The Holodeck 20 Years Later

As I move into the final weeks before taking my comprehensive exams, I’m taking the opportunity to blog about my reading and thinking as a way to reflect in preparation for being tasked to bring it all together. Of course writing is a practice too, and I think it grows through trying out ideas in informal settings such as conversations and blogs like this one. So for anyone reading this, I hope this provides you with a similar opportunity for reflection, and for trying out concepts old and new.

Today I reread Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, a seminal work for studies of narrative in new media. While I expected Holodeck to show its age after twenty years of media development, I was repeatedly surprised by how relevant Murray’s thoughts still are today. For example, Murray begins her book with a wary and defensive posture. She notes how new media are always frightening and seemingly fraught with danger: “Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself” (1). She even feels the need to declare that the computer is “not the enemy of the book” (8), as though computers were or are out to get traditional media. It’s hard not to compare this to similar political and disciplinary moves made a few years later by ludologists eager to defend games from the specter of literary imperialism. Such posturing is regrettable if inevitable (I’m doing something similar right now!), but perhaps with the benefit of two decades’ distance we can reveal the blindspots it introduced.

The medium Murray is talking about is the computer, which itself might be a sign of age—these days we talk more about software applications and interfaces as media than we do the computer as a whole. This is necessary in a culture of media convergence where computers do more and more things all the time, and it seems reductive to amalgamate all media involving computers into the monolith of “the computer.” Yet in the 1990s the computer medium was more limited and less ubiquitous, and consequently more stable as a concept. To be clear, it is not that the computer is no longer a usable term, but rather that its possible referents have changed significantly in two decades.

What has happened to the computer has also happened to narrative—Murray’s other theme in the book. Murray was spot on in noting the fragmentation of linearity in computer narratives (be there hypertext, electronic literature, games, etc.), and several of her terms and metaphors, such as “multiform” (30) and “kaleidoscopic” (159) stories, remain helpful today. Likewise, her four essential properties of digital environments are still relevant: digital narratives are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic, though that last property might be better expressed in terms of archiving and system memory. All of these properties remain in play, and indeed they have proliferated over the years into an incredible constellation of media and narratives.

Yet they also beg a question that is notably absent in Holodeck: what have these properties done to the concept of narrative itself, and how do we define narrative after such transformation and fragmentation? Some have pounced on this question to claim that narrative is no longer relevant (or at least primary) in digital media, and recently Markku Eskelinen has gone as far to charge Murray and others with being “unacademic” in failing to define narrative. Exactly how we might define narrative will have to wait for another blog (or, more likely, another dissertation—I’m feeling coy), but Murray might inadvertently point the way. Just as the concept of the computer has fragmented and scattered now, narrative has done the same. This does not mean that these concepts are no longer applicable, useful, or significant. Indeed, I think they indicate the need to reexamine them in the field, as it were, and to unearth the similarities between the objects and places they have dispersed to. Computer and narrative apply broadly now, but there are still common elements between their broad applications. Let’s follow the paths they have trodden, and see what trails they have left behind. Only then will we be closer to seeing what they are and what they mean, at least until they change again.

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