Cyberspace, Capitalism, and Encoded Criminality: The Iconography of Theme Park

by

Jeffrey Cass

Texas A & M International University
Jeffreycass@delphi.com

Postmodern Culture v.5 n.3 (May, 1995)

pmc@jefferson.village.virginia.edu


Copyright (c) 1995 by Jeffrey Cass, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the publisher, Oxford University Press.

On the seventh day, the Lord said: "I'm pooped.
You build the theme park."
--Advertisement for Theme Park
  1. The creators and advertisers of Theme Park (a CD-Rom based computer game, available in IBM and MacIntosh formats) promise potential consumers much in their simulations: the thrill of designing one's own theme park attractions (including rides and soft drink concessions), the drama of competing against rival parks, and "experiencing the joys of management, including hostile takeovers and real-time arbitration." They tease potential consumers into vicariously exercising corporate power by advertising their game with primal and seductive (and recognizable) icons--Adam and Eve. With the above caption flanking Adam's well-muscled body, the potential consumer is directed to gaze at Adam gazing at Eve.[1] Temptress Eve, standing under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad, alluringly holds out for Adam's pleasure the apple into which she has already bitten. Adam has not yet bitten into the apple (although he curiously holds in his right hand a fig leaf in front of his groin, as if intuitively knowing that he will bite into the apple). Behind Eden, however, lies the future theme park: medieval castle, roller coaster, a gigantic hamburger (representing food and drink concessions), and a grinning purple demon to the left of Eve. Most interestingly, in back and to the side of the hamburger, pink phallic projections erupt, suggesting the contiguousness of food consumption and sexual appetite. The demon expectantly watches the scene playing out in Eden and awaits the "fallen" guardians of Eden to take possession of Theme Park.

    Image copyright 1994, Electronic Arts Inc. Used by permission. Bullfrog and the Bullfrog Logo are registered trademarks and Theme Park is a trademark of Bullfrog Productions, Ltd. Electronic Arts and the Electronic Arts logo are registered trademarks of Electronic Arts, Inc. All rights reserved.

  2. In his essay "See You In Disneyland," Michael Sorkin writes:
    At Disneyland one is constantly poised in a condition of becoming, always someplace that is "like" someplace else. The simulation's referent is ever elsewhere; the "authenticity" of the substitution always depends on the knowledge, however faded, of some absent genuine. . . . The urbanism of Disneyland is precisely the urbanism of universal equivalence. In this new city, the idea of distinct places is dispersed into a sea of universal placelessness as everyplace becomes destination and any destination can be anyplace. (216-7)
    Sorkin's pointed reference to the "urbanism of Disneyland" and its cultural transformation of public space resonates very strongly with Theme Park and its metamorphosis of public space into cyberspace. The creators' astonishing exploitation of Adam and Eve iconography links, even as it attempts to merge or conflate, a mythically encoded past and an equally encoded corporate future. Potential consumers, the advertisement suggests, can be corporate bosses--grinning purple demons--and can playfully craft their own geographies and destinations and cities--in short, their own Disneyland. Just like the demon, they may indeed corrupt other Adams and other Eves with their newly acquired knowledge in their newly imagined Eden, but this new Eden results from the play of the human mind and not from the exhausted, implicitly unimaginative mind of some "pooped" Lord, a postmodern reference perhaps to Nietzsche's Death (or in this case Exhaustion) of God. More importantly, consumers' acceptance of Theme Park has rendered the physical Disneyland obsolete except as an abstract diagram to be simulated. Whereas Disneyland, according to Sorkin, "still spends its energies on sculpting . . . physical simulacra," Theme Park, like its cousins on the Internet, sculpts cyberspace. Knowledge of Sorkin's "absent genuine" can now completely disappear because consumers no longer need to travel physically; they need only "manage," it must be stressed, their emerging Theme Parks and any "simulacra" that lend their virtual corporate bosses the illusion of power.

  3. In order to eliminate the "absent genuine" Theme Park's advertisers deliberately skew temporal and historical sequences. Adam and Eve, for example, hide their nakedness even though their shame should result from eating the forbidden fruit and not in the anticipation of eating it. In effect, the iconographic representation of Adam and Eve is a prolepsis: potential consumers must already have "fallen" into knowledge in order to comprehend the benefits of possessing Theme Park. This is why they are already at the gate, gazing upon the gazers, the primal scene recorded as cybertext. Within the logic of this system, there are no prelapsarian or "sinless" consumers; hence, they will find little reason to resist the temptations of the game. And since they clearly already populate the geography of Theme Park (one can see figures walking behind the medieval gates and riding the modern roller coaster), viewers of the advertisement have the opportunity to manipulate and control fellow consumers by subsuming them within the confines of their own Theme Park, one that competitively challenges the legitimacy (and solvency) of other, less imaginative Theme Parks. Consumers can play at being God (the absent "pooped" Lord) because God is "play"--a play of cyberspace signifiers that cannot settle upon "genuine" signifieds like "punishment," "fear and trembling," or the "Fall." The game ironically fabricates the illusion of a hermeneutically closed system, one in which consumers no longer need an "absent genuine" to validate their actions because they themselves possess the authority to validate their own actions.

  4. Furthermore, the advertisement also manifests a capitalist ideology that deliberately conflates temporal and historical distinctions even as it acknowledges them, for Theme Park promotes capitalist management practices within a pastiche of Medieval and futuristic, pre-modern and postmodern architecture that towers above the pastoral landscape inhabited by managers Adam and Eve and their future Theme Park. It is a hybrid Judeo-capitalist imagination, then, that sculpts cyberspace and has the instrumental power to artificially recreate myth and history in order to recontextualize old, familiar icons and situate them in new formats. Borrowing from Eco and Baudrillard, Albert Borgmann believes that technological "hyperreality" (such as that suggested by the advertisers of Theme Park) is "an artificial reality, to be sure, but it is not a poor substitute. It surpasses traditional and natural reality in brilliance, richness, and pliability" (Crossing 83). Theme Park embodies this "brilliance, richness, and pliability" by permitting capitalism to reterritorialize space, to recast it into more profitable, but less terrifying shapes. No longer the cruel, dark factory of the nineteenth century that exploits powerless workers and aggrandizes rich industrialists, capitalism has "managed" to camouflage its sinister underbelly by redefining itself as the virtual "Theme Park"--the collector of mercurial technologies, the purveyor of imaginative freedom. In short, the Theme Park becomes the exploiter of simulated fields of human resources. Uncannily presiding over capitalism's transformed domain is the grinning, purple demon--the advertisers' reification of "capital"--who channels consumer desire into newly emerging commodity formats.

  5. Borgmann correctly frames these commodities as "alluring" but not "sustaining" precisely because
    [T]he realm of commodity is not yet total . . . we must sooner or later step out of it into the real world. It is typically a resentful and defeated return, resentful because reality compares so poorly with hyperreal glamour, defeated because reality with all its poverty inescapably asserts its claims on us. . . . (96)
    Borgman distinguishes between the "glamour" of hyperreality and the "poverty" of reality in order to delineate the "symmetries" between the two, ultimately contending that discussion of the hyperreal and the real raises "theological" issues, such as the nature of divinity and grace (96-7). Implicitly, however, such a distinction does much more, for the easy temptations of Theme Park falsely promise that we can indeed escape the "poverty" of "reality" through cyberspatial hyperreality, false promises which the iconography of Theme Park reiterates. The conventional serpent in the Garden has been replaced by serpentine vines, the very vines wrapped around the Tree of Knowledge and used by Adam and Eve to hide their nakedness. Curiously, directly behind the Tree of Knowledge stands the roller coaster, whose serpentine course all too clearly parallels its mythical counterpart in Eden. Predictably, however, the creators and advertisers of Theme Park fail to inform potential consumers that their acquisition of corporate power in cyberspace does not satiate capitalist desire, it exacerbates it. There is always another ŠApple to bite, another roller coaster to ride, another consumer to control. Player/Consumers may feel free to select or refuse products, without recognizing that they are themselves produced into desiring them. Free will and choice become powerful illusions that deflect hard questions about the cyber-capitalist ideologies that remake "reality" through simulation. The competitive, frequently harsh world of capital and work is excised from the playful contours and boundaries of Theme Park in order to encourage consumerist desire. Enclaves of voracious capital "manage" to conceal themselves within the exterior trappings of an amusement park, of Disneyland.

  6. In his book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Michael Heim argues that the "allure" of computers is not merely "utilitarian or aesthetic" but "erotic" (85). He writes:
    Instead of a refreshing play with surfaces, as with toys or amusments, our affair with information machines announces a symbiotic relationship and ultimately a marriage to technology. Rightly perceived, the atmosphere of cyberspace carries the scent that once surrounded Wisdom. The world rendered as pure information not only fascinates our eyes and minds, but also captures our hearts. We feel augmented and empowered. Our hearts beat in the machines. This is Eros. (85)
    Heim's intersection of erotic desire with the miracles provided by "technology" collapses the distinctions between the body and the machinery of technology and fetishizes Eros: it "captures" our hearts, and "our hearts beat in the machines." "Our affair with information machines" may indeed derive from an insatiable desire for "the world rendered as pure information," but Heim's subsumption of marriage within the confines of Eros has the effect of trying to stabilize desire, redirecting it to worthier, "truer" goals. An unabashed Platonist, Heim believes Eros must be educated "toward the formally defined, logical aspect of things" (88). He concludes by arguing that "the spatial objects of cyberspace proceed from the constructs of Platonic imagination . . . in the sense that inFORMation in cyberspace inherits the beauty of Platonic FORMS" (89).

  7. Unfortunately, Heim's Platonism aestheticizes the political. Naturalizing the ("symbiotic") relationship between the computer user and cyberspace aestheticizes their interaction, removing a whole range of signification--Eros, technology, cyberspace--from the political and cultural choices that help shape the consumer and his desire for the "refreshing play with surfaces" that Heim claims the consumer ultimately transcends. Far from "augmenting" or "empowering" the consumer, the "erotic" desire encouraged by cyberspatial interraction succeeds only in aggravating desire for "toys" and "amusements." Finally, Heim seems to assume that cyberspace is an independent entity, affirming yet again an age-old duality that promises but cannot truly deliver imaginative freedom. In fact, cyberspace works within us every bit as much as we work within it, but by acquiring the baubles promised by cyberspace technology, even Heim's platonic ones, we accede to the myth-making of those, like the creators of Theme Park, who wish us to believe in the illusion of consumer independence because, without it, the secret ideology of capitalism is exposed: cyberspatial interraction does not merely activate (or satiate) latent desire, it produces it. Not coincidentally, Fredric Jameson has described cyberspace as the "reification of the world space of international capital," tacitly recognizing that the forces of capitalism work to colonize and order cyberspace in the same manner that they have already colonized and ordered "world space."

  8. It is with some surprise, then, that Mark Dery, who correctly acknowledges that at the "heart" of cyberculture lies "the most fundamental of all political issues, that of control," would nonetheless assert that cyberculture's "intuited awareness, submerged in the mass psyche, that the world-machine of industrial capitalism is running down, its smooth functioning impeded by dislocation and dissent, is part of the secret history of the twentieth century" ("Cyberculture" 513, 519). Dery assumes, as do other exponents of late capitalism, that the "world machine of industrial capitalism" has little flexibility, that it cannot mutate or "morph" as easily as the killer android in Terminator 2 (to which Dery alludes at the beginning of his essay). Dery may scorn Disney's Carousel of Progress ("It's a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow") or Flint's Auto World ("He's My Buddy"), but these theme-park attractions do not symbolize the decreasing control and power of multinational corporations; rather, they illustrate the scornful way in which "the world machine of capitalism" cynically views the consumers it shapes. As layoffs continue, it replaces the human with non-human producers while at the same time it outrageously claims that this shift to industrialization without workers ultimately benefits jobless workers. Ironically, corporate interests create the killer android in Terminator 2, not some alien intelligence or practitioner of cyberart. Capitalism will not be much bothered by the machine theater of Pauline, Heckert, MacMurtrie, and Goldstone or the body art of Stelarc or hacker clubs like the Legion of Doom or the cyberrocking Nine Inch Nails or the cyborgs of Michael Jackson videos any more than factory owners in the nineteenth century were much bothered by the Luddites.

  9. Like the purple demon, corporatist agendas are oddly hidden in plain sight, lying submerged within a game like Theme Park, and requiring a critical distance to disarm their seductiveness. Advertised, packaged, sold--even information itself is dispensed by "data merchants" (Theodore Roszak's phrase) who idolize the machines that plug us into cyberspace and who encourage the rest of us to idolize them as well. Much as Satan in the Garden of Eden invites Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, the grinning purple demon invites us, potential cyber-gamesters, to "fall" into Theme Park (interestingly, the land is on a downward slant) and learn the profitability of hoarding, trading, and selling data. The more data we have, the greater leverage we can exert on our competitors. As Roszak informs us, however, the collection of sheer data does not necessarily signify greater understanding;[2] indeed, the possession of mega- and gigabytes of information becomes for the consumer an end in itself, a kind of technological solipsism that serves no public or collective interest.

  10. Yet such solipsism does serve the corporate manipulation of consumer appetites. Far from fostering an unfettered exploration into the boundaries of random and spontaneous human desire, corporate concerns in cyberspace would prefer to heavily police such desire and channel it into more predictable, and hence controllable, venues. Policing such desire, of course, presupposes a nameless criminality that threatens the capitalist ideology underwriting the complex web of social, political, and economic arrangements produced by cyberspace's datastreams. In these potentially profitable but highly volatile transfers of data, the computer hacker becomes the dangerous "other" whose systemic intrusions render a capitalistic ethos apparently vulnerable, but this seeming vulnerability oddly permits the creation of a corporate enemy who paradoxically becomes a necessary part of cyberspace's architecture.

  11. Commodity and criminality are thus inextricably linked, encoded into the iconography of Theme Park and, by extension, imported into the very fabric of cyberspace. Far from offering a politics of change, therefore, the importation of commodity and criminal desire into cyberspace iterates their traditional opposition and perpetuates the ideological status quo even as "the increase in technical devices" (Benjamin's phrase) promises social, cultural, and political change. Ultimately, Theme Park reifies a politics of war, a fascism that remains quite willing to sacrifice individuals in order to maintain one's personal status, authority, and power within the established parameters of the "game." As Walter Benjamin prophetically writes:
    All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today's technical resources while maintaining the property system. (241)
    The creators of Theme Park attempt to "render politics aesthetic" by transforming the cruel, competitive world of commodity production and consumption into a "game"--a game whose grinning purple demon inculcates the values of "the traditional property system" even as the player's use of cyberspatial technology demonizes and criminalizes those who might oppose his or her quest for domination, that simple desire to win. The machines we use to achieve that domination promise, as Jameson argues, only "reproduction" and not "production" (225). In the iconographic and mythic terms of Theme Park, we only succeed in cybernetically reproducing the conditions of the Fall; we do not and cannot produce a new Eden.


Notes

  1. Adam's left hand stretching towards Eve may symbolize the left hand path, connoting the occult, particularly in the form of hidden rituals and magic, the basis of Theme Park's allure. See Colin Wilson, The Occult. New York: Vintage, 1973 (1971).Back

  2. In The Politics of Information Roszak writes: "But in all cases, we are confronted by sprawling conceptions of information that work from the assumption that thinking is a form of information processing and that, therefore, more data will produce better understanding" (Roszack's emphasis, 165).Back


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Borgman, Albert. Crossing the Postmodern Divide. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Dery, Mark. "Cyberculture." South Atlantic Quarterly 91:3, Summer 1992: 501-523.

Heim, Michael. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Jameson, Fredric. "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." Storming the Reality Studio. A Casebook of Cyperpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1991: 219-228.

Roszak, Theodore. The Cult of Information. A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994 (1986).

Sorkin, Michael. "See You in Disneyland." Variations on a Theme Park. The New American City and the End of Public Space. Ed. Michael Sorkin. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992: 205-232.

Theme Park. Advertisement. Wired. July 1994: 6-7.

Wilson, Colin. The Occult. New York: Vintage Books, 1973 (1971).


Last Modified: Wednesday, 20-Sep-95 17:43:58 EDT