From a work in progress: Nomic and net.culture.

by waxbanks

Rough draft, work in progress, claims nonbinding, etc.

For Hofstadter, unresolvable self-contradictions and infinite regresses aren’t failure modes for play or argument, they’re toys. And the same holds true in Nomic play — finding and exploiting a ruleset self-contradiction ‘wins the game,’ but figuring out how to keep play alive beyond that individual victory is one of the major challenges every nontrivial Nomic has solved (footnote deleted –wa.) at which point the players enter the odd state of simply living with/through paradox, in a state of exultant philosophical strangeness unlike anything else in gaming. As much as we went on about The Rules (a/k/a ‘all that’s holy, man’), our true focus was on the ever-shifting texture of experience within them, the space for improvisation and experimental sociality and playful ideation that the rules opened up.

The online world of Nomic was a corner of early cyberculture that had more in common with, say, the collaborative fictional project alt.devilbunnies or the roiling cauldron of Dobbsian lunacy that was alt.slack than with any aspect of today’s ‘games culture.’ In retrospect, it makes sense to think of net.nomics as experiments in (ahem) ‘stateless’ living, close cousins to virtual communities like LambdaMOO, miniature models of the disembodied digital utopia that John Perry Barlow imagined in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. [^barlowdeclaration]

The Declaration is, of course, mortifying to read today — a handy summary of everything ridiculous in early cyberculture discourse. He wrote it in Davos, for Christ’s sake. But it’s dangerous to read that document through a modern lens, when his rhetoric has been terminally co-opted by Silicon Valley execs. We now grant ourselves permission only to imagine what life online can do for our precious mind-bodies, our anxiety/productivity levels, rather than what it could and does do to nation-states; it’s hard to imagine in 2015 that Barlow’s global revolution could ever have been. But for a second there, however hackneyed the language, you could believe it. You’d telnet to lambda.moo.mud.org:8888 and give yourself another name, another body, another gender, another species. You’d type ‘say Hello’ and greet a ‘room’ full of imaginary strangers, each stranger than the last, stranger than they’d ever been. There in the aether, the absolute otherness across the Ethernet, playing freely with every idea you’d ever been, every rule of thought and deed seemed purely mutable. You could be a paradox and keep playing, iterating and experimenting and binding yourself to a self-made system of selves until your own private ruleset generated not ‘sense’ (who cared?) but play. Joy. Right there and then, for as long as you could hold your breath and float through the water, the mad idea that a nation without nations could take form in a realm beyond the senses was not just real but obvious; it was already here, I was there; I swear you could almost taste it.

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