On friendship and technology; or, FRIEND COMPUTER!

I’ve been reading Nunberg’s edited volume, The Future of the Book, for class, and so have been wading through a fair bit of anti-techno-utopian rhetoric. Normally, that’s cool, because I’m no techno-utopian. But the way in which I am not techno-utopian is that I recognize the continuities and remediations (thanks, Bolter and Grusin) in new media forms. So I don’t like the rhetoric that relies on assuming that new media fundamentally alter the ways that we connect to one another.

So, that said. I appreciate when people put effort into exploring how people will be people through a variety of media forms. And recently, Maureen O’Connor, writing for NYMag’s The Cut blog, penned a great post about friendship in the digital age and group texting and dress rehearsing nudes.

I have to admit, I think The Cut does a consistently thorough and thoughtful treatment of elements of modern culture from the perspective of style and fashion. But this post in particular came at a good time for my mental universe, just as I was grappling with a rhetoric of rupture and social revolution. It’s about how a group of childhood (maybe young adulthood is better?) friends came together through texting. It’s about how two friends share their insecurities by texting pictures to one another. And it’s nothing utopian or too idealistic, but it shows how people manage to keep a sense of social interaction because that’s the point of all this.

My personal experiences certainly bear this argument out. I keep up with my best friend from college through a daily barrage (I mean this in the best way possible) of texts and gchats. Hell, I started my tumblr because I wanted to continue the casual ritual we had of sharing our outfits before going about our respective days (we had basically a suite situation with two separate rooms and a connecting bathroom). I know other people look at it now, occasionally, and I doubt she does so regularly, but she is still my audience for those posts. (Hi!)

I’ve had a blog of some sort or another since 2003. For me, writing on blogs is always a quasi-meditative task, with a nameless, faceless audience. I take pleasure in this distance, sometimes. I know that part of my process is just writing things out, and if people happen to comment and leave their thoughts on my writings, then I can incorporate those and be an even better writer. But this is different from friendship. Friendship requires a sense of reciprocity, or at least of mutual recognition. (Feel free to substitute any kind of positive human relationship for “friendship” there.) The faceless nonexistent audience that I imagine when writing a blog post, the echo chamber of my own metaphorical shower stall, that is emphatically not the kind of engagement that O’Connor is describing. And that’s kind of a great thing. All kinds of engagement are possible, we just have to make it so. Not our technologies, ourselves.

In closing, O’Connor offers an insightful (and hilarious) meditation on the freedoms of a child-like perspective:

Some may find the constant chatter and creep toward co-dependence childish — but the art of friendship has always been one that children perform more naturally than adults. (Other things children do better than adults: imagination, texting, wonderment, recovering from the shame of shitting in your pants.)

Maybe allowing ourselves to explore—new technologies, new forms, new social networks—brings us closer to that wonderment that makes magic happen.

Also, the “Friend computer” is a reference to Paranoia, a hilariously enjoyable role-playing game.

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New journal of Porn Studies

Thanks to some people who I follow on Twitter, I found out that the first issue of Porn Studies is out now. This is a free, open-access, peer-reviewed journal devoted to porn studies, and just glancing at the titles, it seems like a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to porn (online, manga, whatever your fancy). There’s a roundtable discussion with contemporary porn actors including Stoya (who is fast-becoming my favorite porn star) and Courtney Trouble. There’s some book reviews, including one of the Feminist Porn Book, which I believe is related to the founding of this journal and to the feminist porn conference. Which leads me to a small, but important point: one of the articles includes a term that I would consider questionable in the title, and makes me slightly uncomfortable with recommending this issue outright.

The article in question (link here: title includes defamatory terms for trans* individuals) is an overview of trends in contemporary US adult film production, distribution, and consumption. Naturally, there are some trends that are highly exploitative, and rely on exploitative terminology to identify themselves. The author of this article, Tibbals, includes a footnote explaining her use of terminology, but I don’t think this is really enough to justify the use of slurs in the title, even if it is contextualized within the article. I get that there’s a fine line between using a term that may have been reclaimed by a community, and using a slur, and I commend the thought that clearly went into this decision, but I think it was a misplay to have a defamatory term in the title.

I also recognize that I am speaking from a position of privilege about this, and also a position of trust in the editorial staff for this issue. I’m assuming good faith here. You may decide that you don’t want to, and that’s totally fine.

Moving on: there are a few articles that feed into that thing I was talking about – the online porn and intimacy post from a few days ago. I think within the next few days I’ll read those articles and the book review (and maybe even have a look at the book in question) and try to contextualize those vis-a-vis that post. Maybe I’ll even feel inspired to draw up some design briefs! (Lol. Unlikely.)

Text as interface

While reading Lucy Suchman’s Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions (2007), I had a moment of analogizing texts to machines. Suchman’s argument takes machines as non-human actors (with limited agency) in a network, where ties are created through sensing and communication. There’s a spectrum of engagement with respect to this network, and in Suchman’s view, the designer is present in the network.

So here I am, reading this, and I realize that the span of engagement actually captures what we’ve agreed to disagree about with respect to literary analysis. The gamut from New Criticism to symptomatic readings to Reader Response theory to authorial intent: this is what Suchman captures, except swapping out key terms. Instead of “author,” we have “designer;” instead of “reader,” we have “user.” And instead of “text,” we have “machine.” Or do we?

Figure 8.2: The analytical framework. From Suchman (2007).

Figure 8.2: The analytical framework. From Suchman (2007).

On page 123 of this edition, Suchman includes “Figure 8.2: The analytic framework.” This figure depicts a four-column framework breaking down the interaction between user and machine into the following: 1) actions not available to the machine, 2) actions available to the machine, 3) effects available to the user, 4) design rationale. 1 and 2 comprise the user, and 3 and 4 comprise the machine. This framework drives Suchman’s (conversation) analysis in the meat of her original dissertation: Chapter 9 in this volume. This is the center of my analogy, because I argue that this framework also captures how people and texts interact. I’m going to include a picture of my notes; please indulge me. I’ll also try to recreate it in text below.

My own analogy of textual interpretation to Suchman's User/Machine assemblage.

My own analogy of textual interpretation to Suchman’s User/Machine assemblage. Also, you can see my jawbreaker nails.

So the way I see it is that in Suchman’s analysis, the issue confronting human-machine interaction was the problem of communication and sensing: the machine only has access to so much, and the user only has access to so much. With reader-text interaction, it’s a very similar issue. The reader only has so much knowledge of the author’s brain to go off, and the author only has so much access to the reader’s brain. This is a general issue with all communication, I suppose, and it gets back to what I was talking about with the contextual theory of communication. But using Suchman’s framework as a model, we can begin to see the text as the surface on which the (implied) author and the (implied) reader have access to one another.

The text is the interface.

Connecting through porn, or just creeping?

Preface: since this is about porn games, any links should be assumed to be NSFW. The games linked also include a huge variety of fetishes, so. If there’s anything you know you don’t like, it’s honestly probably best to avoid the games. Besides like, hardcore gore, it’s mostly “anything goes.”

So I’m sitting here at my computer, and I get up to brush my teeth and as I’m getting up I pass my boyfriend at his computer. I ask what he’s up to, and he responds, “it’s in alpha,” and points to his screen where I can see a rudimentary interface and porny text.

It’s a text-based porn game, like Corruption of Champions (at the time of writing this post I don’t know the title of this particular one, or have a link to it; a day later, here’s a link to LEWD. As the boyfriend said, it’s in alpha, and moreover, I haven’t tried it. No guarantees. I have no idea about the content although I’ll assume there’s some transformation fetish going on).

As I was brushing my teeth, I got to thinking about how porn games work to realize this fantasy of sexual prowess and how it’s all about making your fantasy happen within the confines of the game world. I’ll be honest here, I think porn games have figured out a long time before mainstream games that your embodiment in an avatar is crucial to the experience (especially to the experience of virtual sexual pleasure) and that giving players the ability to customize *everything under the sun* is a huge part of this embodiment. But I digress.

So there’s this fantasy of being the one that is attractive to everyone in this world who you are attracted to. It’s been written about with respect to Dragon Age; that everyone in the game is Warden- or Hawke-sexual more than they are any other sexuality, and that real people’s sexual appetites are more subtle than that. But this is the guiding principle behind porn games. (It’s actually more nuanced than that because many of them, especially the text-based ones I’m thinking of, will have character preferences encoded into the NPCs. But I digress again.)

I was thinking, and this is where it gets weird: this is the same fantasy that real-life prostitution materializes. The idea that this person is here, completely sexually interested in you, and only you…for as long as you have scheduled together. And real-life prostitution has time limits and more importantly, you can’t barge in on a session if someone else is in the middle of their own private fantasy.

What if we take this and apply it to a multiplayer online porn game? The multiplayer aspect being completely invisible, except when you try to do a scene that someone else is in the middle of doing. Say you decide you want to try to fuck the bartender with the robotic horse dick (yeah that’s a real example), and you’re turned away because, hold up, he’s fucking someone else right now. I don’t think I’d go so far as to have the players contact one another in the game or see one another or anything, but just being aware of the presence of other real people engaging in their own sexual fantasies in the same imaginative landscape that you’re using for your own. I wonder what that would do to people.

ETA: There are a couple links I can’t not add…

Also I should also state explicitly here: I am not against sexuality. I really hope that didn’t actually need to be said.

On a contextual theory of communication

Normally people think of communication with a transmissive view, i.e. there is a sender, a signal, and a receiver, and each part of this process can be checked for success or failure. Carey talks about this as the predominant mode in American discourse on communication, and that hasn’t changed much since he wrote in 1989 (Communication as Culture). He also talks about an alternative view, the ritual view, wherein communication acts like reciting lines of a play or of a religious service, reinforcing a community’s ideals.

But both of these views depend on a receptive audience: in the transmission view, the audience receives a new belief, and in the ritual view, the audience enforces an existing belief. I think this can be limiting, especially when we think about actual vs. imagined audiences, and if we think about art that may not be intended to encode a message but just to show something.

So what if it’s more like, communication is that which affects an intellectual context and you can walk through that mind landscape and react to it how you will? What if we throw word bombs at each other’s mind palaces? And more importantly, what would it mean to begin to analyze language/communication/representation from this perspective?

I had to reread the first chapter of Communication as Culture before I let myself write this post, and in so doing I realized that Carey approached this idea himself. Reality, for Carey, is constructed through symbolic representation (aka, communication).

…communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (Carey 1989, 23)

There’s another part of Carey’s argument about communication: it is social, public. It doesn’t necessarily presume an audience devoted to decoding, but it does presume an audience. Our communicative acts are visible. This is less symmetric than the transmission view of sender/signal/receiver, but more personable. More human.

Although, one important caveat about the similarity between my argument and Carey’s is that I believe this is what Carey refers to as the ritual mode, while I think it’s something other than that.


Two references which prompted me to consider the question of audience and art/communication (also more reason for me to read Dewey, I guess):