Playing in Labyrinths


The labyrinth is fast becoming a new label for data in cyberspace. Increasingly, electronic libraries are called labyrinths, as are branching systems generally, often in homage to Borges' Library of Babel: "an indefinite or infinite number of hexagonal galleries."

But the mystification troubles me. It is part of a holistic worship of the Internet and beyond, a worship of little more than corporate telephonics, to be honest, that and cheap faxes. 1998 is still a dangerously nascent stage in the Internet, while a trillion dollar nest of dragons sets up shop. Is this an ideal moment to compare databases to the seven pointed labyrinth of the Greeks, or medieval ecstatic labyrinths?

Cheerfully disoriented inside the maze...

What is the sensation that "labyrinth" identifies: To be cheerfully disoriented inside the maze. I say cheerfully, because the confusion is intended by the designer. The spectator wants to submit to the loss of control. For the past three years, I have lectured on how labyrinths are built, a chastening experience. I broadened my examples back to Renaissance, traced those that have mutated, however perversely, into the digital culture we have today, from computers to malls to f/x films, to theme parks, movie palaces.

Of all the terms I presented, the labyrinth definitely made the most sense to those I interviewed (architects, cyber and mall designers, effects houses, and theme park specialists). Clearly, the term "virtual" is utterly worn out, a kind of margarine that spreads on anything. I had much clearer conversations identifying labyrinths as Scripted Spaces, and then, to narrow the field, "scripted with illusionistic effects."

Most of all, to track the design itself, I follow the spectator more than the gimmickry. Fancy effects come and go; the spectator is the key. A scripted space is designed for its "bottom twenty feet," as architect Jon Jerde likes to say. The spectator navigates as a central character in a story, either about Catholicism in the Vatican, or slot machines in a casino. For this authoring to feel "magical", the script must be at the right temperature, like air conditioning, not too much, just enough to make the player feel comfortable-- awed, faintly lost, but enchanted. Too much visible surveillance is good for some spaces, bad for others. Avoid tensions about social class, keep the mood genteel, the "happiest place on earth."

The same software that builds the bat cave also designs rides in Korea, or web sites in Helsinki.

From streets to screens, many of the same principles apply. The same software that builds the bat cave also designs rides in Korea, or web sites in Helsinki. Consider how many similar versions of morphing are used in print advertising, in quick-time video, on TV. Not by accident does a walk through a shopping mall feel like a computer game. A well-scripted space is supposed to feel very cynical in its design, even Disneyland. At their worst, they can be ergonomic fascism; at their best, a good resort. And they are meant to be a little sloppy, like a comfortable pair of shoes-- cheerfully slipshod, but upscale. They are a happy swindle. You are supposed to get nine cents back on every dime you put in. It's a slot machine; the odds of beating a scripted space are slim to none.

Let me repeat, in summary:
Scripted spaces are configured as a narrative journey where the audience becomes a central character, from the domes by Brunelleschi or Mantegna in the fifteenth century to Citywalk, Sim City computer games, Doom, Myst, casinos, amusement parks, Futurama (New York World's Fairs of 1939, and of 1964), Pirates of the Caribbean (all versions of walk-through anamorphic places), war simulation games, installation spaces in galleries and museums.

To navigate through this narrative, the player enters an immersive, illusionistic, scripted space. By immersion, I mean englobed-- curved, domed, or lit very atmospherically. By illusionistic, I mean forced perspective, anamorphosis, trompe l'oeil, as well as gimmicks using scale, like miniaturization.

But most of all, as the central problem, the story is always about power, in a "good" sense. By that I mean, you relinquish control in order to join the labyrinth. Inside, you have seemingly infinite choice, but practically no way out. In fact, you prefer being trapped a bit. That gives the story some bite. Why enter Happy Imprisonment? Because you slowly catch your breath. You expect to outwit the program. For example, in Citywalk, the basic script is curvilinear. You walk back and forth, presumably to shop 'till you drop. In return, you can watch oversized jelly beans, wave at King Kong, mix with multitude. The ribbon of shops bends in a half circle, linking the Universal movie complex to the Universal Tours theme park. But to make the circle feel less manipulative, "hot spots" have been installed at key bends; a bench, a flower pot, an urban frill.

Similarly, in Las Vegas, beyond the "mazy" effect we can see-- no clocks, an a-centered trackless design, a cluttered blur-- hidden gimmicks are built in, to suggest that the system has slack. Often, the "mistakes" are intentional. Rumors about which machines pay off better are encouraged (near the entrances and elevators). Certain corners on the casino floor will be designed cheaply (again, on purpose) to "junk up" a mural or a sculpture. Tacky stuff implies that there may be leaks in the system. Some cheaper casinos advertise "loose slots"(are you supposed to thinks sluts at the same time?). Here, presumably, the alert player can beat the odds, and with the profits, enjoy massages in their room afterward.

Or in popular CD-Rom games like Sim-City, Doom, Red Alert, the player spends hours learning how to navigate from one level to another-- perhaps four hours to get full hand/motor coordination (outshoot those aliens), and another fifteen hours to get to the end. Then what? The script takes an interesting turn, if it has potential as a cult item, what the designers of Sim City call "the chaos variable." ("Chaos is, in effect, your opponent.") Holes are built into the program-- not too many, just enough. Game fans contact each other. They download secrets. The fun is to cheat a little, find glitches in the program, tilt the table.

A good special effects game should be a thieves' paradise-- by design. Pocket of confusion in the system let the player imagine that there are ways to subvert it. It's a Faustian sim-bargain. The player submits to the labyrinth, then pretends to cheat.

Only pretends of course. Who wants to actually wipe out the software of a good game? Simulating revolt is more fun, and a better investment. This is true in casinos, malls, games, the Web. But consider what sim-revolt implies as a broader model for public life? We pretend that the labyrinth of the Web makes us free of the global corporate program that builds and owns it. We feel above the swamp of idiotic web sites. We know how to surf. The demon apparatus can't get us. We can dig out of anything. We're never trapped.

Recently, there is talk of voting on the Web. Is a cross between ergonomic fascism and the shopping mall the best frame of mind for making political decisions? Let us not mystify information delivery too much. Despite the services, it is not fundamentally democratic, only the freedom to chat. The server and the search engine are a feudal plantation. They decide for us, when to plant, when to hunt. Who can choose among thirty thousand sites, except Yahoo and Lyco? The sheer labyrinthine nature of the Web makes it easy to monitor. I am always told that this problem will be solved by the next generation of software, but I wouldn't bet on it.

The labyrinth is a mood of passivity.

The labyrinth is a mood of passivity. It's like saying you're never really trapped in bad traffic. Just because we can subvert the Web by saying nasty things or engaging in cyber-sex in the margins, or downloading information cheaply, does not mean that we are subverting any core reality. After all, pretending to be a naughty child is precisely what makes labyrinths so much fun. We give in to the safety of the illusion.

I have to underline safety. For example, as a child in Coney Island, I used to watch relatives decide on which ride to take. There was the Cyclone roller coaster, and next door, the Bob Sled. However, rumors persisted that every so often, on the bob sled, some one fell off, and died. Or was it simply wound up paralyzed? No one knew for certain. It was a very rare event, one in ten thousand. My uncle would suggest riding the Cyclone. Everyone stared up at the yawning ramp, heard the rattle. Then my cousin mention the Bob Sled. That always brought an existential chill into the conversation. After all, the Cyclone was supposed to be simulated death, but that was because you never died. You were guaranteed complete safety. Bob Sleds were not scripted well enough. There was not enough oversight, not enough surveillance. In the parlance of the fifties, where was Big Brother when you needed him?

Labyrinths are like arm wrestling with a parent-- or Jacob with the angel, carefully controlled, not open-ended really. It is almost a theological replay of childhood. The parent is the program itself, the apparatus that gives you the magic. So no matter how cute the script-- a hug from Goofy, a wink from Barney-- it is fundamentally a picaresque about a godlike apparatus that cannot be violated (always stays encrypted). The apparatus helps you author your story. It gives you enough free will to feel like Don Quixote. You relinquish some power, then pretend to subvert the windmill. Borges has a magnificent description of the mood inside a labyrinth, what Manfredo Tafuri calls the "solitude that engulfs the subject who recognizes the relativity of his own actions." From Borges:

The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: The Order) My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

Labyrinths are a profoundly corrupt game.

Labyrinths are a profoundly corrupt game. In fact, I would like to see more labyrinth games about the corruption itself. After all, every art form has its self-reflexive devices: irony; direct address; defamiliarization. But the computer, oddly enough, survives mostly as a highly formalized tool of entertainment, and also the slickest telephone Jules Verne could have imagined. The entire format cries out for a good hatchet across the forehead. How about a game that actually bankrupts you? How about a bladerunner format that actually brings replicants into your neighborhood? How about a game called Job Search where you can hire your own assassins to murder people who have better resumes? As Tristram Tzara said eighty years ago, the world needs an operation. He didn't mean it literally. The Swiss Dada groups were not involved much in political action certainly. Tzara was, after all, Sami Rosenstock, teenager from Roumania, hiding from the army during World War I, by staying in Switzerland.

Speaking culturally at least, let us make more omelets out of this nonsense. Build really leaky labyrinths. Because under all the disembodied marvels, all the fluff, lay our actual future, as real as a car hurtling downhill without brakes. We call the manufacturer to complain. No Brakes, they ask? The easy-listening voice reminds us that our radio and cd player are digital, state of the art. They won't fail us. The wall is at least ten minutes away. There's bound to be new software to fix brakes by then. Look on the bright side.

Norman M.Klein is a critic and historian of mass culture. He is Professor at the California Institute of the Arts and author of "The History of Forgetting, Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory", Verso, London, New York 1997.

StimCity, a review of Norman Klein`s book "The History of Forgetting" by Peter Lunenfeld.

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