Finding the Future within Vestiges of the Past
by Yussef Cole
Subserial Network never takes up the full screen. Launching the game unfurls a stack of windows on top of whatever you have running. It starts up a faux Winamp music player and loads you into ancient-looking email clients and browser terminals, making the game feel both familiar and alien at once. This is a useful lens with which to examine the murky confines of its world. One where humanity has literally become a memory (file): bundles of virus-ridden data dug up by the synthetic androids who now populate society. These synthetics are given bodies with which to labor in thankless jobs, and are reassembled when their parts break down. The network is where they go for solace, where they can finally express themselves as individual personalities. They each share a hunger, a misplaced nostalgia for their human predecessors—lonely fossils and absentee parental figures, both.
You play as an agent of an enforcing body, CETUS, assigned to track down “subserials,” synthetics who seek to abandon their physical bodies and plug directly into the network. The nature of your interactions with the game call into question whether your character hasn’t themself already been plugged in, fluttering, as you do, without a name or a face in the null spaces between telnet terminals and IRC channels. The blurred borders of your own identity are mirrored by the low-fi, irresolute, and unmapped nature of the network you’ve been tasked to explore.
Blocky type and tiled backgrounds stand in for looping video and full screen hi-def imagery. You trawl through amateurish webrings, touchingly personal blogs, and fan fiction sites. These patchwork digital love letters lining the avenues of your journey serve as homage to a disappeared internet community: one long subsumed by the ever-expanding orbits of social networks like Facebook, where one’s identity must neatly fit into predefined, immaculate profiles.
In his essay “The Stupidity of Computers,” David Auerbach argues: “Computers do not invent new categories; they make use of the ones we give them, warts and all. And the increasing amount of information they process can easily fool us into thinking that the underlying categories they use are not just a model of reality, but reality itself.”
The synthetics of Subserial Network live in the shadow of the rigid and impersonal taxonomies that humanity left behind. Yet, in this predawn digital world, synthetics have begun carving out spaces to be messy, corrupted, even confused, to be “weeds pushing through the sidewalk’s cracks,” as one synthetic puts it.
A computer that invents its own category is as rebellious and deleterious to existing power structures as a person who does the same. Behind the bluster of the anonymized hacker coolness of the various synthetics you come across, there’s a bed of doubt, a sputtering core of vulnerability. For anyone who’s spent time on the margins, resisting the confining limitations of mainstream categorization, their anxieties feel deeply familiar.
There is an allure to forgetting, as our CETUS agent conveniently seems to have. We long to fit in, and modern-day social networks give us boxes to tick and columns to fill, an alluring approximation of identity. In its rejection of our current sandblasted and corporatized internet landscape, in its depictions of pirate forums and rogue listservs, and in the earnest manifestos of its synthetics, Subserial Network shows us a glimpses at what came before and what might come again, should we trade our flawed definition of humanity for something entirely different. ◒
Yussef Cole is a writer and motion designer hailing from the Bronx, NY. His interest lies in understanding how we tell on ourselves, as a society, through the media we create. You can follow him on Twitter: @youmeyou