Monday, February 21, 2011

Fly The Abstracted Skies (F-15 Eagle Strike, F-117A Stealth Fighter)

Any intelligent approach to medial constraints treats those constraints not as limitations but as defining the space in which communication takes place. Painting is only possible when the amorphousness of real space is framed and delineated as a canvas - that is, when some initial constraint is offered to define a communication as existing. Likewise, it is difficult to seriously treat a sonnet a being in some way limited or held back by having fourteen lines. The rules of a sonnet are not there to restrict what can be said, but rather to define a mode of communication - to create something called a "sonnet" that is a particular type of communication.

In other words, constraint is largely positive. Just as a chef who picks up a beef tenderloin is not snubbing chicken but rather celebrating beef, to write in a constrained form is not to snub that which can be said outside the form, but rather to celebrate what the form can say.

I mention this because I am writing the bulk of this entry on an airplane in Pages on my iPad. At the time of writing, it is 1pm on Wednesday, February 16th. I mention this because this is actually the blog entry for Monday the 21st. The entries for the last week or so have been written in advance on both this blog and TARDIS Eruditorum because I am, or at least will be when this posts, on vacation visiting friends in Florida. This is the last entry I have to write, as I head back on what is, for you, tomorrow, and wrote that entry last night because TARDIS Eruditorum is, generally speaking, an easier blog to write than this one.

The airplane provides constraints. Typing on the iPad is not unpleasant, but it is slower and less accurate than a proper keyboard, and autocorrect occasionally imposes itself unfortunately. I fix those errors when i see them, but on the other hand it is entirely possible that errors i would catch in a proper blog entry will sneak through. Already I see that capitalization on the first person singular is a bit dodgy. So are writing things after a period, i.e. Here, where it capitalizes automatically.

More importantly, I do not have immediate access to either the games being talked about or the Internet. This means that any knowledge or facts presented in this entry must be retrieved from my memory or fabricated wholesale. These facts alter how I can and will write the entry.

What is an airplane? As with any word, there is a choice to be made in defining it. Do we treat the word as correlating to an actual thing - perhaps the silver piece of metal and plastic currently conveying me to Atlanta, or do we treat it as a broad field of implications?

For instance, the airplane signifies the shift in capitalism where global exchange of service goods was essentially trivialized. It signifies the point where space became wholly interchangeable - where there was no longer any inherent reason why LA had to be different from New York or, for that matter, Tulsa or Richmond or anywhere else. More recently, it has signified terrorism - the airplane is, since 9/11, the assumed scene of the terrorist attack. But that was almost a decade ago, and our fetishization of that fear has instead faded to another signifier whereby the airplane is the scene of maddening bureaucracy. The most pressing scene of this is the security line, a strange place where humor is forbidden and all people must follow a visibly arbitrary set of rules to be allowed to pass, including surrendering all their possessions and (partially) disrobing so as to fully shed identity.

Does the word airplane communicate all of this? Yes. Clearly. As well as historical meanings - an airplane has particular meaning, for instance, in Britain where the RAF hold massive responsibility for enduring the German blitz and saving the country. That meaning is valorous, yes, but one cannot forget that it was also planes that dropped the bombs on London. "Airplane" is a constraint that encloses this whole field of meanings.

The more interesting question is whether the silver machine enveloping me signifies all of this. Does the air vent cooling my face contain the pools of burning phosphorous lining the bombed out streets of London? Is the blinding mushroom flash rising behind the Enola Gay in my reading light? Is the woman across the aisle Amelia Earhart, Orville Wright, and Mohammed Atta? Does the wreckage of TWA 800 rain down on the vista out my window?

If so, then surely the image of a plane in F-15 Eagle Strike does as well. The NES port of a classic computer flight simulator, the game is almost the textbook definition of a niche game. The flight simulator is a bizarre genre where it is viably argued that complexity and realism are actually superior to playability. This happens in niche games - the existence of, say, Nethack shows that clearly enough. Catering as they do to a defined audience of people who are big fans of a particular type of game and thus very good at that type, the niche game forces odd innovation on game designers. The value of gameplay innovations is considerably lower - reinventing the wheel is not a way to cater to an audience of die-hards. Instead what is valuable is challenge, interesting variations on existing paradigms, and complexity.

One result of this is that the niche game is oddly specific. You can see this in the title - the game is not a flight simulator game, it is a simulation of one very specific type of plain. Thus F-117A Stealth Fighter, even though it is from the same company and has very similar gameplay, is actually not considered part of the same series as F-15 Eagle Strike. The games are fundamentally different because they represent different aircraft. The fact that the aircraft are barely distinguishable in gameplay is immaterial - the signified shifts here regardless of the signifier.

In other words, the same flight simulating dynamics can signify two different airplanes. This is non-trivial. I know almost nothing about airplanes, but I am well aware that those that do are deeply invested in their differences. The difference from my perspective between the Canadair Regional Jet I am flying on and some other short-hop jet is basically immaterial. The livery of my plane is immaterial - I have no frequent flyer cards, and thus no real brand loyalty in my flights. But I know that there are people for whom the specific Canadair Regional Jet that I am on is not only clearly distinct from an Embraer, but distinct from a Canadair Regional Jet that is owned by a different airline.

The point of this is not some drab cliche about how different people see things differently. Rather, it is that the boundaries of the signifier are as contested as those of the signified. If the man in the seat in front of me is an airplane buff who knows the technical details of the CRJ900 then he is fundamentally on a different plane than I, for whom the plane is nothing more than a string of glyphs on the Safety Information card.

This is not entirely unique to airplanes, but they do have the effect in question to a rather higher degree than other things. The plane, after all, is the great disorienter. Fire up either of the flight sim games and you'll see what I mean - the challenge of a flight simulator is almost entirely the act of successfully situating yourself in three dimensional space and responding intelligently to the movement of other bodies in the same space. That is to say, the whole point of the games is to make you lose your bearings.

Likewise, when this flight lands I will step into an airline terminal distinguishable from the one I left only in which fast food logos are visible. And yet it will be Atlanta where before it was New York. Already, looking out the window, the snows of the northeast have given way. But I am nowhere. Cut off from communication with the world, at least for now, writing from a void in the past, between two identical different places and born aloft on a silver bird I cannot tell apart from another of its flock, I am unmoored. The airplane has made all places into each other, and now there is nowhere at all.

Below me, unnumbered clouds float by me, ambiguous menageries of imaginary beasts known to the unnamed children far below. Above the clouds, a contrail and the faint flash of airplane lights. Anyone could be down there. Anyone could be up here.

And yet that cloud looks like an Octorock. And these peanuts taste of Jimmy Carter. And with the push of a button, the screaming dead of Hiroshima may be returned to the darkness of the past. By the time you read this, I will be somebody. For now, I am content to be anybody.

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