November 21, 2008

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

“What is the search for the next great compelling application but a search for the human identity?” – Douglas Coupland (”Microserfs”, 1995:15)


The headline that leapt out at us recently — “Virtual Cheating Ends In A Very Real Divorce” was, needless to say, very laughable.

We clutched out stomachs and howled at the ridiculousness of the story — a woman filed for divorce after she found out her husband had cheated on her with another woman in the online virtual community Second Life.

“I caught him cuddling a woman on a sofa in the game,” she told the press. “It looked really affectionate. He confessed he’d been talking to this woman player in America for one or two weeks, and said our marriage was over and he didn’t love me anymore.”

Then again, is this anything new? Many a woman have been offended by their mates enjoying porn.

So in the world of Web 2.0 we’ve gone beyond this to “virtual romance”, “virtual rape”, “virtual cheating” and, inevitably, the virtual creeps into the real.

Gone is the day of virtual reality as computer simulation

Once upon a time virtual reality referred to computer simulation and science fiction. Nowadays it’s literally everywhere.

Our culture is now utterly ensconced in computer-mediated communication; the number of institutions, enterprises and – most importantly – people, who do not have some form of ‘online presence’ is rapidly becoming smaller and smaller.

The value of communication as a tenet of humanity intensifies with technological interaction – one’s online persona is sustained and negotiated through interaction with others.

Netrape by Mr. Bungle in LambdaMOO

Some years ago in the relative earlies of chat rooms there was the infamous netrape by Mr. Bungle in LambdaMOO, via a voodoo doll subprogram that attributed actions to characters that their users did not actually write. The “ghostly sexual violence” committed by the “spidery flitting of fingers” across the keyboard had real-life effects because the rape “victims” felt violated.

But no player in the MOO expected or wanted real-life punitive measures: “he had committed a MOO crime, and his punishment, if any, would be meted out via the MOO.”

So Mr. Bungle was “toaded” i.e. electronically killed. But — of course — he ended up reincarnating himself by simply opening up a new Internet account. The rape was seen as a crime against the mind — yet significant because “in a MOO the body is the mind” and as another MOO user added, “all reality might consist of ideas, who knows?”

So here we come, back to virtual reality and real life and the woman who divorced her husband after virtual cheating in his imaginary online fantasy of Second Life.

Second life: A force to be reckoned with

Ridiculous, perhaps, but Second Life is a force to be reckoned with. Its “residents” often have a creative background and display their “real” art as well as create new “virtual” art. Professionals hold “virtual meetings”, countries have “virtual embassies”, real-world designers sell their “virtual designs” for avatars, lecturers and students communicate within their “virtual classrooms” and “live” music performances and political rallies take place in Second Life.

Users spend real money and make real profit (‘Linden’ money [L$] is sold at an exchange rate that fluctuates with the US$…….. something to think about as we slide further and further into recession!!!).

Going back to the parallel between the real and the virtual again, let’s have a look at the Megan Meier MySpace suicide and the YouTube LonelyGirl15.

Megan Meier: virtual hoax leads to real-life teen suicide

Megan Meier – two teenage girls have a falling out and one of their moms invents a 16-year-old boy on MySpace who lures 13-yr-old Megan into a false sense of security and love and then turned on her, posting online bulletins saying “Megan is a slut” and “Megan is fat”. He said she was a bad person and the world would be better off without her.

She then proceeded to kill herself. In the very real sense.

Lonelygirl15: real human emotion for virtual fabrication

YouTube’s Lonelygirl15 was presented as a “real” teenage video-blogger until fans outed her as an actress. Some fans were angry because they had gotten so emotionally involved in her problems with her parents’ religious cult and so on. Most of them kept tuning in. The farce won “webby awards”.

And so the all-consuming vortex of consumer culture swallowed the hoax and incorporated her into entertainment.

And so the virtual creeps into the real.

So back to the prefaced quote — what is real anymore, and what is virtual? Are we truly LESS ourselves behind the mask or MORE ourselves behind the mask?

Who am we?

Technology has constantly been moving towards the goal of mapping human identity.

Identity isn’t about unity anymore but about multiplicity. As Sherry Turkle says: “Who am we?”

So who did the woman divorce? Her real-life husband or the one in Second Life? Or both of them?

She’d married him online as well, before she even married him in real. So which one did she marry? Ah, now THERE’S the real question.

‘All reality might consist of ideas… who knows?’

…Why do we want a “second” life — whatever was wrong with the first??

…How much of ourselves do we lose to the flickering screen?

…How much of ourselves gets lost in cyberspace?

So vive le virtual — haven’t we been doing so already… for a longer time than we may ever admit?


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