HAMLET ON THE HOLODECK: THE FUTURE OF NARRATIVE IN
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.