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issue: 04/01/2000

- Arts
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- Software

vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.



1For a recent (March 28th 2000) example, see G. Stephen Bierman Jr. "Victims Testify on Internet Dangers" .

2 Philip Elmer-Dewitt , "On A Screen Near You: Cyberporn".

3 William Gibson, Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. 207.

4 Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon. New York: Avon, 1999.

5 Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon (Where Wizards Stay Up Late; New York: Touchstone, 1998) offer a great example (231) of the overlap between the Vietnam war and ARPANET. A group of antiwar protestors in Illinois protested a computer component they thought involved in "simulat[ing] bombing missions against North Vietnam." In fact, the machine was about to be employed in developing "nuclear attack scenarios against the Soviet Union." They were incorrect about the target of the project, but correct about its genre.

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the uncanny acculturation of the internet

by Bryan Alexander

After years of patient development in a time of occasional wars, an architecture created by the command of a military-industrial complex alters its character. Spaces designed to resist assault become screens for the imagination, haunted by projected fears and desires. The outside world treats these places with a mixture of contempt and craving, peopling them with its demons, rebels, tyrants, and alter egos.

This description deceives. It outlines both the Gothic tradition in British literature and the popular imagination of cyberspace. The echo of the former in the latter suggests our society dreaming ancient nightmares on-line, resurrecting the Gothic in cyberpunk fiction and in everyday acculturation.

During the eighteenth century, immense military fortifications covered Europe. The height of military thinking around 1700, each complex bastion embodied a mix of terrific power with the best scientism of the Enlightenment. Armies relied heavily on fortifications for supply and protection; in turn, campaigns focused on besieging and defending endless arrays of walls and lines. However, as the eighteenth century progressed leaders and thinkers of war sought new directions for battle: fluidity, not stasis; campaigning in depth, rather than by onion-like layers of slowly peeled forts. By the 1790s and the energetic warmaking of the French Revolution and Napoleon, fortifications had been de-emphasized, underfunded, occasionally maintained. Brooding over a changing Europe, these walls of power became symbols of obsolete orders, grounds for ghosts and tyrants, spaces of the imagination we now call Gothic. Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, William Godwin published best-selling novels in this crumbling vein, establishing a horrific genre that, like one of its characters, lives far beyond the duration of a single human life, unnaturally… but uncannily. American authors, starting with the underrated Charles Brockden Brown and on to Edgar Allan Poe, lacked such ready-made architectural nightmares in North America. Brown, Poe, and subsequent others made do, inventing new spaces and investing old ones as local Gothics: haunted houses, labyrinths, European buildings abroad, and the nightmarish, industrializing city.

Scan forward to the twentieth century, an epoch that alternates between filming and living Gothic terrors. The popular culture of computers appears in the intermix between science fiction and war, electronic brains and ENIGMA. By the century's end, however, sci fi shaded into horror. The growing internet became, by the 1980s, not the cold place of mathematics but a dark land of sex-crazed stalkers1, anarchist hackers threatening to undermine civilization, and a free space on the verge of old-fashioned state-run tyranny. ENIAC, geeks and HAL gave way to cyberporn, Mitnick and Senator Exon. Time magazine most famously (or notoriously) established the internet as sexual subterranean with its 1995 cover story, featuring a "modern-day Marquis de Sade" and "images that can't be found in the average magazine2.

But information architecture began to resemble Gothic towers in the fiction of the late 20th century. Ridley Scott created a spacefaring haunted castle in Alien (1979), dominated by monsters of pure sexual terror, ichor-spouting creatures, and a family secret: a murderous and tyrannical computer named Mother. William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) created another haunted castle in orbit. The Freeside "fairy tale castle"3 is invaded by a dead/alive hacker and a team of quite monstrous heroes. Gibson's crowning achievement is a cyberspace dominated by brooding towers of power, like the opening shot of Scott's Blade Runner (1982), haunted by inhuman tyrants, imprisoned innocents, and ancient secrets. Most recently, the key plot in Neal Stephenson's immense Cryptonomicon (1999) turns around the discovery of a set of overlapping family secrets centered on a WWII fortification, a site of torture and hidden treasure buried deeply underground… the Crypt.4

The cultural roots of Gothicizing cyberspace do touch on aspects of the internet's history. Like Gothic fortifications, the internet appeared as a military project. In 1968 the Pentagon, fearing information decapitation by Soviet attacks, ordered a Boston computing firm to create an information-sharing system that could survive the devastating opening shots of nuclear war. Within two years, and coinciding precisely with the peak of the American war in Vietnam5, BBN created ARPANET and what rapidly developed into a new space for communication and imagination. Although sometimes populated by Wumpuses and programmed in an America far from the Cold War's front lines, nascent cyberspace did carry the imprint of war. Redubbed DARPANET (D for Defense) by a Reagan administration reheating the cold war, the networks served the information needs of defense well: archiving plans and logistics, file-sharing for military research. Protecting the network became linked with national defense, most famously in fears of hackers entering NORAD, best seen in fiction with the 1983 film WarGames. The internet's nature as information architecture was also a structure for defense.

As the 1980s' new Cold War peaked, then undid itself, the internet spread through email, BBSes and Usenet, FTP and Gopher. This network of networks created a cultural space with few precedents. Early radio offered an example of creative communication technology rapidly growing, then organized by business and state power; unsurprisingly, many responses to the internet thought (however inaccurately) in broadcast radio terms. Citizens' Band (CB) radio crested and faded too quickly to leave much of a cultural presence, save for a legacy of anarchic banter and free-floating names. The rise of mass print media centered roughly on the eighteenth century provided an academic and legal model, proffering language of and for copyright, publication, and literacy.

But at the same time popular culture reached back to the Gothic for a cultural model to describe this new space. The genre was never far removed from the Western mind. Although the classic Gothic era ended roughly 1825-1830, English-speaking novelists have found audiences for deviants, extreme mental states, monsters and mysterious ruins ever since. The Brontes, Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan LeFanu, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker carried the genre through the nineteenth century, while Flannery O'Connor, Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter, Patrick McGrath, and Anne Rice have kept it alive through the twentieth. The film industry picked up the trope from print at once, as Thomas Edison created a Frankenstein film, and never let go. From Caligari and Lugosi to Coppola and Tim Burton, the images of the Gothic have remained an uncannily bright figure in our collective minds.

The dark and haunted spaces of the Gothic worked well to organize a group of anxieties about networked computers in the popular imagination, especially as hints and guesses supplanted lived and thoughtful experience for many. Fears of an unsupervised space where sexual depravity reigned unchecked, especially terrifying in the age of AIDS, projected well onto the internet's reality of cybersex. The Gothic's sexual allure, its creation of narrative spaces for reader titillation and/or exploration, described with surprising aptness the lonely user at the keyboard, looking for images and stories of forbidden or inaccessible bodies. Gothic rebels, too, served as useful models, especially in their threatening aspects. The specter of socially marginal and destructive hackers, dramatized most famously (and humorously, unintentionally) in The Net (1995), draws on the mad geniuses of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) or Stoker's alien and revolutionary vampire in Dracula (1898). In turn, pro-cyberspace activists characterize the net as the prey of obsolete and destructive tyrants, drawing on the Gothic stereotype of an old, surveillance-crazed, grasping, tottering, Second Wave but still savage ancien regime. William Godwin's Falkland (Caleb Williams, 1794), Radcliffe's Inquisition, Lewis' city-ruling mad monk, Poe's mad Prince Prospero are part of a lineage whose descendents include, in the cyberlibertarians' rhetoric, Senator Exon, the FBI of Operation Sundevil, the Secret Service, the Communications Decency Act, ECHELON and, most recently, the recording industry.

In particular, the Gothic serves as a good cultural screen for contemporary anxieties about identity on-line. A feature of the horror genre, and in many ways a weakness, is the rendering of selves as flat and depthless, haunted by uncanny doubles beyond one's control. Many Gothic characters are ciphers or stereotypes, figures of concepts rather than complex explorations of selfhood. Cyberculture recaptures this notion of identity through several levels. Our models of others through computer-mediated communication tend to be one-leveled, formed of words in a chat room, exchanges via email, or posts to a conference, lacking body language, tone of voice, and even facial expression. The person, the referent behind the discourse remains obscure - tantalizingly so. The result is an unusual mixture of freedom and hesitation in communication qualitatively different from everyday life. Within this space our flattened identities can be duplicated. Hackers may spoof us, assuming the network features that represent us, as President Clinton was recently mimicked during a chat session with Wolf Blitzer. Others may use our identity to act in our name, pretending to be us: the return of the doppelganger.

This confluence of Gothic and cyberculture has developed into a formal synthesis with several cultural artifacts. The long-running television series The X-Files oscillates between these two poles steadily, eliciting common threads. From haunted office buildings, American backwoods Gothic, and vampires on the one hand, to virtual reality hauntings, hacker paranoia, and uneasy cyborgs on the other, Chris Carter has fully reconstructed the Gothic in the modern imagination. An out of date and reactionary national defense network maintains hideous family secrets, modifying flat characters into monsters, while antiauthoritarian and rational rebels threaten to bring the entire edifice down in a democratic, demystifying eucatastrophe. Out of this blend emerge older themes: faith opposed to reason, problems of a marginalized white underclass, the precarious global power of a technocratic elite. Another and parallel synthesis is attempted in the Wachowskis' The Matrix (1999), named after the horrific cyberpunk version of internet culture. All of humanity is trapped in a lightning-lit Gothic structure, ideologically covered in the best horror-story fashion by a thin veneer of everyday life, opposed only by a group of hacker-subversives. Once again, older themes emerge from this work: a heroic secret society, the dialectic of master and slave, redemption through violence. The massive popularity of this film, coupled with its post-Columbine negative reputation, argue for the cultural efficacy of the cybergothic.

This synthesis offers little in the way of technological analysis or prognostication. Instead, the reappearance of the Gothic as one acculturation of cyberculture offers us insights into contemporary cultural desires and anxieties as they develop. As culture increasingly shapes the internet into a mall analogue, complete with well-lit sites, accessible commodities, and engaging design, the cybergothic may recede in importance. Put another way, fears of the on-line uncanny and the fears it represents may boost the appeal of stable on-line commerce.

b i o :
Bryan Alexander is an Assistant Professor of English at Centenary College of Louisiana, where he teaches computer-mediated classes on the Gothic literature, cyberculture, eighteenth century literature, critical theory, and the experience of war. Through classes on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to Gothic novels, Bryan has experimented with innovative approaches to distance learning. Along these lines, Bryan consults on computer-mediated writing, interdisciplinary studies, and writing across the curriculum. Committed to exploring computer-mediated pedagogy, he continues to research and write on the critical uses of computers and teaching in terms of interdisciplinary liberal arts and the contemporary development of cyberculture.


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