Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish 2: Digital Fish Edition

On Monday, I talked about Chapter 89 of Moby Dick and the concept of Fast-fish and Loose-fish and how it ultimately serves as a foundation for the creation of meaning within the novel. Today, I want to extend on ideas I started there by applying the concept of Fast-fish and Loose-fish to a wider view of our entire digital age.

To review, I basically argued that all meaning in life--both in art and outside of it--is the product of connection. (Indeed, the more I think about it, I can't really tell a difference between connection and meaning, and it seems the two are almost interchangeable.) If this is all true, then, ultimately, this idea is another key to how the digital age changes everything. New technologies give us different powers of connection, and thus the powers to alter the meaning of nearly everything in our lives.

As digital media gives fans more chances to connect with fictional universes,
it makes these universes more meaningful for them.
Digital communication changes the meaning of our lives because it changes the connections in our lives. That sounds big and daunting and somewhat terrible, but it's true in both superficial and profound ways, and isn't necessarily a bad thing. For one, the internet has given rise to millions of meaningful and valuable relationships that wouldn't have ever been possible before. Perhaps where this is most easily seen is the rise of fandoms, or more specifically what I'll just call "Comic Con culture." As Kylee pointed out in her post on the subject, Comic Con is a physical gathering of enormous numbers of fans of several similar but quite distinct fictional universes. Ironically, such conventions have grown as internet technology has become more ubiquitous and powerful. You'd think with more possible digital connection, you wouldn't need to physically gather in one place, but I would argue that Comic Con culture is on the rise because these people spend so much time reading/discussing/watching/playing online with each other that they create real relationships around these fictions, and those relationships climax in a confidence and understanding that can only come with community, leading to more and more people identifying with the community enough to physically attend a convention.

Comic Con existed before the internet, but Comic Con culture--specifically, the interconnected, dynamic communities surrounding these series--has only been made possible as forums, social networks, and other online venues have allowed their fans to connect with each other. This connection adds another layer of meaning to whatever connection the series themselves provide for them, and so suddenly something fictional becomes a truly meaningful aspect of their lives. The characters are fake, but the other fans are real, and so is the connection. Connection begets meaning, which inspires more connection.

Another new form of connection the digital age has created is video games. Apart from the real-world connections and communities video games can foster (see this great post by Greg where he talks about that), video games give another kind of connection that is important, meaningful, and potentially quite powerful.

I heard another student in class say yesterday about video games, "Yeah, but people spend so much time on these games, but then they have nothing to show for it in the real world." I think we can safely say this is the common complaint of the general populace against video games. Another way of stating this is that video games are a meaningless use of time, specifically because they don't connect to anything in the "real world" (now there's a complicated term, but again, we don't have time for that now). However, on the other end of that is the kid playing the game. Why does he keep playing if it's meaningless? Why doesn't he go read a book, obviously a more meaningful use of time? The answer is because for that kid, this game is extremely meaningful, simply because it's so powerfully and directly connected to him. He could read a book about someone else whaling, but it's much more meaningful in his eyes to (as he would put it) go whaling himself in a game (he's not actually whaling, but it's a testament to the level of connection video games provide that this is the verb construction we use for them). It isn't that kids who play games don't want to connect, it's that they want to connect more. 

Video games seem meaningless to parents because they (up until recently) didn't grow up with them themselves, and therefore have no connection with them, and also because parents haven't seen (or developers haven't considered) how to connect the game to bigger ideas and create greater meaning in the same way that great literature like Moby Dick does (see my post from Monday). Both of those situations, however, are changing. As video games connect with more fans and more ideas-and as more players connect with more games--inevitably, video games will become as meaningful an art form as any other. Like I said before, meaning isn't contained in art, it's created through it as we connect with it.

Both Comic Con culture and video games are the results of recent advances in digital technologies, and both are growing extremely rapidly, such that many question if books can even survive. With only so many hours in the day and so much money in each person's pocket, we can only be "Fast-fish," as it were, to so many things. The digital age makes this more apparent than any other period of history as there are more influences than ever before vying for our eyes and wallets, and people every day are forced to sacrifice one opportunity (and often hundreds or even thousands of opportunities) to decide what to give their attention and money to.

But once this is understood, it can be leveraged for the greater good--or, at least, greater meaning. Another reason Comic Con culture is growing so rapidly is because the series Comic Cons are built around are quite literally the most ambitious fictional undertakings in human history. It sounds silly, but consider for a moment how much content these series offer to connect with. No longer is the terminology "in this series, such and such happened in book 2," but rather, "in this universe, such and such is possible, which is why such and such happened the comics, which is why in the movie he does this and this, and you have to work with the consequences of that in the game." More and more, entertainment giants like Marvel (Disney) and DC (Warner Bros.) are realizing that the more ways they can connect fans to their series universes, the more meaningful it is for them (and the more they'll pay). Sure, this seems like Marketing 101, but where especially Marvel and DC succeed is in creating a single transmedial experience as opposed to several adaptations and sequels. This grew naturally out of the way comic books have to structured to survive. A comic book has to follow a cast of characters for much longer than a TV series, so comic creators understand how to structure extremely long story arcs with a huge number of characters entering and exiting throughout. And with the original creators keeping their hands in it even decades after the original creation (think Stan Lee), they can ensure that every manifestation of their characters connects to the central foundations they laid down. All this results in enormous fictional worlds that truly deserve the "universe" tag they've been given in pop culture.

Fictional worlds become more meaningful to fans as they engage with them
over several mediums--especially if the stories connect with and work off of
each other across several mediums, as in the case of Batman.
Marvel and DC aren't perfect at transmedial storytelling, however. Because they've developed with the technology (and even the notion) of trandmedia, several times stories have been simply adapted into other mediums as opposed to a true transmedia experience where a single story is told over several mediums. But in the new digital age, almost all entertainment is somewhat transmedial, and creators are leveraging the specific benefits of each medium to pull fans in tighter than ever, making connections all over their minds to build up the stories' meaning. So far, this has served economic purposes more often than artistic, but just consider the potential of a single transmedial universe guided by a core team of directors that control the development of the story in every medium. They could create an entire universe with a single rhetorical standpoint, with each specific medium leveraging its particular mechanics and tools at maximum to drive that point home. Such fiction would quite literally have the power to change the world.

And, with the way things are going, it's coming on us fast.

"What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?"