The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Revolution Will Be Deconstructed

A few years back I happened to read an essay by the famed Italian semiologist and historian Umberto Eco  entitled "The Style of the Communist Manifesto." For me, this essay was a revelation. The possibilities it opened up were stunning.

See, Eco was taking all sorts of ideas from literary criticism and applying it to a revolutionary political document, analyzing it almost as though it was a novel or poem.

For the first time, I realized that any form of media--any form of communication--could be read like a narrative or poetic work, and that the hidden messages in literature weren't just in literature. They were in everything else, too. However, as we aren't taught to look at structures, not in any sort of depth, anyway, they are largely invisible to us.

Eco actually touches upon the problems with this when remarking that there has been little literary analysis of the Communist Manifesto:
"This is a pity, [Eco writes], for it is an astonishing text that skilfully alternates apocalyptic and ironic tones, powerful slogans, and clear explanations, and (if capitalist society really does want to seek revenge for the upheavals these few pages have caused it) even today it should be read like a sacred text in advertising agencies.”
And it's true. What makes a clever literary construction powerful is the fact that it is invisible. Literary technique is a hidden technique, and it can be used just as easily to support a corporation as to support a revolution, especially if we are not aware of its mechanisms.

Now, the other day I came upon a recently revised version of a document known as the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Reading through it, I was struck, like Eco, with the rhetorical structuring of the text. Naturally, because I am a hack, I decided to steal Eco's schtick and do my own analysis of the document. I want to try and delve into some of the hidden functions of the document and how they shift the argument in largely hidden ways. This isn't an attempt to diminish the importance of the document. I find myself agreeing intellectually with much of the document, to be honest. However, as I said above, these techniques can be used both to declare the Internet's freedom... or ensure its shackling.

Now, if you're familiar with my article style (and if you're not... well, you will be shortly) you know that I can't help but add an extra layer of complication to whatever I do. And sure enough, there's one extra fact that makes this exercise a lot weirder:

There are actually TWO Declarations.

One was written in 1996, in the early days of the 'net's spread, and the other was written just a few weeks ago by some members of Anonymous. The Anonymous version of the document is a revision of the original, which was written by one John Perry Barlow, and has a few minor changes worth analyzing as we go along. In order to better explore this double text, I'll be introducing Barlow's original in normal font color, excised and changed passages in blue, and the Anonymous revisions in red (while leaving out some minor recurring changes such as the change of all Barlow's "I"s to Anonymous's "We"s). As we go through, I'll give a play by play analysis.

Shall we begin?

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Already we have a reason to halt our analysis temporarily! And what a better place to start analyzing than the title? This is a great title, actually, because it already signals the revolutionary nature of the passage simply due to its association with the American Declaration of Independence (and other such documents throughout history). Let's dig into the semiotics of that. As I've described in other articles, one of the keys to semiotic theory is that signs--the units of information that convey meaning--exist within networks of association. This means that we can trace the associations throughout the whole document. So, what do we think of when we think of Declarations of Independence, the first major sign here?

Well, there's the implication of a colonized entity fighting back against a colonialist entity. That's going to be important later.

This is also a document associated with Enlightenment ideals--things like the triumph of reason, egalitarianism (well, for a few people--this is a whitewashed interpretation of the American Revolution, but for our purposes I think its safe to say that the idea here is All Humans Are Equal), and revolution--potentially violent revolution--against oppressive establishments.

What's more, it's a very clever rhetorical move. There's a hidden assumption here that the authors are using to their advantage to shape the argument.

Can you see it?

This title takes as granted that The Internet is an entity capable of declaring its independence from material governments! I'm sorry, did you want to argue that the Internet, or Cyberspace depending on whether or not you're still living in the 90s, can't actually declare independence? Well too bad, because it just fucking did!

This is, quite frankly, a stunning coup for the authors, on the same level as the conservative branding of the abortion debate as "Choice vs Life." By simply putting a title to an idea, the writer of a text sets the argumentative ground in their own home turf, which, if you've studied speech and debate, is always a whole lot more advantageous. Anything you can get your opponent to agree too implicitly by embedding it in the description of the debate itself is another point for your side.

But wait, it gets better.
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace [we come from the Internet], the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
Let's take a moment and admire the poetry here. "You weary giants of flesh and steel" is an incredible description for the modern industrial world. It's an evocative and in many ways disturbing image, an image strongly inspired by science fiction and the concept of the Cyborg. But here the cyborgs have grown huge, ancient, grotesque. These are not elegant mergers of flesh and metal, but entities weighed down by the material world.

This image is then answered by an opposing image, the image of the Internet as "the new home of Mind." Not "the Mind," mind you--just "Mind." When put in those terms, it seems a weighty archetypal force, elemental, fundamental, and divorced from the clunky ancient past. What's more, this strange, mythic entity is from the future, a future that deserves to be free. And here's another implicit little association: if the the old world is weighed down, weary, tied to the earth, what is the Internet? Light, airy, fluid, electric... something flowing like thought itself. And yet, none of that is typed up here, is it? It's all just generated in our minds. And once an idea takes hold, as Inception is fond of noting, it's damn hard to get rid of.

There are some modern critical theories that actually address the way this works. Deconstruction, for example, loves pointing out the way texts create systems of binaries. So, if you've got your lead character as a logical, strong, forceful Male, your female lead must, in binary opposition, be ______? If you've got Venice set up as civilization, order, structure, and rationalism, then Othello the Moor must, in binary opposition, be _____? Are you beginning to see how this works?
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, /so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks/ [therefore we address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty it always speaks]. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. [You are toothless wolves among rams, reminiscing of days when you ruled the hunt, seeking a return of your bygone power.]

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.
This is largely an expansion on the last line of the first paragraph, with a strong emphasis placed upon the political theory of the movement. Here's where we start to move away from the poetry and into the real message of the call to revolution. I'm interested in this passage for two reasons. One is the way it predicts the anarcho-collectivist tendencies of Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street. Look at that second paragraph: "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." Oh, sure, this is a pretty common idea in political theory, but consider what this meant in 1996.

Now consider what it means in 2012, after V for Vendetta.

Interesting shift, isn't it? That line, although present in the original, has far more power now because it has a whole new range of associations drawn from V for Vendetta and Anonymous. This is a good example of the way that changes in culture can change the meaning of a document like this, not simply because definitions change, but because broader cultural associations change. And, once more, its an implicit association. They aren't drawing a little Guy Fawkes mask next to the statement, but anyone reading it who knows anything about Anonymous is going to recognize that as one of the most important revolutionary slogans of our era. The only way it could possibly be more on the nose is if they argued that governments should be afraid of their people--and don't worry, that's coming later on.

The other interesting aspect of this passage is the changes actively made by Anonymous. One of them isn't so impressive--they manage to take the first line here and utterly mangle it grammatically for no good reason I can see--but another one is rather interesting. It's that line about the wolves in there. Remember how I said that now we're moving away from the poetry and sitting down at the negotiation table? Anonymous has taken this primarily message-based passage and added in an element of poetic metaphor. This is one of their most successful changes, because it paves the way for the next totally new passage:
[We have watched as you remove our rights, one by one, like choice pieces of meat from a still struggling carcass, and we have collectively cried out against these actions of injustice. You have neither usage nor purpose in the place we hold sacred. If you come, you will be given no more and no less power than any other single person has, and your ideas will be given the same consideration anyone else would receive You are neither special, righteous, nor powerful here.]
Here, ladies and gentlemen, is Anonymous at its finest. This reads quite differently from the rest of the document. Barlow's poetry is rather distant and almost fantastic, as seen in his image of giants of fused flesh and metal. Anonymous, however, goes right for the jugular, as it were. Their beef is with the carving up of internet rights, and they want the reader to understand viscerally that it's something they can't stomach. (God, I'm sorry for that last sentence, but I just couldn't resist spicing things up. I'll stop chewing the scenery now.) 1 They use violent metaphors of wolves who long to rip the flesh of the herd (although there's a bit of a mixing of metaphors here as in one paragraph the old world is toothless, and in another it is actively eating its victim alive) and generally portray the struggle in overtly violent terms that Barlow tends to keep more understated. Interestingly, Anonymous also offers a concession: these wolves can join the flock, if only they consent to enter as equals, just as all others in the culture of the Internet, to be judged as individuals.

Anonymous, taking its cues from Barlow, is forcefully establishing a moral high ground. This isn't just a revolutionary document. This is a lecture to entities that Anonymous and Barlow alike hold in contempt. They consider their enemies odious, but demand only freedom, while their enemies are ravenous monsters threatening the Internet's very existence. Now, keep that binary in mind: the Internet is reasonable, the industrial governments are ravenous and irrational.

We're going to see it again, but not in that form.
You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.

You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. [This claim has been used throughout the centuries by many an invading kingdom, and your claims are no different, nor do they ring any less hollow.] /Many of these problems don't exist./ [Your so called problems do not exist.] Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract . This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. /Our world is different./ [--This last line was removed from the Anon version]
This is one of my favorite places in the text, partly because of the line that Anonymous added, which makes far more explicit some of the implicit associations in Barlow's piece. Remember how I said the idea of colonies was important? Well, here's where it becomes crucial.

There's a fairly recent movement in literary theory known as Colonial Theory. This field got its start with Edward Said's examination of the concept of "Orientalism." He was picking apart literature and examining how Western authors created and drew upon a tradition of Othering the East--in other words, making it fundamentally not just foreign but actually deviant from the "normal" society of the West. Components of this process include the establishment of non-Western inferiority, the need for European powers to colonize and educate unschooled natives, and the construction of non-Western civilizations as simultaneously repellant and alluringly exotic. It's those binaries again, remember?

What the authors are setting up here is an idea of the Internet as a similarly colonized and Othered entity being shackled by imperial powers that consider the natives incapable of ruling themselves. They're implicitly putting themselves in what is currently a critically advantageous position of a foreign power being invaded and culturally suppressed by a larger entity. What's more, this colonizer does not understand the colonized, but creates a simple binary understanding where the colonizer is a force of order and the colonized an unruly mob incapable of productive thought.

But wait! That's oddly familiar. A rational entity juxtaposed with an irrational entity. But the last time we saw that the positions were reversed!

Let's see if this happens elsewhere.
Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself,[;] arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. [It is the last truly free place in this world, and you seek to destroy even that freedom.] Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.
Here's another Anon addition that makes a lot of sense. Not the semicolon, that's actually Anonymous not understanding grammar again. No, it's that second sentence there that wasn't in the original. That line ups the ante of the text. This is no longer an ideological struggle between a colonial power and a native people, but a struggle for the very idea of freedom itself! I'm not sure it's totally fitting here, though. Think about it. Barlow is waxing poetic again, with the kind of starry-eyed Cyberpunk idealism common to 90s nerds. Adding that line here disrupts that poetry in a way that doesn't particularly work for me. That said, it creates a rather interesting implication: perhaps the internet is the last free place because it is the only free place possible. It is, after all, "not where bodies live," and bodies can never be truly free of the constraints of material life.

The logical endpoint of this is the ultimate Futurist dream: permanent and final ascension into the Net as an electronic consciousness.
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. [A place where anyone, at any time, is as free to come and go, to say and be silent, and to think however they wish, without fear, as anyone else. There is no status beyond the merit of your words and the strength of your ideas.]

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here. [There are only ideas and information, and they are free.]

Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge . Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.

Again, not to complain too much, but I actually think Anonymous should have kept their hands off of this section. Read it without the red text. Try reading it, for example, with your 3D glasses.

...You didn't get any 3D Glasses?

Oh nevermind. The point is, if you read it without the red text you see the rhythm of Barlow's original piece. We are creating... We are creating... You (by implication) have created. It's a nice simple repeated structure that is masked by the lines that Anonymous adds.

I'm harping on about it because rhythm is actually quite important. It helps build up expectations and set the reader up for a dramatic experience when those expectations are disrupted. In fact, I would actually revise the whole passage to read like this:

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
We are creating a place where anyone, at any time, is as free to come and go, to say and be silent, and to think however they wish, without fear, as anyone else.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.  The only law that all our constituent cultures recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.
This is not a perfect edit, of course, but it is an edit that emphasizes repetition and rhythm above all else so that when you reach that third line you are primed to react to the opposition: We becomes You, the colonized becomes the colonizer, and their positions are set in opposition not just philosophically but rhythmically as well. The colonizer, the You, is a disrupting force that damages the rhythm due to its ignorance. All of this is inherent in the original, I'm simply revising the document to bring that particular aspect more to the forefront.
In the United States, you have today created a law, the Telecommunications Reform Act, which repudiates your own Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis. These dreams must now be born anew in us.

[In the United States, you repeatedly try to pass unjust legislature in an attempt to restrict us. You disguise this legislature under a variety of different names, and pass excuses that they are for our own protection. We have watched you, time and time again; attempt to censor us under the guise of Copyright protection, or for the protection of Children. These laws come in many shapes and forms, in the name of ACTA, PIPA, COICA, SOPA, but their intentions remain the same. You seek to control what you cannot.

We scorn your attempt to pass these bills, and as a result, our discontent at your misaligned efforts grows each day.]
I won't spend so much time here. I just want to point out that Anonymous has made two major changes here. One is obvious--they took Barlow's bills-of-opprobrium and switched in their own, contemporary shitty legislation. More subtle is the fact that they took out Barlow's appeal to constitutional tradition and the beliefs of the Enlightenment thinkers. This seems significant to me because it helps reemphasize the binary that the text is toying with--Material, Colonial world vs Cognitive, Colonized world. Still, I'm actually not sure I agree with the change, because it narrows the rhetorical scope of the text down to mostly that binary, and Anonymous therefore loses the rhetorical power of appealing to the positive emotions that people associate with Jefferson, Washington, and Madison (and the philosophical association with someone like Mill, for those in the audience who know the name).
You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.
This is great material. Again, we return to the idea that the Internet is a colonized entity. This is a perfect example of the repulsive allure of the Orient, here expressed by people who find Cyberspace and its denizens to be terrifying, and therefore are content to allow larger entities to establish colonial expressions of force. We've got another interesting reversal here, too, where the monsters--the wolves chewing on the flesh of the Net--are actually frightened of the Net. The monsters are afraid of the possibility that the flock might also hide fangs.

This last line is marvelous, another great example of Barlow's poetry. George Orwell (of "It's Orwellian!" fame, author of 1984) describes, in his essays on language, the power that comes from a truly original metaphor, and Barlow, in sidestepping cliche phrases, has come up with a perfect description of the Internet ethic: it is impossible to separate good air from bad air, it is all ultimately the same from the perspective of the citizens of the Net, who are here described as birds, flying far above worldly concerns and, perhaps, even worldly morality.

It's also a great way of referring back to the opening of the document, since in the opening metaphor the Mind was only assigned this lightness of form by implication, and here we see it finally resolved. This provides unity to the piece as a whole and satisfies the reader compositionally. After all, a pleased reader is a reader inclined to listen.
In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy[, Mexico, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Canada,] and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will /soon be/ [is already] blanketed in bit-bearing media.

Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, /no more noble/ [no different] than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.
Another short comment here: I don't like Anonymous's change to the Pig Iron line. I think it takes out some of the poetry for, as far as I can see, no material benefit. Barlow's original is powerful because the word "noble" reasserts that the Internet, as a place of the Mind, has, by its very nature, a moral authority, and a nobility. Ideas are noble in Barlow's world, they are the true aristocrats of an egalitarian society because it is ideas that compete for the highest position of power, not people. The material world is the merchant class that seeks to emulate the nobility of ideas but cannot, as it is tied to material concerns. But an aristocrat without any money is still fundamentally an aristocrat. This was true in the 19th and even the early 20th century: the nobles of Europe may have been broke, and they may have had to sell all their paintings to American collectors (which is why America has such great museums, incidentally), but they were still titled, they still were the elite even if they had no material way of showing it. Thus, our modern nobles and merchant classes, on the Internet, at least, are Ideas and Matter.

The first paragraph here, though, is a good example of how Anonymous has deliberately broadened the scope of the argument, and tied it implicitly with Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring revolutions. It is a way of declaring and coopting, to some extent, the power of these movements to support internet freedom. The internet helped to enable these protests and revolutions, and now Anonymous, by acknowledging that, implies that these movements are already in support of this Declaration.
These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves [our presence in the world we have created] immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.
We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. [We have created a medium where all may partake in the forbidden fruit of knowledge, where egalitarianism reigns true.] May /it/ [our society] be more humane and fair than /the world your governments have made before/ [yours].

[We are the Internet.
We are free.]

no. 7
We would like to extend a special thank you to J. P. Barlow for providing the original content that we have modified to better represent the realities of the Internet as it stands.]
I like the line Anonymous adds here at the end about "forbidden fruit." This reveals the deeply Gnostic origins of this document. Gnostic, of course, means To Know, and one of the key components of the early Christian splinter sects collectively known as Gnostics was the belief that the world was a trap, and that to transcend the world we needed to strive toward Gnosis, toward true understanding, toward rather than away from the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Toward a civilization of Mind, in other words.

The document is shot through with probably unwitting allusions to Gnostic theology, from the conviction that we must transcend the flawwed physical world, that perfection lies in some non-physical realm, and that knowledge is being kept from us by ancient Archons--the mythic giants of flesh and steel in the old world. Of course, this is also a set of ideas inherent in the great work of cyberpunk theology that helped shape our generation: The Matrix.

But here we have one final reversal. For the world that entraps us is not some digital reality--the digital reality is the Gnostic paradise that we seek, a world that allows for knowledge of good and evil. The message is the same as The Matrix, but perversely reversed, just as the authors reversed our expectations of the Colonial/Colonized binary.

And, last but not least, the authors sign their names and, in a striking move, credit Barlow with the original document. Because ideas are free, after all, and even if the changes are, for the most part, minor, the acts of these authors are less important than the sharing and metamorphosis of the idea itself. Information, as the Anons point out in an almost direct quotation from Wikipedia's own tagline, wants to be free.

I want to return, though, briefly to the section earlier where I jammed a bunch of food puns down your throats. Although it might seem like this punning is excessive (partly because, well, it is), this is actually somewhat deliberate on my part. If you haven't caught on, a lot of this article is based in the literary idea of Deconstruction. I've already talked about what the modern 'net use of the term is, but this is the first deconstructive essay I've done on here. And there's one thing that sets Deconstruction apart from every other literary school.

Deconstructionists love their damn puns.

Deconstruction is, in part, about showing off. It's about proving how clever you are. Typically it does so by looking at binaries and then, in a stroke of inspired genius that is intended to leave the audience in awe, reverses that binary to show how the two dissimilar things have switched position! Ta-da!

And what did this document do?

Yup. Its been playing binary opposition games all along, taking the Colonialist binary established by the governments of the industrial world and flipping on its head. Order vs Chaos becomes Constriction vs Freedom in the hands of the authors, and this flip occurs a number of times in the document. So, the authors are, to some extent, showing off, and I'm REALLY showing off here because I'm uncovering the trick, as it were. And I'm also showing my own mastery of language by using way too much wordplay. I'm nowhere near the grand master level when it comes to Deconstruction, of course. For that, I would recommend Barbara Johnson's reading of Melville's novella "Billy Budd," which is floating up to its very eyeballs in puns and clever reversals.

But, beyond the ridiculousness of Deconstruction is a very real, very useful truth about media: there are all sorts of things going on beneath the surface that serve to persuade and move us, regardless of our conscious will. And to uncover them it takes more than just one way of looking at a text, because, frankly, most modes of Theory are not really interested in the question of whether or not readers are being unfairly manipulated by media. There are a few scholars here and there, sure, but to really delve into these problems you need an interdisciplinary approach.

But more than that, more than anything else, you have to be willing to take that step into the realm of Mind. Free yourself from the physical, material reality of words on the page and enter into the flowing space beyond, the etherial space of the text's hidden messages.

Declare your independence from the thin, barren surface world of media, and soar aloft into the space between the lines.

Incidentally, if you want to deconstruct the absurdity of my binaries, you can follow me on Google+ at or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

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