Worst Case Scenarios

The Fiction of the Internet

Marlena Corcoran

originally published in LEONARDO, Vol.30, No. 5, pp. 343-348, 1997
ABSTRACT: The narrative art project "Worst Case Scenarios" revives the techno-thematics of displacement in a series of stories in three languages on the Post Modern Culture MOO and the Web. The fictional endeavor of imagining the worst, and always failing, is embedded in the overarching cultural fantasy life of the Cold War and shows us the Internet itself as conceptual art of the nuclear era.

The worst is not
So long as we can say, "This is the worst."
-Shakespeare, King Lear

The creation of the Internet was not only a technological but also an imaginative feat. The conceptual structure of the Internet is an imaginative response to the threat of an annihilating catastrophe. The Internet itself can be considered a work of conceptual art embedded in a larger cultural fiction of nuclear apocalypse. And by playing out the Internet's basic structure-the displacement of data-as a strategy of both technical and narrative displacement, my project "Worst Case Scenarios" (WCS) provides one answer to the question: how does art help us deal with the unimaginable?

I chose the Internet as the medium for "Worst Case Scenarios" because the technical challenges and opportunities of the new medium, as well as the history of the Internet as the arena of catastrophic imagination, seemed to resonate well with my narratives. The Internet provides a tradition as well as a vehicle for the genre of worst case scenarios. Nuclear war was the not-quite-unimaginable disaster: in fact, the amount of imagination exercised in creating models of this catastrophe is remarkable. The section of this essay on nuclear narratives recreates the overarching cultural fantasy of this new concept of war, from civil defense rehearsals to television series to individual family dramas. The drama of the Net is best understood in the context of this flowering of one of the most highly articulated fantasies of an event that galvanized a nation-and never took place.

"Worst Case Scenarios" is the title of my series of short writings for the Internet. The title refers not to their subject but to their form. A worst case scenario is a particular form of imagining. It is practiced in the military, in business, and in private life. It is usually a communal activity. That is, a worst case scenario is usually elaborated in a small group, such as, God help us, a committee meeting. It begins with one person asking: "What's the worst that can happen?" The purpose of the exercise is usually to elaborate a group plan of action: what we will do if things go very, very wrong. If the question is asked between two friends, it is usually rhetorical.

One friend, sensing that the other is worried, asks, "What's the worst that can happen?" The worried friend articulates his or her fears, and the consoling companion says something like, "See, that's not so bad. You can deal with that, in the following manner."

This narrative genre is typically quite practical: it tells the story of what we will do in an emergency. In this, it is not unlike football drills, where the coach stands at the blackboard writing out semiotic code, and everyone practices what to do and when. The expectation is that the successfully executed plot will win the game-or even the war. The more private consolatory practice also highlights the enunciation itself: we get the story out into the open, and we plan our response. In both cases, we execute an elaborate formal deployment of-fear. In every worst case scenario worthy of the name, there really is something to fear. Only in cases of psychopathology do behavioral therapists role-play with their patients what to do in the event that the Chanel counter is completely out of Rouge noir.

In the case of nuclear war, the fear is of course that we will all die and the planet will be reduced to a cinder.

I had the idea to create a space on the Internet dedicated to working out worst case scenarios: writing them, reading them, trading them with other people, and thinking about this practice. It would be a place where worst case scenarios were an aesthetic practice, and a philosophical practice, and not only a practical practice. The scenarios I wanted to write would, through their form, bring out something about their own form, and about the activity of imagining and writing worst case scenarios. As it turns out, they engage my horror of the past as well as my fears about the future. They also bring out my feelings and my ideas about writing itself, that in writing, we "take arms against a sea of troubles"-for all the good it does to try and fence the ocean. For that is what I wanted to work through in "Worst Case Scenarios": some scenarios are truly beyond my ability to cope.

Nuclear Narratives

Take, for example, nuclear war. When I was a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s and '60s, we practiced for nuclear war. It was kind of a cross between general assembly and theater class. In school, the teacher would announce a nuclear war drill. All the children would file out dutifully into the corridor-no pushing, no running, very calm-and line up against the wall, as if waiting to be shot. Then we would crouch down and cover our tender necks with our hands. Alternatively-nuclear war lite-we would crawl under our desks and cover our eyes. (Imagine that there had indeed been a nuclear war.

Millennia later, archeologists wearing radioactive protection gear would unearth thousands of American schoolchildren, gone to their death in orderly rows, refusing to look at the mushroom cloud.)

Our other drill had to do with canned food. There was a continuum here with the previous war. During the years we were calculating how many cans of beans we would need to survive a nuclear attack, some of us were still helping our grandmothers pack up cartons of coffee, sugar, and warm clothing for our poorer cousins in rural Germany. My job was to hold my finger tight on the string while my grandmother tied the knot. I was very small. So it didn't seem unreasonable to me that in school we were asked to go home and discuss with our parents the need to stock the cellar with canned goods, in anticipation of the war to come.

My handsome father listened to his seven-year-old daughter outline the horrors of nuclear war and our personal plan for survival. He was 28. "Marlena," he said. "We live in New York City. The day they drop the bomb, you will go to meet your maker with your bean can in your hand."

I saw his point. From then on, I understood that in the event of a nuclear war, the worst case scenario is: you survive.

Nevertheless, I played along with the communal fantasies. Bomb shelters, after all, were child-sized theaters. And I was young enough that the thought of drinking water out of the toilet had a certain charm. My mother and father would have to play with me all day long-well, maybe my little sister would have to play, too. We would all play "nuclear war." We would follow the stage directions for sending out a probe to check the level of atmospheric radiation; this story coalesced in my mind with the story of the dove sent out from Noah's ark. The end of the world was near, glowing with angels and magical beasts. Maybe in the end the shelter door would be opened by Jesus, and we would all walk out onto a new earth, a new garden. We would all see God.

"Hope it happens fast," said my father.

The games continued. My favorite scenario is one I read about only years later: it was a plan to evacuate the citizens of New York in alphabetical order. I tried to imagine the details of the scenes on the bridges leading out of the city.

But of all the apocalyptic fantasies from the era of imagining the end of the world as we knew it, the scenario that continues to play the biggest role in my life is a certain strategy cooked up by the Department of Defense to keep the United States, as such, up and running, in the event of a nuclear war. It was called Arpanet.

The Drama of the Net

The history of Arpanet-the dates, the protocol, the demilitarization of Arpanet into Internet-is well documented elsewhere. What I would like to do here is point out that Arpanet was inscribed in a general and very powerful fiction about nuclear war. I sometimes think of it as "Nuke.net." The genre of this story-the genre "worst case scenario"-is what I am continuing in the writing project of the same name. My difference with, for example, Howard Rheingold in The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier [1] is that Rheingold thinks of the Net as a chance to reestablish the warm, fuzzy values of small-town community. I think it's about disaster. (And by the way, my scenario "Crossroads" lets you know what I think about small towns [2].)

Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet, consisted of a number of computers located around the country that communicated with one another. The advantage of a decentralized system of shared information was that, if one of the computers was bombed out, the others would carry on. Arpanet ensured, in theory, that the network as a whole would continue to maintain and transmit data in the face of local failure. When one computer went down, its information would immediately be supplied by another on the net.

The center of military and political power was thus everywhere and nowhere. The enemy would never find us. Arpanet was the virtual United States. It's worth noting that this landmark in virtual reality was not a three-dimensional graphic replica of an object existing in space, but the virtual realization of an idea: the United States. The United States is not something you can point to and say, well, our virtual replica should be-uh-three-sided-and green. It was more like conceptual art.

It did, however, bear an eerie resemblance to the particular functioning of our federal government: a kind of constant checking back and forth among the three branches of the federal government-legislative, judicial, and executive-and of the agreements among the member states, and between each state and the federal government. We spend an enormous amount of human energy constantly checking our political settings: got it, got it, got it, got it. Once in a while, one of the system components issues major new information; for example, election results, or an order to desegregate the schools. You can hear the wheels turn as the word goes around and every component of the system adjusts its settings: got it, got it. Channels of communication are extremely important in a big, rambling country with a lot of room for disagreement.

The new communications network fostered-communication. Perhaps because business was slow, waiting for the bomb, or perhaps because the inventors of Arpanet were, like most inventors, daydreamers, they started up conversations. The conversations were largely about-science fiction. Despite severe warnings from the Department of Defense about frivolous use of time, the scientists persisted in shooting the breeze on the Net. It would be interesting to know if these conversations were in any way archived. I doubt it, because they were probably deemed trivial as well as clandestine. But if you think about science fiction of the early 1960s, it was largely written in the style of-to pick the title of one of my favorite series-"Tom Swift, Space Cadet." It's hard to remember the days when "space cadet" was a term of pride, as it was for Tom, a student at Space Academy. It has become, in English, a pejorative term for someone living in a fantasy world.

It's also hard to recapture the enthusiasm with which Americans greeted the prospect that we would all wear the same self-cleaning jumpsuit, live on Tang (an instant orange-juice powder), and run around discovering new worlds. I think we were on drugs. Just to the right of this utopian vision, however, stood the threat of nuclear war-total annihilation. In fact, sometimes I wonder if what fueled the sexual revolution of the 1960s was the threat of war. Imminent departure is the greatest aphrodisiac-and here we were talking about the big good-bye.

The most successful science-fiction series of the period was of course on television: the original-and ever-popular-"Star Trek." It had the same basic serial structure: Brave young American men blast off to new worlds, mostly like ours, only maybe blue; populated by intelligent life, mostly like ours, only dressed funny; and featuring beautiful women, mostly like ours, only more accommodating. For the most part, it's thinly disguised Planet Earth. And the fact that our planet was in danger may not be unrelated to the high proportion of new worlds that seemed to be on the brink of extinction.

So at the larger level, the Net was driven by a worst case scenario, the scientific nightmare of nuclear war. It carried the data that directly concerned this rather fantasy-rich war itself, as well as data about thinly disguised science-fictional representations of more or less the same story. There was the story of the imaginary war; and the story of the story of the imaginary war. My point is that an awful lot of fiction was, it seems to me, mixed up with the science. Any sense of community it created was grounded in the specter of disaster.

Is There Anything Else?

My project "Worst Case Scenarios" continues the tradition of the Net as the vector of catastrophe. What I try to convey over and over in the stories is that, in the very act of imagining-and thus preparing for-the worst, we are trapped in our own folly. For there is always something worse, and it will come as a surprise. What is "worst" about a true worst case scenario is precisely that it was unimaginable. The stories of "Worst Case Scenarios" simultaneously celebrate our human efforts to cope with disaster and signal that whatever we just dealt with-wasn't it.

What's unimaginable to me may be perfectly obvious to somebody else. One way to find out is to ask-a lesson I learned from the following scenario.

Back in those halcyon days of righteous space cadets, a couple of my boy cousins and I accidentally set off a small conflagration in the woods. We only meant to set off a few firecrackers. Unfortunately, a small world went up in smoke. With the fire engines screaming in the background, Uncle Harry grabbed us, shouting, "Did you kids set the woods on fire?"

"No," I said. "I didn't." Technically, I had only set off firecrackers. Behind Harry I could see the look of frank admiration on the faces of the boys. I'm sure none of them has trusted a girl since.

Suddenly Eugene bolted. He was the youngest, and he never could keep from blurting out what we had done. "I didn't do it!" he screamed, locking himself in the bathroom. I remember the sound of Uncle Harry battering down the door. Eugene is now a police officer whose special gift is to make other people confess. His technique is considerably more subtle than his father's. Eugene simply asks: "Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?"

Several years ago a police car pulled over a pickup truck because its back lights were out. While they were at it, one of the cops asked, "What's that you've got there in the truck?

"That?" asked the driver. "That's a dead body." He'd been on the way to bury it out by the airport.

The man was brought in for questioning. He confirmed that he had killed the woman in the truck after having sex with her; in his mind, she deserved it. I can imagine my cousin wondering: what is this guy not telling us? Eugene asked him the question, later reported by the New York Times: "Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?"

Yes. He'd killed 17 other women.

There's Always Death

The spector of death pervades many of the scenarios I have written for the Internet. Death is the touchstone of human thinking about catastrophe, whether it be the choreographed catastrophe of war, the social disruption of murder or suicide, or private grief over the deaths of those near to us.

Many wise people, however, have assured us that death is not the worst case scenario. Platonic philosophy and Christian doctrine urge us to practice for death. Human beings exercise extraordinary imaginative power in creating visions of life beyond death. Several of the "Worst Case Scenarios" celebrate the power of art to create a fiction we hold to be realer than real, more convincing than ashes. "The Real Susan" ends with a 20th century art form, a photograph, posted on a coffin.

"Crossroads" traces the geometry of loneliness on the grid of aging networks of communication. At the intersection of an outdated transcontinental highway and an old railway line, a woman lies awake in the dark. The Doppler effect of the trucks passing creates a bell curve of loneliness that peaks at her front door. It's bad now but would be worse if she were buried, as suicides once were, at the crossroads.

In "Maddy's Studio", a visitor notices that the settings have been changed. The artwork, the bed, and the love lines in the story have been reconfigured. What is it about the hidden sculpture, or about Maddy and Cy, that caused Michael to leave? Is Maddy starving herself? Perhaps it would be better not to know, but I hope readers will stay tuned as the story develops.

The displacement of identity is portrayed from two sides in the scenario "Somebody Else." Identities fade like smoke into and out of the bodies of two friends, an amnesiac and a clairvoyant. The amnesiac doesn't know who anyone is, including himself: Lou talks about the Lou that other people talk about. The clairvoyant knows, and doesn't care. She knows that not knowing is not the worst case scenario; she waits for Lou to remember that he's someone who wishes he were dead.


"Worst Case Scenarios" originated on the Post Modern Culture (PMC) MOO, a strictly textual online world, which suits the narrative focus of the project [3]. My PMC character, stay, resides in a room called Space Staytion. (The y is stay's signature.) One of the rooms within Space Staytion is Worst Cayse Scenarios (see Fig. 2). In that room are two book objects, Worst Case Scenarios and Guestbook, each with directions for use [4]. The first book is a collection of my own scenarios, complete with a table of contents that invites readers to choose among the stories. The second is Guestbook, in which visitors to the room are invited to post comments or their own scenarios. The books thus establish a kind of offbeat conversation: I tell my stories, other people tell theirs. Who knows, perhaps we are all telling the same story over and over again.

A MOO is a fairly low-tech angle on the Internet, requiring only a telnet connection. And yet the MOO users, at least on PMC, tend to get involved in the nuts and bolts of programming, unlike Web surfers, most of whom prefer that what-you-see-is-what-you-get-and what you get had better be in full, blinking color. On a technical as well a thematic level, "Worst Case Scenarios" values what's missing, displaced, even downright dysfunctional. This accords well with the MOO, sometimes called the permanent beta version of the Internet. No one ever drops by Space Staytion to congratulate me on some outstandingly successful bit of code. Failure, on the other hand, attracts MOO programmers like flies. Failure is a challenge.

My very first such encounter had to do with the basic construction of Space Staytion, which I wanted to extend to make space for Worst Cayse Scenarios. "What are you trying to do?" paged a certain reclusive and competent MOO programmer. He had checked my construction code and discovered I had just created six exits to nowhere. While we agreed that exits to nowhere have a certain conceptual charm, they were eating up the quota I needed for the new room itself.

The potential for this kind of immediate and significant interaction makes the MOO a more congenially creative modality than the Web. The Web's bright colors mask an essential loneliness as well as a seeming perfection. PMC MOO was a better first home for a narrative project whose focus is on work in progress, and the process of writing, rather than the final billboard product.

WCS: The Web

The Web version of Worst Case Scenarios lacks the MOO version's textual room and Guestbook. Most importantly, the Web lacks the immediate interactive presence of other minds. It does, however, offer a larger audience, color, and the opportunity to experiment with a different disposition of information [5]. On the MOO, multiple users can be connected at the same time to the same server; the server is the anchor while the users change. On the Web, one user can move from server to server; the user is the anchor while the servers change. Of course, in both cases multiple servers and multiple users are involved, but the point is that users experience the anchoring point differently on the MOO than on the Web.

The claim of the Web to be World Wide is vitiated by the overwhelming preponderance of texts in the English language. "Worst Case Scenarios" attempts to realize the World in the Web. By clicking on appropriate icons, users can choose among English, French, and German versions of the text. The English version is housed on an American server, while the French and German versions reside on servers in France and Germany, respectively [6].

Locating the English, French, and German versions of the site on servers in countries where those languages are spoken makes it more likely that readers will come across Worst Case Scenarios in their native language. Additionally, it normally takes less time to access a site in one's own country. In dispersing the project on different servers, however, my reasons were not primarily practical.


The deployment of "Worst Case Scenarios" over three languages, servers, and countries is designed to stress once again the role of displacement. The displacement of data is important within the stories themselves, and it also functions in the multiple versions and locations of the site. The design of "Worst Case Scenarios" thereby replicates the overarching structure of the Net itself. The Internet, as we know, was originally a response to the threat of nuclear war. One computer after another might go down, but the system as such would continue to function through a peculiar new technique: the displacement of data. While this may have been a novel technique in the field of engineering, it was already well known in the field of psychoanalysis.

The Internet might be considered an almost Freudian case of imaginative displacement. Imaginative work-both artistic and technical-serves as the dreamwork for a culture. During the Cold War, the Internet helped us play fort-da with the fear of a nuclear catastrophe. Babies may throw their toys away to work out their fascination with and fear of abandonment; adults tend to throw stories around for much the same purpose. In experimenting with conceptual displacement, "Worst Case Scenarios" exploits the Net as a vector of catastrophe. And just in case there's a nuclear war, these fictions will continue to circulate.

References and Notes

1. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994).

2. "Crossroads" was the starter link in the developing hypertext of blast5drama, a multimedia project of the X-Art Foundation that was performed and exhibited on the Internet and at the Sandra Gering Gallery in New York from 22 November 1996 to 4 January 1997. It is on the Web at http:// www.interport.net/~xaf/drama.html.

3. The Post Modern Culture MOO can be reached by telnet to hero.village.virginia.edu 7777. To read the "Worst Case Scenarios," type "connect guest" at the login screen and then "@go wcs". An informed overview of the functioning of MOOs and their potential as a new form of theater is found in Antoinette LaFarge, "A World Exhilarating and Wrong: Theatrical Improvisation on the Internet," Leonardo 28, No. 5, 415422 (1995).

4. For help with programming the book objects, I would like to thank PMC characters Green_Candle, aluminum, dome, and coolie.

5. "Worst Case Scenarios" is on the Web at http://www.kulturserver.de/home/corcoran/. I am grateful to Heather Wagner for designing the background image for the Web site; and to John Brogan and Second Look of the University of Iowa for expert technical assistance.

6. Paul Mathias and Jean-Michel Rabaté translated WCS into French, and Günter Zöller translated WCS into German. I am extremely grateful for their exceptionally fine work, which was unhampered by my suggestions. I am also grateful to the systems operators of the server of the social science unit of the École normale supérieure in Paris, France, and the server of the European City project in Dortmund, Germany. Anyone who is interested in offering additional translations and/or server space is encouraged to contact me.

Marlena Corcoran is a writer and narrative artist. She was an editor of blast5drama, and she is a member of the Plaintext Players, an online theater group that performed in 1997 for the Venice Biennale and documenta X.