Here on Terraform, we're going to occasionally present work that doesn't hew to the usual narrative constraints of short fiction. We're doing it because a) it's interesting, and b) reality is more complex, and more braided with simultaneous narratives than ever before. Both the parameters and responsibilities of fiction are expanding to reflect our world.
The Hollow of the Valley is a piece of interactive speculative fiction created by the artist Nicholas O'Brien. This browser-based work imagines the origin story of the Customer Relations Software company salesforce.com as a point-and-click text adventure; in a digital room where memory, personal history, fiction, and the cryptic language of contemporary startups collide, O'Brien has created a fictional mythology for the notion of "software as a service." The piece will soon live on NewHive, a multimedia publishing platform for digital artists, but we have it as an exclusive here today. Get clicky and explore the work—when the cursor turns into a '?' there is an interactive element. For context, read our interview with O'Brien below.
— The Editors
Terraform: It's interesting that you frame this work as speculative fiction. In our line of work, speculations are necessarily forward-thinking, but yours is an imagined history. Why create a fictional narrative for the past?
Nicholas O'Brien: I think speculation can come after the fact. I agree that the genre usually considers the future, or the emerging, or the "becoming" of something yet to be. In some ways, though, this project is doing the same thing. The eventuality that I'm speculating on has not quite fully manifested—namely that the language of innovation and Silicon Valley will usurp, consume, and obliterate the way we describe our surroundings. In that way, the past events of this narrative are still unfolding. By looking back and thinking about the origins of this one specific company, I'm speculating how their influence will unfold over time. The speculation part comes in when we think about how the events of the recent past are shaping our today and tomorrow.
What's your interest in the cryptic language of Salesforce? What do you think corporate language conceals?
I think that the cryptic quality of the language is specific, intentional, and codified. Reading some of the literature that comes from organizations like Salesforce often reads like concrete poetry: the repetition, the limited vocabulary, the stark impersonal tone. All of this combines in such a way to make me question my own associations to the words that are being used to describe things that normally I wouldn't have trouble understanding. However, because of the way that the language is being used, I end up feeling both alienated by the products and their vernacular.
At first I was deeply disturbed by this, but now I'm kind of fascinated by it because it is so powerful. To think that anyone could fundamentally undermine my experience with certain words deserves closer examination.
Silicon Valley histories are a genre of their own. Stories of garage startups and instant millionaires form a mythos that compels further entrepreneurship. How does this work fit into that mythos?
I like to think of this work being a dark mirror to the mythos of Silicon Valley. A lot of the "success stories" that come out of startup culture are versions of propaganda for an emergent non-territorial sovereign force fueled by venture capital. The mythos is powerful, jarring, enticing, and manipulative. I wanted to undermine all of that; to make something that was weak, soft, off-putting, and open. I wanted to take the aggressiveness and self-congratulatory false-heroics of the traditional Silicon Valley narrative and flip it around. It's a kind of judo, to use the force of an attacker against himself.
In some ways, the work is attempting not just to undermine the mythology of these tech-institutions, but also to undermine the ways in which these narratives have infiltrated and influenced the rhetoric of cultural production. So much of the language of Silicon Valley has been adopted within the arts, especially within newmedia, netart, and post-internet circles. As a result that language has really shifted the way people are thinking about arts funding, cultural production, and sustainable community building. Since I was feeling I couldn't avoid using the language and that mythos of Silicon Valley, I thought I'd overuse it to a point of oblivion.
Just as "In The Hollow of the Valley" presents an alternate mythology, it also presents a developed vision of interactive fiction's possibilities. What are the challenges and benefits of telling a story through this hybrid text-adventure game medium, and why did you choose this medium?
I wanted to make something unlike a lot of stuff that I had previously seen on the NewHive. We discussed the possibility of developing a game on NewHive, and I remarked how the system of pages and collections reminded me of Hypercard for the Apple II. I liked the idea of trying to use the aesthetic and functionality of hypercard interactive narratives for this work.
When researching early interactive narratives, I started thinking about how those games and programs were like proto-point-and-click adventures. I've always been inspired by the point-and-click genre, and fondly remember playing Lucas Arts titles like The Dig and the Sherlock Holmes games with my older brother growing up. The way that those games make you explore space by forcing you to slow down and experience a single image or perspective was so unique. I wanted to do the same with this work. Instead of scrolling through a bunch of images and sounds quickly, I wanted a viewer to linger on each individual page for a moment and to discover the narrative through slow investigation.
One of the challenges in making a hyperlinked, web-based work is that I can't guide the viewer in any specific direction. I hope that visitors will explore instead of skim, but that's a risk I'm willing to take because it usually results in a higher reward than just playing it safe or hand-holding the viewer all the way through an experience. In some ways, speeding through and not getting into the narrative is a metaphor in and of itself for the immediacy of CRM software: all action, little self-reflection.
You refer to yourself as a researcher—how did the research process play into this work, and how many of its details are drawn from your research?
I like the term "researcher" because it frees me up to be many different types of things under one unified banner. It lets me play at the borders of different cultural disciplines: art and technology, literature and games, computer graphics and computer programming, history and linguistics.
Research is always an integral part of my process, and for this project it didn't start with salesforce.com. Initially I wanted to make a work more personal of more self-critical about my own experience and rejection of the language used within the arts that borrows from Venture Capital and Silicon Valley rhetoric. I started searching and cataloging terms or instances of language that triggered that sense of alienation that I discussed above. It wasn't until I came upon an article about the boom of CRM and SAAS companies that I started to narrow my focus. Initially I had never even heard of Customer Relationship Management, but the term stuck out in my mind as an exemplary instance of the kind of codified language of corporate culture. At first, I couldn't even wrap my head around what appeared to me to be a self-contradiction: an automated impersonal management process to treat individual customers like data, but to call this process as some kind of deeply integrated way of understanding a company's relationship to its users. Again, I felt confronted with new definitions and understanding of "customer" "relationship" and "management."
The flatness of this work is really compelling—there is such a fetish for VR and hyperreality these days, and "In the Hollow of the Valley" is quite the opposite. Does this emerge from nostalgia, a contrarian attitude about realism, or something else entirely?
I think we move a bit too quickly through the world, particularly in online and digital contexts. I think Silicon Valley fuels that sense of urgency; I wanted to throttle back the pace of how we experience technology from a visual and literary standpoint. I think the kind of immersion that hyperreality and VR offer is not one that I was hoping for in the future. I want to explore this world deeper, not get projected into another as an escape. In rare instances, hyperreality can do both: illuminate where we are physically while transporting us elsewhere.
I wouldn't say that the aesthetics of the piece are wholly coming from nostalgia, but there is definitely an element of "looking back in order to look ahead." I think Bruce Sterling said something like, "Any good futurist will look 50 years into the past in order to project 50 years into the future." The use of hypercard dithering, point-and-click adventures, and linguistic tactics honed by authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet are all based on a desire to adapt what proved powerful in the past and to find contemporary value in a current sea of disassociation.
I like that you've noted the simplicity and smallness of this work because I think in some ways that's what I'm trying to do with my work online. Instead of screaming for a reader's attention and throwing elbows to compete with the loudest voices in the room, I want to whisper in his/her ear, inviting them to have a quiet moment of thoughtful engagement.