Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Cartridgeration and its psychosocial consequences

Way back in 2003 I stuck a book on my Amazon wish list: Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss. At the time he was an unknown, but he is now known as a writer on the wildly popular HBO series, Game of Thrones (which I have yet to engage). A few months ago I finally bought the book for Kindle and picked up reading it in fits and starts. Then two weeks ago I was doing some air travel for work and had a lot of time on my hands and finished it.

Lucky Wander Boy is the story of a geek’s nostalgic quest for meaning through his search for the eponymous and obscure (and fictional) early 80s Japanese arcade game from his childhood. Part of the narrative is his compilation of a Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments, where he documents the particulars of classic arcade games, their innards and essence. There are also a few "supplementary essays" the character writes, which seem to be the place where Weiss was free to air some of his own philosophical musings about technology and society. (A graduate of both a Wesleyan university and Trinity College, Dublin, Weiss' narrative here is shot through with recurring biblical metaphors, which might be worth exploring another time...)

In one of the supplementary essays in the Catalogue, the protagonist describes a phenomenon called “Cartridgeration,” which is the process of classic arcade games moving into higher and higher levels of physical and digital abstraction: from self-contained game cabinets in arcades, to a single home console machine with multiple game cartridges, to software emulators like the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, MAME for short. Weiss argues, though, that something is lost in these transitions and translations. He starts by describing the "aura" of the classic arcade, the physical and social space, and how those dimensions were crucial to their significance. So the move away from this brings about substantive changes and consequences...
With MAME, the switching [of games] no longer required gross arm movements. Now the mere fluttering of fingers across a keyboard were enough to change from one game to another. With this ease, the pace of the switching increased accordingly. On Intellivision, the gamer might play a game only once before switching to another one. With MAME, he often quit in the middle. He could sync himself to one fragment after another in a state of near-complete stasis, watching the world change before his eyes.

[But] Cartridgeration has its consequences. Prolonged exposure to this fragmentary method of relating to the world inculcates in the gamer the belief that he can have it all…within a very short time span… As he toggles from cartridge to cartridge, game to game, goal to goal, identity to identity his mother’s long-standing promise that he can “be whatever he wants to be in this world” seems fulfilled…

This is not entirely a bad thing. The ability to simultaneously entertain contradictories can be useful… but it comes at a price. The Cartridgeration process leads one to a mode of thinking that stresses the inadvisability of choices. Any definite choice and subsequent course of action puts the gamer on one path at a tremendous possibility cost to all conceivable others…

…this conscientious objection to activity has far more effect on the Cartridgerated’s developing sense of self than any actual actions he might take. With so much of his experience coming in snippets, samples, recombinant swatches of game after game, config after config, and the whole thing going faster and faster from arcade to basement and basement to computer like 35mm frames being brought to speed through a projector; the flux becomes a thing in itself, and one day the gamer looks at the thing and sees that it is he.
This, to me, seems to almost perfectly describe the condition of life in late modern American culture, particularly for digital natives. In 2003, how could Weiss have known what the world would look like in the wake of 2007's iPhone? "Appification" - embodied in Apple's bold claim that "there's an app for that" - just might be the cultural mainstreaming of cartridgeration from an ascendant nerd subculture. And is it an accident that Steve Jobs', um, job at 18 years of age was at Atari - the birthplace of the cartridge, that physical antecedent of the now completely virtualized app.

Interesting to me are the psychosocial consequences Weiss points out. Starting with the attitude of the consumerist subject - "I can have it all" - one works themselves into an existential paralysis in the face of an overabundance of choices, construals of reality, and incalculable opportunity cost (an economic measure, the criteria for the good of the consumerist subject). Oversaturated, the subject becomes the flux itself. I don't want to spoil anything about the book's plot, but his contention here is born out in the story.

And what honest and reflective person who's enmeshed in the accoutrement and practices of the post-iPhone world hasn't thought to themselves: What's all this doing to me/us? 

The Amish are often said to avoid or reject technology, but this is mistaken. They simply have said "Not so fast," rejecting the speed at which technological "progress" is taken up in their highly varied communities. This approach continues to strike me as deeply wise in this society bent on the new and the now, damn the torpedoes.

Last week at a conference for the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), I gave a very short presentation entitled "What Would Jesus Tweet?," and I opened with the following prayer, which seems fit here:

Almighty, loving, and gracious God,
May the words of our mouths,
The meditations of our hearts,
The motions of our fingers across plastic and glass,
And the gaze of our eyes upon glowing screens
Be pleasing to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

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