Day 13. Toys, cuddly and less cuddly.

Yesterday was the day the Duck-Rabbit finally got up the nerve to drive to campus, return all the overdue library books, beg the librarian to cancel its fines (success!), and check its mailbox. The Duck-Rabbit contemplated the prospect of driving to work with just the tiniest bit of anxiety. You see, the Duck-Rabbit had not driven a car in six weeks.

“What if I’ve forgotten how to drive?” the Duck-Rabbit asked He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved, anxiously.

“Ermmmm, I don’t think that’s how it works. It’s not something you forget. It’s like—”

Don’t say it’s like riding a bike!” the Duck-Rabbit interrupted.

“Uh. Why?” He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved looked perplexed.

The Duck-Rabbit shot him a wounded expression. “Don’t say you’ve forgotten? I had to learn how to ride a bike twice. I learned one summer and then the next summer I said, I’ve forgotten, and everyone said that’s not how it works, you can’t forget, so I said oh, okay, and then I got on the bike and promptly fell off and it took me the whole summer, six weeks of my cousin chasing behind me holding the back of my bike seat, for me to re-learn it.”

“Ahh. Yes. I’d forgotten that,” said He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved, weakly.

When you’re a duck-rabbit, words like “foolproof,” or phrases like, “It’s not the kind of thing you can mess up,” fill you with fear.

When the Duck-Rabbit confesses things like this, people look at it sympathetically and say reassuring things like, “I know exactly what you mean.” But then the Duck-Rabbit, letting its guard down, will make a grave error of judgment by giving an example, like, say,

“Yeah, I mean people say when they give you directions, ‘you can’t mess it up.’ Or, you know, ‘just use the GPS.’ But then, it’s so easy to get confused, like that time I started driving onto the 10 freeway using the off-ramp.”

And then the sympathetic expression vanishes from people’s faces.

“Jesus fucking Christ, are you serious? You’re not serious are you? Are you? You drove onto the freeway using the off-ramp.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t get all the way onto the freeway. I mean I figured it out and turned around.”

“You figured it out and turned around. Right.”[1]

The point is that the Duck-Rabbit was a little apprehensive about driving after six long weeks of not driving. But it had a trick up its sleeve to coax itself into getting back behind the wheel of its trusty Prius, oh yes. I’m going to tell you what the trick was, and then you should prepare yourself for the best 1 minute and 45 seconds of your weekend, right here, courtesy of the Duck-Rabbit. You’re welcome.

What the Duck-Rabbit did is pull an Alan Partridge on its drive to work, which it was able to do because it had downloaded “Cuddly Toy” by Roachford from iTunes expressly for this purpose.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here, go watch this link, and then come back. I’ll wait.

It was, hands down, the Duck-Rabbit’s best commute to work ever.[2] Highly recommended.

Also, whoever is compiling my Tenure-party playlist; I want that on there.

Not only did the Duck-Rabbit go to its office yesterday but it also started, reluctantly, thinking more seriously about work again. In particular, it finally felt ready to sit down and re-visit an essay that’s been on the back-burner for ages.

Here’s the back story. Back in 2011, I started writing an essay about how eighteenth-century epistemology engaged in thought-experiments that functioned as a kind of precursor of “virtual reality.” I was quite pleased with it. Get a load of me, I thought, connecting the Enlightenment to new media. But then I showed the essay to a new media scholar, and also to a video-game-industry veteran (that would be He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved) and they both said the same thing: virtual reality is a totally dead concept within the field. It’s just so nineties. It’s practically a dirty word. Get rid of all the virtual reality stuff. I was disappointed, but I did what they said. Not only that, I put in a few snarky comments about how virtual reality was just so obsolete and submitted it to a prestigious journal and, lo and behold they liked it, gave me a few suggestions, and told me to revise and resubmit it.

I received their request to revise and resubmit the essay on March 1 2014.

Then, on March 24, Facebook bought Oculus Rift for 400 bazillion dollars.

Fucking hell.

But still, I thought, it’s a flash in the pan. In a few months all the hype will die down and people will remember that virtual reality is totally obsolete; it’s a joke; who wants clunky headsets, right? Right?

But then at my birthday party in July I was talking to a friend (Henry!) who works in animation and who had just experienced the Game of Thrones “Ascend the Wall” Oculus VR experience, and he told me that he was blown away by it.

It’s the way things are headed, he said.

Fucking fucking hell.

So, anyway, I got distracted, as you may recall, by indexing, but as of yesterday I’m back at work revising the essay and desperately trying to find a way to take back all the stuff I said about VR being obsolete without re-writing the whole thing yet again.

OK, so here’s what I’ve got. VR is one paradigm: a fantasy of complete immersion in an alternate space. The other paradigm, the one I’m interested in, is more pervasive within our daily lives and perhaps also less visible as a paradigm precisely because we take it for granted. This other paradigm is one of toggling back and forth between immersion in different worlds. It’s the paradigm that underlies, not the Oculus Rift, but casual gaming and, moreover, the way, for better or worse, in our everyday lives, we continually shift between attention to our screens and to the world around us. This flitting back and forth between worlds, virtual and physical, is the default position that we inhabit in our daily lives. Maybe you’re doing it at the moment: right now you’re reading this sentence on your phone, but then a second or two later your eyes will glance up and re-attend to your cup of coffee, to the document on your monitor, to the words, “you’re not listening to a word I’m saying, are you?” that your spouse is uttering to you right now.

I’m not making an original point here, of course. Usefully, for my article, skeptics of VR include people other than some random English Professor who specializes in eighteenth-century literature, people such as (Id co-founder and Doom developer) John Romero, who suggests that VR’s fantasy of singular immersion is out of step with the role of technology in the rest of our lives.

Naturally, my essay turns to David Hume to argue that his playful philosophical practice—one in which you constantly step in and out of the medium of experience to observe yourself in the act of perceiving—is a precursor of our present-day toggling between different realities.

But this stepping-in-and-out-of-reality is something the Duck-Rabbit thinks about not only in relation to Hume but also when playing with the younger flopsy-duckit. Yesterday morning, for example, right before the Duck-Rabbit drove to work, it was hanging out with the younger flopsy-duckit, who proposed that she and the Duck-Rabbit play a game. The impetus for the game was a plastic desert island, part of some kind of pirate toy that the YFD had inherited from her brother. The island is a three-dimensional version of one of those cartoon desert islands with a single palm tree. The set consists of a yellow plastic base with various attachments that can be stuck into it: a palm tree, a fern, some logs with little plastic flames coming out of them. There’s also a small row boat should you wish to try your luck at leaving the island.

The YFD’s idea was that we would populate the island using creatures from her box of miscellaneous animals. Important to the game was that she was, in effect, the benevolent deity presiding over the island while I was her minion. She would issue edicts and I would enact them. Kind of a Prospero-Ariel thing. So, for example, the first two animals she chose were Godzilla and a unicorn and it was my job to set them up on the island. Now, I questioned this choice. I submitted that Godzilla might eat the unicorn, but I was overruled, so set them up I did.

They were soon joined by others, eventually about fifteen or more. We had a good range of domestic, wild, extinct, and imaginary animals, of all scales. Curiously, the dinosaurs were dwarfed by many of the domestic animals, and a rubber cuttlefish was the biggest of all, lying, bloated on the beach. Once we’d gotten up to seven or so animals, real estate on the island was getting increasingly scarce, a concern I raised with my boss. “I just don’t think there’s room for any more,” I explained. “See, if we bring any more animals in the others are going to fall into the water.” Here, the YFD gazed at me perplexedly, as if I had exposed myself as a simpleton of astounding fatuousness. “But it’s just carpet,” she pointed out. “They’ll be fine.”

“Right. Of course. It’s just carpet.”

This is what I find so unnerving and endlessly fascinating: the YFD’s ability to flip back and forth so effortlessly between worlds.

It was my job, as I knew it would be, to do voices for all of the animals. And, on this occasion, as I often observe when called upon to provide voices (“Mommy, make her/him/it talk” is probably the sentence my daughter utters to me more than any other), the YFD gave the animal who was being made to “talk” her full attention, asking it concerned questions and listening attentively to “its” responses. She even asked me at one point, in a rather poetic sounding phrase, “How do you speak the language of the animals?”

This is what throws the Duck-Rabbit … that the YFD is one second saying, “Duh, it’s a carpet,” and the next asking, quite sincerely, how I can make the animals speak.[3]

As we were playing, yesterday, I found myself thinking, perhaps inevitably given our island setting, about Defoe, and specifically about a definition of Providence that he offers in The History and Reality of Apparitions (1727): he says that Providence is “the administration of heaven’s government in the world.” Let’s just say that while playing this game I was acutely aware of the tedious admin involved in implementing our benevolent deity’s will. I was the “special providence,” in eighteenth-century terms, which essentially means that all of the day-to-day drudgery of managing food distribution and preventing anarchy was on me.[4] The YFD, on the other hand, was “general providence,” a kind of armchair deity, just sitting back and issuing decrees and leaving me to sort out the logistics.

And the YFD’s vision of our little island community was terribly utopian. Whereas the Duck-Rabbit’s was rather more Hobbesian. “Who’s in charge here?” the Duck-Rabbit enquired. “Is it Godzilla? He’s the fiercest.” “They’re all in charge,” insisted the YFD. “And there are no meanies.”

“Okay, but what are they supposed to do about food? There’s no food and they’re beginning to get agitated.”

The YFD pointed to the fern and the palm tree. “They can eat these.”

The YFD’s vision was, you see, of a happy band of vegans, as a woman of great wit once put it.

Ahh, if only life could be so simple. The Duck-Rabbit felt obliged to point out that Godzilla was not on board with the YFD’s vision: “He’s looking hungrily at the unicorn. Things are going to turn ugly if you don’t step in.”

After a quick consultation, the YFD made the executive decision to airlift in plastic ice-cream for everyone. Godzilla got coffee ice-cream with chocolate sprinkles and the unicorn got vanilla with rainbow sprinkles. There was enough for everyone. Crisis averted.

A happy band of creatures living in peace eating ice cream. Sounds like paradise, right? Well, you know what comes next, then.

The YFD couldn’t leave well enough alone. She started messing with them, blessing them with gifts that were bound to cause trouble. For example: a single plastic French fry; a single green jewel; a single toy ninja. Are you sensing a theme here? I would protest on behalf of my constituents, saying, “look, there are more than fifteen of them here, what are we supposed to do with one French fry??” “They can share,” she would declare, beatifically. What about the jewel? “You must take turns,” she insisted sternly, to the unicorn, who was fighting over it with Godzilla.

At this point, He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved came in and the Duck-Rabbit handed over management of the island to him and stepped back into the real world in order to drive to work. That is say, it stepped into its car and pretended to be Steve Coogan pretending to be Alan Partridge pretending to be Andrew Roachford pretending to be Sly Stone.

It was a good day.

Notes.

[1] In the Duck-Rabbit’s defence, her driving instructor, who taught her to drive in L.A., also boasted to her on several occasions that he had also been Paris Hilton’s driving instructor.

[2] It has been suggested to me that this scene is only mildly funny if you do not recall the 1989 smash hit, “Cuddly Toy,” a song that has the killer combo of both an infectiously catchy tune and utterly absurd lyrics.

[3] It’s important to note here that the Duck-Rabbit is not some kind of master ventriloquist. It makes no effort whatsoever to disguise the fact that its lips are moving and all the animals have the same, cartoonish, high-pitched American-accented voices. I try to give some of them low voices but the YFD insists they must all be high. And why do they all have American accents? I think it must be because I think of them as cartoon animals and the cartoon animals I grew up with all had American accents, with a few marvelous exceptions. Also, the Duck-Rabbit finds voicing the animals extremely tedious and therefore puts very little creative effort into the endeavor.

[4] I was like the creature in the God game Black and White, with the YFD inhabiting the God role. As in real life, I find playing at completing mindless chores extremely tedious. The fact that I find this tedious explains why I am mystified by the popularity of games like Farmville.

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