Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

The Real-Life Implications of Virtual Selves

“The end is nigh!”—the plethora of words, phrases, and warnings associated with the impending apocalypse has saturated American culture to the point of being jaded, as picketing figures bearing signs have become a fixture of political cartoons and echoes of the Book of Revelation appear in popular media like Legion and the short-lived television series Revelations. On a secular level, we grapple with the notion that our existence is a fragile one at best, with doom portended by natural disasters (e.g, Floodland and The Day after Tomorrow), rogue asteroids (e.g., Life as We Knew It and Armageddon), nuclear fallout (e.g., Z for Zachariah and The Terminator), biological malfunction (e.g., The Chrysalids and Children of Men) and the increasingly-visible zombie apocalypse (e.g., Rot and Ruin and The Walking Dead). Clearly, recent popular media offerings manifest the strain evident in our ongoing relationship with the end of days; to be an American in the modern age is to realize that everything under—and including—the sun will kill us if given half a chance. Given the prevalence of the themes like death and destruction in the current entertainment environment, it comes as no surprise that we turn to fiction to craft a kind of saving grace; although these impulses do not necessarily take the form of traditional utopias, our current culture definitely seems to yearn for something—or, more accurately, somewhere—better.

In particular, teenagers, as the subject of Young Adult (YA) fiction, have long been subjects for this kind of exploration with contemporary authors like Cory Doctorow, Paolo Bacigalupi, and M. T. Anderson exploring the myriad issues that American teenagers face as they build upon a trend that includes foundational works by Madeline L’Engle, Lois Lowry, and Robert C. O’Brien. Arguably darker in tone than previous iterations, modern YA dystopia now wrestles with the dangers of depression, purposelessness, self-harm, sexual trauma, and suicide. For American teenagers, psychological collapse can be just as damning as physical decay. Yet, rather than ascribe this shift to an increasingly rebellious, moody, or distraught teenage demographic, we might consider the cultural factors that contribute to the appeal of YA fiction in general—and themes of utopia/dystopia in particular—as manifestations spill beyond the confines of YA fiction, presenting through teenage characters in programming ostensibly designed for adult audiences as evidenced by television shows like Caprica (2009-2010).

 

Transcendence through Technology

A spin-off of, and prequel to, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Caprica transported viewers to a world filled with futuristic technology, arguably the most prevalent of which was the holoband. Operating on basic notions of virtual reality and presence, the holoband allowed users to, in Matrix parlance, “jack into” an alternate computer-generated space, fittingly labeled by users as “V world.”[1] But despite its prominent place in the vocabulary of the show, the program itself never seemed to be overly concerned with the gadget; instead of spending an inordinate amount of time explaining how the device worked, Caprica chose to explore the effect that it had on society.

Calling forth a tradition steeped in teenage hacker protagonists (or, at the very least, ones that belonged to the “younger” generation), our first exposure to V world—and to the series itself—comes in the form of an introduction to an underground space created by teenagers as an escape from the real world. Featuring graphic sex[2], violence, and murder, this iteration does not appear to align with traditional notions of a utopia but does represent the manifestation of Caprican teenagers’ desires for a world that is both something and somewhere else. And although immersive virtual environments are not necessarily a new feature in Science Fiction television,[3] with references stretching from Star Trek’s holodeck to Virtuality, Caprica’s real contribution to the field was its choice to foreground the process of V world’s creation and the implications of this construct for the shows inhabitants.

Taken at face value, shards like the one shown in Caprica’s first scene might appear to be nothing more than virtual parlors, the near-future extension of chat rooms[4] for a host of bored teenagers. And in some ways, we’d be justified in this reading as many, if not most, of the inhabitants of Caprica likely conceptualize the space in this fashion. Cultural critics might readily identify V world as a proxy for modern entertainment outlets, blaming media forms for increases in the expression of uncouth urges. Understood in this fashion, V world represents the worst of humanity as it provides an unreal (and surreal) existence that is without responsibilities or consequences. But Caprica also pushes beyond a surface understanding of virtuality, continually arguing for the importance of creation through one of its main characters, Zoe.[5]

Seen one way, the very foundation of virtual reality and software—programming—is itself the language and act of world creation, with code serving as architecture (Pesce, 1999). If we accept Lawrence Lessig’s maxim that “code is law” (2006), we begin to see that cyberspace, as a construct, is infinitely malleable and the question then becomes not one of “What can we do?” but “What should we do?” In other words, if given the basic tools, what kind of existence will we create and why?

One answer to this presents in the form of Zoe, who creates an avatar that is not just a representation of herself but is, in effect, a type of virtual clone that is imbued with all of Zoe’s memories. Here we invoke a deep lineage of creation stories in Science Fiction that exhibit resonance with Frankenstein and even the Judeo-Christian God who creates man in his image. In effect, Zoe has not just created a piece of software but has, in fact, created life!—a discovery whose implications are immediate and pervasive in the world of Caprica. Although Zoe has not created a physical copy of her “self” (which would raise an entirely different set of issues), she has achieved two important milestones through her development of artificial sentience: the cyberpunk dream of integrating oneself into a large-scale computer network and the manufacture of a form of eternal life.[6]

Despite Caprica’s status as Science Fiction, we see glimpses of Zoe’s process in modern day culture as we increasingly upload bits of our identities onto the Internet, creating a type of personal information databank as we cultivate our digital selves.[7] Although these bits of information have not been constructed into a cohesive persona (much less one that is capable of achieving consciousness), we already sense that our online presence will likely outlive our physical bodies—long after we are dust, our photos, tweets, and blogs will most likely persist in some form, even if it is just on the dusty backup server of a search engine company—and, if we look closely, Caprica causes us to ruminate on how our data lives on after we’re gone. With no one to tend to it, does our data run amok? Take on a life of its own? Or does it adhere to the vision that we once had for it?

Proposing an entirely different type of transcendence, another character in Caprica, Sister Clarice, hopes to use Zoe’s work in service of a project called “apotheosis.” Representing a more traditional type of utopia in that it represents a paradisiacal space offset from the normal, Clarice aims to construct a type of virtual heaven for believers of the One True God,[8] offering an eternal virtual life at the cost of one’s physical existence. Perhaps speaking to a sense of disengagement with the existent world, Clarice’s vision also reflects a tradition that conceptualizes cyberspace as a chance where humanity can try again, a blank slate where society can be re-engineered. Using the same principles that are available to Zoe, Clarice sees a chance to not only upload copies of existent human beings, but bring forth an entire world through code. Throughout the series, Clarice strives to realize her vision, culminating in a confrontation with Zoe’s avatar who has, by this time, obtained a measure of mastery over the virtual domain. Suggesting that apotheosis cannot be granted, only earned, Clarice’s dream of apotheosis literally crumbles around her as her followers give up their lives in vain.

Although it is unlikely that we will see a version of Clarice’s apotheosis anytime in the near future, the notion of constructed immersive virtual worlds does not seem so far off. At its core, Caprica asks us, as a society, to think carefully about the types of spaces that we endeavor to realize and the ideologies that drive such efforts. If we understand religion as a structured set of beliefs that structure and order this world through our belief in the next, we can see the overlap between traditional forms of religion and the efforts of technologists like hackers, computer scientists, and engineers. As noted by Mark Pesce, Vernor Vinge’s novella True Names spoke to a measure of apotheosis and offered a new way of understanding the relationship between the present and the future—what Vinge offered to hackers was, in fact, a new form of religion (Pesce, 1999). Furthermore, aren’t we, as creators of these virtual worlds fulfilling one of the functions of God? Revisiting the overlap between doomsday/apocalyptic/dystopian fiction as noted in the paper’s opening and Science Fiction, we see a rather seamless integration of ideas that challenges the traditional notion of a profane/sacred divide; in their own ways, both the writings of religion and science both concern themselves with some of the same themes, although they may, at times, use seemingly incompatible language.

Ultimately, however, the most powerful statement made by Caprica comes about as a result of the extension to arguments made on screen:  by invoking virtual reality, the series begs viewers to consider the overlay of an entirely subjective reality onto a more objective one.[9] Not only presenting the coexistence of multiple realities as a fact, Caprica asks us to understand how actions undertaken in one world affect the other. On a literal level, we see that the rail line of New Cap City (a virtual analogue of Caprica City, the capital of the planet of Caprica)[10] is degraded (i.e., “updated) to reflect a destroyed offline train, but, more significantly, the efforts of Zoe and Clarice speak to the ways in which our faith in virtual worlds can have a profound impact on “real” ones. How, then, do our own beliefs about alternate realities (be it heaven, spirits, string theory, or media-generated fiction) shape actions that greatly affect our current existence? What does our vision of the future make startlingly clear to us and what does it occlude? What will happen as future developments in technology increase our sense of presence and further blur the line between fiction and reality? What will we do if the presence of eternal virtual life means that “life” loses its meaning? Will we reinscribe rules onto the world to bring mortality back (and with it, a sense of urgency and finality) like Capricans did in New Cap City? Will there come a day where we choose a virtual existence over a physical one, participating in a mass exodus to cyberspace as we initiate a type of secular rapture?

As we have seen, online environments have allowed for incredible amounts of innovation and, on some days, the future seems inexplicably bright. Shows like Caprica are valuable for us as they provide a framework through which the average viewer can discuss issues of presence and virtuality without getting overly bogged down by technospeak. On some level, we surely understand the issues we see on screen as dilemmas that are playing out in a very human drama and Science Fiction offerings like Caprica provide us with a way to talk about subjects that we will confront in the future although we may not even realize that we are doing so at the time. Without a doubt, we should nurture this potential while remaining mindful of our actions; we should strive to attain apotheosis but never forget why we wanted to get there in the first place.

Works Cited

Lessig, L. (2006, January). Socialtext. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from Code 2.0: https://www.socialtext.net/codev2/

Pesce, M. (1999, December 19). MIT Communications Forum. Retrieved September 12, 2011, from Magic Mirror: The Novel as a Software Development Platform: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/pesce.html


[1] Although the show is generally quite smart about displaying the right kind of content for the medium of television (e.g., flushing out the world through channel surfing, which not only gives viewers glimpses of the world of Caprica but also reinforces the notion that Capricans experience their world through technology), the ability to visualize V world (and the transitions into it) are certainly an element unique to an audio-visual presentation. One of the strengths of the show, I think, is its ability to add layers of information through visuals that do not call attention to themselves. These details, which are not crucial to the story, flush out the world of Caprica in a way that a book could not, for while a book must generally mention items (or at least allude to them) in order to bring them into existence, the show does not have to ever name aspects of the world or actively acknowledge that they exist. Moreover, I think that there is something rather interesting about presenting a heavily visual concept through a visual medium that allows viewers to identify with the material in a way that they could not if it were presented through text (or even a comic book). Likewise, reading Neal Stephenson’s A Diamond Age (which prominently features a book) allows one to reflect on one’s own interaction with the book itself—an opportunity that would not be afforded to you if you watched a television or movie adaptation.

[2] By American cable television standards, with the unrated and extended pilot featuring some nudity.

[3] Much less Science Fiction as a genre!

[4] One could equally make the case that V world also represents a logical extension of MUDs, MOOs, and MMORPGs. The closest modern analogy might, in fact, be a type of Second Life space where users interact in a variety of ways through avatars that represent users’ virtual selves.

[5] Although beyond the scope of this paper, Zoe also represents an interesting figure as both the daughter of the founder of holoband technology and a hacker who actively worked to subvert her father’s creation. Representing a certain type of stability/structure through her blood relation, Zoe also introduced an incredible amount of instability into the system. Building upon the aforementioned hacker tradition, which itself incorporates ideas about youth movements from the 1960s and lone tinkerer/inventor motifs from Science Fiction in the early 20th century, Zoe embodies teenage rebellion even as she figures in a father-daughter relationship, which speaks to a particular type of familial bond/relationship of protection and perhaps stability.

[6] Although the link is not directly made, fans of Battlestar Galactica might see this as the start of resurrection, a process that allows consciousness to be recycled after a body dies.

[7] In addition, of course, is the data that is collected about us involuntarily or without our express consent.

[8] As background context for those who are unfamiliar with the show, the majority of Capricans worship a pantheon of gods, with monotheism looked upon negatively as it is associated with a fundamentalist terrorist organization called Soldiers of The One.

[9] One might in fact argue that there is no such thing as an “objective” reality as all experiences are filtered in various ways through culture, personal history, memory, and context. What I hope to indicate here, however, is that the reality experienced in the V world is almost entirely divorced from the physical world of its users (with the possible exception of avatars that resembled one’s “real” appearance) and that virtual interactions, while still very real, are, in a way, less grounded than their offline counterparts.

[10] Readers unfamiliar with the show should note that “Caprica” refers to both the name of the series and a planet that is part of a set of colonies. Throughout the paper, italicized versions of the word have been used to refer to the television show while an unaltered font has been employed to refer to the planet.

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