In which the author uses outdated critical theory to draw cultural lessons from a not-very-good young adult book and film. Just imagine that I’ve taken over You Yell Barracuda for the day or something.
So it turns out, culturally, we’re actually OK with experts – especially experts in the humanities and computer sciences domain.
The nerd wish-fulfillment that is Ready Player One – both the Spielberg film and the (slightly #problematic) Ernest Cline novel can both be read, with a following wind, as a validation of properly old-fashioned academic shibboleths like the idea of a Canon, citation practice, contested scholarship, librarianship and – for the post-modernists – bricolage as creative project. I’ll admit to blanching a little when people get dates with manic pixie dream girls via a viva, but for the most part RP1 as academic hero’s quest seems to hold up.
Wade Watts doesn’t really work as a hero in any other way. All the other members of the “high five” have practical skills – Daito’s martial arts, Aech’s self-sufficiency, Shoto’s magnificent eleven-ness. Art3mis is actually a more traditional hero in that she actually does stuff, organises things, takes risks and has a proper story arc with an explicit motivation.
But (filmic) Wade is useless – he hasn’t really done anything apart from sit in his room, gather facts, and make connections. He’s utterly unused to, and largely amblivient to, the real world with the jarringly real problems of social collapse and fuel poverty. Until people actually come along and connect him to the real world, you don’t really get the sense that the Egg quest is anything but metatextual play for him.
Our “real world” is an abandoned, liminal space. It is heavily implied that people have turned to Baudrillardian simulacra in the most crushingly obvious way – a retreat into a fantasy constructed from the detrius of an Eighties childhood. Damn, RP1 needs theoretical sociologists – but Wade is concerned with the text(s) rather than the context.
Until he gets sucked into something approaching a grand narrative by a scholar (and creator) of a previous generation. Again this narrative is textual rather than para-textual – we get hints that Wade’s pure concern with the text itself is a strength in that he is beyond the more worldly interest in the implications of the prize.
Sure, he’s against the idea of IOI owning the Oasis dreamworld – but only, really, because it would obstruct the purity of the text. There are huge issues of inequality (the film goes for a convertability between real and virtual currency absent in the book) within the fantasy itself, but these are of no concern to Wade – neither is the poverty of in-world creativity (with the usual future-culture gap – why were no popular culture stories released between now and 2045?) – as for many a good postmodernist it is all about the intertextual play.
But the quest for historico-cultural connections, and indeed the very idea of an “Easter egg” – something that has never been found, discovered via novel and deep research – that, to me, is an academic project.
However Wade’s prize is five hundered trillion dollars and ownership of a large MMORPG, rather than the chance to compete for an ajunct teaching-only role. I suppose this is research selectivity taken to a logical conclusion.
So this is mainly for my own entertainment at this point, but is there anything we can actually learn from all this?
Well, the purity of the academic project is maybe one part. With two classic unworldly scholars running around – one awarding the prize, the other winning it – we could maybe draw a lesson that academia holds itself to seperate standards beyond the s(a)ecular world.
We could maybe say something about the value of humanities research – fundamentally Wade is into the field of late c20th popular culture, and the life of an old programmer, because it is damn interesting. The narrative arc is useful, yes, but to other people rather than him.
His eventual re-connection with the “real world” (and his subsequent decision to limit access to simulacra!) is quite a peculiar end point. You get the sense he’d have been less happy than he was at the start of the film (the love story between him and Samantha/Art3mis does not in any way convince, let’s be honest) and his decision to pull the ladder up after himself – you know, has he become some kind of a Vice-Chancellor here? – is out of character.
Yes people need to focus on the real world. But just occasionally, people don’t. Again, this isn’t a feature of the novel – there Wade will turn the virtual world off, but some day in the future – after he’s finished this next level, watched this next film, written this next paper…
I sometimes feel like academia and scholarship are beginning to shear away from the “real world” – the fact that the latter can occasionally tip a hat to the former (even when disguised as nerd culture) is consoling. But the other way round, that’s a leap not taken but perhaps with good reason.
Also – big love for the cross-media cataloging effort that is the Halliday Archive. Maybe the real hero is an unnamed metadata architect…