Miah, A. (2000) 'Virtually nothing: re evaluating the significance of cyberspace'. Leisure Studies, 19 (3): 211 - 24.
Virtual reality is sometimes seen as a new technological Utopia, a realm of infinite freedom and the free play of identity. However, power relations remain, and it is possible to argue that the possibilities are only an extension of the existing 'virtualness' of human experience. The case has been overstated.
Rojek (1995) is typical of those academics who want to argue that virtual reality is a unique kind of escape experience, a new form of leisure 'dissociated' from the usual constraints and ties, and thus requiring a new theoretical approach. Cyberspace offers adventure, encounters with others. It challenges conventions and boundaries. However, these arguments tend to be formalist rather than focused on actual content -- Stebbins on 'casual leisure' offers a better account of postmodern trends.
The ability to interact with machines has now developed to permit genuine interactivity. However, humans are more machine-like too. The effects of new technology have led to globalisation, ethical problems, implications for modes of production and new forms of consumption, voyeurism and fantasy -- the latter expressed in terms such as browsing and surfing. Turkle has discussed the possible liberating effects on identities, but Castells on the [economic and political effects of the ] information age is also important. However, the effects on identity and social relations have become the focus, and has led to excessive claims about the experimental and liberating possibilities. These claims are the result of wild enthusiasm rather than analysis, and focused on form rather than the content and effects of the actual experiences.
Virtual reality is not new, and has been popularly discussed ever since early work on the 'information revolution' of the 1950s. The discussion is rooted as much in key science fiction texts as well as academic writing. Work on artificial intelligence [often based in military or industrial contexts] has also raised hopes for the development of a whole virtual reality -- 'real cyberspaces that were from non - cyberspaces' (214). The real origin for this concept may lie as far back as Leibnitz in 1710! The similarities between the virtual and real world were once the issue -- the theme of technotopia was a later addition. The term 'cyberspace' was actually coined by the science-fiction writer Gibson in 1984, and was described as 'a consensual hallucination... clusters and constellations of data' (215). Virtual reality was the term given to a particular medium to access cyberspace. The assumption was that such clusters and constellations would have no boundaries, and therefore no constraints, and would thus lead to full human empowerment and liberation. This could be seen as a dangerously ideological interpretation, however, because there are still significance social and political constraints. Indeed, the Net could be seen as perpetuating the social conventions of humanness.
There is lots of enthusiasm for the possibilities for liberating identities and freedom, but a number of environments are actually possible, including voyeurism. Some novel features have appeared, such as e-mail or list servers which do seem to collapse geographical and social distance, so that is now possible, for example, to interrogate academic authors. However, these technologies are still largely similar to those of the postal service and the telephone, although they are immediate and [not too -- which is why I prefer email to phone]. MUDs and MOOs do allow people to adopt avatars and thus an element of psuedonymity, but this can lead to both freedom and angst. Not all identities are very experimental in practice anyway -- for example it is rare to find pseudonyms in usergroups. Degrees and kind of intimacy and personal warmth are still under researched, whether 'on or off line' (217). Other novel developments include electronic enterprises like Amazon [which makes no profit, apparently, but has a 25 billion dollar turnover], and e-journals.
There are some concerns too, including the trend towards universalising English, Microsoft's monopoly, severe limits to access in much of the world, and no common protocol. There are still some subscription only sites [which may be a growing trend?].
The possibilities are shown by the case study of LambdaMOO, an online community permitting multiple log-ons and conversations. The activity has a game-like experience, but the community also includes a 'virtual bar, nightclub and sports centre' (218). The community also always featured social order -- the conference organisers ('wizards') regulated debates. There may be an emerging legal structure. The Community could soon feature a new opportunities for constraint, as in leisure generally, part of an effect of the 'normative citizenship paradigm' triumphing over unconstrained subjectivity and emotion.
LambdaMOO is also famous for offering an early case of virtual rape. A rape-like electronic encounter seems to have had real effects. This episode led to some discussion of the relation between the virtual and the real, themes picked up in movies such as the Truman Show or the Matrix (the themes have also been explored before in literature). The term virtual reality implies that interactions are real, including personal attacks, and that they can spillover into human experience, as Baudrillard suggests with the concept of hyperreality. Of course, interactions are mediated by machines -- but all human interactions are mediated. Those who wish to deny the real effects are forced to claim that the existing human senses somehow privileged human experience. Cyberspace is really just seen as another medium for human existence: 'human existence -- having always been mediated through the senses or some other media -- has always been virtual' (221). [I'm also reminded of the notion of a virtual level to social structures, with actual concrete arrangements being instances of virtual possibilities, in the work of Bhaskar or Giddens].
So what are the effects of cyberspace? As the case study of the online rape indicates, there are issues of a moral framework -- cyberspace is a place where collisions occur, 'where prostitution meet pornography, and where fidelity meets fantasy' (221). Possible future developments such as teledildonics, or the combination of Web cameras and text based interaction, or the growth of cyberdating raised new moral issues. These activities have their appeal because they feature anonymity and the possibility of experimenting with presenting oneself. However there are risks, although these tend to be minimised. The whole area seems to be a classic one to consider the functions of morality, its rituals and codes. For example, does online sex threaten the old notions of fidelity and adultery? These issues still depend on non-cyberspace definitions [and should do, thinks Miah].
Overall, the reality of liberation on the Net is not yet fully justified by actual experiences. There seem to be an number of consequences, including the lack of shame or other social bonds, an absence of relationship rather than new forms. Before we decide whether online leisure is a new kind, we should consider its connections with other aspects of leisure, and avoid formalism. Overall, it seems likely that dear old barriers will collapse, but that new ones will emerge 'we unique issues relating to access, understanding, and meaning' (223).
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