During a conversation around the Repository water-cooler it comes to our attention that M.U.L.E., a 1983 computer game incorporating both strategy and dynamic simulations of basic economics, could have a bearing on what is transpiring. It is felt that it is surely unwise not to engage with such references, no matter how speculative.
Taking its cue from a Robert Heinlein science-fiction story and the Old West adage whereby fortunes are to be founded on nothing but a ‘mule and forty acres’, M.U.L.E. sees four colonists landing on Irata, a barren alien planet, which they must ‘settle’ within twelve months. This quartet of pioneers are alone, without recourse to an overseeing government or any external authority. Each player utilises robotic entities known as M.U.L.E.s – an acronym which stands for Multiple Use Labor Element – outfitting them with specialised programs according to the tasks they must undertake. These range from working the land to harvest food, develop electricity or extract ‘Smithore’, a mineral used to make more M.U.L.E.s. All such commodities are essential to sustaining life on the colony.
Even though the long-term goal of upholding the colony is framed by financial reward, broadly prosperous cooperative strategies soon give way to short-term, greed-driven policies of hoarding stocks, withdrawing from the community into isolated self-sufficiency, or indeed colluding with fellow players to manipulate the market for personal advantage. Such self-serving dynamics, which are encouraged by the structure of the game through the ability to conduct private transactions, are made even more complex in advanced levels with the introduction of a rare commodity known as Crystite.
Still it seems that what is of interest here is the presence and role of the M.U.L.E., its relation to production through cooperative and collaborative action. In the game’s instruction manual, the programmers state that “M.U.L.E.s are robots (…) designed for exploring alien worlds” and that “in this game,” they are to be used as “mini-production facilities.” What is also made clear is that M.U.L.E.s are unstable and unreliable – their development has been compromised to such an extent that inconsistencies and surprises become their dominant characteristics: “It was the unexpected stuff, however, that made a M.U.L.E. a M.U.L.E.” The M.U.L.E.’s development is described as being a collaboration (unexpected and, to some extent, indefinable) between a defence contractor, a restaurant supply firm, a maker of pre-school furniture and the manufacturer of toasters. The resulting Labor Element is therefore a hodgepodge entity, an amalgam. The M.U.L.E. is an absurd multiple hybrid that brings a range of facilities to bear on a series of tasks that it is simultaneously over- and under-qualified to undertake. The ability of M.U.L.E.s to intercept signals in deep space, to perform mundane tasks not part of its standard remit, in addition to the jobs it was designed for (the robots still settle the planet after all), is disrupted by their capacity, if treated carelessly, to “go berserk and run away”. There is an undercurrent of volatility in the M.U.L.E. and it is from this that the seed of recognition comes through.
Our thoughts immediately turn to the Multiple Use Labor Element, as if it might in fact describe something of the interactions already installed and in play as a kind of operating procedure within the Repository. We have acknowledged our engagement in a outsourcing of the writing task, having already put in place a distribution of labour (that is also a form of unpredictable multiplication) in relation to the practice of writing, specifically in relation to the image. But what is this? The water cooler roars some kind of disapproval. Is this to hope for some kind of simple-minded metaphor to relate principles of supply and demand in terms of visuality and text? the desire to locate and exploit nuances of competition and cooperation under the skin of the Müle? Is any of this worthy of sustained attention? Do we think of our Müleskinders as Work Units or does that theoretical image describe something of the relations of force that this whole project is bringing to bear on the lumbering idea of what Müleskind is, what it might become?
There is a place for acronyms. There is also a time for tipping over the tired process – actively re-writing it. At that moment, as it tips, it resembles an ear-less Zombie Müle lurching its way across the screen, waiting to flip:
Multiple User Labor Element [Supplementary Knowledge Is Not Designated]