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-If you get it; good for you. Get hold of the book and enjoy
Schizophrenia as Commodity Fetish
Let us begin with a person I will call Julie, on a computer conference in New York in 1985. Julie was a totally disabled older woman, but she could push the keys of a computer with her headstick. The personality she projected into the “net”–the vast electronic web that links computers allover the world–was huge. On the net, Julie’s disability was invisible and irrelevant. Her standard greeting was a big, expansive “HI!!!!!!”. Her heart was as big as her greeting, and in the intimate electronic companionships that can develop during on-line conferencing between people who may never physically meet, Julie’s women friends shared their deepest troubles, and she offered them advice–advice that changed their lives. Trapped inside her ruined body, Julie herself was sharp and perceptive, thoughtful and caring.
After several years, something happened that shook the conference to the core. “Julie” did not exist. “She” was, it turned out, a middle-aged male psychiatrist. Logging onto the conference for the first time, this man had accidentally begun a discussion with a woman who mistook him for another woman. “I was stunned,” he said later, “at the conversational mode. I hadn’t known that women talked among themselves that way. There was so much more vulnerability, so much more depth and complexity. Men’s conversations on the nets were much more guarded and superficial, even among intimates. It was fascinating, and I wanted more.” He had spent weeks developing the right persona. A totally disabled, single older woman was perfect. He felt that such a person wouldn’t be expected to have a social life. Consequently her existence only as a net persona would seem natural. It worked for years, until one of Julie’s devoted admirers, bent on finally meeting her in person, tracked her down.
The news reverberated through the net. Reactions varied from humorous resignation to blind rage. Most deeply affected were the women who had shared their innermost feelings with Julie. “I felt raped, “ one said. “I felt that my deepest secrets had been violated.” Several went so far as to repudiate the genuine gains they had made in their personal and emotional lives. They felt those gains were predicated on deceit and trickery.
The computer engineers, the people who wrote the programs by means of which the nets exist, just smiled tiredly. They had understood from the beginning the radical changes in social conventions that the nets implied. Young enough in the first days of the net to react and adjust quickly, they had long ago taken for granted that many of the old assumptions about the nature of identity had quietly vanished under the new electronic dispensation. Electronic networks in their myriad kinds, and the mode of interpersonal interaction that they foster, are a new manifestation of a social space that has been better known in its older and more familiar forms in conference calls, communities of letters, and FDR’s fireside chats. It can be characterized as “virtual” space–an imaginary locus of interaction created by communal agreement. In its most recent form, concepts like distance, inside/outside, and even the physical body take on new and frequently disturbing meanings.
Now, one of the more interesting aspects of virtual space is “computer crossdressing.” Julie was an early manifestation. On the nets, where warranting or grounding, a persona in a physical body, is meaningless, men routinely use female personae whenever they choose, and vice versa. This wholesale appropriation of the other has spawned new modes of interaction. Ethics, trust, and risk still continue, but in different ways. Gendered modes of communication themselves have remained relatively stable, but who uses which of the two socially recognized modes has become more plastic. A woman who has appropriated a male conversational style may be simply assumed to be male at that place and time, so that her/his on-line persona takes on a kind of quasi life of its own, separate from the person’s embodied life in the “real” world.
Sometimes a person’s on-line persona becomes so finely developed that it begins to take over their life off the net. In studying virtual systems, I will call both the space of interaction that is the net and the space of interaction that we call the “real” world consensus loci. Each consensual locus has its own “reality,” determined by local conditions. However, not all realities are equal. A whack on the head in the “real” world can kill you, whereas a whack in one of the virtual worlds will not (although a legal issue currently being debated by futurist attorneys is what liability the whacker has if the fright caused by a virtual whack gives the whackee a “real” heart attack).
Some conferences talk of a time when they will be able to abandon warranting personae in even more complex ways, when the first “virtual reality” environments come on line. VR, one of a class of interactive spaces that are coming to be known by the general term cyberspace, is a three- dimensional consensual locus or, in the terms of science fiction author William Gibson, a “consensual hallucination” in which data may be visualized, heard, and even felt. The “data” in some of these virtual environments are people–3-D representations of individuals in the cyberspace. While high-resolution images of the human body in cyberspace are years away, when they arrive they will take “computer crossdressing” even further. In this version of VR a man may be seen, and perhaps touched, as a woman and vice versa–or as anything else. There is talk of renting prepackaged body forms complete with voice and touch . . . multiple personality as commodity fetish!
It is interesting that at just about the time the last of the untouched “real-world” anthropological field sites are disappearing, a new and unexpected kind of “field” is opening up–incontrovertibly social spaces in which people still meet face-to-face, but under new definitions of both “meet” and “face.” These new spaces instantiate the collapse of the boundaries between the social and technological, biology and machine, natural and artificial that are part of the postmodern imaginary. They are part of the growing imbrication of humans and machines in new social forms that I call virtual systems.
from the book,
Cyberspace First Steps by Michael Benedikt