Where Do You Go When You Go Online?

Was there ever a sweeter serenade than the song of dial-up internet? After hearing the ghostly sound of modems past floating around my office today, I thought about how that sound has disappeared into the technological past.

In a country where only 3% of Americans still use dial-up, the song is almost a dead language, one that used to communicate to us that we’ve arrive at our destination: The Internet. But, is the internet a place? Is it a somewhere we can arrive at? Does it come to us when we enter a URL or check our email?

Imagining what the internet looks like is a popular source of creative material for television, books, movies, and games. And, while no two works seems to have the exact same image, media from the early millennium seemed to agree on the idea that the internet is indeed a place.

The episode of the children’s television show The Fairly OddParents, Information Stupor Highway, centers on the main character, Timmy Turner, trying to recover an email that was accidentally sent to his elementary school crush, Trixie. Without Gmail’s undo send feature, Timmy opts to travel into the internet, with the help of his magical fairy godparents, to retrieve the email before it arrives in Trixie’s inbox. Ignoring the rather instantaneous nature of sending emails, Timmy’s fairy godparents transform him into streams of data and send him online.  Traveling from desktop to desktop, Timmy searches until he finds Trixie’s computer and snags the email before she can read it. Here, Timmy leaves the real world and enters the Internet. He can’t exist in both places at once. In fact, if he can’t get back to his original computer, then he would be stuck on the internet permanently.

Mom and Dad from The Fairly Oddparents

Meanwhile, the video game Mega Man Battle Network, shows a world where humans can see and interact with the internet, but they can’t actually go there. Instead, humans have an intelligent artificial intelligence called a NetNavi (Internet Navigator) who acts as the proxy for the human’s actions online. NetNavis surf the web, read emails, take phone calls, and “bust” viruses in battle. NetNavis can be “jacked-in” to other machines and wander inside where humans can’t go. From televisions to refrigerators to subway trains, there are very few places NetNavis can’t jack in to. In this world, humans witness and interact online through the actions of avatars with their own personalities. The internet world and the physical world are mixed, but distinct. Because humans cannot enter the Net and NetNavis cannot enter the physical world, the boundaries between them are quite clear.

Violet and Dash (The Incredibles, 2004)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a cyberpunk Japanese anime about an elite police unit that investigates cyber-terrorism in 2025 Japan. A robust show that raise many questions, Ghost in the Shell portrays a world where many individuals have cybernetic body parts that allow them to interface with the Internet directly. Through connecting their brains to these networks, people can communicate, send information and data, and go “diving” through the net. In Ghost in the Shell, the Internet is not a separate space, but one that is seamlessly integrated into the human terrain. The main character, Motoko Kusanagi (known as “The Major”), gazes out and sees not only the physical world, but data files, text messages, and visual conversations with her unit in her field of vision. When the Major dives into the Internet, she can create a digital avatar that can see and interact with other avatars online in round-table chat rooms or just appear as a stream of data as she passes through secure firewalls.

An online chat room, as seen in Ghost in the Shell (C: The Man Who Dwells in the Shadows of the Net – CHAT! CHAT! CHAT!, 2003)

In this show, the Internet is ever present and seamlessly integrated into everyone’s field of vision and experience. The Matrix creates a similar image of the net where all humans are connected to a shared, networked reality. The main difference, however, is that The Matrix creates a simulated reality of which no one is aware. While the people of Ghost in the Shell exist in a composite reality where the boundaries between the internet and the “real world” blend, the people in the Matrix have an simulated reality so seamless that only a chosen few can intuit the difference.

As the internet has become more of an integral part of our daily lives, popular media no longer seems as interested in the question of the internet as a place. It seems to me that of the various representations out there, we have more closely adopted the view of Ghost in the Shell – the Internet is a space that is now experienced as a blend of the physical and the digital.

Our smart phones and tablets have become extensions of our bodies. We wear Bluetooth headphones that allow us to rock out to music without a cord. Amazon Echo and Siri allow us to talk to our computerized assistants (I’m temporarily putting aside the questions of corporate and State surveillance). The discontinued Google Glass allowed users to interface with the Net just like Ghost in the Shell. You can see the Web right in front of you, even as you walk down the street.

Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live)

Is our popular media no longer as fascinated with the question because we think we already found the answer? I don’t believe so. The question is not so much resolved as it is debated. Countless articles exist on the dangers of smart phones, tablets, and other connected technology. Many of them report on technology’s effect on the brain or on communication or on its effect on labor and productivity. Adolescence and childhood, in particular, become sites for the debate on technology as we worry about the effects of an interconnected digital reality on the physical, mental, and social well-being of children.

I think this is evidence that we’ve moved away from thinking of the Internet as a separate space to an integrated network so pervasive that it becomes a cultural battleground.

What do you think? Is the internet a place you go to? Or, is it something else entirely?

Is Steven Universe Queer? (Spoilers: Yes!)

What makes the children’s television show, Steven Universe, so compelling? I must confess that I joined the bandwagon pretty late and after some resistance. But, one week and 41 episodes later, I am hooked!

Pearl

Steven Universe is about the titular character, Steven Universe, who is raised by the Crystal Gems, three magical aliens, in the resort town of Beach City. Half-human, half-gem, Steven spends half of the first season learning to control his magical gem powers with the guidance of his family and support of his friends and the other half on his own sort of wacky adventures where he develops other skills like empathy and how to emotionally support the people he cares about. Despite the idea floating around that this show, like others such as Adventure Time, is actually developed for young adults and not children, the show demonstrates some classic children’s show formatting:

  • 15 minute episode segments
  • The main character is a boy with a strange cohort of family and friends
  • Steven does not participate in the institutions of childhood (school, church, sports teams)
  • Conflicts are resolved within the time frame of one episode
  • Characters verbalize their conflicts and tensions with other characters
  • Episode themes are clearly articulated in dialogue (clear morals)

Premiering in November 2013, the show is a hit. And, not just a hit with children, but with teens and young adults as well. A simple Tumblr search finds fan art, fan fiction, theories and speculation, and even a blog that imagines text message conversations the characters would exchange. A search on DeviantArt found over 70,000 pieces on Steven Universe. It’s even been nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Short-Form Animated Program. People watch this show and have a lot of feels.

But, again, what makes the show so compelling? I have a few ideas: The soft pastel animation is warm and friendly and light

Steven Universe (Title Card)

The music is also upbeat, soft, and I think the ending theme (below) adds a bit of serious weight to the silliness of the plot

The references to other shows is evident. I’ve noticed references to Sailor Moon and other magical girl anime, video games such as Pokemon and Final Fantasy, and even films such as Lars and the Real Girl and A Hard Day’s Night. These references, like the references in many children’s shows, are meant to engage older viewers with material that is aimed producing a feeling of nostalgia. But, I find it difficult to view Steven Universe as simply catering to young adults to increase viewership. The influence of Japanese anime on the animation style not only attracts the viewership of young adults of the Internet generation, but it incorporates the style as part of a canon of American media  influenced by anime that is actually quite extensive. Steven Universe may be a good example of “what happens when something moves across platforms and across national boundaries.

Yet, where Steven Universe really seems to shine is in its creation of family dynamics. PBS Idea Channel explored the idea that Steven Universe expands the idea of family to include the nontraditional elements that make up Steven’s strange family. And, I could not agree more. Many of the episodes of Steven Universe focus on character development and the complicated relationships that Steven has with the other Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The Gems act as both parental figures and siblings to Steven. They take care of him, provide support, embarrass him, misunderstand him, and provide him with the opportunities to take risks, to take on responsibility, and to learn to cope with failure and disappointment.

Garnet in Fusion Cuisine (S1 E32)

Each of the Gems takes on a primary role in their relationship with Steven. Amethyst takes on the role of the big sister, Pearl is the disciplinarian and tutor, and Garnet is the save-the-day-mom figure. In fact, the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, has stated that she based the Gems on the roles she took on in her relationship with her little brother, Steven. Sugar also draws upon theories of emotional development in the development of the show’s characters.

Connie in Fusion Cuisine (S1 E32)
Connie in Fusion Cuisine (S1 E32)

In the episode, Fusion Cuisine, Steven’s friend Connie tells her parents that Steven has a nuclear family in order to continue hanging out with him. Steven attempts to convince Connie’s parents that his family is normal, but when his plan fails, he and Connie attempt to run away. When Connie’s parents see the Gems disciplining Steven, they realize that the Gems are actually responsible parental figures and will continue to allow Connie and Steven to be friends. While I appreciated the ending of the episode, what allowed Steven’s family to be incorporated into the normative understanding of what constitutes family units is through the use of discipline in order to exert control. The Gems only convince Connie’s parents that they are worthy parental figures by grounding Steven after his attempt to runaway. Good parenting is seen as shutting down your child with love and doing things for their own good, despite their feelings on the matter (something Steven comes to resist a bit later).

Pearl: We would never starve you, but you will lose your TV privileges… for 1,000 years. Steven: No! The midseason pre-finale of “Under the knife”! How can you do this to me?! *cries slightly* Greg: *Disapproving look* Because we love you, Steven. Steven: *Groans* Dr. Maheswaran: Wow. That was a masterful use of the “because we love you” shutdown. I’m quite partial to the “it’s for your own good” myself.

There is nothing vague about these complex relationships. In typical children’s show fashion, the show does not dance around the issues it desperately wants to convey to the audience, but has the characters discuss and challenge particular ideas in dialogue.

Steven hugging Connie in Fusion Cuisine (S1 E32)

“Man, why did Connie have to say I have one mother instead of zero… or three?” -Steven Universe

Steven actively tries to understand his relationships to the Gems. Notably, he doesn’t know the answer to the above question. Are they his mothers? Sisters? Guardians? Do they have to be only one of those things? I think that the Gems play all of these roles for Steven with much of the character development focuses on how Steven discovers his own role on the team (This is ignoring the very queer nature of the Gems themselves, which will probably be the subject of another post). What makes the show compelling then, could be the themes. Jack Halberstam argues that animated films succeed “to the extent to which they are able to address the disorderly child, the child who knows there is a bigger world out there beyond the family, if only he could reach it.” The discussion of topics that we normally would not expect from children’s media (due to the perception of silliness, frivolity/frivolousness, and that children must be protected from potentially harmful ideas) are exactly what makes them successful.

Steven Universe (Title Intro)

I would argue that allowing Steven to even ask such a question, the creators of Steven Universe are pushing the continuously ongoing discussion of the nature of childhood and the family unit in a positive and progressive direction. It’s a show for the queer child who might find family in a universe that only seems to become queerer.

Steven Universe (Title Intro)