“‘Only Words’: ‘Half-Life’ in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik and the Dynamics of Online Role-Playing Environments.”
Paper Presented at the 28th ICFA
“Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavor of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.”i
That is one of seventeen different epigraphs that begin each chapter of Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik. Each of the first sixteen is a satirical comment on the nature of advertising in the consumerist economy, where the mysterious product called “Ubik” stands in for everything from coffee to women’s undergarments, household cleaner to salad dressing. Each one safe when used as directed, of course.
Eric S. Rabkin, in his article “Irrational Expectations; or, How Economics and the Post-Industrial World Failed Philip K. Dick,” makes a point to establish Philip K. Dick as one of the most important and influential authors, in general if not in speculative fiction in particular, working in a post-World War II attempt to examine the metaphysical connections between subjective realities and the so-called “objective reality” which may or may not even exist in Dick’s work.ii Ubik, published in 1969, is one such work which takes a close examination at the nature of subjective realities. It is a novel that describes a world, and a condition of being, that is prescient when you compare it to the alternate realities of massive multi-player online games, or “MMOGs” — a condition that involves a merging and confusion of identities — identities that are defined by, and devalued due to, the commodification of reality.
In the novel set 30 years in a wholly libertarian future where, if your credit isn’t too good, you must enter into commercial relationships with semi-sentient objects like coffee makers and doors that threaten lawsuits, the main character, Joe Chip, works for a man named Glen Runciter — the gleaming archetype of the fatherly capitalist, owner of a company that tracks and negates the powers of psychics — many who work for another another man who sells their ability for use in corporate espionage and personal gain. Joe, several others working for Runciter, and probably Runciter himself, are killed in a trap set by their rival, and are placed in hibernation where their consciousness carries on seamlessly into a shared virtual reality referred to as “half-life.” While in this state, Joe discovers everything around him, tape recorders, elevators, interactive newspapers, even money, are slowly devolving to earlier states of themselves or decaying altogether. A fate the people around him also suffer, himself included until he is saved by a product called Ubik, provided to him by his boss who he believes is alive and well on the outside and has been communicating with him through various co-opted mediums such as television commercials and product containers. All the while, the true villain of the story is a sociopathic adolescent named Jory who is also trapped in half-life and is the one responsible for creating the simulated and devolving reality Joe finds himself in. Jory feeds off the life-force or those in half-life and is kept at bay only by the temporary power of Ubik — found in every good half-life pharmacy.
Now, to understand the novel Ubik as it relates to modern Internet gaming environments, we must explore the vast and treacherous realm of identity, the self, and what it means in the context of a culture that devalues and commodifies the player.
II. OBJECTIVE &. SUBJECTIVE REALITY MERGE IN THE SELF
The ontological study of the “the self” has been the eternal battleground on which the bodies of countless philosophers and Swedish film makers have lain. Adding the layer of virtual reality onto what is already nearly indefinable and trying to then grasp that is like trying to train cats to herd cows; although, Sherry Turkle tackles the subject in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. She describes an incident that occurred in the early 1990’s (the dawning of Internet gaming as we know it today) on a “MUD,” or multi-user dungeon: a text-based online game in which the players fight virtual monsters, build virtual homes, and socialize with other participants. One player on a rather popular MUD was able to hack the system and take control of another female player’s character, making the virtual person perform sex acts before the eyes of other players and the victim herself. This virtual rape of sorts created a firestorm of debate regarding the nature of identity on the Internet: What implications does this have for people who extend their self, in a manner of speaking, to this electronic environment that is still anthropologically new? Turkle observes that, “Although some made light of the offender’s actions by saying that the episode was just words, in text-based virtual realities such as MUDs, words are deeds.”iii She expands on this concept when she explains, “In one of a series of online meetings that followed [the event], one character asked, ‘Where does the body end and the mind begin? Is not the mind a part of the body?’ Another answered, ‘In [MUDs], the body is the mind’.”iv
This quandary exemplifies the question of how is identity defined in a world where people straddle the invisible boundary of exiting in the physical world (where our corporeal bodies are,) and an existence where we can have virtual bodies that represent and extend our consciousness and will. Is our identity, our self, defined by our physical shell, or, can we say that what we are is contained in our minds? If the latter, what is our mind? Is it not what our brains produce: the thoughts, feelings, memories, and all the other existential signifiers we give to these things we can not touch, see, photograph, nor dissect? A thirteen-year-old girl, who may be as wise as any philosopher regarding identity and the Internet, told Turkle, “‘When you program a computer there is a little piece of your mind, and now it’s a little piece of the computer’s mind. And now you can see it’.”v The computer serves as a medium between the human mind and the electronic existence allowing us to expand our identity beyond the constraints of the physical. Turkle writes of “one dedicated MUD player and IRC user, ‘why grant such superior status to the self that has the body when the selves that don’t have bodies are able to have different kinds of experiences?’ When people can play at different genders and different lives, it isn’t surprising that for some this play has become as real as what we conventionally think of as their lives, although for them this is no longer a valid distinction.”vi
Edward Castronova examines this mode of identity extension in his book, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Using an example of a new player in an MMOG as he experiences the strange new world of online gaming, Castronova shows how easy and inherently natural it is to extend one’s identity into this new environment. As he puts it, “No one ever says ‘My character’s strength is depleted,’ or ‘My avatar owns a dune buggy.’ They say ‘my strength’ and ‘my dune buggy’.”vii This concept illustrates what Jacques Lacan believed to be the decentering of the ego, a concept that extended the idea of the self away from any permanent, concrete construct and more toward an illusion of self that is defined by what linguistic structures we use to mediate the description of the Real. Fredric Jameson wrote in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism about how this concept of self as decentralized and fragmented.viii The self can not be defined and categorized by any unitary concept. By its very nature, the self is fragmented and can be fragmented, and the fragments can exist in any number of conceptualizations and paradigms.
How then does one, can one, grasp what is “real” when the reality of the self is not something that has form or structure — made into a literal representation in the form of the body-less consciousness of the characters of Ubik? How similar this is to the situation of participants of online game environments when you replace the barrier of life and death with the abstraction of a virtual, digital layer. Castronova observes a mirroring of the decentered, fractured identity through the veil that is supposed to divide the realms of “in-game” and “out of game” when he says, “Our culture has moved beyond the point where such distinctions are helpful. The membrane between synthetic worlds and daily life is definitely there but also definitely porous….”ix He discusses how our brains are uniquely suited to assuming whatever it encounters as being real, more so when encountering an immersive artificial environment generated to simulate reality as we know it. Our higher evolved brain, or “new brain,” allows us to discern simulation from authenticity, but constantly works at reminding our primitive brain that what we’re experiencing is not real — a task made all the more difficult when the shared ersatz reality is reinforced by other people accepting the simulation. As Castronova explains it, “In an environment populated by other people going through the same thing, the new brain is further discouraged from resisting by social forces that define Reality and Truth: if everyone pretends the dragon is real, and reacts as though the dragon is real, then for that society it is real, just as real as the value of a dollar.”x
III. SELF DEFINED BY LACK AND DESIRE
As Turkle delves into Lacanian poststructuralist psychology, so to does Castronova when he focuses much of his thesis upon the way desire defines the Real which underlies the structure of alternate reality just as it does in our primary reality. He illustrates this, writing, “By this process [of transference], virtual things become real things; when most people agree that the thing has a real value to somebody, it genuinely does have that value. It is not virtual at all any more, but real and genuine.”xi
The issue of desire is central in Slavoj Zizek’s book The Sublime Object of Ideology in which he explains the way desire helps to splinter and divide the subject, and therefore subjective reality, by using Lewis Carroll’s paradox: “‘I’m so glad I don’t like asparagus,’ said the small girl to a sympathetic friend, ‘because, if I did, I should have to eat it — and I can’t bear it!’ Here we have the whole Lacanian problem of the reflexivity of desire: desire is always a desire of desire — the question is not immediately ‘What should I desire?’ but ‘There are a lot of things that I desire, I have a lot of desires — which of them is worth being the object of my desire?'”xii In simplest of terms, this is an illustration of the way in which we desire what we don’t have, defining the lack which defines what we are, and how we determine what is real. “The Real,” according to Zizek, “is therefore simultaneously both the hard, impenetrable kernel resisting symbolization and a pure chimerical entity which has in itself no ontological consistency.”xiii Zizek is explaining what Lacan believed to be at the root of our identity: we are what we lack. We desire. Our reality, in essence, is defined by what we don’t have. In a sense, we are not the sum of our parts, but rather a negative gestalt. Our desires circle and gather around us like the accretion disk of a black hole — where we are the nothing in space defined and made visible by what we attempt to consume. In this way, are we like Ubik’s antagonist, Jory, in that we constantly consume and are never satiated. We consume for the sake of consuming, with no end purpose but to try to fulfill some need even we do not recognize. And in our consumption we create a reality about us of nothing more than mere abstraction, a simulacrum of a Real comprised of our desires and the society created to support our desires — a reality that we, like Jory, find constantly more difficult to maintain.
Language is the mediator by which we attempt to define the Real which we can only interact with through our desire for what we lack. What happens when language, then, is appropriated by the digital culture? Jean Baudrillard in his article “The Murder of the Sign,” explains how “the object only exists as an exchange-value — caught up is an incessant process of sign differentiation.”xiv In answer to the question of whether the digital has replaced signs, he explains: “Yes, the digital is not a sign, but a signal. This isn’t difference in the same sense that language makes differences. Language is a system of differences between signs. The interplay of signs in language through their differences is what allows for signification. In digital technology, this type of interplay is gone. It doesn’t coordinate, it conceals signals. It is information: you can move about it in any direction because there is no longer any mediation. There is an immanence, an immediation of things. That’s what is new. It isn’t the death of reality since reality as a whole passed into the sign. The sign absorbs reality. Images devour reality. Then the Images devour themselves. Then information technology reduced it all to the same level with an even greater abstraction where the sign disappears. It is not even sublimation. It’s beyond sublimation. Sublimation in the strongest sense: transcendence.”xv
How so very apropos Baudrillard’s description of transcendence via cannibalistic absorption of reality by the sign when applied to Ubik. In the empirical reality that begins the novel, Dick foresees the way in which the highly suspect objective reality becomes nearly virtual itself in the way information is packaged, manipulated, and presented; not to mention the fact that commodities such as coffee machines and objects such as doors reveal a certain sentience and mercenary attitude. And Dick reveals the transcendence of the sign in the virtual reality of half-life in which there is no solidity, no certainty, in anything one normally puts their faith in as being a foundation of their existence or validation of their desire of Lacan’s Other. Objects revert to earlier versions of signs, purifying the natures of what they are signifying while at the same time becoming useless — revealing in their transitory and unstable form the underlying principle that nothing is real, everything is a facade of serving our ideological desires. Baudrillard’s explanation of the way in which the digital layer of abstraction becomes more imperative when one considers how intertwined, or perhaps the proper word is “invasive,” the digital culture has become. T. L. Taylor in her book Play Between Worlds, observes, “We increasingly live in a world in which opting out of technological systems is more and more difficult and yet participation within those systems pushes us to accept structures we might oppose. Try eliminating a technology (especially a communication one) from your life for a week and see how you fare.”xvi The difficulty of Taylor’s rhetorical suggestion becomes, not only more obvious, but its implications more dire with serious implications regarding our identity, when you consider what Turkle suggests: “When people talk about the computer as though it were a part of them as well as of the outside world, their words evoke the power of what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called transitional objects. This experience has traditionally been associated with religion, spirituality, notions of beauty, sexual intimacy, and the sense of connection with nature. Now it is associated with using computers.”xvii In Ubik these transitional objects are symbols of our consumer culture; in online gaming culture, the transitional object is a product of the consumer culture that also allows us to experience the extension of consciousness.
In Ubik we have objects that participate in their own commodification contrasted with objects in a virtual world that reveal their nature as abstractions, Jory as a representation of our deceptive and voracious desires, and the mysterious Ubik itself that may be a representation of the ideology that we use to keep the illusion of the Real alive and immutable — if temporarily. But in Ubik we also have a foreshadowing of the way media and the digital culture create what can only be described as Baudrillard’s transcendent reality. As Mark Poster writes in “Future Advertising: Dick’s Ubik & the Digital Ad,” “To some degree Dick anticipated this [digital] development. He certainly included computers in his novels. But more than that, he depicted phenomena that could only be realized with the development of digital culture. I refer to his anticipation of virtual reality systems.”xviii In Ubik we have what can best be described as the ultimate transcendental virtual reality environment in half-life. Peter Fitting wrote in the article “Reality as Ideological Construct: A Reading of Five Novels by Philip K. Dick,” about the nature of reality in Ubik being analogous to the way in which we experience so-called “empirical reality.”xix Just as Castronova explained how what we perceive, our minds desire to assume is real, Fitting explains how we have to assume our experiences bring us in contact with a natural reality as we have no other way to interact with the Real — this begs the question of whether an objective knowledge of reality is even possible! Michael Bishop put it succinctly in his article “In Pursuit of Ubik” when he said, in true Lacanian fashion, “reality is what you make it” by suggesting that all the characters’ realities, and even the reader’s reality are subservient to the protagonist’s reality.xx
IV. VIRTUAL COMMODITIES MIRRORS CULTURAL FETISHISM
So, reality is what you make it, and the self is a fractured collection of desires (or, the desire of desires,) and the digital culture takes everything we use to try to signify reality and absorbs the mediating language and turns it into a hyperreality where the signs become meaningless and reality becomes the subjective projection an identity upon us. How can we witness this dynamic, illustrated in Ubik, and reflected in the online gaming environment? Where can the proof of this existential pudding be seen? In the way in which we place value in objects, labor, even in time itself. Whether it is something we need, something we want, something we are convinced we want, if it’s something that is not easily had we place value on it. Value: a concept as ethereal as the idea of “the self.”
Castronova illustrates this projection of value, writing, “Just as one cannot conclude that diamonds are worthless because they are said to ‘have no valuable uses,’ one also cannot conclude that the items in synthetic world are useless because ‘they are only virtual.’ Price indicates social value, virtual items have a price; therefore virtual items do have social value.”xxi What Castronova is describing of course, is the core of commodity fetishism. It matters not if it is a lump of gold from a river, the afore mentioned diamond from an African mine, or, a digital bottle of potion or a sack of “Murlok Eyes” — whether it’s something that has physical form but is intrinsically useless, or has no form except as a collection of 1’s and 0’s transmitted by moving electrons, if someone or a group infer it has value, then the reality of it is that it has value. And it is that agreed upon value, that socially accepted value projected upon something that transmutes a completely virtual item into being “real” — an ironic condition considering its reality is predicated entirely upon abstraction and ideology.
Poster marries commodity fetishism and Baudrillard’s hyperreality when he writes, “Dick recognized that the spirit of capitalism rests not with the commodity as object, but with the culture developed to promote it, with, as he says in the seventeenth epigraph, the word. Commercials are cultural objects, strings of words, images, and sounds. And they are so arranged as to fascinate all who encounter them. They constitute the highest promise of happiness and fulfillment of any experience in capitalist society.”xxii This seventeenth and final epigraph in Ubik stands alone and in contrast to the previous sixteen. Where the first sixteen chapters were prefaced by a satirical commercial, such as the one heard at the beginning of this essay, for a ubiquitous item called Ubik, the seventeenth epigraph takes a decidedly different tone and reads as follows: “I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, then do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.”xxiii As Poster implies, Ubik is Logos: the divine word of the religion of consumerism made flesh. “In a wider sense,” Poster explains, “Ubik is the elixir for life’s difficulties; commodities offer a spiritual antidote to life’s misery, the dream of gratification. When Runciter on the TV urges Joe to try Ubik, we are all addressed as users of commodities. From our perspective of understanding [the novel] Ubik as an allegory of mediated culture, we can say that commodities such as Ubik [the item] sustain consumers in their reality as a kind of half-life in a capitalist culture.”xxiv
If commodification and abject consumerism is the result of the often arbitrary but socially agreed upon value in which we imbue an object, what can be said of the virtual objects and the labor involved in the crafting or accumulating of these objects? Taylor explains that online culture has become a mirror of the capitalist culture we live in: “Over time,” writes Taylor, “the player base has become more experienced in the game, has acquired more wealth, and in turn can sustain not only a commodity orientation, but a fairly inflated pricing structure. The social norms of politeness and gift-giving [which had been a prominent social behavior early in the history of MMOGs,] have in part morphed into a kind of capitalistic exchange in response to a combination of design and character demographics.”xxv Taylor observes how by creating an environment that intentionally promotes commodification of virtual items, as well as the labor of characters crafting and collecting the items, or performing class specific services in factory-like replication and repetition, this virtual market economy “has produced a companion effect in social behaviors.”xxvi As Taylor puts it, “Obtaining epic weapons or more generally owning impressive equipment (weapons, armor, robes, rare items — especially when won from a fight and not bought) all become artifacts of mastery and signal to both the user and the server community their skill at the game. In these cases while objects do play a role in creating the identity of the user, it is not simply a neutral performance but one tied up with signifying power and status.”xxvii.
V. UBIK PREDICTS CONDITION
The solace found in Ubik, the spiritual absolution as the transcendent signification of all our desires, is mirrored in the online gaming world in that the MMOG initially serves the purpose of the product of Ubik in the players’ lives, allowing one to escape the consumerism culture into an alternate reality — only to find themselves in an environment where the consumerism is purified, distilled, and presented in such a way as to magnify the commodification. Where in the offline world we live through our lives of quiet desperation as half-awake zombies manipulated by the sweet siren’s song of commodity fetishism, online we can directly participate in the devaluation by buying and selling the items that will allow us to buy better items that will permit us to defeat opponents that are contrived excuses to force the players to continue to participate in an unadulterated capitalist cycle — while at the same time contributing to the offline commodification by paying “real money” to continue enjoying the privilege of collecting virtual items for greater power, glory, and prestige!
“Of course you could argue that the whole point is ridiculous,” writes Castronova, “Perhaps the synthetic world is a game; but then, our world is a game too. There’s really no difference.”xxviii This may be the point N. Katherine Hayles is making in her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics. Ubik’s achievement, she argues, is to bridge the power of language, the signifier, with the signified itself; to define and reveal the boundaries between the self and the Other.xxix The structure, the words on the page, create realities that span the worlds of author, characters, and reader, inevitably linking all three in a shared reality. What better example of a shared reality than an MMOG, where thousands of people participate in a shared hallucination — a reality their brains strive to perceive as real — all exactly like Joe Chip and the other characters in Ubik existing in a literal half-life, continuing the participation in a commodity environment that is entirely a construct of human imagination — their own and their antagonist’s, via the author’s. Hayles describes Ubik as being an example of the way in which only words can pass through the boundaries of subjective realities. Whether it’s from character to character in Ubik through the various realities that separate them, from author to reader, or game player to player and player to artificial intelligence that runs the games — be it virtual items or ideas, all that can pass through the veils of reality, is only words.
Dick, Philip K. Ubik. 1969. New York: Vintage, 1991, p. 19.
Rabkin, E. “Irrational Expectations; or, How Economics and the Post-Industrial World Failed Philip K. Dick.” Science-Fiction Studies. 15.2 (July 1988): 161-172.
Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995, p. 15.
Castronova, Edward. Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, p. 45.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 1991. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1999, pp. 173-174.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Murder of the Sign.” Consumption in an Age of Information. Ed. Sande Cohen and R.L. Rutsky. New York: Berg, 2005: 9-17, p. 9.
Taylor, T. L. Play Between Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006, p. 135.
Poster, Mark. “Future Advertising: Dick’s Ubik & the Digital Ad.” Consumption in an Age of Information. Ed. Sande Cohen and R.L. Rutsky. New York: Berg, 2005: 21-39, p. 35.
Fitting, Peter. “Reality as Ideological Construct: A Reading of Five Novels by Philip K. Dick.” Science-Fiction Studies. 10.2 (July 1983): 219-236.
Bishop, Michael. “In Pursuit of Ubik.” Philip K. Dick. Ed. Marin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander. New York: Taplinger, 1983.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
So, this was a paper I delivered at last year’s International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. It’s actually about a page or two too long for my time slot, so I had actually abridged it down a little in the actual presentation.
Since it was written to be read aloud and listened to, it isn’t exactly in best, formal English. Punctuation is used as much for vocal cues as for grammatical legibility, and contractions are a little more common than I generally use in a scholarly work.