Saturday 19 May 2012

Games within games and plays within plays

If you could imagine a computer adventure game that was actually 'real' where virtual things on a screen become physical things: things would continually change shape according to the actions of people. Nobody would know where they were. Everything would change. The physical constraints of the environment would be so transitory that everybody's interpretation of "what's going on?" or "where are we?" would be different. No decision could be made as to what to do, and any agreement between individuals would rest on the expediency of mitigating the possibility of disagreement rather than defining shared values and principals. This is what I believe IT does to us, and whilst thinking of a computer game being 'real' is to turn informational constraints into physical constraints, I think information constrains us just like matter.

This is a useful thought experiment to further explore the theme of symmetry and abstraction that I started yesterday: Now I want to consider where information technology fits into the symmetry/abstraction/experience framework. [of course, a framework is already an abstraction, so I guess I'm not off to a good start!]. Thinking about how the reality of a computer game might affect us (actually, maybe a bit like TRON) and the disorientation that ensues highlights the point about the constraints on experience.

The main point I want to explore is that information technology provides experience and constraint simultaneously. Abstraction alone is information, and the information constrains, leads to experience, new experiences are abstracted, and so on - as I discussed yesterday. Technology represents both informational constraint and physical constraint. Any technology results from a process of abstraction in the first place. Someone has an idea for a new tool to build, whether physically or in software. That tool's physical presence changes the environment of experience. The lights on the screen also frame experience, and they are usually presented within an extended informational framework of 'rules for use' which is presented either within the  office where the technology is implemented, or presented within the technology itself ('how to use...'). But technology is a realisation of an abstraction.

What's important about information technology is the ease with which the informational constraints of experience can be manipulated. Our social networks abound with continually emerging informational constraints. As they change, so we change. Of course, this is similar to thinking about the information within a conversation. But within information technology, there are particular kinds of constraint that frame experience which is also constrained by physical constraints of the medium (only text, disembodied). Added to that, there are new constraints which may be applied which have nothing to do with the conversation, like changes to the interface (think of recent changes to Facebook). These themselves affect the constraints of the conversation.

We have never in our history been able to change the constraints of experience with such fluidity as we can with the  manipulation of informational constraints through IT. It is as if we were in a computer game - indeed many of our computer systems feel like giant social games increasingly played out in real time (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc). A despotic baron might once have destroyed a local village, or the local church might have been burnt down, but these are not easy things to organise - even for a despotic baron. The manipulation of experiential constraint of information is achieved with the flick of a switch.

But making effective collective decisions, and deciding upon the principals for those decisions (rather than expediency) is important to avoid catastrophe. Expediency and lack of coordination in decision-making can both steer things over the cliff-edge. But in a shape-shifting world, how do you avoid that?

But technology increasingly is a "play within a play". Whilst it manipulates reality through manipulating information constraints, the action of the manipulation and the manipulation itself is also subject to technology which becomes the material for experience. This is where the 'play within a play' is interesting. For in the "play within a play", there is still experience over time. In the "play within a play", observers are participants observing observations. Players within the shape-shifting information playground may explore their own information-constraining actions. In this "play within a play" what can be revealed is the inherent meaning that lies behind the action of each individual as they engage in continual constraint. In essence what is revealed is a coherent structuring of expectations.

A coherent structuring of expectations is more than 'agreement'. It is more than expediency. It involves a deep shared acknowledgement of what is likely to happen and what to do about it. It affords a deep metacritique on the shape shifting processes of technological constraint, and a self-awareness of each individual's role in that. This experiential identification of shared meaning is a temporal process which has form. It has symmetry much in the way that a piece of music has symmetry. What is sought in the process of bringing people together to explore their experiences is an aesthetic coordination of meaningfulness. It is transformative of the individuals as well as transformative of the action situation.

What is most interesting me in this is that for the ancient Greeks, drama fulfilled a deep sociological function and that there seems to be a parallel with this process of coordinating meaning together. The Greeks invited members of a society into a shared process of observation. Within that process of observation, it allowed for the formulation of meaning. Interestingly, the Greeks similarly had concepts of a shape-shifting universe.

Our information environment is shape-shifting, and in order to manage the environment of huge amounts of information, a way of playing with the reality of the shape-shifting world must be found which invites those within the environment to be observers of the environment's own dynamics. Perhaps only then can a dynamics of meaningful coordination emerge.

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