- If “Reality is the Best Metaphor,” It Must Be Virtual
What is the search for the next great compelling application but a search for the human identity?—Doug Coupland, Microserfs
. . . we can look forward to a richly textured and complex cyberspace, where we are at all times human, and can become bits of pixel dust flying through a virtual landscape.—3-D, multiuser, interactive, on-line virtual reality producer
“Avatars are Next,” the June 1996 issue of Wired announces on its cover, above a glossy foldout of Bill Gates in bathing trunks floating on a lemon yellow air mattress in a sensuous Hockney-blue swimming pool. “Mr. Bill goes Hollywood! Special Gatesfold Issue,” reads the caption underneath the (photomontaged) naked torso. The United States Congress’s attempt in February 1996 to conceptualize the Internet as an incitement to indecent sexual conduct (in Section 507 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the so-called Computer Decency Act) is clearly the lampooned subtext of this juxtaposition of sexualized body with the concept of the avatar. The antithesis of sensuous, avatars are bandwidth-conserving, virtual figures that take the place of users’ physical bodies in the three-dimensional, interactive, multiuser virtual environments that software developers in 1996 insist will be the telos of the development of the World Wide Web. The Wired cover implies that the nerd community finds Congress’s association of digital media with sex ridiculous (however flattering they may find it to be constructed as sexually dangerous). Not unusually, sexuality is being invoked by the state as a justification for extending its own reach (and the corporate interests it represents).
But the sex/gender politics of Net free speech advocates are not necessarily more progressive. As feminist commentator Laura Miller argues in “Women and Children First: Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier,” the metaphor of a frontier beyond the jurisdiction of Congress, deployed by opponents of federal regulation, draws upon a conventional construction of gender that threatens to reinscribe women as victims, reinforcing “the power imbalance between the sexes, with its roots in the concept of women as property, constantly under siege and requiring the vigilant protection of their male owners” . The unintended consequence of this conceptualization, she worries, is that “the threat of regulation is built into the very mythos used to conceptualize the Net by its defenders” .
My worry, therefore, embraces both sides of the debate over free speech on the Net. The skirmish between Big Brother and the software pioneers seems to be shaping up rhetorically as a classic fraternal competition “between men” (Sedgwick). We may read it as a contest between fundamentally congruent “male” subject positions, both of which incline to disempower “female” subject positions and both of which stand to increase their [End Page 90] own political and economic capital by the appearance of a conflict. The power-producing relationality at play in this turf war, however, simultaneously threatens to subvert the claims of each position to its own, independent ontology. Both parties, therefore, can be expected compulsively to deny their relational status. John Perry Barlowe insists, in his “Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace”: “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here.”
It is this more subtle metaphysical issue, the occlusion of relation, implicated in but not reducible to, the constructions of sexuality and gender deployed by both Netizens and Congresspeople, that I find the most pressing issue in designs, uses, and discussions of cyberspace. I will argue that, in fact, the current wave of Internet development (both practically and discursively) is in some sense driven by a desire to make cyberspace safe for essentialist subjectivities of whatever ideological/political persuasion. I will unfold this argument in terms of a certain notion of addiction. My interest is not “cyberaddiction” per se, in the sense of individuals who spend what they or their associates consider too much time on-line, but rather the construction of cyberspace—both rhetorically and electronically—as a clean, clear realm in which we can transcend positionality while remaining (or becoming more fully) “ourselves.” I am not, that...