Abstraction Haunted by Reality

POSTED: June 3, 2006


For the last four years I have been engaged in producing and creating a large-scale project that began as an attempt to create an online synthetic world, and moved swiftly into the more interesting attempt to model a synthetic culture.

This has involved the creation of a space in the world (an island in the southern Mediterranean) and the attempt to fill this space with a geography, history, economy and ethics that together form the kind of narrative that one would expect to find when reading a real culture. In doing this we have posited “culture” as the continual reading and rereading of a number of contending narratives, whose relative importance, and believability, waxes and wanes over time.

Our narratives, though, are necessarily haunted by our conscious and unconscious feelings and biases, as well as the incomplete nature of our personal knowledge, and our inability to perfectly imagine the space we have brought into being. This paper will discuss the issues we have encountered in our project, focusing on the complexities of a many-authored communal discourse around a becoming space.


In this paper I want to talk about a book that does not yet exist. I want to describe it and explore it, and I want to do this as part of the process of bringing it into existence. This book is the history of the republic of Rosario, a small and unimportant island in the south of the Mediterranean, approximately half way between Crete and Malta and some two hundred kilometres north of the coast of Libya. The reason that I want to talk about the narratives of Rosario, and their relationship to reality on the one hand and abstraction and memory on the other, is because at Arcada, the university of applied science where I lecture, we are building a simplified, digital version of Rosario which we are housing on-line in the massive multiuser “world” known as Second Life.

I have written and spoken many times elsewhere about the technical and pedagogical issues surrounding La Mentala Rosario, as the on-line project is known, so I will not go into those in any great detail here. I will merely say that the project began almost five years ago as an attempt to draw together the various different strands of the multimedia degree course and showcase them – and crucially the relationships between them – inside an ongoing project that was larger than any specific group of students. The idea was that each year of students would contribute to an aspect of the overall project and that their contributions would leave a permanent mark on the synthetic world.

Before we began working on creating the world itself we drew together a history for Rosario: a complex set of characters and events as well as institutions, culture and fashions. We ended up with an enormous amount of documentation that was published in a series of e-books, and later as a wiki. This is still being updated and will, in fact be completely revamped over the summer to make it more easily searchable. You can see the current version at www.marinetta.org – Marinetta being the small capital city of Rosario.

The first public manifestation of the project was not an on-line world but a web site aimed at travellers and holiday-makers, extolling the virtues of Marinetta, and the areas surrounding it, including the pleasure beach and the harbour. This web site was created by students, using the web sites for Malta and Gozo as reference material. I showed this web site, and talked about the overall project, at a philosophy and history conference in Helsinki in 2003, and I was dumbfounded by the reaction that it got. I am used to a wide range or reactions to the project, both inside and outside Arcada. Usually these are approximately what you might expect. They range from “what an exciting idea” through to “what an idiotic waste of time”. However at this conference two academics from Helsinki University became genuinely and forcefully angry: not primarily about the project itself, although they were to some extent angry about that, but they were incensed about the web site.

They wanted to know how we could even consider acting so irresponsibly an accusation that initially left me completely baffled. It soon became clear, though, that what was angering them was the fact that the web site appeared to be real. It was not labelled “this is a fiction” or “this is a joke”, and these two professors were genuinely concerned that hypothetical web surfers might become entranced by the descriptions of the beaches of Marinetta and thus be tricked into purchasing plane and boat tickets to travel to the Mediterranean, impoverishing themselves at my instigation. They were worried that this was a private joke that gave us power over the unwary.

This odd and inconclusive quarrel has stayed with me. My initial reaction was to dismiss their concerns as ludicrous, but later I began to see them as interesting in a way that relates not just to questions of veracity and verification, but also to the place that imagination is given in our world and the place that it has been given within the history of literature. Part of the purpose of the holiday web site was precisely to comment on the lack of authority of much information on the web, and the need to seek corroboration from secondary sources. To have attempted to do this with a web site clearly labelled “satire” would have been self-defeating.

The desire to live in a world in which everything is clearly labeled, and every label is accurate according to an internationally agreed set of standards, is a recent phenomenon; an odd and fearful attempt to prevent imagination and fiction from haunting what we like to think of as our reality.

The word “fiction” is derived from the latin “fingere”, meaning to reshape, and it is worth noting that reshaping is not the same as “making something up”. It implies a different and more complex relationship between threads and narratives; between truth and lies. The early Greeks regarded the lie as a verbal sport. George Steiner, in Language and Silence (1970), for example, tells of a dispute between Athena and Odysseus in which “mutual deception, the quick saying of ‘things that are not’, need be neither evil nor a bare technical constraint. Gods and chosen mortals can be vituosos of mendacity, contrivers of elaborate untruths for the sake of the verbal craft…”

In this reading of the world truth lies at the surface of things and not in the heart of the speaker. Persuasion is a game, as it is in the debating societies that traditionally lie at the heart of British public schools. According to Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders in “ABC: the Alphabetization of the Popular Mind” (1988) this was true all the way from antiquity until some time in the thirteenth century. “I stand for my word and I swear by it. My oath is my truth until well into the twelfth century: the oath puts an end to any case against a freeman. Only in the thirteenth century does Continental Canon Law make the judge into the reader of an accused man’s conscience, an inquisitor into truth, and [makes] torture the means by which confession of the truth is extracted from the accused.”

Illich and Sanders go on to point out that vexing questions of veracity were an issue from the outset of written literature. Chaucer, they say, “needs to have his Canterbury story taken as truth – for this is the way readers come to enter into any fictional dream. He gains this sense of verisimilitude in several ways. By making himself one of the travelling group of pilgrims, Chaucer has to tell one of the proposed hundred and thirty or so tales, “The Tale of Sir Thopas”, which he uses to undercut his own literate power by telling a story so dull that the hosts beg him to stop.”

“But too much truth can get Chaucer into theological trouble; he must move his creation into another category; into untruth. And he can do this best by letting his audience think of him as a liar.”

Chaucer, in other words, presents his tale as truth, as the documentation of a pilgrimage that actually occurred and in which he participated. He reveals that this cannot be so only in the most subtle of ways. His descriptions, which he insists are accurate, are far too detailed to be genuine recollection. Through the accumulation of an impossible amount of detail he indicates to the attentive reader that he is, at the very least, reshaping the material that he is working with. That it is, in fact, fiction.

What is true at the beginning of written English literature is also true at the beginning of the development of the novel.

Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Journal of the Plague Year (1722) are usually referred to as among the first novels in English, predating Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) by twenty years. In both of these books Daniel Defoe wishes the reader to understand the stories as “true”, and so both of them offer little or no clues that they are fiction: stories that have been invented or reshaped. In Plague Year the narrator is HF, who allegedly lived through the plague years in London. Indeed the subtitle of the book is “Being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurences, as well publik as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665. Written by a citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made publik before.”

What was Defoe’s purpose in doing this? According to Illich and Sanders “it is in this period that the idea of story begins to separate itself from history: what constitute “untruth” and “facts” take different paths. … Defoe takes advantage of this confusion between story and history: in his own story he shows us that what people lose faith in are forms of oral discourse… But he is reporting all of this, of course, in a skillfully made-up work of fiction.” The “facts” in Journal of the Plague Year contradict many of the facts in previously published accounts, but this is the only indication that Defoe’s work is not an actual history.

Both The Canterbury Tales and the novels of Defoe can be seen as commentaries on the medium in which they are presented:acute attempts to analyse the nature of the new medium by practising within it. They are commentaries on a new field at the very moment that it is emerging. Without wishing to over-praise my own work, and certainly without attempting to create an unseemly trinity of Chaucer, Defoe and me, this is in part precisely what the Marinetta holiday web site was doing. It was commenting on the slippery nature of truth on the web by placing false leads into it, and hiding fictions within the sea of alleged facts.

We are arguing, in effect, that what is true at the beginning of the development of the novel is also true at the beginning of the development of online synthetic worlds.

Indeed, the relationship between truth and fiction, and the interweaving of different kinds of narratives, becomes more interesting and more complex still once we enter an online world. When a new user first enters Second Life she is asked to choose a name; then given a default avatar, the character that represents her in the world, and asked to customise it. At this point, I have noticed, people tend to do one of three things. Firstly, some new users make a character that is an obvious cartoon version of their real-life self, naming it, shaping it and dressing it to resemble their real life persona. Secondly, some people name and create a character that seems to bear little or no relationship to who they are in real life. Thirdly, a small group of people decide to have no consistent appearance. This group treats their avatar’s body in the same way as its clothes. They change body shape and body size as often as they change shirts.

These three groups seem to have a direct bearing on the way that people interact in the world. Some people take the experience seriously, and quickly and easily become emotionaly involved in their Second Life, while others remain detached, regarding the whole thing as a game – an adult Barbie and Ken to be viewed from an ironic distance. From the distance of the detached player any notion of emotional involvement seems absurd, and yet, after eight months in the online world, I have noticed that many of the detached users, however, gradually slide into an intense emotional involvement with their Second Life. They begin investing their Second Life with the goals and desires of their real life. The membrane between the two becomes more and more porous.

I am forcefully reminded of the writings of both Kinky Friedman and Philip K Dick. Although not obviously similar, they both blend fact and fiction in a way that would make Defoe’s head spin. They both create fictional avatars that represent them in their fictions and then struggle to determine the correct distance from which to view that avatar.

Kinky Friedman is an ex-country singer of some notoriety who moved to New York. He turned to writing crime fiction starring a private eye called Kinky Friedman, who is an ex-country singer of some notoriety who moved to New York. He has written twenty novels, beginning with Greenwich Killing Time in 1986. Many of the other characters in these books are also real people including Mike McGovern, a senior reporter on the New York Daily News, who features as the main suspect in a murder in one of the early novels, and as Friedman’s drunken sidekick in many of the others. Other real people play pivotal roles in the narratives. Willie Nelson, for one, is kidnapped in the novel Roadkill (1998) and Kinky Friedman has to find and rescue him.

In many ways these books could be seen as burlesque: as a sly parody of a genre that nonetheless celebrates it. They could also be seen as fiction, though, in the proper sense of a reshaping; and it seems to me that, in their reimagining of the author, they explore many of the issues that face new users inside Second Life. They present the reader with an idealised set of characters; characters that have been exaggerated and simplified, not to make them more beautiful or approachable but to make them more like themselves than they actually are. The novels are, in many ways a vehicle for Kinky Friedman to discover himself, and his relationships with his friends, through constructing a mirror out of narrative that he can look into to see things as they really are. Kinky Friedman is in many ways his own primary audience, and it is the tensions that arise between the two Kinkys – the protaganist and the authorial voice – that make the novels interesting.

Philip K Dick uses a similar strategy for arguably more profound purposes in his final sequence of novels Valis (1981), The Divine Invasion (1982), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1983), and Radio Free Albemuth (1985). He is a central character in each of these novels, and his novels are themselves important to the narrative.

‘ You’ve certainly written some important novels,’ the girl said. ‘Ubik, Man in the Castle -’
‘The Man in the High Castle’, I corrected her. Obviously they had never read my work.

That was from Radio Free Albemuth. In The Divine Invasion Dick provides a one paragraph plot synopsis of Valis, which is described as an old science fiction book from the twentieth century.

All three novels are concerned with a search for God, and are based around a series of visions that he had; visions which he documented in a separate Exegesis that he never intended to be published. The four novels offer different reshapings of the same set of events: events whose reality he could never quite decide. In many ways the novels can best be seen as attempts by Dick to work out for himself how real these events were, by reshaping them into fiction in order to examine them more clearly. Like Friedman, he is using his fiction as a mirror and a magnifying glass, but his search is altogether darker and more desperate than Friedman’s.

This, I think, is a process that is very analogous to the one new users go through when they begin to find things to do within Second Life. The membrane separating their “real life” from their Second Life becomes increasingly porous as they use one to mirror and magnify aspects of the other. The second world becomes an abstract diagram which can be superimposed on the first world to model and reshape it.

Synthetic online worlds, then, are no more “worlds” than Disneyland is a country. They are communally written, open-ended narratives, in which each user is given a character, from whom they can maintain whatever distance they feel comfortable with.
These so-called worlds are literary frameworks upon which we can project and mirror ourselves.

In his Exegesis Philip K Dick writes that our entire reality is “a projected framework – it appears to be a projection by an artifact, a computerlike teaching machine that guides, programs and generally controls us as we act without awareness of it within our projected world. The artifact, which I call Zebra, has “created” (actually only projected) our reality as a sort of mirror or image of its maker, so that the maker can obtain thereby an objective standpoint to contemplate its own self. In other words, the maker (called by Jacob Böhme in 1616 the Urgrund) is motivated to seek an instrument for self-awareness, self-knowledge…

“It constructed a reality-projecting artifact (or demiurge, cf Plato and the Gnostics) which then, on command, projected the first stage of the world we know. The artifact is unaware that it is an artifact, it is oblivious to the existence of the Urgrund (in terms that the artifact would understand the Urgrund is not, rather than is) and imagines itself to be God, the only real God”.

Dick is describing here a personal cosmology, a kind of crypto-gnosticism, that he evolved painfully over may years to try to explain a series of visions that he had of Rome AD70 and the eternal struggle between Rome and the True Christians. Unintentionally, perhaps, he is also providing a detailed and prefigurative description of the realities, uses and human needs that are evolving in the relationships between programmers, users and avatars in online worlds; ideas which are necessarily at the heart of Rosarian culture.

And so the book I began with, the book of the history of Rosario that is yet to be written, will necessarily also be a book of our history and our aspirations. More precisely it will offer us ways to mirror our own history, and through that mirroring, gain insight into the real world. As Michel de Certeau wrote in The Writing of History (1988) “the past is the fiction of the present… this writing fabricates Western History”. The merely fictional becomes real as the membrane between worlds dissolves and diagrammatic abstraction comes to haunt reality.

Online synthetic worlds should be seen as a new literary genre as well as an innovative use of information technology. They have a direct lineage that can be traced back to Chaucer and his attempts to explore the world by reshaping it and holding it up for examination, and they have direct precursors in the popular literature of the twentieth century. If we see them as communal literary creations rather than places, then we will be able to understand them, and the processes that go on within them; and find satisfying human uses for them .