Thursday, January 21, 2010

I Want To Be A Maker: Stories (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second in a series of three posts in response to Cory Doctorow's new novel, "Makers," available online for free, for hard copy purchase, or as an audiobook.


"Story" and "narratives" are also central to "Makers." As Perry and Lester's ride grows with user-generated content, the users notice a story emerging from the old artifacts. As someone on the message board puts it, it develops "like that story that's inside our collective unconscious" (p. 190).

The idea of a collective story is closely linked to nostalgia. Nostalgia and narratives are a duality: we understand our nostalgia as a story of the past, and the stories of the past proliferate nostalgia. In this way, stories and nostalgia inform one another, helping people fill their empty consciousness with meaning. The ride becomes a vessel for users to enter this duality: "Once we gave them the ability to subtract the stuff that felt wrong and reinforce the stuff that felt right," Perry explains, "it was only natural that they would anthropomorphize the world into a story...stories are how we understand the world, and technology is how we choose our stories." (p. 176). Similarly, Sammy's DiaB, a box that makes tiny replicas of Disney attractions, sought to fill the same existential void: "Really, wasn't that every kid's dream?" Perry wonders, looking at the shiny DiaB box. "A machine that created wonders from dull feedstock?" (p. 320). Out of the nothingness of electronics and goop come little objects that orient our cultural narratives around nostalgia.

Ultimately, the fans of Perry and Lester's ride develop a religious devotion to "the story." Death Waits describes seeing it in a "meditative state" (p. 315). The friends that get Death Waits out of the hospital are fanatics of The Story who are obsessed with keeping it alive, eliminating all noobish elements that don't jive with the narrative.

Yet at the same time, its authenticity is debated. Death Waits acknowledges this ambiguity: "The collective judgment of people who rode through had turned chaos into coherence. Or had it?" "These discussions bordered on the metaphysical," he continues, "what was an "organic" ride decision?" (p. 290). Furthermore, Perry explains that "people see stories like they see faces in clouds," acknowledging the subjectivity of stories and in turn, nostalgia
(p. 176). By protecting the ride narrative, Death Waits was "telling the story he knew" (p. 288). But is the story he "knows" an authentic one? Can one tell a "real" story mired in nostalgia?

In this way, the ride explores nostalgia and narrative as a simulacrum, an artificial representation of the past that manufactures a desire for that past. The ride and the story it is telling isn't the essential nature of human history. Rather, it is a construction of how people want to remember the past. When the police invade the rides all over the world and destroy its contents, each networked ride reproduces the destruction. Perry explains that "the smashed exhibits were not smashed exhibits-- they were replicas of smashed exhibits" (p. 230). The ride and its story is a replica of a replica, all objective meaning lost in its technological duplication.

Regardless of its reality, the sense of nostalgia largely determines how the future unfolds. Therefore, the key to cultural narratives is who is telling the story. For Sammy, it was Disney's job to force stories onto his customers by pushing proprietary, copyrighted stories out of the DiaBs, prompting Lester to hack into them and circumvent their firmware. "I want to redesign this thing so that it gets converted from something that controls to something that gives you control," he says (p. 342). For Lester, "autonomy makes us happy." Our ability to determine our own narratives and deal with nostalgia and existential meaning on our own terms-- our ability to attain full agency-- is of utmost importance, and Sammy's Disney machines undermined this ability. Hacking culture, therefore, becomes a way to recapture human agency.

At the end of this scene, Lester exclaims that he is done with the ride that has made him so famous to the dismay of the character ominously named Death Waits. It's time he does something else, he says, as he turns his back on Death.

Part 1: Nostalgia
Part 2: Stories (this post)
Part 3: Ambivalence

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