Hamlet on the Holodeck

By Janet H. Murray

According to Janet Murray, an English professor at MIT, the dominant form of expression in the 21st century will be an interactive and “immersive” digital environment. Though she doesn’t want to use the word, the book is dead. So, in fact, are film and television.

But the future won’t be filled with Huxley-like “feelies” or resemble the illiterate, dystopic world of Farenheit 451. Instead, the new “narratives” (a word that gets used rather loosely) will be much like the holodeck programs seen on Star Trek.

One can gather from this that Murray is an optimist when it comes to the wedding of art and technology. The coming changes in technology are progress – things are only getting better. If people have shorter attention spans or seem to demand ever-increasing amounts of raw stimulation, that just means they are tired of being confined to old-fashioned modes of story-telling.

It is clear that what is being is described is the shape of things to come. But questions of substance remain to be answered. I am still, for example, unable to see what distinguishes a holodeck program from a “feely.” And is audience involvement, or interactivity, really going to improve either the quality of future narratives or our experience of them? Why?

And why does Murray spend so much time talking about video-games, role-playing and “enchanted places?” Isn’t all of this just a little, well . . . immature?

Yes it is. And that’s just the point.

Over and over again we are told how we must become like little children to enter into cyberheaven. In part this has something to do with a technology that is still producing juvenilia – the incunabula of the computer. But it is also because cyberspace is a realm “shaped by the structure of games.” Even the holodeck is just a toy – a device for playing dress-up, a prosthesis for the imagination. It seems the future of narrative may be nothing more than a high-tech Dungeons and Dragons adventure, where “the next Shakespeare” is a “great live-action role-playing Game Master.”

Is this what we want? Absolutely. The art of the future promises to be just that – everything you want, when you want it. The limitations of traditional forms of narrative will give way to a primitive (I might say dangerous) aesthetic of “satisfaction.”

Just one word of warning to the “coming cyberbard”: Your critics are going to be terrible brats.

Review first published September 20, 1997. This book has some pretty bizarre moments. At one point Murray talks about the digital dog (Buttons) that she has on her computer: “Buttons, who has grown from a puppy to a larger dog since I installed him, has such a real presence for me that I sometimes feel guilty when I do not open the program and play with him. I find myself feeling proud of his affectionate personality, which is the result of the constant petting and good treatment I have given him.” At another point she gets quite gushy over a computer exercise program that involves a special visor, tactile gloves, and earphones so that you can enjoy the experience of a virtual bike ride in a park. The thought of getting a real dog, or going for a real bike ride, seems not to have occurred to her. Even more disturbing is the enthusiastic way she writes about navigational computer poetry, where the reader clicks on links to move around a text. The poem she chooses for discussion, however, is about insomnia, and the only line she quotes is “alone in this misery.” The results of studies showing that prolonged computer use leads to increased feelings of depression and loneliness, results that would seem to be supported by such gloomy stuff, are not addressed. Taking all things into consideration, Murray’s vision of the future, while it may be accurate, seems to me to be a total hell.


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