First published in Cerebrum, 2017
Dr Emmanuel Legeard is a French writer, historian of ideas and former Olympic trainer now involved in digital transformation and actively engaged in community supported agriculture.
Mel Croucher is a British postmodern writer and computer games pioneer. Originally an architect, he is credited for setting up « the first computer games company in the U.K. » and celebrated as « the father of the British video games industry ».
Emmanuel Legeard: Back in the Nineties, the term « interactive movie » was used to describe « full-motion » video games which used sequences of clips played by real actors. But today, movie games become possible. If this stage of hyperreality is to be reached, it will depend on technologies that are carried around us, like the Internet of things. How do you consider it in terms of feasibility?
Mel Croucher:It was always my ambition to produce interactive movies. For several thousand years, traditional storytelling has been essentially a passive experience, around the fireside, or in print, or via broadcast media, or at the cinema, but with the advent of randomization algorithms and my first access to mainframe computers in the 1970s, I reckoned it would be possible to encourage an audience to effect the progress and outcome of an entertainment using simple computerized choices. In 1984 I released my first full-length interactive movie, starring real actors, with a full stereo soundtrack, and encompassing the user-controlled progress of an entire life, from conception to death, during the course of an hour’s gameplay. It was called Deus Ex Machina, it won a lot of awards, and it was a commercial disaster. Of course back then, the graphics were crude, pixilated and extremely limiting, whereas today they are hyperrealistic, not always for the better. So in terms of feasibility, it’s already happened. In my case, over thirty years ago. The delivery mechanisms will evolve, from smartphones to full body immersion, but the movies have all been made.
Emmanuel Legeard: While I think that technophobic tendencies are stupid per se, I am wary of those technologists for whom technology is an end in itself and who want to impose their « pragmatic imperative » that everything which is technically possible must be realized. Isn’t that one of the biggest dangers posed by future technology and the web 3.0?
Mel Croucher: I see no danger in future technology and the web 3.0, only a danger in those who misuse it. And it is inevitable that it will be misused, in which case I refuse to worry about it. It would be like worrying about bricklayers who build walls in case they get sprayed by obscene graffiti and covered in offensive posters. I reckon technophobia is a luxury only enjoyed by people born in the last millennium. I’m not saying that those who have never experienced a world without smart devices are technophiliacs, more that they have never questioned smart devices and simply accept them as normal. It is inevitable that new technology will continue to be developed, realized and imposed, not for any pragmatic or moral imperative but for the age-old imperative of profit. The masses can’t buy new shit unless it exists, and they won’t buy it unless they believe they need to. I find it amusing that marketeers usually get it wrong, and it’s the public that renders technophobia into insignificance, and leads new technology by the nose. Or by the ears. When Edison developed the phonograph he thought he was bringing a device to market that would allow people to record their last Will and Testament. He had no idea he had invented the recorded music industry. Similarly Bell thought his telephone was for relaying concerts to the homes of people too lazy to go out in the rain. But what he had really done was revolutionize spoken communication. The same goes for the accidental revolution of SMS text messaging in the 1990s. It was meant to streamline secure business communications, and nobody had a clue that it would become the plaything of children. Technophobia is for the old.
Emmanuel Legeard: As the Internet gradually extends into the physical realm, I can imagine how we’ll soon be surrounded by the Internet of things and thus become immersed in hyperreality, by this I mean a totally mediated reality, where the map precedes – and veils (and distorts) – the territory everywhere. Obviously, the map is never the territory; the datas are not the people or the places they depict and increasing the amount of informations available just further falsifies the authenticity in human experiences. In an all-pervading augmented or « hyper » reality, don’t you think an essential substance will be lost to life?
Mel Croucher: Yes, as the Internet expands into the physical realm, essential elements of life and living will be lost, and we are at a crossroads in human evolution because of it. In my childhood, technology meant a bicycle to enhance mobility, a crystal set to experience alien languages in my ear, a baekerlite toggle-switch to combat darkness, and so on. Each of these mechanisms was revolutionary in their own times, and each falsified the natural experience of the user to a certain extent. Today’s crossroads is precipitated by wearable and implanted technology. I’m not talking particularly about medical or bionic devices, but it is true that a retinal implant allowing the blind to see reality is not dissimilar to a neural implant allowing the blind to see fantasy. And in order to become blind, we have merely to close our eyes. Last year’s global craze of Pokemon Go involved millions of happy, excited folk chasing imaginary creatures in the non-imaginary urban and rural environment, all over the planet. It was not virtual reality, it was not even an alternative reality. It was a merged reality. This merged reality will become the exploitative fiefdom of the merchants of pornography and ultra-violence, of course. That’s where the real money is. The vendors of gaming and advertising will merely pick up the crumbs. The authenticity of human experiences is becoming falsified at a rapidly increasing pace. But going back to your previous question, those of us who chose not to accept the falsification, and to fight it, we are not technophobes, we are dissidents. And we will be regarded as such. In fact we may even become labeled not just as dissidents, but as deviants, much as Hitler regarded the resistance, or Thatcher regarded the miners, or Trump regards organizations like the BBC. As Enemies Of The People. Of course despots never learn the lessons of history, one of which is that dissidents and insurgents cannot be defeated in the long run. People who choose not to accept the coming fashion of neural implants will be considered dissidents at best, deviants at worst, but the world needs both.
Emmanuel Legeard: You’ve been a pioneer of many things, among which, I think, « affective computing »: your games are emotional in the private meaning I give to the word « emotion » because, to me, the evolutionary significance in the emergence of emotions in paleomammals was to break automated reflexes and make animals self-conscious, or in other words I think that the adaptive function of emotion was primarily to force the common ancestors of extant mammals to an intelligent effort toward analyzing their feelings and questioning their situation. Am I correct in assuming that you take emotion in the same sense and use it to make people stop and think and question the norm?
Mel Croucher: Good question, if I understand it correctly. It is absolutely essential to question the norm. Even if it turns out that the norm offers the best of all possible worlds. I have never written a mainstream game, because I find mainstream gaming themes and tropes boring. No, worse than that, I think they are banal, stupid and numbing. Games that equate acquisitiveness with success, that equate simulated violence with winning. These are not good conditioning mechanisms, and they do not benefit the player, or those the player interacts with in the process of day to day living. I will go further with my statement that it is essential to question a norm. I think it is a vital task to subvert a norm. In terms of evolution, it is as important as genetic mutation. And humor is a great way to do subvert a norm. In my early video games for little children, it was totally predictable that the first thing they would type in to a dialogue box would be an obscenity. So I preprogrammed every swear word I could think of with a response that didn’t chastise them, or belittle them, but that tried to draw them in to the gameplay with a subversive conversation based on why they had typed in their juvenile filth in the first place. This process culminated in a game for adults called iD, which was designed to take on the personality of the player, and having done that, subvert it.
Emmanuel Legeard: Now, the current research on emotional intelligence – emotion recognition and interpretation – seems to be motivated by the not so secret purpose of monitoring and influencing the end-user’s emotions, of shaping his desires and engineering his consent through the « semantic field » of his connected surroundings. And since most people – or should I say « consumers »? – are all too glad to give up their decision-making autonomy to unknown programers who make initial choices for them, wouldn’t it be worrying – should they succeed – if big corporations or a World government could just zombify folks at will and turn them into a human botnet army for whatever sinister end that suits them?
Mel Croucher: You use the male personal pronoun « shaping his desires and engineering his consent. » Which is not so much a sociological lapse as a semantic one. I have always thought of my audience as female, even if they are not. It helps me question my own norm, and subvert it. I find games players to be like dogs. The males will charge in and run around driven by scent and instinct. What you see is what you get with a male player or male dog. The females are more calculating, more circumspect, more likely to question. Anyway, the mass surveillance, mass manipulation and zombification of entire sectors of the population is nothing new. What is new is the fact that these sectors of the population are willing volunteers. We volunteer to be tracked by our own smart phones, by our use of social media, tracked by physical location, browsing habits, and so on and so on. What would have been invasive even by the standards of the Gestapo or Stasi is now welcomed, embraced, celebrated by most of the populace, in return for a perceived convenience based on a gigantic social swindle. Abraham Lincoln nearly got it right when he said, « You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. » But Lincoln didn’t have Twitter.
Emmanuel Legeard: One of the best crime fiction writers of the 20th century, Fred Kassak, once confided to me that he didn’t like narrative fantasies, because « imagination in itself is repetitive and boring » and only the real world around us is creative. Thus, according to him, a good author is a good observer who learns from life by experiencing it first hand. Each author’s « style » comes from how world events unfold within his idiosyncratic framework, within his unique « weltanschauung ». I strongly agree with him. Interestingly, Kassak refuses to use emails or the Internet. Now, with algorithmic content serving based on supposed « preferences », don’t you think that we can easily get sucked into a vicious circle of ever-growing sameness where repetition quashes all creativity?
Mel Croucher: Yes. Ha!
Emmanuel Legeard: The « social » media as we know it represents for me the end of the social. Real-life sociality is exactly the opposite; it’s based on social networks which are goal-driven and composed of individuals who believe in something greater than their ego. Sociality represents an historical openness toward the world. It is « organic », that is: individuals acquire a « raison d’être » through a participation to the whole of which they are part, and this participation reinforces both their unique personalities and the strength of the social organism. All societies are transcended by some metaphysical principle and envision some collective meaning in history. I can’t see anything like this in Facebook or Twitter. On the contrary, people are there mainly to seek attention, just because they can’t stand neither true sociality nor loneliness. Solitude is a bliss to whoever believes in something greater than one’s self and is open to meditation, contemplation or study, but it’s a pain for the great mass of our contemporaries because they can’t imagine anything above or outside themselves. For them, to be is to be seen, which explains the gregarious success of both FB and Twitter: it’s just ego tripping for the sake of it. Do you think there is much future for humanity in social media?
Mel Croucher: Not for humanity, but for humans. If we go back to my referencing the likes of Edison and Bell for getting it wrong, then there is no reason why the likes of Zuckerberg and Musk should have got it right. Perhaps Facebook will turn out to be where we dream and SpaceX will become a canning factory for human meat. They don’t know, and neither do I, and neither does anyone else.
Emmanuel Legeard: Some Pentagon official of the Obama administration recently declared that the US Government is now « intended to treat cyberspace as a military battleground ». What do you think of the disturbing militarization of the Internet?
Mel Croucher: America spends 600 billion dollars a year on defense. Yet an insane gang of hijackers can attack the Pentagon and Twin Towers with impunity. The UK spends 46 billion a year on nuclear weapons, which are completely useless against a couple of Afghanis armed with home-made rockets strapped to the back of a Toyota pick-up. And the Bad Guys don’t even need to hijack aircraft or trucks any more. They can attack us from the comfort of their own bedrooms. Yes, governments tell us that cyber-warfare is the new threat. And you know what, I tend to agree with them. If our mobile networks go down, there will be riots. If our supermarket checkouts go down, there will be cannibalism. Cyber attack seems a pretty good deal to me when it comes to waging war on the cheap, and if I was running the Ministry of Defence I would forget about the armed forces altogether and divert my massive budget to combat the menace of computer hacking. The US Marines are withdrawing frontline troops and training 3,000 electronic warriors instead. Meanwhile the Russian secret service didn’t get a very good response to their anti-hacking project which they advertised on social networks. So Putin has decided to do a deal with convicted criminal hackers and crackers, and offer them senior positions in an offensive cyber unit as an alternative to serving lengthy jail sentences. The celebrated hacker Dmitry Artimovich has admitted that when doing a term in a Russian penal colony, Moscow set him free in exchange for signing up to the anti-hacking squad. Over in South Korea, I’m told that the government has doubled the size of its cyber command to 1,000 programmers, dedicated to fighting the evil techie hordes of Kim Jong Un’s North Koreans. Their incentive is to offer full scholarships in return for seven years military service. But it’s the Australians who I tip my dangly cork hat to. Down under, they’ve come up with a foolproof idea how to motivate their young recruits. Their spy agency is called the Australian Signals Directorate, and their policy is to sponsor the annual hackers conference in Melbourne and feed the youngsters free pizza. And I think that’s the key to winning the cyberwar. We must recruit children. We’ve all known for years that the best way to get to grips with the latest technology is to ask the nearest truanting school kid, and the same goes for cyberwarfare. Why train up all those expensive marines and master criminals when you can get a kid to fight against the forces of evil for a slice of lukewarm dough with a cheese topping.