There is lots of randomisation in Deep Surface, as in almost any video game. Deep Surface isn’t quite a video game. It is an interactive hypertext by digital humanist pioneer Stuart Moulthrop. Instead of the usual mild variations on a theme, to add flavour and reality to what might otherwise be repetitive, some the variations in Deep Surface are quite unlike the other options. An example would be the appearance and words of the ‘robot voices’ that sound upon death. Go ahead and click that link above and “play” a couple of times. You’ll see.
I like to think of paradata as information that implies a cause-and-effect relationship but the possibility is so tenuous that it is almost just random data. Applying the idea of paradata to a hypertext will require some adjustments. We can no longer speak of data points. When Mark Sample introduces paradata, he gives us the project We Feel Fine as example. We Feel Fine presents data, but more interestingly it shows the intersections of data, the correlations between data points. It is in these correlations paradata can be detected. Paradata is data on the boundary between metadata and random data. It is when data is just – or almost – relevant. It is the unreliability of the system. It is when the data collection system muddies the waters.
The algorithm tampers with the data. The code mediates the raw information. In doing so, We Feel Fine makes both an editorial and aesthetic statement.
But what could this possibly mean when we are talking about art rather than science? Clearly a scientific piece making an editorial & aesthetic statement is worth pointing out. Yet what is unusual about the curatorial directive of an author? Is that not the very essence of art? Perhaps we can talk about the tenuity of the connections made within the piece.
We still have the problem of what is the data of Deep Surface and what is the metadata. What is primary and what is secondary? Again, this is far more subjective than it would be in a more statistical or scientific project. I imagine no one who makes a habit of reading hypertexts would consider text itself to be any more primary than accompanying sounds or facets of “gameplay” or certain carefully-chosen visual effects, or any other artistic choice. Perhaps the underlying code making it work is the actual data and any one, randomised manifestation of it is somewhat more peripheral, allowing the audience to collect data about the base code through creating iterations of it. If this viewing were permitted, perhaps Sample’s “potential of paradata” would be pleasure of playing the game over exegesis upon reams of ActionScript 2.0.
Still, I am not really sure this word is as meaningful in the context of creative works. I get that DH is all about crossing boundaries; but within the bounds of artworks, distinctions between primary data and secondary metadata were never really a thing anyway. The lines to be blurred were never even there.
That is the pleasure of creative works. We may not know what is salient and what is accidental. We may find out at the end. We may never know. That’s why one person can get something completely different out of the same piece than his next-door friend. That is why we love to pore over, savour and study them.
Moulthrop, Stuart. “Deep Surface.” Electronic Literature Collection 2. Electronic Literature Organisation, February 2011. Web. 12 February 2016.
Sample, Mark. “The Poetics of Metadata and the Potential of Paradata (Revised).” samplereality. Web. 12 February 2016.