March 10, 2003

From Gerald R. Lucas



Having thought about Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck for a couple of weeks now and trying to position it within the context of my current reading in new media, I’m left with the word liminal to describe not how it integrates into the discussion at large, but how I conceive of the larger conversation in general. In attempting to come to terms with how microprocessing technology, i.e. digital or “new media,” fits into the evolution of communication, I think it’s safe to say that most critics simply don’t know what’s going to happen by the end of digital’s incunabular state, or when the new media finally becomes just the media.

Our conception of new media, then, is liminal in several ways. The liminal, or threshold, suggests a barrier about to be penetrated—a discovery of something that we can perhaps hear, but cannot yet fully see, a shadow in the doorway. This word to me is exciting, suggesting something portentous, both ominous and amazing about to be revealed. The computer itself, Murray suggests, is a liminal device, something that mediates what’s outside of ourselves, and feelings and thoughts that are internal. The computer helps us project the internal on the external in a way that nothing else in history has allowed us to do. Well, perhaps it doesn’t yet, but it will. I think most critics agree with this point, too.

Murray’s project asks how can we invent immersive digital communities in which we can meaningfully act that helps us transform our perceptions of that medium and ourselves for each’s benefit. It seems like this is similar to Haraway’s concerns a decade-and-a-half ago. We’re still in a transitional stage where we’re not sure what to do with this digital stuff, other than to disseminate more information than any of us could use in a lifetime. Now, it seems to me, we’re more concerned with what Hayles calls proprioception; i.e., the sense of our bodies’ boundaries with the outside world—a psychological sense that keeps the internal separate from the external. When we become more and more what we create as technology, this sense might become less important, or perhaps a crutch.

The play seems to be the thing here—the center of the pullulation that digital technologies seem to a/effect on our realities. We want moremoremore—the hyperreal has to take over because we can no longer make explosions as cool as we can envision them. We can not longer has sex as good as what ecstasy does for us. We can no longer read a novel as interesting as playing Quake tournament. What happens when the games—the play—becomes more intriguing than the quotidian, as if it isn’t already? The play is serious business.

Are the flesh dramas of our life going to be replaced by swapping digital spit, jacked into terminals in a sort of Matrix interface? Murray warns against too much immersion, against not knowing where the boundaries are so that, like the covers of a book, we can close off the illusion before it threatens to supersede the reality, the flesh. Boundaries, it seems, remain necessary, even if we have to invent them. Ironic political myths ground us, allow us to distinguish between the reality and the fantasy. However, the more immersive our games get, the more they will transform our visions of what we consider real, and the more technology will allow us to literally transform that reality through nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics. The microprocessor is the liminal medium.

Murray asks at one point about the characteristic pleasures of digital media. While these pleasures might share an affinity with our historical, or traditional if you will, they will allow for a greater immersive experience, a greater sense of agency, and larger transformative power. Perhaps art, if we continue to call it that, will have a greater power to influence in the digital forms of the future. Right now, we’re still learning to swim while the ocean swells around us.