"Play with me!" or: Cyberspace as Toyspace
This paper has first been presented at the opening of the "Data-Panic"-show, event organized by Konrad Becker, January 10, 1997, Arthouse, Dublin
It has been frequently remarked that the realm of electronic networks bears some resemblances to a new continent. If this is true then it is perfectly clear that electronic networks at least partly represent a new America: An always receding horizon/frontier which has to be discovered and at the same time protected in its untouched innocent state.
But how come we experience the internet as a New Continent, and how come we construct this continent as playground. My main claim is that it is especially electronic art that constructs this new continent as a space for playing and the continent itself as toy. Cyberspace is a kind of Toyspace. Here, allegedly "cold" technology suddenly looks at you – with big eyes – and says: "Play with me".
In Austrian – and not merely Austrian – electronic art the construction of this New Electronic Continent as playground is prevalent. Examples – partly of the people participating in this event today – might be Eva Wohlgemuth's "Diana's Digest" (a whole webside on Diana, featuring the princess as a kind of Barbie-doll), Robert Adrian X who, in collaboration with ORF Kunstradio, produced the sit-com "Auer Family" where PlaymobilTM-characters stage a family narrative; A third example might be the winners of this year's Ars Electronica's Golden World Wide Web Nica who call themselves "e-toy", thereby bearing their relation to Toyspace already in their name. In public performances they appear themselves as toys. And a last example might be the theory-island "e-lands in the web" by Konrad Becker and myself, which heavily relies on adventure games. In this project – which was presented in a workshop in Dublin's Arthouse – we tried to avoid the idea of a cyberspatial playful happy-go-lucky-land by including "war-zones" (Guerrilla Camp) and "market-zones" (Trade Zone), thereby shaping the New Continent in a more realistic fashion while at the same time not forgetting about its fictual character. So, on the other hand one can find there a "psychogeographic", "mystic" or "enigmatic" space as well (Neo Town, Synreal City), (there are religions, there are Gods, there are demons).
Now taking the assumption that the Internet is nothing else than a new continent, a continent modelled upon America as the New World and upon the narrative of the "final frontier" as a starting point, the question arises why and how the playfulness and childishness of the American imaginary is transferred into "cyberspace". Therefore, the central thesis – or rather, hypothesis – would go somewhat like this: The internet as playground specifically relates to one New World Narrative (characteristic): To the Hanna-Barbera-cartoon Yogi-Bear.
Yogi-Bear as cartoon character also belongs to a New World-space, "Jellystone-Park" (a parodic variation on Yellowstone Park), which is located – very much like the internet – somewhere in between a post-fordistic theme park and a wild-life preserve. However, behind this playground, we find a fundamentally bad conscience. Yogi-Bear, who – in the cartoon narrative – stands in for the American Natives, incorporates the primal trauma of the American imaginary. An imaginary that is torn between extinction and "enculturation" of its Other. The other – the natives.
Mary Fuller for example speculates that "the drive behind the rhetoric of virtual reality as a New World or new frontier is the desire to recreate the Renaissance encounter with America without guilt: This time, if there are others present, they really won't be human, or if they are, they will be other players like ourselves, whose bodies are not jeopardised by the virtual weapons we wield." (Fuller and Jenkins, 1995: 59). Please note: She's speaking about other players instead of real human people.
Fuller might be right – we can have a playful and harmless relation with the other in case of electronic networks – although her approach leaves out the economical motives of colonisation. Nowadays electronic networks are about to be colonised by banks, tele-industries and corporations who simply want to sell their products. The "natives" are forced into – for example – teleworking. Some of the electronic net-art tend to leave out this other side of electronic playfulness tend to forget that behind the playful encounter with the other – an other who, according to Mary
Fuller, has not to be killed and extincted this time – most of netart tend to forget that we can find both economic and political motives that are not innocent at all.
So, if we understand net-art and net-culture as a form of play which on its part establishes a specific object-relation towards techno-toys, then the Yogi-Bear narrative might help us to understand this dark side of cyberspace as playground. As Yogi-Bear teaches us, playing in cyberspace is not an innocent enterprise – it is as cruel as children are.
Why, you might ask, we have to take Yogi-Bear as a cruel postcolonial story, a paraphrase on internet culture apres la lettre and not only as a children's cartoon? Jellystone-Park is a kind of realised Utopia. Therefore it is no Utopia anymore, it has already finished to be a Utopia which on the other hand is the condition of possibility of its partial realisation. Electronic networks are "realised" Utopias too. But how is it to live in such a realised Utopia? Let's ask Yogi-Bear.
The Hannah-Barbera-Cartoon can be read as an apocalyptic Meditation on the relation between America and its "natives". Yogi-Bear has to be kept in his wild-life preserve but he also has to be preserved as a rare species. The series contains a single dramatic element: The chasing of Picnic-baskets, or as Yogi calls them: "Pickening"-basket. But whenever Yogi-Bear gets one of the visitors picnic-baskets, he has to be caught in the act by Ranger Smith, the chief ranger of the Park. In most cases, Ranger Smith, who is a kind of Habermasian relies on the power of rational
discourse, trying to convince Yogi-Bear not to steel picnic-baskets. But, in the end, he always says he would transfer Yogi-Bear from the wild life preserve into a Zoo (which means – bearing in mind that we are confronted with a variation on the colonisation of America – from the preserve into a kind concentration camp). But even these drastic measures don't succeed.
Interestingly enough Hanna-Barbera construe this preservation space as a non-technical space. The state of nature has to be reinforced by the detechnologization of this kind of rotten paradise. In the Rousseauistic idea of the internet as a state of nature between equal neticens (think of the Jeffersonian democracy-idea by John Perry Barlow), which is coupled with the Californian ideology of the net as a huge beach party, the electronic network is precisely conceived as non-technological.
So, on the one hand, the setting of Jellystone-Park - and with it the Californian ideologist's internet – stands in the tradition of the American romantic Rousseauism of Emerson or Thoreau. Yogi-Bear is nothing else than a nice and happy and dumb native. But because of the American Genocide, the American Rousseauism is not innocent: Yogi-Bear is a kind of incorporated or drawn bad conscience of American Rousseauism. The WASP-coloniser Ranger Smith gets to grip with his bad conscience by constructing his prisoners as naive, funny, nice and as addicted to picnic-baskets (like parents who construct their children as children – whereas children tend to construct themselves (via playing) as adults).
There is no technology in Jellystone-Park. And the same goes for the Ideology of the internet as social playground. In this ideology, paradoxically, the internet is an untouched rural happyland despite its technological nature. And the Rousseauistic ideology of the net, which seeks to defend the net as a wild life preserve against economic-political colonisers, is caught in this very illusion: They see the state of nature of a general friendliness and solidarity and playfulness amongst net-natives as threatened by politicians and capitalist.
This is not totally wrong, but the Net-Rousseauists and -Beach Boys forget that they themselves are already colonisers, that their own state of state of nature is only one definition or model of the net, which fights a war of interpretation with commercial projects for instance. And the model of the internet as playground or Toyspace is in no way privileged. Nature is only one specific form of culture and not at all logically primordial to culture.
This means that many artist's form of playing is not as innocent as they – or we – suppose and their toys might turn against their users. Very much like a Matell doll recently did:
"Matell Inc. is withdrawing its Cabbage Patch doll that mimics eating, and is offering comsumers $40 refunds in response to about 100 reports of children getting hair and fingers caught in the doll's battery-powered mouth. The doll has no on-off switch." (International Herald Tribune, January 8, 1997, p3)