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Final Paper: The Virtual Self

Gender and Technology Final Paper: The Virtual Self

by Hong Lin

Americans in particular are known for placing great value on individuality.  Words and phrases like “independent”, “free-thinker”, “true to oneself” and “unique” have been ingrained into our consciousness since grade-school as something to strive for and live by, but seldom do the same inspirational speakers attempt to draw the line between where “the self” ends and “the other” begins.  So, what is the self?  Is it the large and heavy bundle of cells contained within one’s outermost layer of skin?  Does it include one’s clothes and possessions?  Since human beings are such social and intellectual creatures, it seems overly simplistic to give such material restrictions to the definition of “self”, especially when so much of what happens within our bodies are beyond our comprehension or control.  Is it, then, one’s thoughts and actions?  But how much of our thinking is really our own?  To what degree are we products of our environment, and to what extent do we influence the people around us?

This is a philosophical question that has plagued the human consciousness for thousands of years.  Spiritual leaders of Eastern religions claim that the self is only an illusion, and urge practitioners to live in awareness by seeking “Enlightenment”.  Aristotle writes that the soul is the essence of one’s being, but that it doesn’t exist in and of itself.  Several authors of the Bible claim “divine inspiration”, a miraculous state in which they were not creating something of their own so much as allowing a higher power to speak through them.  A lot of this kind of thinking takes place during periods of renaissance, marked by renovation, spirituality, and oftentimes, great technological change.  With the rise of Internet communities, there is now a worldwide network of unprecedented proportions, and we are invited once again to participate in the ongoing conversation of who we “really” are.  The globe has never seemed so small, or so large.  We find ourselves both intimately connected to one another, and also deeply alienated.  In social and political arenas, the Internet seems to be a double-edged sword.  For some, it is a powerful medium through which opinions are broadcasted and participation in political debates is encouraged; for others, it only feeds into an attitude of apathy and escapism.  For every gay activist using the Internet as a tool for political networking, there’s a kid that draws comfort from his secret online friend-circle and decides to remain in the closet for just awhile longer.  For every user looking to broaden his horizons and enrich his life, there’s another losing himself in a fantasy.  Of course, the definition of where fantasy ends and reality begins is another question altogether.

In our Gender and Technology class, we have often discussed the idea of “passing”, where the individual does not necessarily stay true to any particular “identity”, but instead, drifts between different states of being, or even purposefully presents themselves as something they are not.  Throughout the semester, we have looked at many traditional boundaries separating one identity from another, but in the end, none of them could really be defined.  We all seemed to be aware of certain stereotypes pertaining to factors such as gender, race, sexuality and even humanness, and yet we were never able to pinpoint the “quintessential woman”, or the “absolutely normal Bryn Mawr student”.  In our inconclusiveness, we have, in a way, concluded that it may not be entirely possible to be true to any particular identity.  Rather, we tentatively gravitate toward certain “affinities” or shared interests rather than a label that’s set in stone.  One could make the argument that being involved in a virtual reality is a form of passing – then again, if traditional identities are so hard to define, I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything that doesn’t somehow qualify as passing.

What’s perhaps the most unique and novel thing about representing ourselves over the Internet is the sheer amount of anonymity we are afforded.  Unlike the sort of face-to-face interaction that has defined human socialization for millenia, when we meet someone online, there is no physical feature assigned to a person’s words and personality.  The traditional question of “identity” becomes nearly obsolete.  An online friend may claim to be a sixteen year old girl from Massachusetts, but the text that appears on one’s screen may very well have been sent by a fifty year old man from South Africa.  Similarly, we ourselves have the freedom to claim whatever identity strikes our fancy.  Naive children notwithstanding, every person goes into a new online relationship with this understanding in mind.  One is afforded a huge amount of privacy, but the cost of that is: one could never be entirely sure of the honesty of their online affiliates, and more often than not, they take offense when one tries to pry.  We seem to have accepted the element of “passing” as an inevitability, and adopted the basic trust that somewhere within the passing would be a tendril of truth.

A notable extension of this state of maybe-passing is the avatar.  Many online communities such as discussion forums and the ever-popular MMOs allow participants to create a pixellated figure of their choosing with which they use to interact with others.  Sometimes, this avatar turns out, at least visually, to be a miniature version of the player behind it.  Other times, they seem to have no physical traits in common.  As we have seen in class, the reaction of different players toward these avatars are as varied as the avatars themselves.  There are some who are uncomfortable with being immersed in such an environment, and others who feel liberated.  Some strive to find a virtual world as life-like as possible.  Others believe that the entire point of joining virtual communities is so that one can do things that are either impossible or socially unacceptable outside of the monitor.  Some see online friendships as both unrealistic and unreliable because it’s incredibly easy to lie and be lied to.  Others feel more secure to share their true thoughts and feelings behind a mask of anonymity, and willingly sacrifice fact for truth, and we once again return to the topic of passing.

Perhaps the question really comes down to the definition of the self.  How far distanced does the avatar have to be from its creator before it crosses the line between reality and make-believe?  Is the avatar some kind of mechanical, soulless doll entirely disjointed from its maker, or is there a degree of overlap between puppet and puppeteer?  When we create avatars on networking communities such as Second Life, the process is somewhat similar to our daily morning routine.  We present ourselves to others by changing our hair, our clothes and our accessories.  Likewise, in real life, when we brush our hair, pick out an outfit, or choose to speak or behave in a certain way, we are making a choice in how we represent ourselves.  We all have an idea, either consciously or sub-consciously, of how we want others to see us, and who we want to see us in which way.  A student at Bryn Mawr may act and dress completely differently in class than outside of class, and adopt different mannerisms with their parents than with their friends.  To an extent, each of these roles is a different facet of our fleshy avatar.  Of course, there is that one small distinction between what we were born with and what we’ve created through “artificial” machinery.

One of my chemistry lectures back from seventh grade comes to mind.  When the teacher introduced the concept of the atom, he took out a small matchbox from the drawer of his desk.  “Imagine the football field as an enlarged atom,” he said. “Proportionally, the nucleus is about the size of this box.”  When it really comes down to it, all but an infinitesimal percentage of our bodies consist of nothing but empty space, which really begs the question: are cells and pixels really all that significant of a distinction?

A number of different arguments could be made concerning the emotional element of virtual living.  It really comes down to how one chooses to interact with the Internet.  My parents, for example, view it as a convenient accesory.  They use E-mail to send messages to people they already know, they share digital pictures with those same people, and when they’re bored, they sometimes go on CNN to read the news.  If they didn’t have the Internet, they would still know the same people, view the same pictures – though probably in tangible photo-albums, and be able to turn on the television to find out what’s going on in the world.  As a result, they are emotionally unaffected by the existence of the Internet, and do not have much of a presence on the web.  They do not, nor do they feel the need to, understand the experience of connecting with others over the Internet.  For the most part, others of their generation and culture are the same.  This is one of the reasons why I believe my generation is further alienated from theirs than any two consecutive generations in the past.

I, in stark contrast, have many virtual identities.  There’s the “me” that I sporadically update on Facebook; there are several different-looking avatars I play around with on the MMO that I frequent; there’s the screen name I use on messengers, RPGs and discussion forums; there’s the pen name under which I publish bad fanfiction, and the list goes on.  Some of the people I’ve met on online communities are loving and supportive individuals I feel very emotionally connected to.  I’ve kept in touch with a few of them for many years, and would not hesitate to call them my best friends.  We may have always communicated through taps on the keyboard and symbols on the screen, but the kinship we share feels very much genuine.  My parents are occasionally concerned that technically, there’s only me and my computer in the room and that prolonged periods of typing away by myself would make me even stranger than I am now, but I know that whenever I’m interacting with one of my online friends, I feel understood and connected, sometimes to a greater degree than even in real life friendships.  I could be sitting thousands of miles away from a friend, but from my experience, it is possible for us to reach out and touch each other.

It may be fair to include the computer itself into our tentative bubble of “self”.  Indeed, it shares a surprisingly large number of characteristics with the “natural”-born body part.  It is both a medium that allows for a wide range of self-expression, and a sensor through which we can perceive the outside world.  It channels visual and audio information which we can process and react to intellectually and emotionally.  As someone who has been a part of online networking for years, I can say that the experience is eerily tactile.  We don’t hear, speak to, see, and touch each other the same way we do “in real life”, but there are other, sometimes subtle ways in which we both observe and convey, and the emotions that we experience in the process are the same.  I tend to adopt Donna Haraway’s attitude of skepticism toward traditional definitions of identity.  Rather than having a static boundary between natural and artificial, human and machine, I believe that a more fluid view of all of them makes for a much more poignant and honest study of gender and technology.  This is not to say that things that take place online are necessarily equated to things that happen in the physical realm – but every one of those small, pixellated people is an extension of a real person, in the flesh, feeling real emotions.  Perhaps Aristotle is right in that the soul doesn’t exist by itself as a separate entity.  But if it exists at all, I’m pretty sure that it isn’t contained within the boundary of the skin.

Another side of the picture is a comparison of online communities with communities in the flesh.  For this part of my essay, I will focus mainly on MMOs, because in my opinion, it is the best virtual parallel I’ve experienced to a real life community, and the avatars within are the best virtual parallel to having a “real life self”.  As a sporadic gamer, I can say with good confidence that nearly every social MMO has a culture of its own.  In a fashion eerily reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, when a group of MMO players are isolated together on one server, they start to develop social hierarchies, intricate politics, drama, and even their own celebrities.  They end up with their own way of doing things that may even differ drastically from another server of the same game.  Their collective in-game consciousness evolves into something unique and oftentimes downright bizarre to outsiders looking in.

Some MMOs have even developed specific lingos.  When someone gets belittled on Puzzle Pirates, they get called a “greenie”.  On Flash Flash Revolution (which really isn’t an MMO, but the multiplayer aspect of it is significant enough for it to be worth a mention), it’s “noob” and in first-person shooter games, it’s more often than not “fag”.  Calling someone a greenie in a first person shooter game would probably earn one a couple of raised eyebrows, and using bigoted slang on Puzzle Pirates would probably result in a handful of complaints.  I’m certainly not endorsing the use of bigoted slang under any circumstances, but to me, that’s a good example of how online communities are sometimes similar to small, isolated towns.  Occasionally, a group of friends from a game would get on Skype or Ventrilo together, and amusingly enough, the in-game lingo tends to get carried over onto voice chat with minimal awkwardness.  The virtual culture embeds itself into our consciousness to the extent where we feel perfectly comfortable acting out in-game social expectations with others of similar background.

People who are not active members of Internet communities sometimes find online interactions strange and restricting.  It’s a perfectly understandable reaction for someone who’s unaccustomed with having an online presence, but I think it also has something to do with culture shock.  Toward the end of the semester when we were exploring virtual realities, a number of students in our class were uncomfortable after their initial experience with Second Life, and despite my familiarity with online communities as a whole, I was one of them.  It wasn’t that the atmosphere of Second Life felt unrealistic or artificial – if anything, I felt like a tourist in a foreign country without a map.  I wasn’t familiar with the behaviors and social expectations of that particular virtual world, and I think to an extent, I was carrying over social expectations from another MMO – a bit of virtual ethnocentrism on my part.  But to the extent that the unfamiliar culture was making me uneasy, there were certainly other players comfortable and secure in the familiarity of the same culture, who would probably feel as lost as I did should they decide to start playing Puzzle Pirates.

A final factor that played into my awareness of the blurriness of the boundaries of self was my experience of having my personal laptop hacked.  In my second essay, I described the experience at length.  It was a person that found my old Myspace page and decided to stalk me for the fun of it.  They started out by putting lewd pictures on my desktop and in random folders.  They then sent virus links to my friends through my messenger accounts.  Eventually, they rendered my taskbar unusable and I had to reinstall my machine.  Since this was the first time anything like this had ever happened and I was living away from my computer-expert dad, I really had to figure out what to do by myself.  There were a couple of weeks in the process where I wasn’t sure my computer would function properly ever again.

It was a greatly upsetting experience, because to me, it seemed like a horrible violation of my privacy.  I’ve mentioned before that there is an oftentimes unspoken understanding among people who meet over the Internet, that they are afforded the greatest level of privacy with the cost of uncertainty.  Until I was hacked, I’d largely taken that privacy for granted.  When I had someone rifling through my personal documents and pictures without my permission, I had essentially lost my limitless ability to “pass”, and didn’t entirely realize until then how important having that ability factored into my personal feeling of security.  It was because of this security in anonymity that I felt perfectly comfortable in putting bits and pieces of myself out there that I rarely let people in real life see.

Finally, when the hacker started disabling important features of Windows, I felt a grave sense of alienation.  Perhaps the aloneness was already there before the hacking took place, and being without an online outlet made me painfully aware of it.  Perhaps an emotional attachment to my virtual life was what my parents were afraid of in the first place.  To me, it felt like I was cut off from a sensory but non life-threatening body part.  I could certainly survive without it, but it seemed to me that I was missing out on an important aspect of life.  Throughout my many years of internet-surfing, I’ve gradually incorporated the computer into my subconscious sense of self, and so my virtual identity carries with it a piece of my soul.  I hold a great level of comfort in my right to “pass”, yet even as I take that particular liberty – or perhaps because I take that particular liberty – my virtuals selves are invariably linked back to “me”.  Therein lies the paradox of the avid virtual-lifer: in “passing”, we acquire the ability to not pass quite so much.

What is the self?  Really, I’m no closer to reaching a conclusive answer than I was when our conversation started at the beginning of the semester.  If anything, I’ve only gained new and different ways of thinking about it, which, on one hand, enriches the ongoing argument, but on the other hand, makes it that much more complex and confusing.  Certainly I have more of an idea now of why theorists like Donna Haraway seem to talk in paradoxes.  But since I’ve always been a fan of conclusions, I will conclude that there is no conclusion.