M13: Text and the City
The Creative Class in the Matrix
Here’s what I’m thinking:
The Friday update will consist of interverse news that I find interest along with a theme upon which I will expand on Monday.
Friday for curation, Monday for creation.
Microsoft buys Activision for almost $70 billion, the largest software acquisition ever. In their own words:
The fantastic franchises across Activision Blizzard will also accelerate our plans for Cloud Gaming, allowing more people in more places around the world to participate in the Xbox community using phones, tablets, laptops and other devices you already own. Activision Blizzard games are enjoyed on a variety of platforms and we plan to continue to support those communities moving forward.
Sometimes a game is just a game and you buy a gaming company because you have the money and everybody’s gaming during the pandemic. But here’s the thing about the Metaverse: the most popular metaverse(ish) locations are all gaming locations: Fortnite, Roblox etc. And a key aspect of Web3 property rights (or so its backers claim) is about buying digital goods in one place and being able to use them in others; say, a gun that will work in all kinds of first-person shooter games.
I can imagine a future game operating system (especially if companies like Microsoft use their market power) in which one’s avatars, skins and other properties work across gaming experiences, just as Apple and Microsoft impose on developers who create apps for their platforms - and make those developer’s lives easier by creating APIs that leverage OS level features.
But even an industry standard Game OS isn’t really plumbings the depths of the opportunity. Consider this interview that Phil Spencer gave to Kara Fisher (a week before MS announced their acquisition and Phil declared “Once the deal is complete, the Activision Blizzard business will report to me as CEO, Microsoft Gaming”):
If you recall, Microsoft lost digital territory to Google and Apple because they didn’t anticipate the primary UX of Web 2.0, which is through a touch screen and its UI. They’re betting (just like Facebook) that the dominant user experience of the Metaverse will be a tweak of existing gaming interfaces and not a tweak of existing touchscreen interfaces. That’s the premise behind the ‘Metaverse as Matrix’ isn’t it?
Gaming is huge as entertainment (bigger than Hollywood by far) but it’s still tiny in comparison to truly big tech. Worldwide gaming industry sales were $180 billion; in comparison Apple alone raked in $365 billion last year. I am reasonably confident that entertainment will increasingly become immersive as well game like, but will that generalize to our broader consumption of bits?
At least gaming is real with real customer; crypto and Web3 seem even more iffy - a map in search of a territory as Evgeny Morozov says:
With Web3, things are different. The link between language and reality is much more immediate and direct. Here, we are no longer talking about linguistic, intellectual, or analytical pollution, even though they are, of course, present. No, we are finally talking about performativity, with new realities being born out of the very language itself. The advocates of Web3 are quite explicit about this: we’ve got this beautiful map on our hands – all that’s missing is the territory it is supposed to refer to. Perhaps, this is the right mindset for the Age of the Metaverse: if there's no reality, we'll create one by talking it into existence.
I agree with many of his positions, but I am not sure if the confusion between map and territory is productive here because at some level the map and the territory have always created each other. In the most literal sense: European map-making went hand in hand with their expanding empires, and more generally, the vast expansion of military and economic power in the modern era has gone hand in hand with new knowledge regimes - population statistics for example.
And that’s one way to read what China is doing with its surveillance state:
Digital control in China operates as a dual-use technology — repressive in a security sense but progressive from a socialist one. On the one hand, it serves a conventional coercive function by keeping tabs on 1.4 billion people and letting them know it. On the other, it facilitates public polling, responsiveness, oversight and probabilistic forecasting enabled by massive caches of aggregated data on individual and group-level behavior.
Smartphones and facial recognition, for instance, make it near impossible for dissidents or protesters to organize; they also make it easier to fine jaywalkers or redirect traffic in case of a jam. Public complaints about corruption can be weaponized for political purges, but they are also a tool against self-serving officials who embezzle or waste public funds. Social credit scores will help the state coerce a preferred form of citizenship, but they also help alleviate mistrust and risk in China’s unruly consumer market.
Computation is the new medium of power & knowledge, which brings me to today’s theme.
Text and the City, or how reimagining the medium of communication will inevitably make us reimagine the world that’s being communicated.
Note: the future of the city is a major topic for the interverse
Marshall MacLuhan famously said:
TV makes us think and feel differently from print media and social media makes us think and feel differently from TV. Should be obvious to anyone who experiences all three as many of us still do. But we can take McLuhan’s insight one step further:
Media makes certain contexts possible and in turn, those contexts make that medium possible
In particular, there’s no city without inscription and no inscription without the city.
What’s an inscription? any sign/symbol/image/video/road/ etc that makes it possible for us to navigate a space, whether real or virtual.
Everything from street signs to roads are a form of inscribing space so that a city becomes legible to us. A city is too big to know without aids - it’s impossible to coordinate urban complexity without having means of inscribing space. Not only the most obviously functional forms of inscription like road signs, but also inscriptions like sculptures and advertising banners that make us feel a certain way.
In short, text made the city happen and in return, the city is where text is produced. If the interverse is the future of text, what spatial form does it depend upon and in return, what spatial form does it help navigate?
What does the interverse inscribe?
and here’s my answer:
The interverse inscribes the planetary city
What might that inscription look like? Artists are beginning to imagine that future. I like this video by Keiichi Matsuda:
One of the books I am reading, Shannon Mattern’s “The City is not a Computer” brings many of these threads together. The way I interpret their title is as a take on the ‘map is not the territory’ meme. Morozov thinks Web3 is a grift where snake oil peddlers are selling a non-existent territory on the back of an ever changing map. Mattern agrees in part: the ‘smart city’ meme is very much a grift on the back of which many companies have sold expensive high-tech systems to control seeking governments, but unlike Web3, there’s pre-existing territory that can’t be enclosed within the profit or control seeking apparatus of the market and the state.
The smart city is a modern avatar of the enclosure movement:
The Enclosure Movement was a push in the 18th and 19th centuries to take land that had formerly been owned in common by all members of a village, or at least available to the public for grazing animals and growing food, and change it to privately owned land, usually with walls, fences or hedges around it.
The metaverse as it stands is likely to enhance digital enclosure with spillage into the real world as well, i.e., the complete capture of both the digital and the physical world by forces of the state and the market. The only way to counteract this movement towards a fully surveilled metaverse is to insist that the interverse is a commons and to fight to make that happen.
Metaverse: 👁 Interverse: 🌏