Digital Soul: The Computer, Imagination and Social Change

Imagining a digital world built with a sensory connection to historical events.

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“Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag—Freedom Cry”

Science fiction authors and philosophers have asked: Could a computer have a soul? I have a different question: Could a computer produce soul (if you dig what I mean)? The computer is an instrument, just like a piano and a human voice. So just as Nina Simone used those instruments in her song “Mississippi Goddam,” the computer can be used for social commentary and social change. The computer is also a medium, so it can be used to build imaginative worlds such as those of science fiction authors Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. However, each medium, like books or movies, has its own characteristics, and each medium can produce powerful works in its own way.

Such digital-media scholars as Janet Murray have argued that the computer’s main characteristic as a medium is its precise execution of instructions (called algorithms). A second characteristic is the way it uses highly structured information (called data structures). My vision is that the computer, using algorithms and data structures, can help people imagine in new creative ways. Computing can be used to produce new forms of soulful expression and social change and can reach its potential as a medium through creating and revealing phantasms.

By “phantasm.” I don’t mean a ghost or poltergeist. As a technical term, the word “phantasm” means a mental image, but not just any mental picture. It means an image that could include sound, smell, taste, feeling and all the cultural, emotional and political aspects we associate with that image. For example: Imagine a slave. What comes to mind for you? Did the image have a particular race or gender, raggedy clothes? Was it from a textbook you read in school or from a movie you just saw: perhaps Django killing a black house slave in Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained, or Solomon Northup singing a spiritual in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave?

Along with that mental image, you may have felt sadness or anger. Or maybe you thought of forced labor in India or forced prostitution in Western Europe and political efforts to combat those evils. Regardless, that image, based on your unique worldview, is a phantasm. The phantasm is a cognitive science concept I introduce in my recent book, Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression, which explores the potential of using computers for art and culture. Phantasms are not limited to concepts such as slavery but, rather, underlie much of human stories and art, even that made with new technologies.

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D. Fox Harrell's Living Liberia Fabric is the result of combined artificial intelligence, storytelling and cultural research—creating a new kind of interactive narrative peace memorial.

Courtesy of D. Fox Harrell and the Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory

Take Ubisoft’s recent game “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag—Freedom Cry,” written by Jill Murray. A feature allows players to take on the role of a formerly enslaved pirate from Trinidad named Adéwalé, who sails the seas combating slavery.

With the player acting as a formerly enslaved person (a better phrase than the word “slave”), the game presents an imaginative world with historical Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) as its centerpiece. It challenges the stereotypical image of enslaved people in the African Diaspora as victims without agency, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation; liberation at the hands of Django’s bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz); or salvation by 12 Years’ benevolent Canadian Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt.

It presents a new phantasm that contains insurgent ideas related to the histories of defiance and opposition of the Maroons, a name given to groups of African people who escaped from slavery and established independent communities and sites of resistance. The game reveals a phantasm who challenges images based on the worldview that the enslaved were weak, dull and broken people without history. The empowering phantasm in the game, however, is still primarily entertainment.

The historical narrative of the work is conveyed through the hooded-player character and the combat and stealth-oriented game mechanics, which are the hallmark of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. This is not a problem. Indeed, it is a boon for fans of the series. But it’s just one stepping-stone on the path toward computer games with the social power of a work like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

To that end, building on the idea of phantasmal media, in my research group called the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we have been working on games and forms of computer art that can help people come to their own realizations about social themes. These include interactive narratives about themes as diverse as dehumanizing life in the modern workplace, racial discrimination, social categorization and marginalization, and even a memorial for the Liberian civil war. Phantasms, you see, are not just about themes of identity and race, as explored in our prototype game Mimesis, which uses an undersea metaphor to explore racial discrimination.

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A screenshot from the MIT ICE lab game Mimesis

Phantasms contribute to narrative and poetic thinking—influencing almost all of our everyday experiences. Just as producing soulful music is not restricted to one particular group, phantasmal media can be used to make the world better for everyone.

At the beginning of this essay, I associated the computer with black culture by relating it to Nina Simone and Octavia Butler. Because my work involves both culture and computing, some have incorrectly associated it with a fascinating development in art and culture called Afrofuturism (a term coined by Mark Dery and forwarded by such thinkers as Alondra Nelson and Coco Fusco) that describes how technology has been creatively used as an instrument and a metaphor. Spanning popular and avant-garde music, literature, fine arts and much more, this type of work often metaphorically connects science fiction imagery like spaceships, androids, pyramids and time travel to themes of cultural freedom and political struggle. The inspirational vision offered by Afrofuturism is an important example of an empowering phantasm.

But my work is guided by a different vision. My work uses the computer to develop forms of technology and culture such as video games, social media and, most important, new forms of digital media that push beyond those boundaries. This type of work is reality on the horizon—not inspirational fiction. As more people with diverse ways of thinking, grounded in diverse cultural backgrounds and experience, maximize the medium of the computer, new technological innovations will emerge.

In Phantasmal Media, I note that “empowerment is the process of becoming a culture maker.” The challenge for culture makers, using the computer and otherwise, is whether empowerment is possible in the face of dominating abuses ... power. I believe that empowerment is possible because social power is rooted in imagination, and because we all have capacities to imagine.

D. Fox Harrell, Ph.D., is associate professor of digital media at MIT, where he founded and directs the Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory (icelab.mit.edu) He is also the author of Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression.

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