This paper is an investigation of the intersection of memory and Being, and how they are affected by technology. Specifically, I tackle the replicability of digital artifacts and the non-transference of their memory. To exemplify the failure of transference, the paper leans on anthropological concepts in order to understand how memories may be shared in a cross-cultural context. It utilizes Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism concept in order to better understand how a memory created in a digital realm cannot be understood by an outsider because one had to be-there to comprehend. Similarly, the paper affirms that the reality of a digital reminiscence may only be comprehended through being-on-line—by being in that particular space and time.
Being-on-line, Digital Ontology, Digital Perspectivism, Ontological Turn, Corrupted Blood Event, World of Warcraft.
You had to be there!
You have to be-on-line!
Digital artifacts occupy a grey ontological area. They eschew the restraints of physicality through a set of unique affordances. Kallinikos (Kallinkos, Aaltonen and Marton 2013) details the characteristics of this ambivalent ontology as editability, the capacity for the artifact to be altered after creation, interactivity, the affordance for user-chosen contingent actions, and distributedness, the ability for the artifact to be present in multiple systems at once. The distributedness is adjacent to the concept of replicability. In digitally systems, most files unless protected can be duplicated ad infinitum. The promise of lossless digital media is eternal replication without loss. We point to these affordances as antipodal to physical goods, who by the nature of their material existence are scarce. If I have this apple, you cannot have it too. This fact has led to a romanticization of digital space as being the realms of abundance, where the restrictions of physical space evanesce. But there is loss, loss of experience. As experiences or subsequent accounts of experiences are replicated across the internet, the true essence of the experience is lost, only claimable by those who were on-line.
This research essay seeks to explicate the interplay between simultaneous presence during a digital event and the impossibility of reproduction of the event’s memory, thereby affirming the importance of being-on-line.
Firstly, there is no true dualism (Jurgenson 2011), by which I mean no separation. Like the physical apparatus that engenders it, the phenomenological experience of the digital artifact is still tethered to the material, just as is the whole digital apparatus. For instance, I write to you from a desk, located in the middle room of my Queens apartment. It is an office of some sorts. This is the main locus or access point to my online realms. Its walls, the lighting, the temperature are all part of the interface which I use to access the Online. The room is my portal to the Online sites and networks of which I am a member.
I was influenced by David Rudnick’s concept of the “digital-prime”, presented in the 2021 “Primacism” episode of the Interdependence podcast (Rudnick 2021). “Digital-prime” means an experience that occurs first and foremost online. Events such as Travis Scott’s live concert in Fortnite, where he appeared as a giant avatar and sang songs to a crowd of millions, the romantic relationship sparked in a massively multiplayer online role playing game’s (MMORPG) dungeon or the Corrupted Blood event in World of Warcraft, the eponymous Plague in Cyberspace, all represent incidences of the digital-prime.
The Corrupted Blood event, specifically, was a deadly plague that affected World of Warcraft players in 2005, after the release of patch 1.7.0. It was caused by a glitch which enabled an infectious debuff, an effect or temporary curse that harms its target, to be transmitted outside the dungeon where it should have been contained. The debuff in question was both extremely powerful, inflicting from 250-300 damage in health points, and extremely virulent, it could be transmitted to pets and NPCs. Low level players afflicted with it would die in a matter of seconds. This event was seminal in the history of World of Warcraft and its almost 5 million players. It has made its way to the pantheon of internet lore.
The title “A Plague in Cyberspace” is also a reference to the seminal 1993 essay “A Rape in Cyberspace” by Julian Dibbelll from the beginning of virtual worlds, which presents an egregious account of rape in a mediated environment. The crime was perpetrated by a character named “Dr. Bungle” in LambdaMOO, a Multi-User Dungeon or MUD. Using a “voodoo doll” program, Dr. Bungle assigned actions to other characters against their consent, many of which were sexual. The essay recounts the trauma suffered by the members of the MUD who had been violated. One member even recounted “post-traumatic tears were streaming down her face”. The rape like the plague exemplifies that the digital-prime experience and its memory are not circumscribed in one realm, rather they are astride the hybrid created by the mixed-realm experience.
This concept of digital-prime exists on a Escherian spectrum with “physical prime” at another end. For the last 20,000 years of human civilization, we have built cultures in a physical-prime fashion. As humans expanded their reach on Earth, they built physical markers of their culture, rites, and rituals. The cave paintings of Lascaux can be understood as the first artistic expression of that culture and that expression lived in our shared physical ritual. The new culture we build will certainly include hybrid memories, if not pure digital-prime ones.
The Internet is built on the lore of the digital-prime, a series of events occurring within non-material realms. In 1996, the Lavender Town Syndrome spread across Japan. It was a rumored curse that afflicted children who visited Lavender Town in Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue and listened to its eerie soundtrack. The children allegedly soon after took their own lives. Stories of the 200-or-so suicides that the score had engendered became very popular on the site Creepypasta around 2010, the same time when I used to browse the page.
In 2009, SlenderMan made his first appearance on the Something Awful forum. The legend haunted innumerable teenage minds and I spend countless nights spent browsing fora, where people detailed at great lengths their experiences with the creature. There was also the MothMan’s tale and the blurry images anons would share of their encounters. I could visualize the detail with which they described the matters. To this day, I can’t escape the shiver-inducing reminiscence of the Goatman stories I read. These stories exemplify digital lore and myths anchored in the digital-prime, made for and by the internet, still they can not escape their tether, they are inextricably linked to the physical domain which surrounded their experience.
In my foray through memory, I couldn’t help but to see myself sitting down on the pseudo-wood desk and the black plastic chair. This led me to the physical locus of web-surfing or going-online, the material environment of these experience: the home computer. The home computer in the early aughts was the point of entry for cyber-active teens. It was often in a shared space, overlooked by parents, siblings, or whoever else entered the home. It was a shared device—given that at its cost, most families could only afford one, if any.
Additionally, there was a shared experience which cannot be overstated in the simultaneity of these events. This simultaneity was expressed through the common reading of texts, blog posts and images. It was a factor of the real-time technology in the last case which enabled synchronous play but also of the Web 2.0 infrastructures which facilitated communication between users spread around the globe. In a sense, what users who remember these events share is lore or a body of knowledge on a subject which is gained through experience or passed to person by word of mouth or in the digital context through text and secondary accounts such as videos. But what happens when the digital-prime experience is subsumed by subsequent transmissions? When lore is no longer experienced? The stories above are told through fora and threads in subreddits, the immersive is flattened into text.
To answer this, I have leaned on anthropological concepts in order to understand how memories may be shared in a cross-cultural context. Digital realms represent fully fledged cultures and communities. Utilizing Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism concept (Castro 1998) in order to better understand how, akin to how the perspective of Western observers diverges drastically from that of Amazonian tribes, a memory created in a digital realm cannot be understood by an outsider because one had to be there to understand. The phenomenology of digital memory is thus anchored in its lived experience, with being as a condition for comprehension. This approach is called the ontological turn. It refers to a centering of anthropological research on the ontological idea of being-in-the-world, a concept inherited from German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Similarly, the reality of a digital-based reminiscence may only be comprehended through being-on-line—by being in that particular space and time when the plague occurred.
Furthermore, a purely literary transmission of the memory tends to obscure the aforementioned physical environment in which the memory was experienced. The whirs of the 2008 PC, the sounds of the modem, the taste of the dust blown by the hyperactive computer fans. Even the digital experience has physicality.
In sum, this paper began by exploring the material realities of digital memories. My initial thesis proposes that lore transmission cannot occur after the fact, and that by re-presenting the object and its contents, one cannot rekindle bygone souvenirs of yester-internets. The tension remains, and the transmission fails. Here, the digital mirrors the physical, where in spite of its heightened replicability and the capability for ubiquity in virtual spaces, experiences are not replicable outside their loci of origin. This leads me to affirm that no, no one cannot engage with it outside its circumscribed space and time.
You had to be there!
You have to be-on-line!
Castro, Eduardo Viveiros de. 1998. "Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism." The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 469-488.
Jurgenson, Nathan. 2011. "Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality." Cyborgology. February 24. Accessed June 21, 2023. https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/.
Kallinkos, Jannis, Aleksi Aaltonen, and Attila Marton. 2013. "The Ambivalent Ontology of Digital Artifacts." MIS Quarterly 14.
Rudnick, David, interview by Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst. 2021. Primacism (March 1).