Sunday, May 17, 2009

Notes on "Are MUDs communities?"

Caveat: The following response is a class assignment. The article being reviewed was published in 1996, when the Internet was still in its infancy, the classic text-based MUDs (usually the acronym refers to Multi-User Dimensions but my iPhone's Computer Desktop Encyclopedia says it can also refer to Dialogs or Dungeons) had probably peaked, Virtual Reality (VR) as The Next Big Thing had come and gone, superceded by the World Wide Web. Sufficient bandwidth and processing power to support Web 2.0, video chats, Activeworlds and Second Life and live poker and Facebook/MySpace and blogging and twittering and all of the other things we think of today as constituting "online communities" did not yet exist. Thirteen years are a few geological ages in digital-time.

Heather Bromberg, "Are MUDS Communities? Identity, Belonging and Consciousness in Virtual Worlds", Chapter 9 in Rob Shields (eds.), Cultures of the Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. Sage Publications. 1996.

I do not understand the title of Bromberg's chapter. The chapter does not discuss community at all; rather, the article addresses the online experience as "altered states of consciousness." From the title, I expected some exploration of what communities are, and how online interactions and networks and so on might resemble or even constitute a "community."

This is not to say that the question of consciousness and being and one's sense of self and the world as experienced via computer technology is not interesting, and there is some overlap between the online experience-as-consciousness and the experience-as-community. Blomberg identifies four social functions of online experience: computer-mediated social connection (addressing isolation); identity play; eroticism; and control over one's environment. One brings these four dimensions into any community. The possibility of assumed anonymity may distort one's online community presence. Translate online communities to the classroom and playing with some of these dimensions becomes generally inappropriate and even dangerous (manifesting as sexual harassment, bullying, etc.)

Bromberg refers to the online experience as "altered consciousness" and the online experience in some cases as "transcendent," reporting that users may feel that they are getting closer to some fundamental truth about the universe through online interactions. And one of the attractions of the online experience, she notes, is that "claims that virtual reality will provide meaning and reveal secrets of ancient wisdoms and truths otherwise unknowable are appealing when faced with the postmodern notion that there are no universal truths." (p. 147)

I don't get this idea that virtual reality or online experience can be a spiritual path. (So let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a reality that incorporates universal, knowable truths (and I do).) There is a sterility and barren-ness to the online experience. I would need to look at William Gibson's writing more carefully to cite something specific, but Neuromancer et al. effectively expressed this to me, and my own experience supports this. The transcendence in his books transcends into a spiritually empty place. The online experience takes one away from the real being and meaning and spirit of nature, the world, and the physical, tangible, qualitative experience of it all. Online can only present realities constructed by other human beings, enhanced by one's personal experience of the constructed environments. Bromberg cautions the reader about this:

the commodification of VR could be like the commodification of sugar-coated hyper-real dreams at Disneyland. While VR may allow a stage for acting out personalized dreams, the issue of censorship also arises, as there are those who would like to restrict the nature of the imagining and censor the fantasizing that is permitted within the realm of cyberspace. There are further political implications. While optimists may suggest that networked virtual reality could instigate the first, true, consensual 'global village', one might also suggest that it could be used to manufacture political consent or reinforce various ideologies. (p. 151)

What she doesn't note is that any online community (okay this is a broad assertion, but I think it can be supported) has pre-set rules or protocols that will govern participants interactions. The protocols may be set by (or implicit in) the hardware or software, or usage rules, or the nature of online world (science fiction, fantasy, economic structures, common interests, and so on).

Virtual reality is not, and cannot be -- never ever -- as rich as or as meaningful as the living nature I see right now outside of my window. I would further assert that there is something fundamentally more precious to be gained in experiencing that living nature deeply, that cannot be gained by experiencing machine-mediated online constructed spaces.

Of course there is value in online communication, and the type of community that arises there. But there should also be appropriate boundaries and understandings of the limitations of online communities. In the classroom, teachers, I should think, need to help students understand those boundaries to maximize the benefits of online interactions.


"In the woods, we return to reason and faith." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

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