Hypothetical worlds: A better future

The following is an excerpt from my paper, “Alternate Reality Games and Pre-Splash Knowledge Studies: Hypothetical Worlds; A Better future.” This tongue-in-cheek science-fictional paper didn’t work out exactly the way I wished it would, but it’s funny in parts, so I’m posting it here for posterity…


For some, the very notion of “pre-Splash Knowledge Studies” (PSKS) is an oxymoron. The academic institutions of the time were notorious for being wasteful where they should have been stingy, and stingy where there was need. Worse, restrictive copyright laws and archaic credentialing rituals sealed off important participation vectors and created an atmosphere of distrust and resentment.

Significantly, one doesn’t require the remove of time and circumstance to make this bleak assessment of the period. Thought leaders clearly understood that crucial components of the academic ideal, such as the free and universal access to knowledge, were “compromised by the current intellectual property regime,” and that the so-called ‘new media’ initiatives put forth by most institutions were “about disciplining the flow of knowledge rather than facilitating it” (link) And yet while this frustration was shared by many within the Humanities, few seemed to know what to do.

Part of the reason for this desperate state of affairs was a lack of examples of alternative knowledge production systems that could point the way. As one scholar noted:

[Reimagining the Academy will] involve developing projects which span disciplines, which link several classes together and [require] students to build on each other’s work, and which may straddle multiple universities dispersed in space. All of this is easier said than done, of course, but we should be experimenting with how to achieve this goal since at this point it is even hard to point to many real world examples of what this would look like. (Confessions of an Aca/Fan, October 2008)

Indeed, despite the incredible advances in network technology and ubiquitous computing that had taken place during the early 2000s, the inherently conservative nature of degree-granting academic institutions meant that official scholarship continued to treat “digitally (re)produced research…as if it were more or less a prosthetic extension and enhancement of print.” Worse, in many cases, knowledge produced in online spaces – particularly collaboratively-produced knowledge – was often rejected altogether. So high was the anxiety about the future that many turned to denial, attempting to wish the unfolding changes out of existence by clinging to the past; in so doing, these actors did their part to set the stage for the cataclysms that accompanied the Splash. Such was the tenor of the time.

On the other hand, it has become something of a Crosbyism to simply equate all pre-Splash knowledge production practices with corporatism, neofeudalism, and rampant careerism. As broadly accurate as these clichés might be, the reality is, of course, much more nuanced. Our research has revealed numerous progressive models for the production of knowledge that were actively explored in various sectors during the decade leading up to the Splash. One such practice, namely that of “Alternate Reality Gaming”, a cross-platform recreational knowledge production activity whose popularity exploded in underground “alpha geek” culture in the years immediately preceding the Splash, has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of our node to such an extent that we have decided to dedicate our centennial activity almost exclusively to its study. By exposing this little-known genre of story and play to a wider audience, we hope to spark fresh discussion about popular conceptions of life and learning in the first decade of the 21st century. Further, by revealing how the ARG community (among others) enacted many of the very practices that would have enabled the Humanities Academy of the time to break free of its self-imposed chains, we intend to make a larger point about the all-too-human tendency to miss the solutions to one’s problems even when they’re sitting right in front of one’s nose.

Full paper: watson-hypothetical-worlds.pdf