Representations of non-normative genders and sexualities are nothing new in digital games. There are numerous examples (see also here), and many left to be recorded I’m sure. That said, the amount of diversity of sexualities and genders in this medium still seems lacking, particularly vis-à-vis other media. In the past I have written on the cultural production dynamics that help explain some of this relative lag in representation. Since writing that piece, there has been significantly more popular and academic attention to queer content in games, as I discuss here. When it comes to the politics of representation, however, more discussion has to happen that takes into account the particularities of the medium and does not rely on a problematic over-reliance on “realism” as the crux of the analysis. Here I use optional relationships and gender options in the game series Fable as a entry point into the complex dynamics of gender and sexuality in games as texts and structures.
It is pretty easy, but still vitally important, to point out the horrible transphobia in games like Grand Theft Auto V. This type of representation, and in turn its critique, recalls a long history of literature on the politics of representation (specifically Richard Dyer’s essay “Stereotyping”). Games are different from other media texts in key ways however. Espen Aarseth calls video games ergodic texts, which require nontrivial work in order for players/audiences to get through them.[i] Although there is a long history of debate between narratological approaches[ii] to games as cultural texts and the ludological approaches[iii] to games as rule-bound play spaces, I think it is fair to say that most (but certainly not all) games scholars would accept that we can talk about both at the same time and that each is important.[iv]
When it comes to analyzing representation in games, the interactive possibilities of the medium allows for a type of experience unavailable in most media: making the protagonist’s appearance and experience respond to player choices. Many digital games give players the opportunity to create their own avatars/characters[v], make moral choices for their on-screen proxy, engage in a variety of romantic pairings, and choose dialog options that change the flow of the text. This is particularly the case in the roleplaying genre of games (RPGs).[vi] Optional same-sex relationships in particular are one form of non-normative representation unique to this medium. Same-sex relationship options in games (not all of which are RPGs) like Bully, The Sims, The Temple of Elemental Evil, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age 2, are almost universally celebrated.
The Fable series in particular has drawn widespread acclaim for its portrayal of “diverse” sexualities (see here, here, and here). Yet, if we look at the changes to the structure of game choices over the course of the development of the Fable franchise, we actually see a persistent shutting down of queerness just as the game itself becomes more nuanced in terms of interactivity and narrative. Spoilers below.
In Fable I, the player-character can marry many men and women characters, and remain married to multiple partners of any gender. According to news articles on the game, this was the result of a coding error. All of the villagers in the game are programmed to be able to fall in love with the player-character (though it does still seem there are more female characters than male characters who fall for my male avatar). This makes same-sex romantic pairings possible but it does not reduce such pairings to identity labels. Although the non-player characters (NPCs) are not given sexuality labels, however, the player-character is marked in an oddly rigid way. Before my male character (the only option in the first game) marries anyone in the game, my character’s stat sheet lists his sexuality as “unknown.” When my male character marries a female villager, the stat sheet screen lists him as “heterosexual.” If I instead marry a male NPC the stats screen labels my character as “gay.” Notably, when I marry any female villager, I receive a dowry and a cut scene of the marriage, while if I marry a male villager there is no dowry and no cut scene. Whatever the gender of my first spouse, if I choose the opposite gender for my second spouse, my character’s label switches to “bisexual.” See images below for what these shifts actually looks like. Significantly, in the game, sexual practice and marriage are two separate actions, making it possible to marry one or more spouses and in turn change sexuality labels without ever even having sex! Indeed in Fable I you cannot have non-commercial sex until you are married, but you can employ the services of sex workers.
In Fable II, the rigid emphasis on labeling and clear distinction between identity categories shifts. Unlike in the first game, I can select a male or female character at the start of the game. Gender choice in games is almost always binary and collapses gender and sex into a single entity. Here when I discuss gender without distinguishing it from sex it is because performance (clothing, gait, etc.) is the only way the game communicates either, and often treats gender as sex (male and female). Interestingly, in the options of young characters you have at the start of Fable II there is not a great degree of gendered difference. The options are relatively androgynous and largely only marked as gendered by the blue and pink borders around the images and clothing colors (see below).
Moreover, whom my character has sex with or marries no longer results in a sexuality label in the stats screen. My character can also have sex with or without being married, via seduction of the right person, or by paying sex workers. There are separate stats for marital and extramarital sex however.
Non-player characters (NPCs), on the other hand, have specifically encoded sexualities in Fable II (in contrast to Fable I). The player can highlight and scan each NPC to pull up a screen that provides not only information on their personality and sexuality (either straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual), but what types of expressions you can perform and gifts you can give them to win them over. If only dating could be this easy in the rest of our lives!
On the one hand the type of representation in Fable II is more realistic than that in Fable I, as not everyone is open to dating people of all genders. What is not realistic, and is quite problematic, is that any NPC whose sexuality marks them as potentially attracted to the player-character’s gender can fall in love with the character—in other words, all lesbian-and bisexual-coded female NPCs and all heterosexual-coded male NPCs can fall in love with my female character, and all gay- and bisexual-coded male NPCs and heterosexual-coded female NPCs can fall in love with my male character. Translating this into “real” life would imply that all lesbians and heterosexual men could fall in love with me if I am a female-identified person, and all bisexuals fall in love with everyone. I think I’m pretty likable, but that is on its face ridiculous.
Arguments about realism, however, miss what is actually problematic about the way sexuality, sex, and gender are linked in the game. Specifically, a critical potential is lost when sexuality is treated as immutable, gender is a rigid binary that determines sexuality, and when fantasy is made “realistic” only when it comes to remarginalizing marginalized groups (non-heterosexual NPCs are few and far between in the game). Indeed in neither game is sexuality treated as flexible. Identity labels like straight and gay are reduced to the sex you have (or who you marry) or over-determine with whom one might have sex in the future. As we know, outside of the game many lesbians have had and continue to have sex with men, many straight men enjoy sex with other men, and many people of a variety of gender and sexuality identities end up attracted to and/or married to people they never would have dreamed of desiring at another point in their life. Further we can be critical of the fact that children, guards, enemies, and other NPCs you cannot seduce notably have no sexuality listed. According to the game, it would seem that children have no sexuality and that your sexuality only exists as it impacts me. Moreover, all sex workers in the game (male or female) are coded as bisexual, which reproduces a tired and oppressive stereotype about sex workers and bisexuals as those who will “screw anything that moves.” Further, it assumes that sex work is sex not work, and in turn defines one’s sexual identity.[vii]
Similarly in Fable II, while players can wear clothing designed for either of the two avatar gender options, the clothing is still clearly gendered. I can buy “Noble Lady’s Boots,” for example, from various clothing vendors or choose to outfit my avatar in female or male versions of the “Lower Class Outfit.” Clothing meant for the other gender can earn my character “crossdressing” stats and runs the risk of offending villagers: when I changed my male avatar’s outfit from the “Male Lower Class Outfit” to a corset, skirt, and “noble lady’s boots” (a mixture of class statuses but only one gender status), the tailor who owned the shop exclaimed “that is just disgusting!” However, a female villager I was wooing proclaimed me “radient!” when I made a similar costume change in front of her, and reacted negatively when I switched back to the male peasant outfit. As in life, apparently, transphobia is not the automatic response of the NPCs. Regardless, male characters in dresses and female characters in male-coded pants are always labelled as “cross-dressing” and never merely men in dresses or women in pants. Essentially, gender identity in the game (which is strictly controlled) overrides gender presentation in the game (which includes costumes).
Further, after finishing the main story of the game, the player has the option to collect 1,000,000 gold (which takes a very long time) and buy Castle Fairfax. After completing these tasks, there is a quest available in the castle at the end of which the player can obtain the “Potion of Transmogrification.”
This elixir changes the player-character from male to female or female to male. At first glance, the fact that the game treats gender transformation as a reward might seem like a positive step in transgender representation. However, the resulting permanent transformation leads passers-by on the street to accuse “didn’t you used to be a man?” Although transphobia is an everyday reality for many in real life, I doubt that the game designers were trying to highlight and critique its pervasiveness. Given that this is a fantasy game, one of the few places where gender transition might not be bound to “real life” violence, why is it not celebrated? In other words, whose fantasy are we working with here?
More than that, the game represents the reality of physical sex transformations as a reward to those who are able to reproduce the gender, racial, class, and sexuality norms of the system–whether that is the game or mainstream medical and legal institutions.[viii] After the avatar’s gender transformation, any spouses, unless they are labeled bisexual, will no longer have sex with or be attracted to my character. My character’s children refer to him (or her) with a gendered parental term (Mom for MTF avatars and Dad for FTM avatars), however in the process they use the reverse term for my character’s spouse. It would seem that all of these revelations are meant as a joke, belittling the lived experiences of those for whom these sorts of reactions are everyday realities as well as eliminating the realities of those who have supportive communities and partners (an option that seems outside the scope of possibility in the game). It also, as throughout the game, makes the relationships between sex, gender, and sexuality, highly proscribed. Although there are certainly real scenarios in which people leave their partners following a gender transition, many do not, and the game eliminates the latter as an option.
By the third installment of the series, we actually see an additional closing down of options in gender and sexuality, at least at the start of the game. In Fable III at the outset the player-character is coded as gender normative and ostensibly heterosexual (unlike the androgynous, queer potential of the two child options in Fable II).
At the start of the game I can chose to play as the prince or princess. Once my butler wakes me up, if I chose to play as the prince I must go meet my female friend after I get dressed. To show her the skills I have to “protect her” I have the option to hug or kiss her. If I chose the princess, on the other hand, I go to the same spot to meet my male friend. I show him I am prepared to “fight by his side” by either hugging or kissing him. Thus not only is my character positioned as heterosexual, there is a heteronormative articulation of gender roles in the very first interaction with this non-player character. Moreover, the player-character in Fable III is supposed to be the child of the player-character from Fable II. Yet, despite the gender options available in Fable II, not to mention optional but irreversible “Potion of Transmogrification,” the parent in question is repeatedly referred to as the father of your character.
All of these choices and changes are clearly tied to programmatic decisions. How NPCs react to and form relationships to my character are coded into the characters’ artificial intelligence. Arguably the goal in some of the NPC reactions is to enrichen the experience of the game, by making choices (including sexuality choices) matter to the game play experience. The fact that certain clothing options are read as cross-dressing, that sexuality is inscribed into characters’ very code (their very being), and that gender and sexuality are statically related, however, demonstrates an oppressive worldview defines the very structure of the game. In a fictional world where I can use magic on a regular basis, where faces carved in rock talk to me, and in which I battle fantasy creatures, that particular types of reality and marginality are reinforced in the Fable games is curious. It is also indicative of larger systemic problems in how marginalized characters are incorporated into games.
First, both sexuality and gender options are made available to players to use at their own discretion. Players are made responsible for making their game characters go against male, heterosexual norms in game representation. This is a very neoliberal approach to representation that puts responsibility for diversity onto audiences. If the player need to push a “gay button,” as game designer Anna Anthropy has termed it, to see same-sex relationships in games, then anyone who doesn’t or is unaware that button exists can continues to consume the heteronormative dominated texts. Certainly Fable does confront players with queerness more directly than most games (i.e. gay male avatars will fall in love with and proposition/propose to your male avatar and if you check NPCs character screens you will see gay, lesbian, and bisexual listed). Yet, and this is the second problem, games as fantasy spaces have the potential to disentangle queerness from experiences of violence and without relying on oversimplified notions of identity. If we conceptualize representation as important because it provides us a chance to imagine the world differently[xi], why can’t that difference include a more open acceptance of gender and sexual diversity that is not only experienced in relation to binary labels, biology predetermining gender, and marriage as the ultimate goal of sexuality?
[i] Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
[ii] Thomas H. Apperley, “Genre and Game Studies: Toward a Critical Approach to Video Game Genres,” Simulation and Gaming 37, no. 1 (2006): 6-23; Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).
[iii] Gonzalo Frasca, “Simulation Versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology,” in Video Game Theory Reader, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003): 221-35; Jesper Juul, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
[iv] Frans Mäyrä, An Introduction to Game Studies: Game in Culture (London: SAGE, 2008): 18.
[v] This combined terms is used to signifying that not all player-characters are best described as avatars, but that ways of describing the relationship between players and their on-screen proxies can be similar in games with characters and avatars.
[vi] As described by Frans Mäyrä, in roleplaying games “Rather than just playing to ‘win’ the game, in role-playing games you were expected to become immersed in an alternative fantasy reality as characters living their lives in it” Frans Mäyrä, An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in culture (London: SAGE, 2008): 78.
[vi] Throughout the game there are many ideological comments made on sex, including the fact that any act of unprotected sex results in acquiring an STD, or– if you are married and having sex with a spouse who is the opposite gender– the chance of a baby.
[viii] I am indebted to Cathy Hannabach for pointing out the corollaries with real life barriers to gender transition/confirmation. In her words, the game aligns with real life in that “life-saving identity documents, name changes, hormones, legal protection, and surgical interventions are similarly guarded by gatekeepers and only granted under select circumstances, based on folks’ ability to perform subservience to the game.” Cathy Hannabach, email communication, October 5, 2013.
[ix] I am indebted to T.L. Taylor in particular for reminding me of this argument.
-Contributed by Adrienne Shaw, Assistant Professor, Department of Media Studies and Production, Temple University-
In early September 2013 the consumer marketing data company Acxiom unveiled a new website: AboutTheData.com. The site is billed as a resource for consumers seeking answers to “questions about the data that fuels marketing” and has been received by some as a welcome opportunity to peek under the hood of one of the nation’s largest data brokers. In the words of Acxiom’s CEO Scott Howe: “Companies like ours haven’t historically done a good job of educating people on what we do with data about them. Largely because of that, misperceptions abound.”
Much of the site’s content purports to address these misperceptions, providing generalized responses to questions such as “Why is data about me important to companies?” (because we expect personalized interactions) and “How do companies get data about me and what do they do with it?” (they get it from public sources and our online activities and use it to show us relevant ads that do not waste our time). The language is sanitized and the design is excellent. No surprises here. But another component of the site offers a much more personalized experience and presents an opportunity to think a bit more deeply about the politics of data brokerage.
The site’s data portal invites users to enter their names, addresses and last four digits of their social security numbers to access their very own marketing profiles. For the first time, Acxiom is allowing individuals to see the information the company has collected about them and their households across six categories spanning demographic, residential, vehicle, economic, purchase history, and interest information. Within these categories are specific data points regarding age, gender, marital status, occupation, income, credit, home ownership, property type, and online and offline purchasing records. And this is a non-exhaustive list. Further, the portal allows users to edit their profile information and suppress the use of certain data for marketing purposes. There is also an opt-out option (more on that below).
One valuable way to understand these developments is through the lens of audience labor: the enrollment of consumers into maintaining their own marketing profiles. Acxiom’s framing of the portal as a chance for people to edit their data in order to receive more relevant advertising fits squarely within the trajectory of media consumers’ accelerating participation in the valorization of surveillance (Cohen, 2008). A related perspective, and the one I focus on here, is the broader political economy (Pickard, 2013) of data brokerage. This approach provides insights into the historical context and structural imperatives behind Acxiom’s actions and let’s us make some theoretical points about the politics of advertising and marketing more generally.
Advertising, like the commercial media system at large, is fundamentally shaped not only by media markets, but public policy as well. As McChesney (2004) and others have noted, advertising depends generally upon the existence of profit-seeking media, but also upon a set of focused policies ranging from the tax deductibility of ad expenditures to advertisers’ broad latitude to make misleading and bombastic claims. As advertising has pivoted around increasingly pervasive consumer surveillance, maintaining a public policy regime based on industry self-regulation and “opt-out” principles has become a top priority for the entire marketing complex.
Data collection practices have come under scrutiny in recent years from regulators, legislators, and the White House itself. In 2012 both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the White House issued extensive reports calling upon Congress to enact comprehensive consumer privacy legislation. Each stressed the importance of establishing baseline standards for transparency, security, and choice regarding corporate data collection. Indeed, Congress introduced nearly a dozen bills between 2010 and 2012 addressing data security and transparency issues, including broad-based legislation such as the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act and Consumer Privacy Protection Act. While the merits of individual proposals are certainly worth debating and none of these measures gained much traction in Congress, it is clear that Washington has become increasingly interested in the activities of data brokers.
Operating for decades without significant regulatory oversight and relatively unknown to everyday consumers, data brokers like Acxiom have become a particular focus of concern among policymakers. The FTC singled out “information brokers” as a group deserving of specific legislation regarding data transparency, while members of the Congressional Privacy Caucus opened a “sweeping investigation” into nine leading companies in the sector, including Acxiom. Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts has pledged to “push for whatever steps are necessary to make sure Americans know how this industry operates and are granted control over their own information.”
These proposals and inquiries manifested while Acxiom and other data brokers have pursued aggressive expansion, especially into internet-based services. In 2012, Acxiom claimed to possess marketing information about 500 million individuals worldwide with about 1,500 data points per person. A year later the company upgraded these figures to 700 million individuals at 3,000 data points per person (Annual report, p. 8). In February the company announced a partnership with Facebook to allow marketers to match data gathered through shopper loyalty programs to individual Facebook profiles. Perhaps most importantly, the AboutTheData site predated the release of Acxiom’s new Audience Operating System (AOS), a cloud-based platform enabling “marketers to connect all types of traditionally disconnected data and – for the first time – to create a truly singular view of the consumer.” The AOS is meant to deliver the holy grail of the consumer data industry: one-to-one marketing.
In this context, what has been framed by Acxiom primarily as a proactive move is clearly a defensive measure meant to influence public opinion and fend off government regulation: a public relations parry based on transparency. Described by The New York Times as a “novel” tactic of openness, the transparency parry is a well worn strategy in the business of consumer data collection. Reveal a little to hide a lot.
In the late 1990s, the first generation of online data brokers used this tactic in contests with regulators and privacy advocates to determine what rules, if any, would govern internet data collection and use, broadly conceived (Crain, 2013). Though not as sophisticated as contemporary practices, online consumer data collection was nevertheless rampant by 1998 and completely outside of regulatory purview. Flush with dotcom era finance capital, companies like DoubleClick (now part of Google) and Engage (now part of Microsoft) developed massive consumer profiling and ad targeting capacities, which attracted the attention of privacy advocates, who marshaled policy-makers into action.
Data brokers, online advertising companies, web publishers, and marketers formed coalitions and trade groups to fend off regulatory threats and maintain the status quo of industry self-regulation. Their weapon of choice was the PR parry. When the FTC (reluctant leader of the regulatory effort) found that 85% of major websites collected consumer information while just 14% disclosed such practices, data brokers and the Direct Marketing Association led a campaign to encourage companies to post privacy policies. When most policies proved to be incomprehensible, data brokers created templates for general use. Even then (and still today), rather than providing genuine transparency, privacy policies “let users know as little as possible about data collection activities, in as polite but complex a fashion as possible so that they wouldn’t understand what was going on but could feel good about them (Turow, 2011, p. 83).” The introduction of privacy policies forestalled action by the FTC, which was persuaded to give industry more time to develop effective measures of self-regulation. Reveal a little, hide a lot.
The fight escalated as data brokers announced efforts to merge online information with personally identifiable offline data. With increasing public concern regarding internet privacy, Congress considered adopting “opt-in” legislation mandating that companies obtain prior consent from web users regarding data collection. Citing a renewed commitment to transparency, data brokers developed privacy portals like DoubleClick’s Privacychoices.org, which provided information about data practices and offered consumers a mechanism to “opt-out” of data collection. Though horribly broken in scope and implementation, opt-out became generalized enough to curtail opt-in proposals.
On the basis of a veneer of transparency and consumer choice, industry self-regulation was established as the default system of governance for online data collection. For a policy-making apparatus unfit to withstand concentrated commercial power, this is to be expected. However, the status quo remains challengeable, especially considering the accelerating scale and scope of corporate and governmental surveillance. Many of the privacy advocates that cut their teeth in the 1990s such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center continue to push for regulatory enforcement of meaningful data protections. For data brokers of all kinds, the PR transparency parry remains as important as ever. In 2009 for example, Google created its Dashboard privacy control center in the midst of renewed FTC investigations and Congressional hearings. Acxiom’s efforts are simply the latest installment in this historical progression.
There is a certain degree of instrumental merit to data brokers’ efforts to lift the curtain. Acxiom’s site does present a jarring, if incomplete, snapshot of the breadth of information collected about us. But the bigger picture here is that because we have an extremely limited political baseline for consumer protections, something like AboutTheData is considered “industry leading” or even progressive. A standard was set that engenders what Andrejevic (2009) identifies as an “asymmetrical loss of privacy.” Individuals grow “increasingly transparent to both public and private monitoring agencies, even as the actions of these agencies remain stubbornly opaque in the face of technologies that make collecting, sharing, and analyzing large amounts of information easier than ever before” (p. 7).
The PR transparency parry looks to defuse threats while leaving privacy asymmetry in tact. Most of the information revealed on Acxiom’s site falls into the category of “core data,” basic bits of information collected from various sources. Much less represented are “derived data,” the categories of consumption and lifestyle that are attached to consumers based on algorithmic interpretation of “core data.” Moreover, Acxiom’s implementation of “opt-out” functionality might be called flawed, but disingenuous is a more accurate descriptor. Even with full understanding that offering opt-out is low risk based on studies of consumer behavior, Acxiom’s process is complex and convoluted, requiring a long trail of clicks and multiple forms corresponding to different “services.” The online tracking opt-out mechanism uses the industry standard practice of employing a “do not track” browser cookie that gets erased if cookies are ever cleared wholesale.
The asymmetry of privacy, in conjunction with the unabashed invitation to maintain our own marketing profiles betrays the fundamental cynicism that undergirds the business model of the data broker industry. The efforts of privacy advocates and the threat of legislation have forced Acxiom to tip its cards for the first time. As we begin to examine the marketing data that has been newly revealed about ourselves, we should remember that Acxiom still has much to hide.
-Contributed by Matthew Crain, Matthew Crain is an adjunct instructor at DePaul University and Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His work examines the transformation of media and advertising systems in the digital age with an emphasis on economics, politics, and technology.-
Some contributors to Culture Digitally have a busy week starting October 7th! On October 8th Microsoft Research New England is hosting its 5th Anniversary Symposium to commemorate its founding in 2008. As part of this event former and existing visiting researchers have been asked to attend and some will present their research. From Culture Digitally, Gina Neff will be presenting her work based on her article Why Big Data Won’t Cure Us and Tarleton Gillespie will present work based on a forthcoming article he authored with Microsoft’s Cate Crawford. His talk is titled “What is a flag worth? Social media Reporting Tools and the Vocabulary of Complaint.” I will be there participate in the audience! On October 10th, Hector Postigo will be at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The Center for Global Communication Studies is holding a symposium on Digital Methods, Ethical Challenges. Hector will present the talk, “Participatory observation, participatory culture and interventionist research: When should we strive to be more than observers in digital culture?” Please check back in the weeks that follow for podcasts and other reports from the field.
-Contributed by Hector Postigo, Temple Dept. of Department of Media Studies & Production-
Posted in announcement | Comments Off
If you don’t follow the Hearsay Culture podcasts then they are a great set of discussions with a range of folk relevant to issues of culture and the digital, including a few withthose who contribute to Culture Digitally such as Tom Streeter or Tarleton Gillespie. A recent addition was a podcast Tim Jordan made with the host David Levine discussion issues of the nature of communication and how some of our basic practices of communication have changed with the rise of the internet and related digital cultures. You can find the discussion here.
-Contributed by Tim Jordan, King’s College London, Culture, Media and Creative Industries-
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off
We must come to terms with the systems and artifacts we build and, by understanding what they do to and for us, construct them (both materially and semiotically) in more liberatory and productive ways. But critical analysis of technologies is of limited usefulness if we cannot connect the results of this work to actual engagements with the technologies in question. Figuring out ways to bring material engagements with the technologies we study is of paramount importance – not just as a way of making better objects (though this will be an important outcome) but also so that we understand the objects that are made in a more concrete and comprehensive fashion. For me, this requires what I’ve been calling ‘critical making,’ (Ratto and Hoekema, 2009a; Ratto, 2011a and 2011b), materially productive hands-on work intended to uncover and explore conceptual uncertainties, parse the world in ways that language cannot, and to disseminate the results of these explorations through embodied, material forms.
Recently, in the Critical Making lab we printed a nonworking version of the Defense Distributed 3d model ‘liberator’ handgun. To be precise we printed a disabled version of the gun as part of a project on the increasing hybridity of the virtual/material world and the role of 3D printing more generally. We did so publicly (see here, here, here, and here) in order to initiate an open conversation on issues related to 3D printing and guns and to hopefully engage law enforcement, regulators, policy makers, and 3D printing advocates in developing a measured rather than a knee-jerk response to the perceived problems associated with 3D printing. That an open conversation is necessary was brought home to us by recent calls by both conservative and democratic politicians in the US for regulation of 3D printers.
We are certainly interested in facilitating and extending the current debates and are hopeful that we can work with authorities to address concerns. However, we also want to be clear that the gun is just a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for a whole slew of important theoretical and pragmatic information issues. Our work is not on firearms or the functionality of 3D printed guns per se, but addresses the limitations of our capacity to engage and think about them. We are primarily interested in the increasingly tenuous dividing line between our mundane and physically embodied existence and the seemingly separate and virtual modes associated with digital technologies. Recent debates regarding the material nature of information have been given a new locus given the development of working 3D printable guns. Our reason for printing the gun was simply to take note of this new recentering and to explore the issues from a number of different perspectives.
More specifically, the law and other formal and informal entities are used to treating ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’ as two entirely separate worlds. We have been encouraged to think this way by a whole variety of individuals and institutions, including both libertarian (e.g. John Perry Barlow’s famous ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’) and conservative voices (e.g. reasoning regarding the DMCA in the US,) depending on need. Over the last few decades, a lot of work has been done to encourage the idea that information is immaterial, that form and content can be separated, that the medium is just a neutral channel for transmission. (McLuhan was prescient in calling attention to the limits of this idea!)
Our research on 3D printing includes work on its use to facilitate accessibility for the visually impaired, new forms of distributed productivity and design, and other socially beneficial attributes. Our printing of the gun model and exploration of its dimensions should not be taken as either a whole-hearted embracing of the cyber-anarchistic future articulated by its original creator, nor of a ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ reductive response. Instead, the project stands as part of our work as information scholars and as public intellectuals debating and exploring new information technologies and the patterns of life associated with them.
Matthew Kirshenbaum has noted that “computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a pre-meditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality.” 3D printing calls attention to this fallacy – and the 3d printed gun is only one example of this, albeit a particularly evocative one. Other examples of this fallacy include the idea that all information (not just the computational) is similarly immaterial. This results in the idea that once books and other textual materials have been scanned and digital versions have been created, the physical ‘versions’ can simply be thrown away since all value resides in the ‘informational’ content and that has been captured. While librarians, archivists, and critical scholars from a range of disciplines (Katherine Hayles, Matthew Kirschenbaum, JF Blanchette, and many others) have been speaking about the problems of this perspective for many years, 3D printing definitely highlights the pragmatic and not just the theoretical import of such issues.
This was originally posted on the Critical Making lab site.
-Contributed by Matt Ratto, University of Toronto, Faculty of Information-← Older posts | Newer posts →