17776: Native Internet Art

At the beginning of this month, the U.S. sports website SBnation.com surprised its readers with an unexpected meditation on the game of (American) football. A piece titled ‘17776: What Football Will Look Like In The Future’ was posted to the site, alongside the usual results and recaps of recent baseball and basketball games. But when curious readers clicked on the headline, they were transported fifteen thousand years into the future, and billions of miles into deep space. Over the following weeks, new chapters to the story drew readers into writer Jon Bois’s appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

The characters in the world are very old, possibly immortal. They use their new-found longevity to play and watch long and complex games, usually based around what we 21st century denizens recognise as gridiron football. Several far-future nationwide football games are described, all with a lineage that can be traced back to those we watch today. But all the games a far more extreme and heightened, having evolved over millennia. Just as, with biological evolution, the essential components of a given animal order, family or genus are revealed as they become more pronounced, so those aspects American football that are at the core of the sport are revealed when the future-humans iterate it to a ridiculous degree.

Football's different things to different people. | see this kind of football, the open-world kind, as its end state. The old grid football, the hundred- yard kind, was basically just training wheels. The game was always all about the field, of course. The ground, the Earth. And it was kind of like,
A monologue by Ten, one of the extra-terrestrials
As well as the idea of play, Bois invites us to revel in the vastness and complexity of our planet, and the unique history of each patch of earth. In one particular sequence, I thought of the art of the Boyle Family, who pick random points on the globe and precisely reproduce the square metre of ground that they find there.
World Series
Two panels from the Boyle Family’s ‘World Series’ depicting studies of The Hague (left) and the Central Australian Desert. Installed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2003
I wonder if there's a single place in the whole world that's never had a story. I bet not. I just about guarantee you there's no places like that in America. Every little square of it, every place you stomp your foot, that's where something happened. Something wild, maybe something nobody knows about, but something. You can fall out of the sky and right into some forgotten storybook.    -- recognized by
Another of Ten’s monologues
 
The format goes beyond what one might expect from a piece of online writing. It’s a collision of YouTube video animation, chat room text, and Google Earth renderings. One thought I had after reading a couple of chapters was that it should not be surprising that the format is surprising. Modern technology offers countless ways to render a narrative, and all Bois has done is to take a fairly well established format—a chat room script—and illustrate it with animations from a common online tool. It is not particularly radical, but the way we publish online (both the format of digital content, and it’s graphic design) has become so formulaic that even small and obvious departures from the norm suddenly feel innovative. In a Q&A, the author himself puts it very well:

I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.

On Facebook, a friend of mine writes:

it is such a brilliant piece of work, creative and touching and imaginative and smart, and it could only work here, in this medium. Is there anything else like that? I’m not sure.

There are precedents. First, in the Q&A, Bois cites Calvin and Hobbes as an influence on his writing. And there are moments in 17776 that feel exactly like Bill Watterson’s comic strip. In particular, the way in which the three narrators revel in the beauty of (in turn) the Earth, human endeavour and the game of American football, could easily be something Calvin comes out with on one of his meditative sledge rides.

Calvin and Hobbes, 9 November 1987. Bill Watterson

I think a better comparison than Calvin and Hobbes is with the xkcd web comic. If Jon Bois is not a fan of Randall Munroe’s twice-weekly panels, I’d be astonished. xkcd characters often manifest the same geeky wonder at creation that Ten, Juice and finally Nine profess in 17776.

But there is more: xkcd also regularly experiments with form too: 1446: ‘Landing’ and 1190: ‘Time’ are long form animation; while 1110: ‘Click and Drag’ is a 10 gigapixel image. 1416: ‘Pixels’ plays with the idea of fractals in order to sell us a book.

From the stories, I expected the world to be sad...
The first three panels from xkcd ‘Click and Drag’.

When ‘Click and Drag’ was first published, I wrote:

This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare. While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online. The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.

We can call 17776 ‘native’ internet art too, I think. The combination of text, GIFs and video only really work when read in a browser. I suppose it could be translated into a single YouTube video but that would be an act of adaptation, just as the ‘whole world’ images that xkcd fans have created of comic 1110 are an adaptation (and a spoiler) for the online version.

Projects like 17776 remind us that while the game of football may be old, the Internet is still a very new medium. It’s a delight to live in this moment of innovation, and to watch artists experiment within it.

I regret not being more experimental myself.