Information Age at the Science Museum: Style Over Substance

Information Age is a permanent exhibition at the Science Museum of London, seeking to “celebrate more than 200 years of innovation in information and communication technologies(Science Museum, 2016). The displays are thorough and varied, showing antique telegram machines, 1920s radio equipment, mid-20th century telephone exchange panels, beautiful 1960s TVs, bulky 1960s and 1970s mainframes, shiny telephones of all decades, and of course a wide array of retro computing (the Apple Lisa (1983) and Macintosh (1984) being particular highlights for me). The exhibition’s wide and clear displays do a good job of keeping the visitor entertained and are a true visual treat.

The exhibition is organised around the six key technology revolutions that have changed information in the last two hundred years: Cable, Broadcast, Exchange, Constellation, Web, and Cell. The displays focus on the individual objects or collections that best represent these innovations, showing an interesting mix of originals, reproductions, or small reconstitutions such as ship cabins. The focus is firmly placed on how the object functions, and on the people behind the inventions. This makes for a rather personal history of each technology, while attempting to show how these objects transformed our lives and allowed further technology progress.

An interesting goal, and an impressive display. Did the exhibition achieve everything it set out to do, however? I’m not so sure.

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The exhibition layout

My first criticism comes from a purely practical perspective: where do I go? Upon entering, the visitor is faced with a small panel detailing the exhibition layout. It does not suggest an order, although the visitor will naturally be drawn to what seems the “oldest” display (in this case “Cable”), and work their way around the room to advance to newer technologies. However, following this implied order makes for some odd experiences. Soon after observing some 1960s TVs, I was suddenly faced with a wall of code, before realising I was in the “Web” exhibition; turning away from the code I was faced with a mainframe computer, some 40-odd years older than the code. Similarly jarring experiences happen throughout the exhibition as it is very easy to turn the wrong corner, sometimes difficult to understand why we are shown older technology in the midst of a modern exhibition, and almost impossible to check which display we are currently in. I thought this was an oversight that could have easily be fixed by a suggested display order or larger, more informative text panels. If we think of an exhibition as a magic circle experience (a bubble of immersion), the lack of direction and of a consistent chronological narrative unfortunately broke this for me.

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tl;dr

Another criticism is that some display pieces are barely explained. This wall of code was a great example: at first glance, there are no explanations are in sight. Closer observation reveals that the few lines explaining the display are hidden in the code. While this is an interesting idea, would a child or an adult not familiar with coding know to look for it this way? This seemed misguided for the intended audience. Furthermore, I would have liked to see this piece linked to the HTML display, and it merited an explanation on how advances in web programming transformed the way we communicate on internet.

 

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Palm Pilots, remember them?

On the other hand, some displays suffered from an info-dump problem, coupled with a lack of necessary context. The digital organisers display illustrates this point rather well: it’s great to see these relics of the 1990s, but why did they become popular? What did they replace, what problem did they solve? Why was one popular with teenagers, another badly received by customers? I would have liked to see that instead of piecemeal information on their functionality.

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Africa and mobile phones

Overall, I felt that this exhibition failed to place itself in a wider societal context. Information and communication revolutions did not start in 1816 on the dot, nor ended in 2016, and I think the exhibition would have been greatly enriched by explaining what was in place beforehand (the importance of printing, the limitations of paper letters, etc.) and by peering into the future. As described earlier, and more problematically, the exhibition consistently failed to explain the fascinating context of the creation of the machines- the WHY, focusing instead on the technical details and the people behind the objects. One notable exception to this lack of context was the welcome aside discussing the importance of mobile phones in Africa, a well thought-out display that showed what information technology can do besides allowing us to communicate.

All in all, while I thoroughly enjoyed the objects on display, I left feeling frustrated. A missed opportunity, and very much style over substance.


References

Science Museum (2016) The Information Age. Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/plan_your_visit/exhibitions/information_age (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

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Post-Modernism: A Solid Snake

I believe that video games are art, and therefore always enjoy comparisons between games and more “traditional” art forms and associated trends. This would include post-modernism, a movement that can described as: “often funny, tongue-in-cheek or ludicrous; it can be confrontational and controversial, challenging the boundaries of taste; but most crucially, it reflects a self-awareness of style itself(Tate, 2006). Could we observe this trend in video¬† games?

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Call of Duty: MW2 “No Russian” (No Russian, no date)

Controversy, a key element of post-modernism, is something the gaming industry is familiar with. Indeed, video games have had their share of controversies around violence, sexualisation of characters, or more generally sensitive themes – see the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 mission “No Russian” (‘No Russian’, no date) for an edifying example where the player has to kill civilians.

However I’m more interested in another important element of post-modernism: the self-awareness and subversion of its own tropes. Now, where have I seen these themes in a game before?

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Raiden… or yourself? (Model Raiden, no date)

Let’s examine Metal Gear Solid, a long-running stealth/action series, created by the ever-controversial game designer Hideo Kojima. What do you expect when starting its anticipated second PlayStation instalment, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty? Everything the trailers and artwork promised: polished missions, main protagonist Solid Snake on top form, streamlined tutorials for fans of the series, and more of the same. And that’s exactly what is delivered – until the end of the first mission. As mission 1 reaches its conclusion, Solid Snake dies and you control rookie character Raiden… for the rest of the game. The game also removes several gameplay options and adds new, very detailed tutorials.

Once the player recovers from the shock, they then realise that there is more to the main character than meets the eye. It’s all in the game’s dialogue, and here are some of my favourite game design nuggets, courtesy of the MGS Wikia (‘Fourth Wall’, 2014):

 

  • [In first person view mode] If the player looks up while outside, seagull droppings may splatter on the screen
  • [In-game characters] make cryptic messages, urging the player to turn off the console, saying lines from previous games – Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid, VR Missions and Ghost Babel, and famously spouting gibberish. At one point, [a character] even specifically refers to Raiden’s situation as a “role-playing game.”
  • Just before Raiden throws away his dog tags at the end of the game, they display the information that the player entered at the beginning of [a chapter of the game].
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Hideo Kojima, man of mystery (Kojima, no date)

To the attentive player, the game slowly becomes a “meta-game”: a game about the player playing a game. The game is self-aware in that Raiden / the player’s role is situated firmly outside of the game world; it also gently mocks the player for getting too involved, and sends regular reminders that this is not real.

Hideo Kojima famously resented making a follow-up to the first PlayStation Metal Gear Solid. Could we jump to the conclusion that he therefore created a self-mocking parody of the series he did not want to continue? Subversion of its own genre, confrontational and controversial decisions that will challenge the player’s loyalty (and possibly enjoyment) of the series… The jury is out on Kojima’s motivations, but we can safely say that MGS2: Sons of Liberty has all the hallmarks of a post-modernist game – players be damned!


References:

‘Fourth wall’ (2014) Metal Gear Wikia. Available at: http://metalgear.wikia.com/wiki/Fourth_wall (Accessed 17 October 2016)

Kojima (no date) [image]. Available at: http://cdn-static.denofgeek.com/sites/denofgeek/files/6/64//kojima-main.jpg (Accessed: 17 October 2016)

‘No Russian’ (no date) Call of Duty Wiki. Available at: http://callofduty.wikia.com/wiki/No_Russian (Accessed: 17 October 2016)

No Russian (no date) [image]. Available at: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/callofduty/images/8/82/No_Russian_menu_image_MW2.png/revision/latest?cb=20130221215405 (Accessed 17 October 2016)

Model Raiden (no date) [image]. Available at: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/metalgear/images/9/9f/Model_Raiden.jpg/revision/latest/scale-to-width-down/180?cb=20091019140715 (Accessed 17 October 2016)

Tate (2006) Postmodernism. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/postmodernism (Accessed: 17 October 2016)

Featured Image:

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (no date) [image]. Available at: http://www.destructoid.com//ul/323446-/metal_gear_solid_2_sons_of_liberty-1920×1080.jpg (Accessed: 17 October 2016)