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Previously in Digital Culture:

"Use Technology to Raise Smarter, Happier Kids," by David Shenk (January 7, 1999)
We shape our toys, and our toys shape us. David Shenk reports on the new generation of "thinking" playthings and asks, What will the toys of tomorrow bring? What will they take away?

"The Digital Philosopher," by Harvey Blume (December 9, 1998)
Can robotics shed light on the human mind? On evolution? Daniel Dennett -- whose work unites neuroscience, computer science, and evolutionary biology -- has some provocative answers. Is he on to something, or just chasing the zeitgeist?

"Coming of Age in Cyberspace," by David S. Bennahum (October 28, 1998)
In the bedrooms, the arcades, and the high school computer rooms of the 1980s, kids of the Atari generation invented today's digital culture. An excerpt from David Bennahum's memoir, Extra Life.

"Portable Musings," by Sven Birkerts (September 10, 1998)
The book is the network, the network is knowledge, and soon you'll be able to curl up in bed with all of it. This calls for some serious rumination.

See the complete Digital Culture index.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
Virtual Reality Bites Back
"It's not that cyberspace fails to resolve the social contradictions of the 'real world,'" Julian Dibbell writes, "but rather that it doesn't even resolve its own." An e-mail exchange with the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World

by Mark Dery

January 28, 1999

My Tiny Life establishes Julian Dibbell as the matchless master of an emerging genre: the cyberspace memoir. With easy eloquence and self-deprecating wit, Dibbell teleports us to a multi-user domain, or MUD, called LambdaMOO. Descendants of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, MUDs are, in Dibbell's words, "a kind of database especially designed to give users the vivid impression of moving through a physical space that in reality exists only as words filed away on a hard drive." When users log on to LambdaMOO, they find themselves in one of the rooms of a "vaguely magical" mansion in the hills above Palo Alto, California. They know that's where they are by virtue of the text that appears on their screens, describing their surroundings. "If the user wants to leave this room," Dibbell writes, "she can enter a command to move in a particular direction and the database will replace the original description with a new one corresponding to the room located in the direction she chose. When the new description scrolls across the user's screen, it lists not only the fixed features of the room but all its contents at that moment -- including things (tools, toys, weapons) and other users." One MOOer appears as "exu," a South American trickster spirit of uncertain gender. Another lives inside a free-floating bead of seawater. Dibbell reincarnates himself as Dr. Bombay, "the plump, pseudoscholarly fop" on Bewitched, sets up residence in Barbara Eden's magic lamp, from I Dream of Jeannie, and settles into the role of passionate participant-observer of this Lilliputian world nestled on a "small whirring disk of ferromagnetized metal."

And what a brave new world it is. Dibbell savors the consensual onanism of virtual sex and has a torrid affair with another "morph" (as LambdaMOO's cartoon inhabitants are called) at no little peril to his real-life relationship. (My Tiny Life is at once a philosophical inquiry into disembodied ontology and a three-hankie love story.) He also witnesses a savage act of MUD "rape." As Dibbell describes it, a user in the guise of an evil clown named Mr. Bungle used a "voodoo doll" -- an effigy of another user -- to force "exu" and a nondescript female character named Moondreamer to perform depraved sex acts in public.

In the course of his surreal odyssey through LambdaMOO's bell-jar world, Dibbell wrestles with the sticky issues of gender politics, class struggle, and even capital punishment -- or at least its virtual equivalent, "toading," in which the description of a user's character is wiped from the database and his or her data-bits are scattered across cyberspace. Most important, Dibbell leaves us with the ironic wisdom that the digital age, an age driven by the computer's binary logic, is a place where all the old binary oppositions -- virtual and actual, word and deed, writing and speech -- are fuzzier than ever, and where the meaning of our increasingly disembodied lives lies in what he calls the "buzzing, dissonant" gap between RL (Real Life) and VR (Virtual Reality).

A freelance journalist who contributes a column on cyberculture to The Village Voice, Dibbell writes in a wry, lightly swinging style. His literary voice alternates between a high-flown, mock eighteenth-century style (the book's inscription is "Being a true account of the case of the infamous Mr. Bungle and of the Author's journey, in consequence thereof, to the heart of a half-real world called LambdaMOO") and GenX-isms like "netnookie" (online sex) and "clueful" (as in "having a clue"). At the same time, Dibbell is a guy who knows a quote from "the fashionable French anarcho-philosopher Gilles Deleuze" when he sees one. Yet he wears his learning lightly; My Tiny Life is footloose and footnote-free.

The following exchange took place via e-mail over the course of four days, January 12-15, 1999.

tinylfbk picture Mark Dery: You remark on the "runaway affection" you came to think of as unique to VR -- "a strangely weightless feeling that seemed unwilling to remain attached to the particular people who brought it on." How is our sense of the self affected by longtime immersion in the world on the other side of the screen?

Julian Dibbell: The real question, I think, is: Is there really any historical novelty to these strange, free-floating sensations? I'm not so sure. New technologies of representation have always had a habit of, as I came to write in My Tiny Life, "sowing metaphysical derangement in the minds of those who first behold them." Again and again, we see the "sense of self" of highly sophisticated cultures being unsettled and loosened by encounters with new media. When language, the very thing that constitutes our sense of self, gets embodied in objects outside of our own bodies, we can't help but feel a kind of metaphysical vertigo. It gives us the willies. Computers intensify this effect by virtue of their remarkable efficacy as representational technology. The uncanny way they have of doing things in response to the things we write into them gives them an added dose of soulfulness, makes them feel at times almost numinous. And that's why a place like LambdaMOO can inspire such amorphously intense feelings. I talk a lot in the book about the sense of "magic" that suffuses the place, but ultimately what I mean by that is the unsettling recognition that one has stepped into a realm in which the boundaries of the self no longer seem so clear.

Remember, though: What I'm talking about, and what I wrote about, is a historical moment, and it's a moment that may already be over. As earlier cultures assimilated and demystified writing and photography, we too are now demystifying cyberspace, draining it of its numinousness with every link we click on. LambdaMOO still thrives, but I doubt the emotions that circulate there these days are as intense or unanchored as they used to be.

MD: In a sense, your experiences online constitute a fossil record of our collective relationship to the Internet. You began in the early nineties with heady visions of the utopian promise of virtual communities, where race and gender can be altered with a few keystrokes -- a fact of virtual life that supposedly makes online societies (at least potentially) "more decent and free than those mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital." Frankly, I've never understood this received truth. Isn't there a little irony in giddy celebrations of the disappearance of race and gender (and therefore racism and sexism) in a place like LambdaMOO, which appears to be populated overwhelmingly by middle-class male college students, probably white ones? Pardon my snarkiness, but it seems obvious that gender, race, and class would more or less evaporate as divisive issues in a world where we're all the same gender, race, and class.

JD: It sort of boggles my mind to think that anyone could read My Tiny Life and conclude that this 330-page record of rampant sexual harassment, virtual vigilantism, and nasty political conflict (among other, less miserable social phenomena) is the work of a swoony Netopian.

As for giddy celebrations of LambdaMOO as a haven from the burdens of race, gender, and class, I've tried to remember where in the book I or any of my MOOish acquaintances indulged in such claptrap, and I'm stumped. You're right, of course, that the social homogeneity of LambdaMOO's inhabitants makes it a poor test case for the Net's potential to dissolve real-life social contradictions. But that only makes the social contradictions I do portray all the more subversive of cyberutopianism. I mean, for God's sake, look at what happened there: in the absence of significant racial and economic divides among the "typists" of the MOO (as the MOOers themselves sometimes refer to the real-life embodied humans who animate their digital characters), and under a system of governance more formally democratic than even the Athenians', LambdaMOO somehow fell well short of evolving into a New Jerusalem. A kind of class system evolved, based not on any ideal measure of merit but on the power of highly skilled programmers to manipulate the highly technical world of the MOO. And at times the resulting sense of injustice even welled up into something like racial conflict.

Note, though, that this isn't The Lord of the Flies we're talking about here. Not exactly. In the state of nature to which the schoolboys and -girls of LambdaMOO were reduced, their own human nature (culturally inflected, of course) supplied some of the sources of conflict -- but the technological environment itself supplied the rest, in the form of limited access to scarce resources like expertise and hardware. It's not that cyberspace fails to resolve the social contradictions of the "real world," but rather that it doesn't even resolve its own.

That said, I remain guardedly optimistic about the democratizing possibilities of cyberspace -- not as a realm distinct from societies mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital, but as an opening within them. And for all its flaws, I still believe LambdaMOO is or at least was one such opening. Democracy, after all, is not the absence of social conflicts, but the noisy hashing-out of them. Hell, even the Athenians knew that.

MD: My Tiny Life is haunted by what you call the "metaphysical derangement" brought on by reality-warping technologies like the computer. You talk about the popularity, on LambdaMOO, of switching genders or straddling genders or begging the question altogether through a grammatical invention known as the Spivak pronoun (e, em, eir, eirs, emself). At one point, you note that the Spivak pronoun "shorted out the binary circuitry," philosophically speaking, that most of us use to process gender. Elsewhere, you suggest that VR's most radical aspect is its "irresolvably ambiguous oscillation between fact and fiction." This slippage of traditionally unshakable philosophical opposites seems to be a hallmark of the digital age. Are we leaving the intellectual universe of either/or, the one we've inhabited since the Enlightenment, for a parallel universe of both/and? Or is this hall-of-mirrors confusion confined to the MOO itself, a funhouse world where everything seems, as you say, to be "at once true and false?"

JD: It is a funny thing, isn't it, that a technology based on the endless circulation of ones and zeroes should have come to be so closely associated with the postmodern assault on philosophical binarisms. The cyberfeminist Sadie Plant has argued, in her book Zeros and Ones, that the play of binary numbers in computing gives rise to a thrilling Deleuzean multiplicity that makes mincemeat of stodgy patriarchal dichotomies like male/female, subject/object, and so on. The MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle made the case, in 1995's Life on the Screen, that networked computers bring postmodernism's decentered and fragmented notions of self straight to the desktop. And George Landow before her, in Hypertext, connected the dots between poststructuralist theories of writing and the nonlinearities of hyperlinked digital texts, with their quantum cloud of simultaneously possible readings.

I do think that there's a more than coincidental fit between the workings of computers and the contemporary unraveling of high-modern categories of thought. In the early pages of My Tiny Life, I talk about the way computer commands return us to "the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word," and I go on a bit about the broader cultural implications of this return. "Anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the moment," I conclude, "from the growing dependence of economies on the global flow of intensely fetishized words and numbers 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."

What's harder to talk about, though -- and what is therefore often missing from the discussions about digital tech's relationship to postmodernity -- is the way that the "old" binarisms continue to coexist with the new media and the new logics, and what it feels like to live in the midst of that coexistence. Do the Spivaks of LambdaMOO, to take just one example, really succeed in "shorting out the binary circuitry" of conventional gender? Here and there I think they do. But it's worth noting that after a long time of living in a sexually indeterminate body on the MOO, a good friend of mine was nonetheless singled out for the starkly gender-coded attentions of the virtual rapist Mr. Bungle, and the sense of betrayal she felt was so strong that she had nothing to do with any kind of virtual gender play for months thereafter.

Sometimes the harder you try to push a binarism away, the harder it'll bite back in the end.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Mark Dery (
markdery@well.com) writes about new media, fringe thought, and unpopular culture for The New York Times Magazine, Suck, Feed, and Salon. He is the author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (1996). His latest book, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, will be published by Grove Press in February.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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