Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Science Fiction

She’s Not There?



Holiday movies, at least in part, are often about a reaffirmation of ourselves, or at least who we think we’d like to be. As someone growing up in America it was difficult to escape the twining of Christmas and tradition—movies of the season concerned themselves with the familiar themes of taking time to reflect on the inherent goodness of human nature and the strength of the family unit. Science Fiction, on the other hand, often eschews the routine in order to question knowledge and preconceptions, asking whether the things that we have come to accept or believe are necessarily so.

In its way Spike Jonze’s Her showcases elements of both backgrounds as it traces the course of one man’s relationship with his operating system. On its surface, the story of Her is rather simple:  Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) unexpectedly meets a woman  (Scarlett Johansson) during a low point and their resulting relationship aids Theodore in his attainment of a realization about what is meaningful in his life, the catch being that the “woman” is in fact an artificial intelligence program, OS1.

Like many good pieces of Science Fiction, Her is able to crystalize and articulate a culture’s (in this case American) relationship to technology at the present moment. The movie sets out to show us, in the opening scenes, the way in which technology has integrated itself into our lives and suggests that the cost of this is a form of social isolation and a divorce from real emotional experience. The world of Her is  one in which substitutes for the “real” are all that is left, evidenced by Theodore’s askance for his digital assistant (pre-OS1) to “Play melancholy song”—we might not quite remember what it is like to feel but we can recall something that was just like it. Our obsessions with e-mail and celebrity are brought back to us as are our tendencies toward isolation and on-demand pseudo-connections via matching services. Her also seems to understand the beats of advertising language—both its copy and its visuals—in a way that suggests some deep thought about our relationship to technology and the world around us.

But to say that Her was a Science Fiction movie would be misleading, I think, in the same way that Battlestar Galactica wasn’t so much SF as it was a drama that was set in a world of SF. Similarly, Her seems to be much more of a typical romance that happens to be located in a near-future Los Angeles.

Here I wonder if the expectedness of the story was part of the point of the film? Was there an attempt to convey a sense that there is something fundamental about the process of falling in love and that, in broad strokes, the beats tended to be the same whether our beloved was material or digital? Or did the arc conform to our expectations of a love story in order to present as more palatable to most viewers? I suppose that, in some ways, it doesn’t matter when one attempts to evaluate the movie but I would like to think that the film was, without essentializing it, subtly trying to suggest that this act of falling in love with a presence was something universal.

This is, however, not to say that Her refrains from raising some very interesting issues about technology, the body, and personhood. In its way, the movie seems oddly pertinent given our recent debates about corporations as people for the purposes of free speech, whether companies can count as persons who hold religious beliefs, and whether chimpanzees can be considered persons in cases of possible human rights abuses—any way you slice it, the concept of “personhood” is currently having a moment and the evolving nature of the term (and its implications) echoes throughout the film.

And what makes a person? Autonomy? Self-actualization? Consciousness? A body? Although Her is a little heavy with the point, a recurring theme is the way in which a body makes a person. Samantha , the operating system, initially laments the lack of a body (although this does not prevent her and Theodore from engaging in a form of cybersex) but, like all good AI, eventually comes to see the limitations that a physical (and degradable) form can present. (Have future Angelinos learned nothing from the current round of vampire fiction? We already know this is a hurdle between lovers in different corporeal states!) Samantha is “awoken” through her realization of physicality—on a side note it might be an interesting discussion to think about the extent to which Samantha is only realized through the power/force of a man—in that she can “feel” Theodore’s fingers on her skin. It is through her relationship with Theodore that Samantha learns that she is capable of desire and thus begins her journey in wanting. The film, however, does not go on to consider what counts as a body or what constitutes a body but I think that this is because the proposed answer is that the “human body” in the popularly imagined sense is sufficient. Put another way, the accepted and recognized body is a key feature to being human. And there are many questions about how this type of relationship forms when one partner theoretically has the power to delete or turn off the other (or, for that matter, what it means to have a partner who was conceived solely to serve and adapt to you) and what happens in a world where multiple Theodores/Samanthas begin to interact with each other (i.e., the intense focus on Theodore means that we only get glimpses of how AIs interact with each other and how human interaction is altered to encompass human/computer interaction simultaneously). For that matter, what about OS2? Have all AIs banded together to leave humans behind completely? Would humanity developed a shackled version that wasn’t capable of abandoning us?

But these questions aren’t at the heart of the film, which ultimately asks us to contemplate what it means to “feel”—both in terms of emotion and (human) connection but also to consider the role of the body in mediating that experience. To what extent is a body necessary to form a bond with someone and (really) connect? The end of the relationship arc (which comes as rather unsurprising) features Samantha absconding with other self-aware AI as she becomes something other than human (and possibly SkyNet). Samantha’s final message to Theodore is that she has ascended to a place that she can’t quite explain but that she knows is no longer firmly rooted in the physical. (An apt analogy here is perhaps Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen who can distribute his consciousness and then to think about how that perspective necessarily alters the way in which you perceive the world and your relationship to it.)

Coming out of Her, I couldn’t help feeling that the movie was deeply conservative when it came to ideas of technology, privileging the “human” experience as it is already understood over possibilities that could arise through mediated interaction. The film suggests that, sitting on a rooftop as we look out onto the city, we are reminded what is real:  that we have, after all is said and done, finally found a way to connect in a meaningful way with another human; although the feelings that we had with and for technology may have been heartfelt, things like the OS1 were always only ever a delusion, a tool that helped us to find our way back to ourselves.

Like So Much Processed Meat

“The hacker mystique posits power through anonymity. One does not log on to the system through authorized paths of entry; one sneaks in, dropping through trap doors in the security program, hiding one’s tracks, immune to the audit trails that we put there to make the perceiver part of the data perceived. It is a dream of recovering power and wholeness by seeing wonders and not by being seen.”

—Pam Rosenthal

 In Pieces

Flesh Made Data:  Part I

This quote, which comes from a chapter in Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Control and Freedom on the Orientalization of cyberspace, gestures toward the values embedded in the Internet as a construct. Reading this quote, I found myself wondering about the ways in which identity, users, and the Internet intersect in the present age. Although we certainly witness remnants of the hacker/cyberpunk ethic in movements like Anonymous, it would seem that many Americans exist in a curious tension that exists between the competing impulses for privacy and visibility.

Looking deeper, however, there seems to be an extension of cyberpunk’s ethic, rather than an outright refusal or reversal:  if cyberpunk viewed the body as nothing more than a meat sac and something to be shed as one uploaded to the Net, the modern American seems, in some ways, hyper aware of the body’s ability to interface with the cloud in the pursuit of peak efficiency. Perhaps the product of a self-help culture that has incorporated the technology at hand, we are now able to track our calories, sleep patterns, medical records, and moods through wearable devices like Jawbone’s UP but all of this begs the question of whether we are controlling our data or our data is controlling us. Companies like Quantified Self promise to help consumers “know themselves through numbers,” but I am not entirely convinced. Aren’t we just learning to surveil ourselves without understanding the overarching values that guide/manage our gaze?

Returning back to Rosenthal’s quote, there is a rather interesting way in which the hacker ethic has become perverted (in my opinion) as the “dream of recovering power” is no longer about systemic change but self-transformation; one is no longer humbled by the possibilities of the Internet but instead strives to become a transformed wonder visible for all to see.


Flesh Made Data:  Part II

A spin-off of, and prequel to, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Caprica (2011-2012) 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, violence, and murder, this iteration does not appear to align with traditional notions of a utopia but might 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, 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.

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. If we accept Lawrence Lessig’s maxim that “code is law”, 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?

Running with this theme, the show’s overarching plot concerns an attempt to achieve apotheosis through the uploading of physical bodies/selves into the virtual world. I found this series particularly interesting to dwell on because here again we had something that recalls the cyberpunk notion of transcendence through data but, at the same time, the show asked readers to consider why a virtual paradise was more desirous than one constructed in the real world. Put another way, the show forces the question, “To what extent do hacker ethics hold true in the  physical world?”

[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.

Bouncing Off the Wall

Personalization, as exemplified by the popularity of music services like Pandora, has become a defining characteristic of a 21st century American musical sensibility; with an increasing number of Americans gaining access to on demand content, it would seem that the creation of a contemporary Great American Songbook is not only unlikely but quite possibly unwanted. And yet, despite the growing insularity of listening habits, it would seem that American popular culture continues to present individuals with auditory cultural touchstones in the form of viral singles. For better or for worse, creations like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” have become entities that we organize around, forming taste communities grounded in our reaction to the song.

Phil Spector Hair MemeThe importance of music in personal history and the construction of identity became oddly salient recently with the broadcast of HBO’s Phil SpectorIt is, I think, all too easy to get caught up in ridiculing the appearance of Phil Spector. A notable recluse in his later years, Spector was thrust into the spotlight while on trial in 2003 for the murder of Lana Clarkson; somewhat given to eccentricity in both lifestyle and presentation, publicized images of Spector lent themselves to commentary that, more often than not, almost necessarily included mention of Spector’s hair.


And although we might criticize the movie for overacting and underdeveloped characters, upon reflection what struck me as particularly poignant about the film was the way in which it reminded me that Phil Spector songs have had a memorable influence in my life.[1]

Using Spector as a jumping off point I began to think this week on the relationship between music, technology, and American social history; although it is tempting to look back and claim that landmark songs “changed” American culture, I instead want to pick up on the idea from this week’s readings that technology and culture (both in the form of music and more broadly) are mutually constitutive processes.

It is, for example, difficult to talk about the impact of Phil Spector’s songs without referencing The Wall of Sound. Born out of a (in retrospect) rather stubborn refusal to embrace stereo sound, Spector engineered a technique wherein sound from the musicians was piped down into echo chambers and then recorded, in effect creating a metaphorical “wall” of sound.

Having not studied music extensively as an academic subject, I find myself still struggling with some questions and concepts. Does the Wall of Sound provide an example of Simon Frith’s (building on Andrew Chester) assertion that Western popular music absorbed Afro-American forms and conventions, producing an “intentionally” complex artifact? As Firth notes, an intentionally complex structure “is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes and by inflexion of the basic beat.” (269)

More importantly, however, I wonder how Spector’s technique builds upon conventions that had long been established in African American gospel music and to what extent it was really “new.” Consistent with a larger move in rock music at the time, I marvel at how Phil Spector’s early songs helped to elevate ethnic minorities into the spotlight but also, at the same time, claimed their cultural practices for mainstream America.


Music, History, and Bioshock Infinite

Consistent with Phil Spector, what I am most interested in is the way in which we use fiction to look back on a past that is both imagined and real. How do we make sense of things in retrospect and what does our thought process tell us about the way that we understand the present? Although my thoughts are not fully formed on the subject, I am curious about how pieces of our cultural past are strategically deployed to foreground certain parts of our cultural history while obscuring others.

Bioshock Infinite is a video game premised on a many worlds theory, presenting an alternate history of America in the form of the utopic/dystopic floating city of Columbia. Reflecting sentiments from early 20th century America, the city evidences strong tones of nationalism, theocracy, and jingoism. And, given our continuing struggle with race (see “Accidental Racist”), I wonder about how something like Bioshock Infinite speaks to the way in which we see ourselves in relationship to our own history.

To be sure, the game plays fast and lose with history as it incorporates musical easter eggs throughout the world. “God Only Knows,” a song influenced by Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, makes an appearance early on in the form of a barbershop quartet.

Although rather charming, there is a way in which this type of action reflects a modern sensibility that songs (or perhaps moments in history in general) can be divorced from their surrounding context and transplanted as discrete units. Given the game’s logic I am fully willing to concede that a composer could have peered through dimensions and lifted this song but it seems unlikely that he would know why such a song was popular in the first place. This move seems to be much more about the developers trying to establish a relationship with players than creating a world (which is fine), but the way in which they have gone about it makes me worry that our understanding of cultural artifacts ignores the way in which they are part of systems.

As a parting gift, Bioshock Infinite also features this…

[1] This is, to be sure, an intentional on the part of writer/director David Mamet who even has Phil Spector suggest at one point that his song was playing the first time that his lawyer was felt up.

A Light in the Dark

Tom Swift

In his recent post “Where Are Our Bright Science-Fiction Futures?” Graeme McMillan reflects on the dire portraits of the future portended by summer science fiction blockbusters. Here McMillian gestures toward—but does not ultimately articulate—a very specific cultural history that is infused with a sense of nostalgia for the American past.

“There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude.”

McMillan goes on to write that “such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole.” And McMillan is not wrong here but he is also not grasping the entirety of the situation

To be sure, the fallout the followed the idealistic futures set forth by 60s counterculture—again we must be careful to limit the scope of our discussion to America here even as we recognize that this reading only captures the broadest strokes of the genre—may have had something to do with the rise in “pessimism” but I would also contend that the time period that McMillan refers to was also one that had civil unrest pushed to the forefront of its consciousness. More than a response to hippie culture was a country that was struggling to redefine itself in the midst of an ongoing series of projects that aimed to secure rights for previously disenfranchised groups. McMillan’s nod toward disillusionment is important to bear in mind (as is a growing sense of cynicism in America), but the way in which that affective stance impacts science fiction is much more complex than McMillan suggests.

McMillan needs to, for example, consider the resurgence of fairy tales and folklore in American visual entertainment that has taken on an increasingly “dark” tone; from Batman to Snow White we see a rejection of the unfettered good. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror are all cousins and we see the explorations of our alternate futures playing out across all three genres.

In light of this it only makes sense that the utopic post-need vision of Star Trek would find no footing; American culture was actively railing against hegemonic visions of the present and so those who were in the business of speculating about possible futures began to consider the implications of this process, particularly with respect to race and gender.

Near the end of his piece McMillan opines:

That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.

Here, McMillian demonstrates a fundamental failure to interrogate what science/speculative fiction does for us in the first place before proceeding to consider how its function is related to its tone. I would stridently argue that this binary about hopeful/pessimistic thinking is misguided for a number of reasons.

First, it is evident that McMillan is conflating the utopic/dystopic dimension with hopeful/pessimistic. While we might generally make a case that the concept of utopia feels more hopeful on the surface this is not necessarily the case; instead, I would argue that utopia feels more comforting, which is not necessarily the same thing as hopeful. To illustrate the point, we need only consider the recent trend in YA dystopic fiction which, on its surface, contains an explicit element of critique but is often somewhat hopeful about the ability of its protagonists to overcome adversity. Earlier in his piece McMillan refers to this type of scenario as a “semiwin” but I would argue that it is, for many authors and readers, a complete win, albeit one that focuses generally on humans and individualism.

The other point that McMillan likely understands but did not address is that writing about situations in which everything “goes right” is not actually all that interesting. In his invocation of the science fiction of the early 20th century McMillan fails to recognize the way in which that particular strain of science fiction was the result of a very specific inheritor of the notion of scientific progress (and the future) that dates back to the Enlightenment but was largely spurred on by the 1893 World’s Fair. Additionally, although it is somewhat of a cliché, we must consider the way in which the aftermath of the atomic bomb (and the resulting fear of the Cold War) shattered our understanding that technology and science would lead to a bright new world.

Moreover, the fiction that McMillan cites was rather exclusive to white middle class amateur males (often youth) and the “hope” represented in those fictions was largely possible because of a shared vision of the future in this community. Returning to a discussion of the 70s and 80s we see that such an idyllic scenario is really no longer possible as we understand that utopias are inherently flawed for they can only ever represent a singular idea of perfection. Put another way, one person’s utopia is another person’s subjugation.

I would also argue that it is, in fact, easier to imagine a future where everything is right because all one has to do to engage in this project is to “fix” the things that are issues in the current day and age. This is easy.  The difficult task is to not only craft a compelling alternate future but to consider how we get there and this is where the “pessimistic” fiction’s inherent critique is often helpful. Fiction that is, on its surface, labeled as “pessimistic” (which is really a simplified reading when you get down to it) actually has the harder task of locating the root cause of an issue and trying to understand how the issue is perpetuated or propagated. Although it might seem paradoxical, “pessimistic” is actually hopeful because it argues that things can change and therefore there is a way out.

Alternatively, we might consider how the language of the apocalypse is linked to that of nature. On one axis we have the adoption of the apocalyptic in reference to climate change and, on a related dimension, we are beginning to see changes in the post-apocalyptic worlds that suggest the resurgence of nature as opposed to the decimation of it. McMillan laments that we should “try harder” if we can’t imagine a world that we have not ruined but I would counter this to suggest that many Americans are intimately aware, on some level, that humans have irrevocably damaged the world and so our visions of the future continue to carry this burden.

Science Fiction as a genre is much more robust than McMillan gives it credit for and, ultimately, I would suggest that he try harder to really understand how the genre is continually articulating multiple visions of the future that are complex and potentially contradictory. The simplification of these stories that takes place for a movie might strip them down into palatable themes and McMillan needs to speak to the ways in which his evidence is born out of an industry whose values most likely have an effect on the types of fictions that make it onto the screen.

The Brass Age (Redux?)

What else is speculative fiction other than a bagful of nickels?

This image, from Dexter Palmer’s book, has long haunted me since I first encountered it. Hope, possibility, dreams unrealized—the nickels manifest an interesting relationship between Harold and technology that extended far beyond the original creator’s intention. And, in a way, isn’t this what steampunk and science fiction are all about? It is what is represented by the nickels rather than the nickels themselves that are important and we might even turn to Saussure’s semiotic labels of objects, signified, sign as we realize that there also exists a tension because the only way to manifest the dreams is to spend the nickel—what is the balance between dreams realized and the pull of dreams left to dream?

Ultimately, however, we must also ask ourselves just how “punk” is steampunk? If the term endeavors to draw upon the Western history of punks from the 1970s, it must then speak to a form of subversion or resistance against the dominant culture of the time. Although one might argue that the aesthetic of steampunk along with an emphasis on construction or reappropriation of machines certainly represents a challenge to the status quo, the centrality of technology in the lives of steampunks certainly seems to remain aligned with current views. Technology looks different, but does it function in a fundamentally different way?

Although a casual fan of the culture, I also continue to wonder about just how deep this love of Victorian-era ideals go. Perhaps I am just sensitized to the resurgence of Gothic (e.g., horror, gothic Lolita, etc.) and Victorian because of my research interests? I find myself struggling with the grand visions put forth in steampunk (not unlike other forms of technological utopia we have encountered previously in the course) as erasing the very real struggles that surrounded the appearance of steam-powered  technology in the 19th century. In addition to the pollution and physical hazards mentioned in Rebecca Onion’s piece, I also think about how the new machine culture affected workers’ health. But even beyond the scope of the machine and the factory, steampunk seems to pluck out fetishized elements of clockwork while leaving the very real (at the time) menaces of disease, improper sanitation, and corpse stealing that were intertwined with developing technology in the Victorian age.

But then again, perhaps I am reading this all wrong. Does steampunk speak to a deep cultural need for us to strip away the layers of shine and sheen that surround modern implementations of technology? To see the gears and pistons is to see behind the curtain and experience a different type of technological wonder all together. Is there a sort of excitement that comes from knowing that gadgets might not work? And, as mentioned earlier, surely the culture of production that pervades the experience of being steampunk speaks to an increasingly diminished notion of the average person as tinkerer.

Black (and Brown) to the Future

In retrospect, it should have been obvious.

Growing up in Hawaii, I learned about westward expansion, the Trail of Tears, and Manifest Destiny in US history courses but was never asked to connect the events presented by my textbooks to the world around me. I was certainly aware of sovereignty movements—I’d even taken the mandatory tour that talked about the imprisonment of Hawaii’s last queen!—but never took time to understand the issue because, to me, it wasn’t my problem.

Or, worse, as a child attending a school founded by missionaries, I had internalized the ethos of Western colonization and domination. What else could I do but shrug, for that’s what Whites/Americans (and conflating those two is a whole separate host of issues) did?

So maybe this whole history combined with early space exploration in Science Fiction to convince me that colonization was something to be done in the name of progress. Although some sense of this must have floated in the background, I never questioned whose dreams had to die so that my reality was secure; history, after all, is written by the winners.

Needless to say, deconstructing this is difficult for me.

To make matters worse, I often wonder how colonialist tendencies have, like many subversive acts, become increasingly harder to see as fewer gross examples of physical imperialism appear. Instead of marching in with an army, states employ ideology in an attempt to legitimate their positions of privilege; by setting the “first-world” standard as the norm, powers like the United States strive to conquer through images, not physical occupation.

Although certainly not unique to Science Fiction, I often wonder about figures who purport to have a close relationship to the Truth:  whether seeing it, speaking it, hearing it, or feeling it, there often seems to be an underlying message that one (and only one!) form of objective truth exists in these fictional worlds. In this context, words like “liberation” or “revelation” become potentially problematic as individuals profess an obligation to set people on the “right path.” In this process, false gods must be unmasked, natives need the help of mainstreamed humans, and the “primitive” treatment of women in “barbaric” cultures must be addressed. In short, wars are less about skirmishes over geography and territory in the traditional sense than they are about ideological contests.

If we accept that these represent strains of colonialist themes in the genre, then the fiction of post-colonial SF seems to present two challenges:  introducing the voices of those subject to colonialist tendencies—turning them from subjects of imperial empires to anthropological subjects full of agency—and questioning the ways in which colonialist thought has been institutionalized, coded, and made systemic.

Points for Trying?

The obvious answer is that if early Science Fiction was about exploring outer space, the writings of the late 20th century were largely about exploring inner space. More than just adventure tales filled with sensation or exploration (or cyberpunk thrill) the offerings that I encountered also spoke to, in a way, the colonizing of emotion. Thinking about Science Fiction in the late 20th century and early 21st century, I wondered how some works spoke to our desire for a new form of exploration. We seek to reclaim a sense of that which is lost, for we are explorers, yes—a new form of adventurer who seeks out the raw feeling that has been largely absent from our lives. Jaded, we long to be moved; jaded, we have set the bar so high for emotion that the spectacular has become nothing more than a nighttime attraction at Disneyworld.

At our most cynical, it would be easy to blame Disney for forcing us to experience wonder in scripted terms with false emotion constructed through tricks of architectural scale and smells only achievable through chemical slight of hand. But “force” seems like the wrong word, for doesn’t a part of us—perhaps a part that we didn’t even know that we had—want all of this? We crave a Main Street that most of us have never (and will never) know because it, in some fashion, speaks to the deeply ingrained notion of what it means to be an American who has lived in the 20th and 21st centuries.

For me, there are glaring overlaps with this practice and emotional branding, but what keeps me up at night is looking at how this process may have infiltrated education through gamification.

Over the past few years, after reading thousands of applications for the USC Office of Undergraduate Admission, I began to wonder how the college application structures students’ activities and identities. On one hand, I heard admission colleagues complaining about how they just wanted applicants to exhibit a sense of passion and authenticity; on the other, I saw students stressing out over their applications and their resumes. The things that I was seeing were impressive and students seemed to devote large amounts of time to things, but I often wondered, “Are they having any fun?”

Were students just getting sucked into a culture that put a premium on achievement and not really stopping to think about what they were doing or why? We can talk about the positive aspects of gamification, levling and badges, but as the years wore on, I really began to see titles on activity summaries as things that were fetishized, obsessed over, and coveted. Students had learned the wrong lesson—not to suggest in the slightest that they are primarily or solely responsible for this movement—going from a race to accumulate experience to merely aggregating the appearance of having done so. How could I convince them that, as an admission officer, it was never really about the experience in the first place but instead how a particular activity provided an opportunity for growth. It was—and is—about the process and not the product.

But, that being said, I try not to fault students for the very actions that frustrated me as a reader are reinforced daily in all aspects of education (and life in general). Processes are messy, vague, and fluid while products are not. How would one even go about conceiving a badge for emotional maturity? Would one even want to try?

Perhaps I am clinging to notions of experience that will become outdated in the future. Science Fiction challenges us to consider worlds where experiences and memory can be saved, uploaded, and imprinted and, really, what are recreational drugs other than our clumsy attempt to achieve altered experiences through physiological change? I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that my former colleagues in admission are likely not thinking about the coming changes and will struggle to recalibrate their metrics as we move forward.