Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Difficult Suspension of Disbelief

Last night I watched the re-run of the cliff-hanger episode of CSI New York about a murderous maniac simultaneously running amok on the streets of New York and in the virtual world Second Life in which the tech-speak was almost as unconvincing as the cop-speak. There were lots of annoying representations of improbable or impossible stock conventions about computational media, which included the classic silly After Effects law enforcement suspect screen, which one of my colleagues parodied when we were shooting a send-up of TV's 24 here.

The scene of a ballistics test showed a particularly ridiculous "negative" match screen and many of the desktops and handheld devices had that annoying "deet-deet-deet" sound effect that is supposed to indicate that their fictional computer was processing data. Particularly ludicrous was the worry that a griefer from a web-based application like Second Life could somehow magically bring down the entire computer network of a law enforcement agency with a virus. The depiction of the software of the Second Life environment itself was obviously cleaned up for television with computer animation, since the screens nver

The obvious contempt that broadcast media content-creators have for the practices of distributed media could be seen in the denigration of the web of social connections that characters modeled on the show manifest in a virtual world that was only used for PvP combat, cybersex, and speculation in virtual currencies or goods. Of course, I'm not necessarily opposed to dissimulation, but it seemed like computer users on the show were largely depicted as totally deceptive shut-ins or opportunists for whom real-world identities were utterly disconnected from online ones. Furthermore, it's interesting to also see how a rhetoric of criminality gets associated with the activities of digital culture, including the philandering of a congressman soliciting sexual partners as his avatar.

There's also a "Virtual CSI" experience to be had in Second Life, which is supposed to offer a transmedia experience to viewers. At the recent PCA conference, Jason Hitzert discussed the episode in detail and the marketing schemes related to the promotion of the Cisco corporation in the "virtual" version, which capitalizes on the splatter and gore that can be depicted hygienically in a computer 3D model -- even one that takes place behind the butcher's counter of a deli -- and the cultural specifics of showing a "furry" who had been mutilated in death. Hitzert argued that certain forms of code can be propagated through exchanges that have a political dimension, whether it is marketing copies of his own shaved and tatooed head in cyberspace, replicating dance moves as iterable animations in the case of an American soldier teaching an Iraqi citizen the macarena, or creating institutional strife when a griefer causes an unwitting student in Second Life to utter hate speech in front of an offended faculty member.

Ironically, as Harper's magazine pointed out this month, the relatively modest number of actual homicides in the city of New York is approaching the number presented on CSI.

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