A Rape in Cyberspace, starred

I offer them, rather, as a picture of the sort of mind-set that deep immersion in a virtual world has inspired in me.


 

Dibbell’s thoughts on virtual rape led him to “take the notion of freedom of speech, with its tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real” less seriously. Virtual rape was no less traumatic to StarSinger and legba. Although it may be considered symbolic, it was still very real for both women. This is a key aspect of the Spaces code. At an initial glance, the space between virtual reality and real life is large. But as Dibbell immerses himself in the virtual world, the two cannot help but mix together. Experiences from virtual reality bleed into Dibbell’s real world thought process. The space between worlds contracts. Dibbell has created a new space, a constant place where the VR and RL interact almost daily- his mind. Dibbell’s mind space is constant throughout all experiences, where his mind changes with every interaction.

At the same time, the interaction between virtual and real world demonstrate the Antithesis code. In one world, nothing is tangible– I cannot reach out and touch someone through my keyboard. In the other, everything is tangible- the keys beneath my fingers, the blanket on my lap, the stray wisp of hair tickling my neck. In one, I feel with my mind. In the other, I feel with my body. The tensions between the virtual and the real are similar to the tensions between the mind and the body. How do they co-exist? Yet how does one exist without the other? In one way, they embody Barthes’ original Antithesis code. However, the virtual is firmly grounded in the real. The real is the virtual’s site of conception. It cannot exist without the real. In this way, VR and RL are hopelessly intertwined.

For whatever else these thoughts tell me, I have come to believe that they announce the final stages of our decades-long passage into the Information Age…


 

Let us look at the phrases “final stages” and “decades-long” more closely. These terms suggest a linear progression of time. More specifically, “final stages” suggests that time only moves forwards and that progression is a function of time.

But step back.

Look instead at “the Information Age.” This implies that time is circular- we rise, we peak, we fall, we rise again. Dibbell believes the end of the Information Age is upon us. Therefore, something else must be beginning. In this circular flow, time is progressive, static, and regressive.

Step back again.

We live through the same periods of time, the same progression and regression of an age. Does this mean then, that time is static? Take for example, the LambdaMOO government. After the Mr. Bungle debacle, the community focused on “where the participants stood on LambdaMoo’s crazy-quilty political map.” Some were “parliamentarian legalist types” who argued for “a full-blown judiciary system complete with elected officials and prisons to enforce those rules.” There were “royalists” who felt that “the wizardocrazy returned to the position of swift and decisive leadership.” There were “technolibertarians” and anarchists as well. No new governments were suggested. No new political platforms were conceived. While the virtual world was a young one, it seemed to quickly begin mimicking the real world. In this way, time can be seen as static. VR was a whole new space, but still held the same people as before who experienced the same experiences as before. If this is the case, then the space between VR and RL disappears. Every world is the same world, every space the same space.

…a paradigm shift that the classic liberal firewall between word and deed (itself a product of an earlier paradigm shift commonly known as the Enlightenment) is not likely to survive intact.


 

Okay, you can step back in now.

Dibbell suggests that language creates a wall. Language, in its previous environment, was a scapegoat. I may say one thing, but mean another. Language has subtext and context that can be taken and manipulated and molded how I want it to be. Now, as time follows its linear progression, that freedom is disappearing. Language is no longer subjective, but concrete and immediate.

This has several implications for our worlds as well. Language directly affects environment. It builds communication and defines experience for every person. As language becomes more concrete, our worlds may also become more concrete. The difference between virtual and real could disappear.

After all, anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era’s definitive distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does.


 

I can dance my fingers across a keyboard, hit enter, and then watch my computer obey my every command. I can make it sing, I can make it dance, I can make it sick and nurse it back to health. I control it. Dibbell’s description of computer communication embodies the control seme. With this new reality we create, we can control it. In the real world, we cannot control natural disasters and economic failures. We cannot prevent other people from hurting us, from hurting themselves. Perhaps our world is real, because we cannot control it. In a virtual world, I could easily write a script that lets me control your every move. In a virtual world, I can control everything.

In this way, virtual and real worlds remain a part of the Antithesis code. Where the real world is a loss of control, a virtual world could be total control. Mr. Bungle was able to force others to his will, just as an experiment. Mr. Bungle could control, when the NYU student who played him could not. Note the choice of words “the same way pulling a trigger does.” This overt reference to guns also relates to control. By drawing a parallel between guns and computers, Dibbell has placed the wielder of the computer in a position of power and authority.

This command-based approach demonstrates the next step in the evolution of language. Language is no longer a wall, but a bullet. There is no subjectivity, no questioning of orders. As it becomes more action oriented, language can serve as a source of power. Those who speak it, control it.

 

They are incantations, in other words, and anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the moment-from the growing dependence of economies on the global flow of intensely fetishized words and number to the burgeoning ability of bioengineers to speak the spells written in the four-letter text of DNA- knows that the logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.


 

Notice the repetition of “incantations”. This leads us to the next seme, magic. Dibbell constantly enforces this divide between the “wizards”, those who understand the language, and the “players”, those who use the products. Using words like “incantations” and “spells” drives this divide between us and them, the virtual and the real, the sheepherder and the sheep. It makes the other side seem otherworldly and different.

Technology is “permeating the fabric of our lives”, keeping us jacked in to the network. The magic effect Dibbell is describing demonstrates the Spaces code. Our spaces are integrating, blending, combining into one. A Rape in Cyberspace is caught in the transition between separate worlds and one world. The space between VR and RL closes with every Facebook alert on your iPhone and every nude leaked on the Internet and every uprising starting on Twitter. These incantations that make these worlds possible directly affect any world we choose to participate in. There will be no divide because we are the space between them. We exist in any and all worlds we create, so therefore we are the bridge. Just as the virtual cannot exist without the real, and the mind without the body, the wizards cannot exist without the players. Without the bridge, the multiplicity of worlds would never progress.

And it’s precisely this logic that provides the real magic in a place like LambdaMOO- not the fictive trappings of voodoo and shapeshifting and wizardry, but the conflation of speech and act that’s inevitable in any computer-mediated world, be it Lambda or the increasingly wired world at large. This is dangerous magic, to be sure, a potential threat-if misconstrued or misapplied- to our always precarious freedoms of expression, and as someone who lives by his words I do not take the treat lightly.


 

Language plays a pivotal role in creating this magical divide. While this basic framework of language is command based, what made LambdaMOO real to its users, were the descriptions. LambdaMOO had no GUI, no pretty little Sims to play with. LambdaMOO had words, had language. Language created the world through commands and populated the world through visual descriptions. Perhaps then, language is following the way of time. It progresses and regresses; it ebbs and flows. It commands. It describes.

Language then, proves that the space between VR and RL is contracting. The flowery, descriptive language of our past is used to build the world of our future. How can VR and RL be opposites when one grew out of the other? Thrift, in “Movement-Space”, further emphasizes this point. He writes about how math and cold logic can create multiplicities of intensely beautiful worlds. This new, harsher language created virtual reality, but that does not mean that VR is harsh as well. However, the inevitable process of merging the two worlds is dangerous. Like Thrift writes in “Movement-Space”, our senses are being redefined. With e-commerce and globalization, our sense of touch is becoming much broader and widespread. Until all our senses, language, and environments are redefined to include VR, those worlds will always be separate. Those tensions will always be felt. That line between mind and body, virtual and real, wizards and players will always be dangerous.

And yet, on the other hand, I can no longer convince myself that our wishful insulation of language from the realm of action has ever been anything but a valuable kludge, a philosophically damaged stopgap against oppression that would just have to do till something truer and more elegant came along.


Dibbell admits then, that language is evolving. Language is morphing from a wall to a bullet. Perhaps then, this proves that time does move forward. If language can grow over time, then time must grow. Perhaps Barthes is right and it is all about perspective. Move in close enough, so that your nose is practically touching the screen and the harsh pixelated light is burning your eyes, and everything is linear. Lean back a little, a little more, and everything is circular. Step back, and everything is still. Silent. Waiting.

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