Friday, June 9, 2017

On that one brilliant episode of Murder She Wrote that thinks VR is kind of bullshit

Murder She Wrote was a long running TV show about an elderly mystery novelist (played by Dame Angela Lansbury) who happens to solve all these murders wherever she goes. Like other long-running TV shows on CBS about older women having adventures, it was popular mostly with grandmothers and gay men -- which is why it's so surprising (or maybe unsurprising?) that it also had one of the most accurate on-point less-rosy depictions of 1990s VR on television.

If you want to know more about the episode "A Virtual Murder" (S10 E05), read Laura Hudson's full write-up for Wired.

If you're in a hurry, here's a brief synopsis, along with my short analysis... but first, please enjoy this GIF of someone (spoiler) shooting a guy in a VR headset:

Synopsis: Lansbury's character is the narrative designer on a new VR game, but the Silicon Valley VR startup is having some trouble -- they need to finish a build to appease their investors. When their creepy lead developer gets murdered and his source code is stolen (some really bad version control practices here) it is up to Lansbury to figure out who did it. She comes up with a plan to hack the VR simulation to trick the killer into revealing herself... and it turns out that the murderer did it because she was jealous of the dude's devotion to VR instead of her, and the missing source code was just a red herring to divert suspicion.

Let's back up and unpack some of the stuff going on in the episode:

First, Lansbury is a sort of proto-Janet-Murray figure who is fascinated by the expressive and narrative potential of virtual reality. While Murray ended up defining that perspective with her book Hamlet On The Holodeck, that book was published in 1997 and this episode aired in 1993. So instead, I'd argue that Lansbury's character might be modeled a bit after Brenda Laurel, who wrote Computers As Theater, first published in 1991. In that book, Laurel applies classic Aristotelian dramatic theory about well-structured plots and catharsis etc. to software engineering.

Lansbury's character faithfully follows Laurel's approach: whenever there's talk of bugs and glitches and viruses, she understands these phenomena as part of a cyber-theatrical aesthetic of VR and computers. Bugs aren't "real", they are social constructions argued into existence by users, and as such, bugs become tools if the user's needs change. With this methodology, she's the only character who understands how to user-model and test the killer's mind.

There's also surprisingly little fantasizing about VR in this episode. To depict VR in this episode, they don't do much CG, instead they just pixelate some FMV camera footage of real-life actors. VR, first and foremost, is depicted as a mimetic shadow of real-life human interaction that can be commodified as a business by Silicon Valley. I argue it's supposed to look a bit cheap because this show is a little skeptical about the ultimate promise of the technology. In the show, VR users look dorky and oblivious; the system is buggy and breaks several times; developers work on VR by sitting at terminals and typing on keyboards. This isn't exactly a futuristic or utopian vision of VR, instead this vision is grounded in present-day human interfaces and flaws. If VR reflects its creators, and its creators are flawed, then of course VR will be just as flawed?

Most TV depictions of VR of this era (namely Star Trek: The Next Generation, or even VR Troopers) focus on VR as a powerful technology that augments human potential. I think Murder She Wrote is one of the few shows that was interested yet skeptical, arguing VR could be a new narrative medium as well as a bullshit commercial entertainment product. We say that VR immerses humans, but maybe we have it the wrong way around: society immerses VR? Pretty insightful for 1993!