MYSTeriously Magical

I’m a total geek.  If this comes as a surprise to you and you’re not a first-time reader of this blog, I question your powers of observation.  Anyway, I’m a geek, but I used to be a bigger one; I used to be more into video games and computer games than I am now, but I’m still into literature and fantasy, not to mention the original occult sources that gave us D&D and genres of fantasy fiction and gaming that we have today. 

One of my all-time biggest fandoms is the MYST fandom.  Remember Myst, the game where you walked around the beautifully-rendered (for 1993) worlds, traveling from Age to Age using specially-written books?  Remember the sequel, Riven, which led more into the lost culture and society that made these Linking Books that?  Remember its other sequels which, though pretty, didn’t add particularly much to the gameplay but were still helpful in fleshing out the worlds of Atrus, Catherine, their (sometimes wayward and/or deadly) children and friends?  Surely you do.  Well, I recently got rid of all my MYST loot (the games, the novels, the soundtracks, everything but my coffeetable book “The Making of Riven”, which is damned hard to find anymore).  In my quest to get rid of everything I don’t use, want, or need, I gave it all to a friend who went “EEEEE” over the collection.  Of course, it was only after I gave him all this stuff that I started thinking more about the Myst universe and how profoundly relevant it is to my current life and workings.

For those of you who have forgotten and who never had the chance or pleasure to play the games, let me explain.  There’s a race of humans called the D’ni (deh-knee), with their own sets of technology and language and script.  One special technology they have is called the Art, which allows them to travel to various and sundry worlds (properly called Ages).  The Art involves writing using special ink on special paper using a special form of their language with difficult-to-translate words to write a particular kind of book, called a Descriptive Book.  This Descriptive Book essentially describes the whole cosmos, physics, and development of an Age, and upon completion generates a special picture in the book called a Linking Panel, which shows an animated picture of a particular spot in the world.  Someone who touches this image is physically transported from their current Age into the Age of the Descriptive Book, to the spot that the Linking Panel shows; this act is called linking. 

Any known Age can only be referenced by a single Descriptive Book, but a Linking Book can be written in that particular age with passages that refer to the Descriptive Book of the Age.   These Descriptive Books are huge, since they have to describe in full the entire mechanics of a given universe, while Linking Books, which are basically abridged Descriptive Books, are no bigger than a supermarket novel, and are thus easy to transport and make multiple copies of.

It makes sense in the game and story.

Now, the D’ni weren’t a superstitious people; they’re constantly presented as scientific, curious, and ingenious in nearly every possible way.  For one, they had to develop extreme engineering skills as a way of life: they lived in a huge cavern deep, deep underground, and had to learn how to excavate, ventilate, and power the cavern properly in order to survive.  They used the Art to obtain goods and resources, sure, and some D’ni lived in other Ages for most of their lives, but by and large the D’ni race lived in this one central subterranean city.  They used different Ages to explore different aspects of physics, meteorology, or zoology, experimenting with different theories by literally writing up an Age to test out all the “what ifs” they thought of. 

They didn’t consider the Art magic, but as simply an art gifted to them.  However, above all, they didn’t consider themselves to write the Ages into existence; they had a religion which involved a supreme deity called the Maker, who created all possible worlds on a vast cosmic (or even multiverse) tree.  The Art simply described an Age on a different part of the Tree from their own Age.  Consider different Ages like leaves on a tree: similar Ages are leaves close to each other on the same branch, while on nearby branches Ages become slightly more different, and on an entirely different limb and branch of the tree two Ages can be radically different.  Not all Ages were stable: some Ages were written with contradictory, impossible, or otherwise implausible physics that didn’t permit the Age to last long, if it lasted at all; linking to such an Age would be disastrous, if not outright fatal.  For this reason, the Art was restricted and required skill and talent to write for, and working Ages had to be regularly maintained and kept “functional” so that they wouldn’t go apocalyptic.

Catch all that?  Good.  Now I’ll start making sense of it in context of my Work.

You have these people who, with a bit of knowledge and innovation, travel to worlds wholly new and unexplored, but still sharing the same cosmos as we do.  They make contact these worlds, exploring them, and learning from them, maybe even contacting and learning from their inhabitants.  They have to constantly use every possible means available in order to survive and survive well.  They use specialized tools and magical language written in an arcane way to obtain access to these other worlds  They keep up their relationships and contacts with these worlds so that both they and these worlds never collapse, since they become dependent on these worlds the more they explore them, and these worlds become dependent on them.  They incorporate these worlds, their gifts, and their lessons into their own lives and world, becoming ever more understanding and powerful with each new world they know.  These worlds were described as being different parts of the same Tree made by the same Creator, all with ultimately the same root.

The words and language they use represent concepts and ideas that simply cannot be expressed in normal language, but only through the act of creation itself, things like particular patterns of air flow or how information is represented through physical or material media, or the lack thereof.  These writers have to learn these special words that can bring unmanifest and ineffable possibility into concrete reality, linking ideas into manifestation, using ritual implements and actions to do so.  The art they use is a tightly-guarded and close-kept secret, with only a few who are able naturally and with training to understand these mysteries. 

The mysteries of…well, you tell me.

Information’s Freedom and Defense

Sorry about the delay; the physical world caught me up with some recent events that kept me away.

Gaming on the Internet is big business; it’s regularly ranked among the top, if not the top, modern industries and they try to keep it that way. Every day, hundreds of millions of users log onto some MMORPG or networked FPS, often paying subscription fees in one form or another. That said, although these throngs of users are the lifeblood of many a company, they’re not exactly viewed with respect or kindness, unlike, say, car owners. On the forums and threads that accompany online games, discussions can and often do get downright nasty. Flame wars, threats, and other puerile behavior is extremely common.

The funny thing is that this kind of behavior is hardly ever seen in the physical world except by sociopaths. The cause is anonymity on the Internet: otherwise decent people turn into corrupted abusers of speech and rules, presumably because their afforded anonymity gives them freedom to act without reprisal or retribution. The same effect can be seen in drivers on the freeway, when people drive more aggressively in cars because they’re harder to see. The combination of anonymity with general childishness makes it a hassle for administrators and moderators to maintain decency on the Internet, to say little.

Enter Blizzard’s recent decision to enforce the use of real names on forum posts. With their recent Real ID system of logging information about their users, they put into place a plan to use users’ real names in posts on the forum, among other related changes. The primary reason was because “the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild”. Using real names would “lift the veil of anonymity” and hopefully make things run better and more decent on the forums. Besides, as the owners and managers of massive services, doing so was entirely in their power as the last word.

But then came the backlash. Thousands of users contacted Blizzard decrying their decision, some with well-formed arguments, some with the usual drivel they post in guarded anonymity that Blizzard was trying to fix in the first place. So, after deliberating a bit more, Blizzard went back and decided to keep things the way they are, using handles instead of real names. They said that using real names “was not needed” and let their users be satisfied by this decision.

Some of the arguments used against the use of real names could be refuted, but one stands out in particular: that anonymity protects users from backlash in the physical world. Given that we live in a fairly conservative society, it’s not uncommon for people to be dealt punishment, demotion, or other backlash for the things they say or post online, even in other social roles that don’t pertain to their punishment. Or, perhaps, the distinction between an online persona and a physical one would become blurred; backlash against transgendered characters (e.g. Sally the Paladin playing under the real name Steve) or harassment of female users would also be a significant risk in using real names.

A similar situation in the physical world may be seen in the recent judicial cases on same-sex marriage in the United States. In 2009, the state of Washington put to the vote a bill to provide benefits to same-sex marriages equal to those in different-sex marriages. Measures and petitions were made on both sides of the debate, which, as legal and government-submitted documents, become public record. However, the managers of the bills against same-sex marriage pushed to have the names supporting their movement remain anonymous and protected to protect their supporters from harm. Their claim was eventually taken up to the Supreme Court, which, in an 8-1 ruling, allowed their names to remain anonymous provided that they can show that they would in fact be at significant risk of harm. Perhaps surprisingly, Justice Scalia railed against such a decision, saying that “[r]equiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed”.

The whole debate between anonymity and taking responsibility over one’s actions is ultimately moot, since with enough tracking one can almost always link a username on some forum to its corresponding user. That said, people are debating between one’s right to privacy and others’ right to hold one to accountability. I contend that the two do not relate on the same playing ground. Instead, to me, privacy is the ability to keep things not made public from the public eye (such as one’s activities on their local host without releasing it to a server, or in a bedroom with the curtains closed), while accountability is taking ownership of one’s actions in the public eye. Blizzard’s, and other server’s, forums are often publicly available on the Internet, and thus any posts made on them, unless the server is protected from being only viewed, should be considered a matter of public record and enforce their users to accept what they’ve done and said. Privacy doesn’t apply here unless they’re conversing in private messages, not forum posts.

The Internet has a long, long history of anonymity, and some may argue that most of the intellectual activity on the Internet was made possible because of it. I disagree.