Jun 26 2012 6:00pm

Star Trek, Pong, and Class Struggle

One question that came out of John Scalzi’s apt blog post “Straight, White, Male: The Easiest Difficulty Level There Is” is this one:

“How might we understand the idea of class through video games?”

That is, if using the analogy of an RPG video game can help white male nerds understand institutionalized racism and white privilege, it’s also possible that video games might help nerds of every gender and race understand the concept of class structure and class struggle.

In Adam Curtis’s documentary “All Watched Over by Machine’s of Loving Grace” the filmmaker interviewed Loren Carpenter about his 1991 experiment using the game Pong to inspire mass collaboration. In the interview Carpenter explains how a group of 5000 people spontaneously figured out how to collaborate to play pong on a giant screen. The collaborating crowd spontaneously figured out how to cooperate with a minimum amount of communication and no hierarchal structures of power; there were no overt directions nor any chain of command, but the crowd was able to figure out how to collectively move the paddles on the big screen and keep the ball bouncing back and forth. They learned how to run a flight simulator game collectively, and how to solve the variety of other puzzles put to them. They worked together each time in a completely egalitarian way and as a mass.

Carpenter viewed his experiment as a demonstration of the possibility of radical democracy. The group mind was made up of 5000 equal players, each person worked freely, outside of the usual authoritarian modes. However, another way to view the same experiment would be from the opposite perspective. Rather than a demonstration of the efficacy of democratic participation it demonstrated the efficiency of a dictatorship. After all, while the 5000 individuals appeared to move as free individuals, it was Carpenter who determined the context and meaning of their movements. What Carpenter did was establish a very strong power relation, one that was so persuasive that it became almost invisible, and in this way he could direct 5000 people’s actions without having to bother giving 5000 separate commands or monitoring his worker’s actions.

In Carpenter’s experiment the class relation or power relation was realized in the game of Pong. In Carpenter’s experiment class was a video game.

“Language is a virus from outer space” — William S. Burroughs

The same year as Carpenter’s experiment, CBS aired an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Game.” In this episode, William Riker was introduced to a video game while visiting Risa (the pleasure planet)

The game is a headset like the Kind rebel fighters wore in Star Wars, or the kind telemarketers wear today, only instead of ear phones this headset projected a holographic screen across the player’s field of vision. And it was on this screen that the game was played. It was a bit like a holographic version of a whack a mole game, only instead of moles, funnels emerged from the rows of holes on the bottom of the screen. The aim of the game was to move a frisbee into the writhing maws of the striped funnels that emerged from the holes. It was a game of virtual penetration, but in the game the vagina dentatas were phallic. The headset stimulated the pleasure centers in the player’s brain each time a frisbee entered a funnel, and we learned pretty early on that this game was a mind control device.

WESLEY: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this looks like a psychotropic reaction.

ROBIN: Are you saying you think the game’s addictive?

WESLEY: What’s going on in the prefrontal cortex?

ROBIN: Doesn’t that area control higher reasoning?

This game on Star Trek was an elaborate ruse. The product of alien technology, the game was designed to make the crew of the Enterprise suggestible and, eventually, designed to be used to maintain control over the entire Federation. This addictive game was a trap specifically planted on Riker in order to put the Enterprise to use in an alien conspiracy and expansion project.

The Game on Star Trek worked in mostly the same way as Carpenter’s version of Pong, but while Carpenter saw his game as benign or even invisible, the writer Brannon Braga depicted the game as an alien conspiracy.

The misunderstanding or mistake that Carpenter and Braga both make is to assume that there is an authentic way for people to operate in the world together, but while Carpenter imagines that he has demonstrated that people can be directly networked as equals without any mediating power, on Star Trek the appearance of the Game suggests that the usual interactions on the Enterprise are natural or endemic to the people of the Enterprise, that there is nothing foreign about the system the crew usually finds itself enmeshed in, and that any visible system of control or video game would have to be alien.

A 1972 a documentary advertisement or promotional film for Eastman Kodak and polaroid mentions the goal of both Star Trek and Carpenter.

“Since 1942 Edward Lamb and Polaroid have pursued a single concept, one single thread, the removal of the barrier between the photographer and his subject.” This idea that a photograph could be taken without “any barriers between the photographer and his subject” is the same goal that Carpenter aimed at producing for the entire mass of 5000 equals, and its the object that Wesley Crusher worked to reestablish on the Enterprise.

The goal is to find simple, authentic, and direct reality. What we’re seeking is something whole or complete. What we want is a social harmony, even as we live in a world where any idea about “the real thing” is as likely to evoke the ancient memory of an advertisement for a soda pop as anything solid or necessary. (In 1969 the Coca-Cola corporation replaced its “Things Go Better With Coke” campaign with the slogan “It’s the Real Thing,” and since then, the real thing has been associated with soda pop. In a way, reality was replaced by sugar water.)

What we want is something solid and real, but we find this is slipping away from us. Worse, most of our tried and true methods of maintaining some kind of authenticity just don’t work anymore. For example, Aram Sinnreich argued that the very idea of authenticity has to be reconceived in music today because of digital technology. In Sinnreich’s book Mashed Up he explains that his own clinging to authenticity, his love of acoustic guitars and other traditional instruments, as something that sprang out of an ideology of individualism and, ultimately, as something reactionary. He had to get beyond his love of traditional music if he hoped to progress with the digital advances of his day rather than react against them.

However, Sinnreich’s attempt to get beyond authenticity by moving beyond the usual framework for “modern discursive practice” he describes as a series of binaries:

“Art as opposed to craft. Artist as opposed to audience. Original as opposed to copy. Etc…”

Sinnreich proposed that the way to move beyond these binaries was precisely to erase or remove the barrier between one side and another, and McKenzie Wark said something similar in his 2007 book Gamer Theory. He wrote that today’s “Gamespace needs theorists but it also needs a new kind of practice. A practice that can break down the line that divides gamer from designer.”

But, this attempt to erase the line or the demarcation between two binary terms is the same move that Polaroid states as it’s singular goal. It is just another way to treat Pong as if Pong is invisible and it’s just another way to blame the aliens for what goes on aboard the Enterprise.

The line between an artist and her audience is both a barrier and a bridge. In the same way, even this game we’re playing now as the Mayan calendar turns over and the world sits on the brink of a second round of economic panic, even this game called class structure or class struggle, is nothing other than the currently necessary ideological screen that makes our social and productive lives possible.

Douglas Lain is a fiction writer, a “pop philosopher” for the popular blog Thought Catalog, and the podcaster behind the Diet Soap Podcast. His most recent book, a novella entitled “Wave of Mutilation,” was published by Fantastic Planet Press (an imprint of Eraserhead) in October of 2011, and his first novel, entitled “Billy Moon: 1968” is due out from Tor Books in 2013. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Eric Griffith
1. egriffith
Star Trek: TNG actually aired in syndication, not on CBS (tho I'm sure some CBS stations probably carried it anyway.)
m@ lampert
2. Archas
The insight that every social order is contingent--while always a good insight--is a long way from the stated goal, here: have you really used video games to help us understand the class struggle?

And furthermore, I'm not sure I quite follow the inference here. There is no "natural social order" to things (that was the point of the Star Trek example, yes?); and we should thus reject appeals to "authenticity" (the music example) and "spontaneous order" (the pong example). But does this mean that "class struggle" is a "game," an "ideological screen," as it were? Couldn't we read this exact same argument as a demonstration that class struggle is ineliminable? If every social order is contingent, then there is no natural superiority, no naturally "just" way of distributing goods, no apriori reason why the "haves" should dominate the "have nots." Far from being "the game" in this analogy, "class struggle" is the insight that the economy is the game...

...Or have I misunderstood your point?
4. tolladay
Forgive me. Perhaps I misunderstand this, but when I read, "After all, while the 5000 individuals appeared to move as free individuals, it was Carpenter who determined the context and meaning of their movements." I have to wonder...

I believe the computer game is providing the context and the individuals the meaning, not Carpenter. Carpenter's authority extended only to providing the game, the room, and the controller interface. Each individual providing their own meaning to the experience, and each individual had more control in the outcomes than Carpenter. That doesn't strike me a dictatorship. Quite the opposite in fact.
Douglas Lain
5. douglain
Archas: My thinking was that class struggle was the game we're currently playing now and that in order to escape it we would have to realize the nature of the current game and devise a different game to take its place. We will need some sort of ideological screen, some sort of video game, but it might be able to escape the dictionary definition of class struggle as I find it online: "the continual conflict between the capitalist and working classes for economic and political power"
That is, some sort of conflict may continue, but if we were to realize not only that we set the terms of the conflict collectively but that we are also responsible for how we set the terms then we might be able to be break from this game.
Does that clarify anything? If you could press me maybe I'll do better. Still thinking this through.
JS Bangs
6. jaspax
Like Archas@2, I found this article to be very intriguing, but I didn't exactly follow the thread of the argument. The connection between the parts may have been a little too allusive.

However, I want to take up the topic of society as a video game. In Carpenter's experiment, the participants are able to achieve collaboration and a spontaneous order precisely because they recognize that the game has rules and agree on the desired outcomes. The rules and outcomes provide, as you mentioned, the invisible structure which guides their individual actions, and creates what appears to be a self-organizing cooperation. But if we reject this sort of collaboration as a kind of covert authoritarianism, what are we left with?

The notions of solidarity, collaboration, and democracy demand a shared consensus of what the social game is and what the goals of the game are, because outside of any such consensus it's impossible for the spontaneous order to emerge. Once agreement about the game's rules and purpose is broken, the only thing that remains is struggle. It's all very well and good to declare that the rules of the game are contingent and in some sense arbitrary (as they necessarily are), but if the only purpose of making this observation is to discredit them, then result will not be a more democratic and collaborative society. Instead, we'll have a society in which collaboration and democracy are shoved aside to make room for narrow self-interest.

Does this bear any resemblance to our current situation?
Douglas Lain
7. douglain
jaspax: I don't want to reject the kind of collaboration we see in the Pong experiment, but I do reject the idea that it was spontaneous and nonhierarchial. The aim in the essay was to demystify the results of that experiment.
will shetterly
8. willshetterly
"Far from being "the game" in this analogy, "class struggle" is the insight that the economy is the game."

Indeed. The problem with this discussion is we haven't identified the game. Is it Life 2012, the USA version? Is it Neoliberalism! (Now with more personal liberty and greater profit for the elite!)? Then it's better to start off as the daughter of Herman Cain.

Or is the game The Path To Socialism? Then economic privilege may be a hindrance, because self-interest so ofen trumps the greater good.

No answers. Maybe you have to be a computer gamer to make the metaphor work. But I think the problem is we don't know what game we're playing.

Okay, the 1% must know, 'cause they're winning.
9. S.M. Stirling
Any -particular- social order is contingent and in fact socially constructed.

But social order itself is not contingent, because you can't have more than one human being in contact with another without social order. It's an emergent property of human beings interacting with each other.

To give an example, for you to be cool someone else has to be uncool; coolness is a relational quality, like beauty or virtue. It's not a quality you have in yourself, it's a power relationship between you and others.

(Just as owning property is not a relationship between you and things, but a power relationship between you and other people, mediated through things. If you were the last human being, you wouldn't own everything; you'd own nothing because there would be nobody you could exclude.)

So it's possible to -imagine- a society without an implicit or explicit constraining structure, but there has never actually -been- such a society and, I would argue, probably on the evidence can't be. The set of possible arrangements is large, but finite.

Just as it's possible to imagine an unmediated experience, but when you try to find one you just get into an infinite regression series.

A cat may have unmediated experiences, but human conciousness itself -is- a process of mediation. It's mediation all the way down.

In other words, applying that on the social level, if you peel off one set of hierarchy and privilege, you just get another. And beneath that, another. And beneath that, another. No matter how hard you peel the onion, you never get to the center because new ones grow as fast as the old can be peeled.

It's like trying to outrun your own sweat, or to talk without using metaphors... metaphors "like trying to outrun your own sweat".

(Zen, which I was interested in for some time, is an elaborate sweat-outrunning exercise. To use another metaphor, it gets you in tip-top shape in some ways, but you're still sweating.)

You can't win, you can't break even, you can't get out of the game.

So when someone tries to "expose privilege", they're basically saying: "I want your privilege for myself."

Which is perfectly straightforward and comprehensible; as the saying goes: "I've been rich, I've been poor... and rich is better."

The rest is propaganda, and is itself an ideological screen, not fundamentally different from the Divine Right of Kings or any other legitimizing myth.
Pamela Adams
10. PamAdams
S.M. Stirling @9,
So when someone tries to "expose privilege", they're basically saying: "I want your privilege for myself."

I don't know about others, but what I'm basically saying is 'I want your privilege TOO' or alternatively- 'It's nice that you're going places, but do you really have to step on me to get there?'
13. S.M. Stirling
OK, damned if I know why the duplicate happened. Trying again:

Pam Adams: I don't know about others, but what I'm basically saying is 'I want your privilege TOO' or alternatively- 'It's nice that you're going places, but do you really have to step on me to get there?'

-- 'fraid so. What we're talking about here is social power, and social power is the quintessial positional good. You don't have it 'in itself', you have it only in relation to others. Not a winner-take-all game, but definitely zero-sum.

For example, take property. Say I own land; that means I can use the power of society to exclude you from 'my' land unless you agree to my terms for using it, and have you subjected to social shaming or physical coercion if you don't acknowledge my claim.

If you get more of my privilege TOO, I have less. The less power I have over you, the more power you have over me.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's definitely a dimunition of what I had. More for you, less for me; less for me, more for you.

As Lenin put it, kto kogo? Who whom? (Colloquially translated as "who gets f***ed over by who?")
will shetterly
14. willshetterly
"if you peel off one set of hierarchy and privilege, you just get another."

You assume all hierarchies are equivalent, but economic hierarchies are fundamentally different than hierarchies of respect. In a sharing society, I would expect hierarchies of respect based on things like people's love of a creative person's work. But it does not necessarily follow that more respect would take the shape of more privilege. Respect is its own reward--as shown by the number of rich folks who try to find some way to buy it.
JS Bangs
15. jaspax
willshetterly@14, respect is privilege. Nonetheless, your point is correct that not all social hierarchies are closely tied to wealth. Is there a strong moral reason to prefer the ones that aren't?
Douglas Lain
16. douglain
It seems obvious that social hierarchies not tied to wealth that arose in a sharing society would be morally superior if your morality was based on a notion of serving the needs of the greatest number.
Douglas Lain
17. douglain
S.M. Stirling
"Say I own land; that means I can use the power of society to exclude you from 'my' land unless you agree to my terms for using it."

Here's the thing about power in society, it doesn't go in one direction only. That is, in the case of land, the fact that so many people were made landless and had nothing to sell but their labor was the reason Capital could organize so many to make so much. However, it wasn't just that. The other thing that makes Capitalism so productive is that it aims at production and the coordination of labor as a kind of social power.
18. Brother Abe
So we are subject to the alien games all the time. Alien desires are incorporated into our own intentions and desires. We play collective pong without it ever being on a screen. That is we are always playing pong we are always plugged into a mind control devise. The game nowadays is this "be individual thing, but don't stray too far from you village without having a new village to take you in" game. Today the village is newly virtual and here we find it less constrictive.

The polaroid part is really demonstrative. The goal of the game and Polaroid is to make experience virtual. By vitual we aim heighten the visual to dominate the conscious explanation of our lives. We reduce the other senses to visual metaphor thus that value is the part of experience that matters.
So where does class fit?
I think it is also a story and a way to reduce complexity. Here we tell a story in hopes of seeing the class of peoples that by virtue of what they can afford, to have, do and say in society...the story is a reduction of the complex ways of control.
Irene Gallo
19. Irene
(S.M. Stirlimg: I knocked out your duplicated post.)
will shetterly
20. willshetterly
"respect is privilege."

I've begun to think "privilege" is the least useful word in political discourse. Privilege implies that something is unearned. How is the respect given to artists and inventers unearned? (Assuming, of course, they're actually the creators, and not businessfolk taking credit for what their employees created.) I'm not claiming hierarchies of respect for one's accomplishments are wrong, only that respect must be earned, not bought.

"Nonetheless, your point is correct that not all social hierarchies are closely tied to wealth. Is there a strong moral reason to prefer the ones that aren't?"

Yes. Then no one dies from the many things associated with poverty.

Two recommended links:


JS Bangs
21. jaspax
Actually, I agree that "privilege" is an overused and not-terribly-helpful term in most political discourse. Let's continue without it. I also agree that an honor-based gift economy is probably preferable to the kind of economic system that we have now. (I say "probably" because I haven't thought through this in great detail, and because every system has hidden downsides.)

But does this actually help us? To put it bluntly, you can't get there from here. Also, honor hierarchies very quickly (in historical terms) turn into economic hierarchies. The only pure honor hierarchies that I know of are in places like Papua New Guinea and the Amazon, where the village headman has no real economic advantages over anybody else in the village and social mobility is extremely high, but those societies are also characterized by a high level of violence and poverty, with very little economic surplus for anybody. Pretty much as soon as the economic surplus increases, it accrues to the people who are already high in the social hierarchy. By way of example, consider the way that Hawaiian society developed from general Polynesian, or the potlatch societies of the Pacific NW. Both of these were stratified, hierarchical societies in which the hierarchies appeared more or less as soon as people moved into a more resource-rich area.

(Aside: Did you know that the Native Americans of the Pacific NW had an active slave trade all the way up into the 19th century, when it was finally put to a stop by the interference of white settlers?)

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that history doesn't offer us a lot of hope that it's possible to run a highly complex, industrialized society along egalitarian honor-based lines. Of course, this may be an argument against complex industrialized societies more than anything else.

Finally, to reiterate my original point, I think that the radical critique of the social order may actually enable the sort of destructive plutocracy that it's supposed to upend. When the social order is exposed as an arbitrarily constructed game, those that already have economic advantages are released from the constraints of social responsibility and solidarity which did (partially and imperfectly) regulate their actions beforehand. If society is a game, they behave as minimaxers, and given that they're already ahead on the board, it's not surprising that they win.
will shetterly
22. willshetterly
"To put it bluntly, you can't get there from here."

You can never get there from here. You always have to build the way.

"history doesn't offer us a lot of hope that it's possible to run a highly complex, industrialized society along egalitarian honor-based lines."

History tells us that people are willing to share, so long as they're not desperate and institutions are in place to keep the greedheads from grabbing too much.

As for your minimaxers, they play that way all the time. They're most likely to back off when exposed to criticism--look at the early history of the income tax.
23. lorq
Very much agree that Carpenter's game can be construed not as a democracy but a dictatorship -- that was my immediate thought when I saw Curtis's film. Players could "express" themselves in one way only: through the game of Pong, fixed in advance by one person, Carpenter.

Related to this, Curtis's film also points out that the "decentered network" whose efficacy Carpenter felt he was demonstrating -- and so beloved of libertarians -- is completely vulnerable to intervention from outside the system by top-down, centralized power. The film shows how easily the centralized, statist government of China was able to intervene in the US economy by making a few strong, directed decisions about foreign investment. Essentially, China became the Carpenter to the US's Pong players.

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