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Sowing Postmodern Chaos and Dissent Virtually...

(this post is a historical look back at something I used to do back in the 90s which is hang out and program MOOs, something that now is obliquely related to the text portions and object database portions MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online) games like World of Warcraft as well as the subversive ways one sometimes uses to change the nature of debates or to distract others from the real debate...)

In the next post I am going to talk about Godwin's Law and how it applies to obstructionists in the health care reform debate but for the sake of internet history and as a preface to that post, allow me to point out I may have been that very same 'Quirk' responsible for coming up with the 'Quirk's Exception' to Godwin's Law, Quirk being the name of one of my many avatars on PMCMOO besides Laz(arus). Briefly MOO stands for Multi-user Online Object-oriented. It is both a programming environment and a game-like chat environment. My Quirk avatar referred to in the next post after this one may have actually made the original point of exception on the MOO known as the Post Modern Culture MOO when discussing the problem of 'Godwin's Law' in real time chat with fellow MOO-er Formosa. Because when we programmers weren't busy living postmodernism we actually discussed it and the ramifications our programming had upon the environment that scholars were using as a mere text based chat interface. In this post I will show how it is possible for a driven class of individuals with just the right amount of power granted to them are able to take the focus away from serious debate and focus it elsewhere just as today's right wing crazies are doing with the health care debate, albeit literally rather than virtually as we did online for a brief time at PMCMOO. Our intentions were merely to demonstrate postmodernism in action, not to rip apart the structure of the server or to stifle the debate therein -- unlike what may currently be happening in the health care debate. Since our time there, they have reverted to their normal, boring scholarly discussion and debate but I bet we were able to show the practicality of what postmodernism REALLY meant while we were making all of those present live postmodernism as it played out in front of all at the time.

PMC-MOO originated sort of as an online collaborative distance education site and a place for folks at UV (University of Virginia) to discuss the humanities and postmodernism. It is a computer program that runs on a remote server that facilitates this function. At the time I was not in college, just had lots of free time to play with the environment and play I and others did. After being on a server hosted at UV for a short time PMCMOO later moved to a server at UNC (University of North Carolina), but it's focus was always on the humanities and postmodernism in particular within the construct of a programmable C++ like environment. We talked postmodernism and about the humanities but many of us were also programmers who were there creating the contextual reality within which all this discussion took place. So not just chat 'rooms' but chat palaces, water slides, amusement parks -- all with text descriptions and manipulatable shared objects that one could exist within or carry as virtual tactile objects on the person of one's avatar. Think 'text based adventure game' though made of virtual silly putty.

The people who ran the MOO on the remote server were there to discuss things like a 'Panopticon' while us programmers interested in postmodernism were actually building one and demonstrating how it would actually function in addition to discussing and debating postmodernism. There were thinkers, there were doers, and there were thinkers AND doers. I was a member of the latter class. We were the engineers, they the theorists and we were there to prove the theory through use of objects we programmed and put into their common database.

Oh the fun we had creating invisible portable rooms one's avatar could carry in one's pocket so that one could sit undetected in other peoples rooms, undetectable to them then using that room to rebroadcast their intimate conversations to the entire population of the MOO because of their mistaken idea that anything in a shared and collaborative online programming and chat environment was ever private (thanks to my friends Sabat and Sedate -- hello, Panopticon!).

The anarchy that spread with my good friend Visual Mark's steampunk-esque hand-cranked 'Rumor Mill' that would associate any player's avatar name with all sorts of outlandish, outrageous and outright lies or rumors -- even using our own avatar names! One programmer during a particularly nasty dispute with the wizards (who after all did own the server that ran the MOO) even went as far as to stage a public immolation of his avatar and all the objects he had personally had a hand in programming, something supposedly impossible to do according to the wizards. Yet he accomplished it. It was quite a performance.

Or roving gangs that would kidnap and inconvenience your avatar. Or infamous Kibo .sig[nature] gopher slate command as digital pepper spray to keep the real pests and griefers off of you. In fact we helped get the earliest form of the web, a little program called gopher to link to offsite content. We also used sendmail on both servers to rarely send super secret back channel communiques, unfortunately never within the MOO, though why would you need it... everybody there is online now in this one spot, PMCMOO. From half a dozen to hundreds all exploring this word game played out in real time online, worldwide. People worked in shifts. There'd always be someone on you'd know and they'd let you know if they were busy working on something. Another object. Programming AI and strings to give a certain sort of textual presence online. Little text bombs of descriptiveness.

Not everyone on the MOO were allowed to be programmers. Besides wizards there was also a simple user class, tourists within the environment the two other classes helped to create. Lab rats, as it were. One had to ask a wizard for a 'programming bit' before they became the 'middle class', the true interface between regular users and the wizards themselves. The wizards were mostly there to discuss postmodernism. Programmers like myself were in part the creators of the environment itself although our job, as I saw it, was to slice and dice it, to add odd twists, to amaze, as much as was possible in a text based environment for both wizards, programmers and users alike. The wizards wanted scholarly order while a large portion of the programming class wished to demonstrate actual postmodernist theory in action by subverting and creating chaos within that environment. Chop it all up into bits and ram it through the digital sausage grinder to see what squirted out the other end. So eventually, while us programmers were pushing the envelope of theory by our software and social engineering we would from time to time piss off the odd user or wizard. Okay, frequently.

In my case it was an incident of getting banned from the MOO for either creating or helping to create such subversive, postmodern objects as those listed above. Then I proceeded to set about demonstrating a proven ability to further subvert my banning (by my Lazarus avatar who fittingly 'came back from the dead'). Once reborn, I escaped from my virtual prison and teleported my avatar directly into a supposedly 'private' room where the wizards were meeting to discuss the anarchy we programmers had sown within a post modernist context and debate it's meaning. Once I had resurrected myself it seems I had arrived in their minds and several wizards then argued in front of me that I should not be banned again because of my demonstration that they obviously couldn't really do it anyhow. If that does not give me my computer nerd bonafides, I don't know what does. It was like playing a game of Zork only you could control parts of the narrative and most of the objects within the game while at the same time people from all over the world were doing likewise. I do not have a citation to a recorded chat session to prove 'ownership' of 'Quirk's Exception', but it certainly sounds like something I would have said when discussing postmodernist theory amongst my nerdy programming friends back in the mid 90s on PMC-MOO. In any case it shows how one can take something and then with creativity turn it into something else, perhaps diverting attention away from the original intent. We could change the discussion, change the debate through direct, though in this case, 'virtual' action.

In short, I am no stranger to sowing anarchy and creating dissent when people are present to have serious discussion and serious debate. They wanted to discuss postmodernism, we wished them to LIVE it. Because how can you seriously discuss or debate anything without having some personal knowledge or experience? Through what may temporarily seem to be bad behavior it is possible to utterly destroy a rational debate or discourse in sometimes maddening ways. Which is what we've seen in the health care reform debate. But you know what? Eventually everybody moved on to other things, more creative and less seemingly destructive. Perhaps unlike the nonsensical nature of the far right neocon wing, to this day I still think what we did was meant spur debate and to foster discourse. Whereas some of the far right wing seem to have ideas of destroying and tearing apart the very thing that allows THEM to push the envelope of reasonable debate -- to speak their crazy, loony ass minds in a country that allows them freedom of speech that they themselves own and control.

PMCMOO now exists in archive form and I believe if one were really interested you can still log on and wander around. We didn't destroy, we created, we collaborated to make it a better place. Our actions added to the debate, to the dialog. While it may have since been replaced by better technologies (it's been ages since I've even tried to visit) it's existence alone or the existence of archives from that time of experimentation should be proof to some that true debate -- even that spurred by sometimes outrageous behavior allow durable structures to endure... no matter how many times you shove them through the sausage maker.



  1. This starts to fill in some missing pieces (prior to this they were all missing) for me behind this blog. It confirms I was right to link to it.

    Post modern rose up in many fields and everyone using the term seems to have a different vision of what it means.

    It seems like a long way round to say that these guys are doing their best to hijack debate and make health care reform die. But that doesn't take post-modernism to do. Destroying is always easier than creating.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. Laz, you have the potential for become the most interesting Alaskan blogger. You might already be.

  2. First, thank you.

    Second, the postmodernists, in my opinion are all about deconstructing the elements of modernism, chopping, remixing, redubbing, mashing up then shoving it through the sausage grinder of the 'panopticon'. Perhaps because of my experience I find it only nostalgic and almost quaint.

    I have since moved on to "neopostmodernism"... in fact I had already done that by the time I stopped programming freelance on MOOs. ;)