Essay

Virtual strangers, imaginary friends

TODAY I BOUGHT a new mobile telephone. The woman who served me seemed weary, which was understandable since it was after 4pm in a very busy shopping centre. Not one to suffer meaningless chatter with salespeople, I went straight to the point and asked her for the particular model and the options I was after with as much detail as I could.

I expected there to be the usual fuss to go through in order to sign up to my service carrier of choice. But there was nothing, no filling in forms or checking of identification. The woman assembled and registered my new phone with the provider, selected various options and preferences and made the transaction as smooth as possible.

I walked from the store with my bundle of excess packaging under my arm and my shiny new phone in my hand. It was very light and had about the same dimensions as a typical bar of soap. It felt good to switch it on and have it connect up to the invisible airwaves. I was contactable again; I had lost my last phone only two days before and somewhere, on an unconscious level, I had felt slightly uneasy about not being contactable. What if my friends wanted to get together during the week? What if something important came up and I wasn't aware of the emergency? So many what-ifs over such a trivial thing as being contactable by my extended social network.

But this is nothing really out of the ordinary for me. I've been around this kind of technology from an early age. Some might suggest that I had a late introduction to the world of computers at the age of 11. The first computer I ever used was an Apple IIe; the first home video-game system I ever used was an Atari 2600 in the home of one of my classmates at around the same time. The Apple computer held my attention a lot more than the games machine because you could actually do stuff with it rather than just play games. So, for more than half of my life I've been in direct contact with computing technologies. This relationship has developed over time, such that now my livelihood depends on my seemingly natural affinity with these machines.

Now, in my defence, I must say that I am not connected at the hip with my mobile phone (my personal computer might be another story altogether, though). I know many people who use their phones almost constantly. They take them from their pockets and check them every 10 minutes to make sure they haven't missed a message or call. They walk around with those hands-free kits connected to their heads, like some bizarre cyborg junkies straight out of a cyberpunk sci-fi novel. I'm sure you will have seen them: the kind of people who start talking really loudly, appearing to greet you as you are passing them in the supermarket, when in fact they are talking to a mysterious stranger some unimaginable distance away, far removed from the reality of the frozen-food section.

I am not one of those users. But I know plenty of people who are most definitely in that category. So why did I feel a certain lack while I was temporarily without a mobile of my own?

The answer to this question involves more than just the small piece of technology that has come to represent more to our contemporary culture than a glorified radio device (which is probably what telephones are in a traditional sense).

The lack I experienced when I lost my phone was something akin to the strange sensation I have felt on other occasions. Some of these include: the first time I went for my driving test and I made a mistake that I knew straight away would mean I failed; the first time I performed in a theatre production in high school in front of a large audience and really hoped I would not forget my lines; lying in the dentist chair when I was about to get my first filling; every time one of my computers undergoes a hardware failure, or just stops working suddenly, to the point where I cannot repair it with my meagre knowledge of computer hardware. It mostly starts with a dull sinking feeling in my stomach and quickly spreads as a tingling sensation to my limbs and down each of my digits. Then the cold sweat comes as the reality of the situation dawns ... this feeling of helplessness, of disconnection ...

If I were to repeat what I've typed here to someone trained in psychology, it might raise an eyebrow. Dislike of Social Interaction? Disassociation? Internet Addiction? Anxiety Complex?

"You need to get a life," some might suggest.

 

IT COULD BE any day of the week, any week of the year. In fact it is late spring, and I'm sitting in front of my computer in my garage. It's quite a humid day, especially in the garage where the heat from three computers all running at once tends to accumulate quickly. Two of my friends are sitting in front of their computers; their machines whirr merrily in their own way. But those sounds are quickly drowned out by the raucous din of hand-to-hand combat and the shouting of my friends as they challenge one another to a networked first-person-shooter game via their LAN-connected computers.

I'm sitting and typing into a little window, a text box. I don't even know the name of the text editor because I'm trying out a new version of the Linux operating system (called Lindows) which I'm not used to just yet. One of my friends jumps up from her game as her mobile telephone flickers and vibrates on the seat. She picks it up, thumbs one of the buttons and reads something out loud from the SMS text message she has just received – which makes us all laugh.

A few messages later and we have made our plans for the evening: we are heading out to see some local bands. None of us is really sure which bands are playing, or what is on elsewhere that might be more appealing, so we go online to read some of the local gig guides.

As I quietly search through the listings I notice a few more of my internet friends have come online. These are people I met originally via the local music scene and stay in quite regular contact with. I invite them to come along with us tonight.

As I'm waiting for their replies I notice other up-coming gigs, which I copy-and-paste into my local music weblog (a weblog, or blog, is a kind of online journal webpage where I put up information that people can access from the World Wide Web). I also post the information to a message board that we have set up where fans of local music from around the country can gather and share information. While the message board is not as busy as some of the boards maintained by large rock bands, we still attract a very specific social group that benefits from the collective group input.

On the message board we get the occasional troublemakers advertising obscure herbal remedies or pornographic websites, and even the odd street-teamer (a member of a "street team" from a specific band or musician who spreads the word about his or her favourite band by leaving messages on other bands' websites) can be found gracing the message-board area.

After being sidetracked by this I'm now hounded by my friends who have reluctantly finished their game in order to get ready to go out. But, in spite of the need to move, one of my friends shows me a CD that arrived in his post office box the previous day from one of his music-trading friends in Canada. I insert the CD into my computer expecting it to play automatically but instead I find it filled with MP3 music files from a range of obscure underground heavy-metal bands in South America and Eastern Europe.

We don't have time to listen to much of it but, realising that we have to drive to the venue, which is at least an hour away, I burn a temporary audio CD to play in the car (on a rewritable CD so we can erase the music and use the CD again later). The CD burning does not take long at all and we are soon crammed into the car and driving up the highway. As we go past a suburb where some friends of ours live, one of my friends decides to ring them and see what they are up to. As we pass under a bridge the mobile connection drops out, terminating the conversation early.

"Ah. Another one lost in the void!" someone jokes.

The conversation changes but as I'm sitting and jotting notes to myself with my pen and notepad, my thoughts turn to the reality of that statement. So many spatial metaphors are found in popular discourse surrounding new technologies, is it any wonder that people conceive of communication as having a place, even if that space is not a physical location?

I'm distracted from my thoughts as we look for a place to park the car. I spy a spot near a cinema, which has a large The Matrix Revolutions poster emblazoned on the wall and a website address printed in clichéd green computer font underneath. It reminds me of the screensaver I have on my computer – an imitation of the "green raining computer code" effect from the first Matrix film. My thoughts drift back to when I first found out what an email address was (in the days when I was part of the Amiga computer file-trading scene in my early teens), back to the first time I used the internet (not that long ago, 1996) and how amusing it was the first time I saw an ASCII "Smiley" printed on a giant billboard beside the motorway. At that time I remember wondering just how many people would have known what a colon followed by a right-round-bracket symbol actually stood for. And what about Hotmail? Wasn't that some kind of fast postal courier service? Spam was only a canned, spiced-meat product.

 

SCHOLARS WHO WRITE about the internet have a tendency to refer to this thing called "the virtual" with alarming regularity. Many of them make a clear distinction between what is real on one hand and what is virtual on the other, as though these terms represent two clearly different concepts.

Along with this virtual/real distinction, many new-media commentators also like to refer to the "disembodied mind", which (to simplify it somewhat) means that our minds venture off into imaginary lands of possibility when we interact with the space beyond the screen. Without becoming buried under complex philosophical analyses of this idea, I would like to suggest that it is a strange connection to be making. Is it really the case that somehow (through our imaginations?) we inhabit this "space beyond the screen" without any reference to our bodies?

The notion of disembodiment was particularly popular in early writing on new-media spaces, in particular in reference to the kind of virtual reality that employed the goggle headset and the tactile gloves. You have probably seen this type of technology in films that touch on the theme of virtual reality. An interesting example is Brett Leonard's The Lawnmower Man (1992), or more recently, David Cronenberg's eXistenZ(1999). But these films depict artificial realities – which are more than just the common everyday "cyberspace" that we may experience any time we surf the web.

The basic premise is that your mind floats around in these imaginary spaces. But even a classic cyberpunk knows that your body does not disappear even if you are staring blankly at a computer screen as you surf the web. Even if you have the appearance of a zombie as you sit in front of your television with your concentration focused on playing Mario Kart on your Super Nintendo, your body is still there tweaking the keys, acutely aware that your palms are clammy and your mouth is dry. If the body didn't matter, why do the manufacturers of gaming hardware still spend so much money designing human-computer interfaces (such as the mouse, joystick, gamepad or even the humble keyboard)?

Let me describe for you a situation that I experienced towards the end of last year. I had been playing an online game of Monolith's first-person-shooter No One Lives Forever (a James-Bond-themed game) in the darkened space of my bedroom until the small hours of the morning. The sun had started to rise, so I reluctantly went to bed. My sleep was filled with dreams of being pursued down darkened corridors by unknown numbers of enemies.

But I didn't have much chance for a long rest, as I had an early flight to catch that day. I boarded a plane to travel to Sydney for the second www.fibreculture.org meeting. The room at my accommodation was on the 14th floor and as I got out of the lift, I had a growing sense of paranoia. I was looking at the plush carpet in the corridor, the decor along the walls, and thinking to myself: "These textures are pretty good, high detail, they'd be excellent with a better video card ..."

I was startled from my thoughts by voices that seemed to come from around the corner of the corridor. As I approached, peering around, I reached into my pocket where, presumably, I had stowed my pistol with a silencer (because it's a hotel environment, you don't want to alert too many people) ... But the coast was clear. I proceeded to my room unchallenged.

Apart from portraying me as experiencing some kind of un-reality, this strange bleeding of real spaces into virtual spaces makes me question if there is really a need to separate the two. This kind of state, which comes from the mind's inability to distinguish the real from the virtual, can't be discredited as not being real. It does happen.

It could be argued that it is the design of specific interactive elements within these programs that enables users to move so easily into imagined spaces beyond the screen. Human beings are very capable of the task – through imagination, language and meaning-making – of filling in the blanks that are required in contexts such as virtual environments.

While emphasis is placed on how believable a virtual space might be, it seems that as levels of e-literacy increase, these virtual worlds have created their own systems of meanings that refer generically to other virtual spaces.

We might refer to this in terms of media literacy but even this seems inadequate to describe the way younger people engage with new-media spaces. The notion of e-literacy would be informed by the specific ways users of new-media spaces relate to those spaces and how in turn that knowledge relates to everyday life away from the computer screen. The two are linked more closely than some new-media thinkers would have us believe.

As examples of virtual reality depicted in film reveal, people seemed far more susceptible to the notion of virtual reality before anyone had paid any attention to it.

The fact that a younger generation argues that there is no such easy distinction between the real and the virtual may be precisely because they have grown up with that sense of e-literacy; contemporary youth is more comfortable with the ubiquitous nature of these spaces.

I can only speak from my own experience and my experience seems to be remarkably different from that of the first wave of academics who turned their attention to the cultural dimensions of these new-media spaces.

I am not the only one who has such an approach. A broader trend in new-media theory across the globe sees new-media theorists engaging with specific sites of cybercultural activity, which is a refreshing change from the kind of speculative writing that was the trend in the early 1990s. It remains to be seen what new-media writers can do with such cultural artifacts as computer games, mobile telephones, SMS messaging and other sites of cultural activity that are specific to new communication technologies.

Networks are all around us. Our social networks have become inseparable from our technological networks. They are interwoven to such an extent that they both advance together. It is interesting to observe what cultural changes this symbiotic relationship has on the development of a generation that has grown up with these technologies. The uses of technology touched on in this piece might seem blatantly obvious to some people and I would be the first to admit that it is so. But underestimating the need to adequately support (socially and economically) the infrastructure for the whole range of current networks would be a great disservice to the present and future generations who will "network" in ways that we can only speculate about today.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review