David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Janet Murray, a humanities professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author Hamlet on the Holodeck, The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace..
DAVID GERGEN: Janet, for those of us who do not watch "Star Trek," "trekkies," I guess you call them, please tell us what is a Holodeck?
JANET MURRAY, author, "Hamlet on the Holodeck:" The Holodeck is this imaginary entertainment venue of the 24th century that is popular on the "Star Trek" television shows, and itís as if one were in a movie that you could walk into and play a role in the movie. And so I took the Holodeck as part of my title along with Hamlet as representing the other poll; that when technologists look forward at what narrative could become, at what all the technologies if they all worked and they all worked together, where they would take us, they think Holodeck, but when literary people think about what we value about literature telling us something about the human condition, we tend to look backwards towards Shakespeare. So I put them together and sat Hamlet on the Holodeck. Is this possible?
DAVID GERGEN: The Holodeck then would be, in effect, 3-D without goggles?
JANET MURRAY: 3-D, virtual reality, without goggles.
DAVID GERGEN: Images, sensations, sights, sounds all coming at you. Youíre enveloped in this; you actually play a role in the narrative.
JANET MURRAY: Thatís a key part. That is a really key part; that you would play a role, that you would walk into the story, and the story would change according to the way you participated in it.
DAVID GERGEN: You say there are some historical analogies to todayís period in cyberspace.
JANET MURRAY: Absolutely. I mean, one of the most compelling is the appearance of the cinema in 1985. Often we talk about the cinema as beginning on a particular night in December when people were gathered in a Paris basement, looking at this novelty, and thereís a picture, a black and white picture of a locomotive, all of a sudden starts to move, and come towards them, and they went running out of this Paris cafe and they knew that this new representational medium had come into the world; they were afraid that it was actually a real train it was so present to them.
DAVID GERGEN: But those early movies, all they were were pictures of stages. They didnít have--it took a long time to develop the kind of sophisticated cinema we think of today.
JANET MURRAY: Right. And, in fact, what we used to call movies was photo play because it was additive. We just took a camera and pointed it at a stage. We hadnít yet learned that film has its own property, and you could move the camera. You can cut the film, and that, those properties are what make for expressive storytelling. And analogously we are now at the moment in cyberspace where weíre thinking in additive terms, weíre thinking of multi-media, as if we just had to make a scrapbook of video and texts, and that would be an expressive form. And we have yet to grasp the expressive properties of the medium, itself.
DAVID GERGEN: You talk in very positive--you use words--enchantment about how this is going to allow us to explore the human condition in new ways in the 21st century--just over the horizon really. What do you think the main enchantments will be with this new form?
JANET MURRAY: Well, there are many enchantments. I think the great promise of this medium is that like any new narrative form it can allow us to encompass the human condition in a way that we couldnít in previous form. So if you think back--if Jane Austen, for instance, had to write in the same format as Aeschylus, because Aristotle said that was the best--you know, Sophocles and Aeschylus, that was the best--then she never could have told us the things that we now cherish about her society and about how we look at marriage, how we look at courtship. Similarly, I think weíre at a moment where we are looking at the world in multi-dimensional ways, and you can see conventional marriages from Borgesí stories to popular films like "Groundhog Day," all of which are playing with the idea that we feel like we have multiple possibilities for our lives, and theyíre all really genuine.
DAVID GERGEN: Like "Roshomon" in a film.
JANET MURRAY: Exactly.
DAVID GERGEN: Multiple versions of reality that you can look at if you were going to go back to Hamlet, that you could see the world not only through Hamletís eyes but you might then navigate over and see the world--
JANET MURRAY: Through Opheliaís eyes, see it from Poloniusís eyes. And more and more weíve learned how to do that, and especially in the 20th century, had to see the world as a system, had to see the multiple perspectives on a historical event, and normally we need to do that in order to cope with a global society. And this is a medium in which you can represent a system as a set of rules and allow people to navigate around it and see permutations on the same story.
DAVID GERGEN: Because itís a Holodeck, you could actually be a character, in effect, in the story and also choose multiple endings.
JANET MURRAY: Yes, yes, but you donít have to have a story in which youíre playing a role in order to exploit the medium.
DAVID GERGEN: Another striking point on that was that cyberspace might allow fiction, narrative fiction to in some ways catch up with 20th century science about the brain.
JANET MURRAY: This is a hope of mine, and Iím really charmed by the characters of little animals that are increasingly popular in cyberspace. Tamagachi was one that was a big fad this summer, a little character that you hold in your hands like on a key chain and play with. Thereís a group of little dogs, some made in computer science labs, some made as products that sit on top of your desktop. The ones in computer science labs are displayed on large screens in a kind of virtual reality environment. But all of these are pets that you can engage with the same way we engage with the pets that we know. You can throw balls and they catch it. You can feed it, and I think that all of these characters are attempts to try to understand how a living being can be very much like a machine. And I think that is one of the central questions that weíre facing in the 20th century is how to assimilate the new knowledge of the brain that tells us more and more frighteningly that we are machine-line. And I think that often a narrative form can leapfrog over a scientific explanation, the same way that Shakespeare can grasp at the Oedipal complex without having Freudís help.
DAVID GERGEN: So--
JANET MURRAY: When he writes Hamlet.
DAVID GERGEN: So through cyberspace you might then be able to explore how the mind works, the processes by which the mind works as you navigate yourself, making decisions about what you want to see, or how you think it through.
JANET MURRAY: As you engage with these characters, as you begin to engage with characters and notice that weíll know that they are not real, the--but we will still feel affection for them, and we will start to understand how a character can have personality, can have validity, and still be a machine.
DAVID GERGEN: Is it possible, rather than having Shakespeare on cyberspace being the king of cyberspace that Spielberg will be the king of cyberspace and thatís not--he is obviously an extraordinarily talented man, but that thatís not the great literature of the kind that youíre thinking of?
JANET MURRAY: I think that it is often a worry that writing that is not of the very highest somehow drives out writing that is the highest, and I think itís the opposite. I think that a great literary tradition comes from an energetic practice, so I do not share--I share the sense that a lot of what is in cyberspace is not very entertaining or very accomplished, but that does not fill me with despair. I see a lot of practitioners, and I think thatís how we get a new art form.
DAVID GERGEN: Janet Murray, thank you very much.