Increasingly I have Problems
Increasingly I have problems working out my theory in advance of writing. This may be the result of spending so much time studying communities that exist in deceptively fleeting manner as lines of text on a computer screen. Discourse in the virtual communities is ephemeral and thoroughly interactive. Also, some of my colleagues might say, trivial. Not much serious work gets done in there, they say, pointing to the screen—which always gives me a chuckle, since with that airy gesture they simultaneously accept the interface metaphor and dismiss its implications.
Thus this will be not so much a linear discussion of work in the field of virtual systems studies as it will be a series of provocations, and at the end there will be not so much a summary as an attempt to thread the provocations, to point out some resonances among them and to hold them in productive tension without allowing them to collapse into anything approximating a univocal account.
Evening in the ACTLab
Evening in the Department of Radio, TV, and Film’s Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory (the ACTLab, whose acronym foregrounds the dramatic basis of prosthetic interaction) finds bunches of young, computer-savvy students batting the keys with abandon. As I watch them, or rather their bodies (since their selves are off in the net, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, [End Page 173] living out fragmentation, multiplicity, and playfulness faster than I can theorize it), it all comes rushing back . . .
I Have Bad History
I have bad history: I am a person who fell in love with her own prostheses. Not once, but twice. But that wasn’t enough. Then I fell in love with somebody else’s prosthesis.
The first time love struck was in 1950. I was hunkered down in the dark late at night, on my bed with the big iron bedstead on the second floor, listening absently to the crickets singing, and helping a friend scratch around on the surface of a galena crystal that was part of a primitive radio. We were looking for one of the hot spots, places where the crystal had active sites that worked like diodes and could detect radio waves. Nothing but silence for a long, long time, and then suddenly the earphones burst into life and there was a whole new universe raging in our heads—the ranting voice of Jean Shepherd, boiling into the atmosphere from the massive transmitter of WOR-AM, 250 kilowatts strong and only a few miles away. At that distance we could have heard the signal in our tooth fillings if we’d had any, but the transmitter might as well have been in Rangoon, for all the fragrant breath of exotic worlds it suggested. I was hooked. Hooked on technology. I could take a couple of coils of wire and a hunk of galena and send a whole part of myself out into the ether. An extension of my will, of my instrumentality—that’s a prosthesis, all right.
The second time happened in 1955, while I was peering over the edge of a 24X24 recording console. As I stood on tiptoe, my nose just clearing the top of the console, from my age and vantage point the massive thing looked as wide as a football field. Knobs and switches from hell, all the way to the horizon . . . there was something about that vast forest of controls that suggested the same breath of exotic worlds that the simple coil of wire and the rickety crystal had. I was hooked again. Hooked on even bigger technology, on another extension of my instrumentality. I could create whole oceans of sound, universes of sound, could at last begin on my life’s path of learning how to make people laugh, cry, and throw up in dark rooms. And I hadn’t even heard it turned on. 1
But the third time . . .
The third time was when Hawking came to town. Steven Hawking, the world-famous physicist, came to Santa Cruz to give a talk [End Page 174] at the University. The auditorium was jammed to capacity, and the organizers of the event had accommodated...