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Walter Ong and the problem of writing about LambdaMOO
by Sue Thomas
30/Nov/2004

Hello World - Sue ThomasThe first time I wrote about computer-mediated experience I chose the form of a novel - Correspondence. The second time, after many failed attempts at writing a novel about LambdaMOO and the internet, I finally settled on non-fiction. Hello World can be described as a travelogue, a memoir, a personal account, but definitely not as fiction. In the end, I decided that it made no sense to invent a story about a world which is itself invented. It felt better just to tell the truth as I see it.

The wired experience is so personally intense and intellectually complex that it is impossible to convey exactly how it is for each of us as we venture into that very idiosyncratic negotiation between the real and virtual. As Erik Davis wrote about the text-based virtual world LambdaMOO as early as 1994  "In a space where everyone is at once person and persona, identity itself becomes a performance art." Although this is more true of a text-based virtual space like a MOO, it can also be extended to the experience of people trying to get to grips with the implications of going digital.

At trAce I often speak with people who live and work online about their perceptions of how the net has changed them and the worlds in which they move. In every conversation the transient nature of connectedness is taken so much as a given that there is hardly any need to define or describe it. Everybody knows what it is, how it feels, the energy of it, the occasional despair at its tricks and limitations. We talk about it using the common shorthand of the net - emoticons, acronyms, program code - because the language itself is the key to the concepts and experiences we are discussing. But the problem is that, despite no specific intention that this should happen, it has evolved into a secret cultural discourse which is unintelligible to the uninitiated.

I was frustrated by this because the uninitiated are the very people to whom I want to explain this new connectedness yet I could find no way to make it comprehensible. Julian Dibbell attempted it in My Tiny Life, where he described the early days of LambdaMOO and especially the development of a legal and economic system, as well as the famous Rape in Cyberspace incident he had originally documented in The Village Voice, but I knew from discussions with uninitiated friends that they had found the detail indigestible. Yet the detail is necessary, especially in the absence of real experience, if one is to understand how it feels to occupy a space which has no physicality and an uncertain sense of identity. And then there is the very acute sense of being offline, and how to cope with it when you spend almost all of your waking life wired. And what happens when you encounter the physicality of someone you only ever knew online. And the technicalities of how it all works. And the histories, the geographies, the politics … so much of my understanding of the world has been changed by living online and yet as a writer I was trapped inside the very foreignness of my experiences.

I recently discovered a book which, had I read it a couple of years ago, would have greatly eased my grappling with the problems described above. Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy is an account of the differences between oral and literate cultures. Of specific interest in relation to writing about text-based virtuality is his discussion of how human experience was related by oral cultures via the mechanism of story, "The elemental way to process human experience verbally is to give an account of it more or less as it really comes into being and exists, embedded in the flow of time. Developing a story line is a way of dealing with this flow." He explains that oral cultures, with no way to fix their experiences in writing, managed their knowledge in substantial narratives and in shorter forms such as maxims, riddles, proverbs and the like. He comments on the transience of many of these communication styles, stressing their essential connection to particular situations which, when they pass, take the narrative with them. In contrast, he explains, "in writing or print culture the text physically bonds whatever it contains and makes it possible to retrieve any kind of organisation of thought as a whole."

There is no space here to fully detail Ong’s argument regarding the developmental history of narrative structures but suffice it to say that he emphasises the ways in which writing first "psychologically locked" words after which printing subsequently locked them further in a physical sense thereby establishing "a firmer sense of closure than writing could."  In his view, the novel, child of the printing press, brought with it the beginnings of fiction as we know it. The complex rounded character of contemporary fiction can "emerge in a world dominated by writing with its drive toward carefully itemised introspection and elaborately worked out analyses of inner states of soul and of their inwardly structured sequential relationships." He contends that "insofar as modern psychology and the ‘round’ character of fiction represent to present-day consciousness what human existence is like, the feeling for human existence has been processed through writing and print."

How is this relevant to my early failed efforts to tell the story of text-based virtuality in a fictional mode? Because Ong’s analysis convinces me that LambdaMOO and places like them are unique in that although their sole method of communication is textual, the communication that actually takes place there is oral. MOO life happens, as Ong describes of a real-life oral community, "as it really comes into being and exists, embedded in the flow of time." Its characteristics are therefore those of a group which shares physical space and human experience, and it is equally fractured and transient. Furthermore, it uses tropes and vocabulary that are also embedded within that experience and unintelligible outside it.

By the same token, it is very difficult to create a rounded fictional character from a lifeworld of this type, which resists any structure of completeness, since the situation is being constantly refreshed and changed not by being processed through another medium, but simply because it is dynamically changing. It is this contradiction which lies at the heart of the difficulty of writing fiction about MOOs. It is not so much that MOOs are themselves a kind of fiction - after all, their inhabitants do exist in a highly self-conscious invented but nevertheless authentic world - but that what goes on in MOOs is much more like real life than it is like fiction, even though it is itself a kind of fiction, if you see what I mean. Furthermore, this is fiction which processes itself, since it only exists in text.

So I decided to write Hello World as non-fiction, and everything in it is true - well, that is, insofar as anything that happens on the internet is true.


Sue Thomas is Artistic Director of the trAce Online Writing Centre until January 2005, when she becomes Professor of New Media at De Montfort University, Leicester, England. Her most recent book is Hello World: travels in virtuality (Raw Nerve Books, 2004). Her other books include the novel Correspondence (1992), a mix of flesh and machine short-listed for several prizes including the Arthur C Clarke Award; a second novel Water (1994) and an edited anthology Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories By Women Celebrating Women (1994). http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/suethomas/

Links

Sue Thomas's Blog - Hello World: travels in virtuality:
http://travelsinvirtuality.typepad.com/

Erik Davis, It's a Mud, Mud, Mud, Mud World: Exploring Online Reality:
http://www.techgnosis.com/muds.html

Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life:
http://www.juliandibbell.com/mytinylife/index.html

LambdaMOO:
telnet://lambda.moo.mud.org:8888

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy:
http://www.ebookmall.com/ebook/72535-ebook.htm

Remembering Walter Ong:
http://www.rememberingwalterong.com/

Notes from the Walter J. Ong Archives:
http://johnwalter.blogspot.com/

The Common Place MOO: Orality and Literacy in Virtual Reality (1994), Don Langham:
http://www.ibiblio.org/cmc/mag/1994/jul/moo.html

trAce links

No Visible Means of Support:
http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/Opinion/index.cfm?article=12

A New Sensibility? The qualities of a new media writer:
http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/Process/index.cfm?article=62


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