score some sort of bragging points at the officer’s bar? Or just good old fashioned SNAFU?

But the real issue here is that borders are consensual concepts; and when there’s a proliferation of places those concepts can be documented (and a widening of the number of people who might contribute to such), the consensus becomes fuzzier, until it dissolves to a point where it stops mattering to anyone who doesn’t have a serious vested interest in its precision. The people of that town probably identify as Nicaraguan because that’s what they’ve always been told they are, but ultimately the phrase “this town is Nicaraguan” doesn’t have much bearing on the people who live there beyond who they pay their taxes to and which soldiers walk down the high street; the amount of eggs laid by that town’s chickens this morning won’t change if that line on the map moves 3 klicks either way.

The Nicaraguan-ness of the town is of much greater concern to those whose business it is to define and protect (or possibly expand) the concept of Nicaragua. And there, in a microcosmic nutshell, is the main reason that those heavily invested in the concept of the nation-state – be it ideologically, economically or otherwise – are those who are most vocal about the perceived threat of open platforms where contribution to the consensus is not controlled by a strict hierarchy. They lament the loss of a canonical reality, because it is in that canonical reality that their power and privilege is enshrined.

I’m finding that issues of control and hierarchy have become a strong strange attractor for me over the last year, and there’s been an almost vertiginous sense of accretion in the last month or so, thanks in no small point to recent discussions of The Google Threat and similar matters. It interests we that me now talk about the companies we choose to use – and the degree of choice and influence we have over them – in the same language that we talk about politics… to the extent that I’m starting to think that these choices are the politics of a networked world. That explains both the growing disaffection with the “old” politics, and the gravitation toward networks as the place where sociological and geographical identity is enshrined and enacted.

These thoughts are as yet unrefined, but the pattern is becoming clearer, and so I’m staking out my pitch now; who knows, this could be the title of the non-fiction opus that makes me a weblebrity pundit, right? (OK, probably not, but hey, hedging my bets here.)

So: we know Lawrence Lessig’s assertion that “Code is Law”.

Well, here’s Raven’s Corollary: if Code is Law, then Platform is Politics.

You heard it here first. 😉


Halo and post-franchise worldbuilding

Paul Raven @ 01-02-2011

Here’s a link-heavy post at MetaFilter rounding up a whole bunch of bits and bobs about the fictional universe of the Halo game franchise. Over a decade old, Halo has propped up seven best-selling novels (one of which was penned by long-term friend-o’-Futurismic Tobias Buckell), a radio drama, a handful of Hollywood-grade short films… and then there’s all the fan-created content, too.

I mention this not because it’s impressive (though it is, really), nor because it represents a potential future ecosystem for creatives (which it does, be they writers, artists, film-makers, whatever). No: what interests me is that they’ve reached a point where someone has written a lengthy treatise on the nature of canon in the halo universe, and what will happen to it when Bungie, Halo’s creators, decide to move on to something else. I just tried reading it, and I bounced right off after the first few pages – if you think sf academia produces tracts couched in impenetrable language, you’ll find the SVMMA CANONICA as welcoming as a concrete wall, though I suspect the obfuscatory language is a deliberate and ironic affectation – so I’m not going to pass comment on its content; what interests me is the amplified persistence of fictional universes in the internet age. Fan-created content isn’t new, of course, but the ability to share it easily with a post-geographical community means that a certain momentum or mass can accrete around the original source material, and – in quite a few cases – eclipse it.

Who owns a world when its original creators decide to stop creating within it? How far into the future will fans still be working within the Halo canon? What are the odds of a schism in said fandom? If you have two competing fictional histories of an orphaned fictional universe, which one is more valid – the one with the most followers? The one with the greatest logical consistency within the parameters of the pre-schism history? Might the two factions war over their interpretations of the canon? Could said war be restricted to the fictional universe itself, or might it spill out into the parent reality… or even leak across into other fictional universes? When immersive virtual worlds are cheap and commonplace, how many will there be? So many questions… and enough ideas for a dozen novels*, were I skilled enough to write ’em.

[ * I’m put in mind of Walter Jon Williams’ Implied Spaces, which goes somewhat in that direction; I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, so do pipe up with suggestions in the comments, won’t you? ]


The Video Game Canon and The Age of Forgetfulness

Jonathan McCalmont @ 06-10-2010

0. Asking the Question

If you were a game designer and you were taken into your boss’s office and given carte blanche to create your own roleplaying game, what would your influences be?  My guess is that the games you see as central to the computer roleplaying experience vary according to your age and when you started gaming.

Screenshot from early computer RPG WizardryFor example, if you are currently a teenager then the chances are that you would be most influenced by games like World of Warcraft, Fallout 3 and Dragon Age: Origins, because these are the games that you are most familiar with.  If you are a slightly older gamer, then you might list titles like Final Fantasy VII or Suikoden.  Maybe if – like me – you are one of those thirty-something gamers who spent his high school years playing video games instead of getting to second base, then you might list Baldur’s Gate, Dungeon Master or Shadowrun.  Maybe you are even old enough to remember playing the original Wizardry and Bard’s Tale titles, and think that the future of CRPGs lies in ASCII graphics and getting the players to draw their own dungeon maps.

Well, you’d all be wrong.

And you’d all be right. Continue reading “The Video Game Canon and The Age of Forgetfulness”