Further Supplement to Paper on the Website:
The Internet as a Dramatic Medium, Supplement 2
Posted October 15, 2006
1. Further History:
It was a short leap to computer adventure games, also known as
“Multi-User-Dungeon” or “Multi-User Dimensions”–or MUD for short. The
fantasy of D&D had a strong early influence but soon extended to
include science-fiction scenarios. Dungeons & Dragons
enthusiasts Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle started the first MUD in
1979 while studying at Essex University in the United Kingdom. Many
people who came to be involved in these interactive games found the
internet offered an opportunity to broaden the opportunities for
playing these games, and they were also able to enjoy the role-taking
functions of being other than their ordinary mundane selves; taking
“who else can I be” in a more radical fantasy direction. The MUD
was distinctive in that it relied upon text based interactions and
descriptive text to shape the online world e.g. “You find yourself
standing in a pleasant garden surrounded by the smells and sounds of
Around 1989, a new kind of MUD was developed by James Aspnes, a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University. Known as “TinyMUD,” it broke away from the Dungeons & Dragons-type of previous MUDs, and was designed as a player-extensible space with special attention to social interaction. The players themselves could now design this online place to simulate any spatial configuration they desired and contain all sort of objects, which could be used by all other users. Whereas the context of the earlier MUDs was relatively fixed by the computer mediator (or dungeon master), these settings themselves could be co-created by those participating, leading to an expansion of themes and possiblities. This TinyMUD was the basis for the next development, the first MUD Object Oriented, or MOO, titled “LambdaMOO,” created by Pavel Curtis in 1990. The added ability to build, extend and share the textual artifacts of the MUD worked to establish a stronger sense of online presence, control and eventually, community. This was still a far cry from The Sims and the visually rich worlds (e.g. Active Worlds, Cybertown, Second Life) we encounter today, but the fundamental principles of online gaming and online interaction were being cast.
Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik, who created Lingua MOO to serve primarily the University of Texas at Dallas Rhetoric and Writing program, see MOOs as a very productive space for those who create from whatever they have on hand.
In some cases this type of activity has been called
“hacktivism.” This not to be confused with the type of malicious
computer network crackers that the popular press calls hackers. As the
Finnish social theorist Pekka Himanen (2001) argues, you can be a
hacker even without having anything to do with computers. This is
because true hackers (not the criminals the media calls hackers) are
people who harmonize the rhythms of their creative work with rest of
their lives so that they enhance each other.
A keyword search for the term “hacktivism” yielded almost 13,000 matches in April 2002 on the popular Internet search-engine Google. Two years later that number had tripled, suggesting that about 13,000 new online documents were indexed each year by Google. While many of the results are links to pages with news reports about hacktivist activities reported by both mainstream and underground sources, the search directs you to a few sites about hacktivism too.
The Hacktivist is one such website; “dedicated to examining the theory and practice of hacktivism and electronic civil disobedience while contributing to the evolution of hacktivism by promoting constructive debate, effective direct action, and creative solutions to complex problems in order to facilitate positive change” (http://www.thehacktivist.com). This site offers a fairly comprehensive insight into topics such as website defacements, virtual sit-ins, “denial of service” actions, e-petitions, and freedom of speech. It lists links to other hacktivist websites, such as the IrelandOFFLine Blackout.
IrelandOFFLine (http:/www.irelandoffline.org) is an independent organization formed in May 2001 to campaign for affordable Internet access services throughout Ireland. The IrelandOFFLine Blackout was a multi-pronged protest on November 16, 2001, organized to highlight the non-existence of flat rate broadband Internet access services in Ireland – services which make Internet access affordable and subsequently promote the growth of Internet use. This example of hacktivism is not very complex in it technical undertakings, but some examples of hacktivism are quite technically elaborate, often with artistic aspirations.
One such case involves a phenomenon known as “Google bombing.” Whoever engages in this form of hactivism aims to make a particular website come up as a top result on what has become the Internet’s most popular search engine. This is possible because of the algorithm that drives Google search results depends in large part on how many other sites link to any specific website in relation to unique keywords or phrases.
In February 2003, as controversy over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq dominated the news around the world, British pharmacist Anthony Cox devised a parody site (http:// www.coxar.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk) and managed to get it to appear as the top link on Google for anyone searching for weapons of mass destruction.
Google bombing is merely one example of how the Internet is being used as a medium for radical performance. A number of performance groups use new communication technology as a vehicle for creative expression with an agenda for social change.
In 1997, a small group of online activists and artists engaged
in developing the theory and practice of Electronic Civil Disobedience
(ECD) began organizing theatrical events under the name Electronic
Disturbance Theater (EDT). Their early work consisted mainly of
electronic actions against the Mexican and U.S. governments to draw
attention to the war being waged against the Zapatistas and other
under-represented groups in Mexico. In time ECD tactics were also
applied to a range of political and artistic movements ranging from
actions against the World Trade Organization at WTO talks in Sydney,
Australia in 2002 to a Days of the Dead E-Actions and street vigils for
the murdered women of Juarez, Mexico in 2003 (See
Working at the intersections of radical politics, performance art, and computer software design, the EDT group has produced a device called Flood Net, a web based application used to flood and block the web site of an oppressor. In the spirit of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, though not necessarily adopting TO techniques, EDT sees the theatre as a weapon that can empower the oppressed. ECT brings this application of theatre to the Internet. The actions of EDT forms part of a larger movement that uses wireless new media technology (cellular phones, PDAs, and hand-held computers) to facilitate the overthrow of repressive regimes, as we saw in the Philippines in January 2001 and the various WTO protests since the famous swarm appeared in what has become known as the Battle of Seattle.
Operating on a parallel track are groups like The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) who use public webcams and other security cameras to stage theatrical commentaries about contemporary society. SCP originally came together in December 1996 when six members of the newly formed company performed an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Uby Roi in front of a surveillance camera in Manhattan's Union Square subway station. A little more than half way through their performance, the actors where told to move along by two New York City policemen (See www.notbored.org/the-scp.html).
The use of webcams in online performance takes on various guises.
During the third weekend in October 2001, Amy Berk and Andy Cox
organized an online bed-in for peace, in response to the terrorist
attacks in the United States and military action in Afghanistan. The
event involved these two people staying in bed, fasting, and meditating
on world peace for forty-eight hours, with a webcam pointed at their
bed as they communicated with other people live online.
This performance was based on one devised by Yoko Ono and John Lennon in March 1969. This performance of the Ono-Lennon bed-in is probably best known for Give Peace a Chance, the peace-anthem which Lennon wrote for the occasion. That song remains popular now, more than thirty years later. In large part, this event was successful because Ono was a sophisticated performance artist and a founding member of the Fluxus movement, and the couple had the benefit of celebrity status through their association with The Beatles.
The Berk and Cox bed-in attracted only a fraction of the attention, and had none of the celebrity buzz. In spite of this, it is culturally significant because it marks the first time that an Internet community participated in an online bed-in for peace. The performance was successful in its own way, because although only a few hundred people, heard about it when it happened, Berk and Cox have documented the event on a website which includes images from the webcams of some of the people who took part in the online video conference, transcripts from all the text-chat that went on October 19-21, 2001, during the bed-in for peace, edited slightly in order to be read more easily, and other relevant material. Berk and Cox were in residence at New Pacific Studio in New Zealand during this performance (http://www.bed-in-for-peace.net).
Himanen, Pekka. 2003. The Hacker Ethic. New York: Random House.
McCaughey, Martha et al (eds). 2003. Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice. New York & London: Routledge.
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