Circle Games and Cyberpunk

Circle Games and CyberpunkJerz’s Literacy Weblog)

While I figured cyberpunk wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, I hoped that the likeable protagonist Nell and the fantasy sequences she encounters in her Primer would get students who don’t much care for science fiction to enjoy Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. In order to discuss some of the key concepts in the novel, I had to make sure that my “Intro to Literary Study” class (English majors, overwhelmingly freshmen) grasped some of the basics of network theory. The novel came out when the World Wide Web was still pretty young, and long before teen culture embraced such things as AOL buddy lists and blogging, so I think the average young person probably intuits more about networking culture than Stephenson expected, but still I wanted to bring everybody up to speed in a way that didn’t involve a dry lecture.

In order to dramatize a few key details about the power of networks, while at the same time releasing a little end-of-semester stress, we we cleared tables out of one side of the room, and performed an exercise that I borrowed from an activity that Joe Pino, when he was an MFA drama student at U.Va, inflicted on the cast of the First Year Players’ production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, back in spring, 1987.

Three volunteers went into the hallway, and everyone else stood in a ring; one student, who was the leader, started performing a simple motion — clapping, tapping, stamping, swaying, pointing, etc., and the idea was that everyone else around the circle would copy the motion and stay in synch. One of the students from the hall stood in the center of the circle, and had to figure out what was going on — what were the rules? It was really just one simple rule — follow the leader. The person directly opposite the leader was mistaken for the leader three out of three times, because the leader never introduced a new motion while the person in the center was looking at him/her — the new motion was always introduced while the person in the center was looking away from the leader, so the person directly opposite the leader (who was naturally watching the student in the center) picked it up first, and the people on either side of the leader picked it up from the person opposite, after which it spread quickly (if the students were paying attention and not giggling, and if the action wasn’t too abrupt). At one point, a leader sat down cross-legged on the ground, but this wasn’t an action that everyone else was expecting, it couldn’t easily be accomplished gradually, and it was unlikely to have been introduced by the student wearing a miniskirt — so basically that one simple motion easily elimnated half the class as potential candidates for “leader”.

I suppose when I introduced the exercise, I over-emphasized kinetic actions, and not other forms of communication. At one point, the leader started giggling, and I was hoping that that would lead to everybody else picking up on that action and feeding her giggling back to her, which (given everyone’s basically punchy attutide) would probably have dissolved into self-destructive chaos (which is exactly what happens when the “Drummers” in the novel participate in a kind of computational orgy that leads to one of their members, whose body becomes a central processor, produces so much heat that she burns up).

By the third time, the students were doing such a good job concealing the “rules” from the student in the center that the exercise went on for three times longer before the leader was revealed. We also experimented with changing the rules (I named two leaders on our fourth run), and the exercise prompted a discussion of Western individualsim vs. Eastern Confucianism.

While I had always intended on doing something involving meatspace interaction (rather than the cyberspace variety) as we discuss the ending of the book, it’s perhaps fitting that the blogs were down for part of the day — we used a low-tech medium — our own bodies — in order to experience how easy it is to hide in a network (though I’m sure Joe had a different motive in mind).