The Cyberbard

Ever feel deeply embarrassed because you misplaced your notes and wound up committing an act of self importance in a way that nobody but you is likely to care about? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, in 1997, Janet Murray wrote a book called Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative In Cyberspace, and that book is a wild ride.

Now this isn’t going to be an Academic Blog Post (I mean I should save those for my Academic blog, smash cut to a bleached white skeleton gathering dust), but the book (which received an update in 2016) is a long form examination of the way that computers and communication technology was going to change our capacity for storytelling, with whole new theatres of technology opened up to the audience who could simultaneously engage with the work presented to them and create feedback loops that meant that the audience could shape the story that they best wanted.

This is kind of how things worked out, and kind of not, and you can look at the way that the internet has deformed the production of shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld for examples. Mixed in this book (which again, I’m only glancing through here) is an idea of the cyberbard. See, Murray was interested not just in how future stories in an online space were going to be created, but interested in how the tools for making those future stories would be created. She conceived of some truly dizzying stories being made at the level of, well, theatrical productions, and largely, the things she predicted did not happen.

Except the things she predicted, then arranged to have made, those are cool.

The notion of the cyberbard roots itself under the bard; the idea that there is a storyteller who can gauge reactions and give proper responses, fed by and feeding the audience in the loop of the communal storyteller. The bard did not just tell you a story they knew, they told you the story you were asking for, and the cyberbard is that same idea, expanded out into the realm of technological constructions.

There are a lot of things to cover in this book (it’s a good book, I liked it), but the idea of the cyberbard as an extension of technology and as an expression of the tools made to make those technologies is one of those ways that sometimes in academia we use small words to look through a mirror at an enormous conceptual space. The cyberbard is a storyteller conceived of and managed by a computer and it’s the way we build the tools that allow a non-cyberbard to make these stories and it’s the way that the rules of a cyberspace create the opportunities for these stories to be made. It’s dizzying!

But, in amongst all of this there are two specific examples I want to bring people’s attention to, because Murray was not writing about videogames, but about communication technology. She talked as much about things we’d identify now as blogs and web serials as she talked about the control interface of Janeway playing in the holodeck.

The first idea is that she suggests that any system of play in which you engage with a narrative, layered upon it, that changes the way you interface with the story, could be seen as a cyberbard. In videogames, this isn’t just the game itself, but rather, a system that lays atop the game, and encourages you to engage with the story in a way you might not otherwise, for a piece of specific feedback.

In this case, the Let’s Play’s need for content is a cyberbard; the twitch streamer engaging their audience is a cyberbard; and so to is the achievement system, directing the player to do things they wouldn’t do simply to be marked as having done it.

The second, and perhaps larger idea is the notion of a transcendental, collective artwork, an example of theatre, where people could gather and discuss and express their wants for the story going forwards, and the author could, in the mean time of the making of the narrative, enact and express that multimedia story. The book seems to think this would be being made like a television series, a soap opera with shooting and actors (even virtualised ones). What she didn’t anticipate was a massively democratised production apparatus, which meant that these dramas were being made not by people with access to enormous budgets, but people who could harness the right kind of focused attention and engagement.

In 1997, I feel, Janet Murray predicted Homestuck, though she never would have said so.

I’ve had this in the drafts folders for two years, get out of here, you curse’d blog post.

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