To be in touch or not? Some remarks on communication in virtual environments

Barbara Becker


At a first glance, text-based communication in virtual environments, i.e. in MUDs and MOOs, is characterized by an absence of the physical body. In fact, the possibility to escape from the own body seems to be one of the main motivational factors to participate in virtual spaces. Even if we agree that the body is still there as a social and discoursive construct, we have to admit that the sense of embodiment in virtual environments is an entirely constructed feeling, coming mainly from our consciousness and not from our physical and sensual impressions. We are in touch with our dialogue partners only via text. Insofar,the processes in virtual spaces can neither be compared to spoken nor written communication, but seem more likely to be a mixture of both. Furthermore, imagination plays an important role in these envoronments. So, as we normally only have very little information about our opposite number, which is enforced by the absence of the body, we project our desires, wishes and hopes onto our communication partner, who becomes more of a fictional character than a real opponent.
Looking at the implication of this, I would like to outline two arguments: First, I want to look from a philosophical and sociological point of view on what it means to have a body. This can only be a very brief comment, naturally. Secondly on this background, I would like to present some first reflections about the body in cyberspace or rephrase it to look for the impacts of its absence in virtual environments.

The philosophical and sociological discourse on the body

The history of philosophy, especially since the 17th century, was characterized by the Cartesian dualism between body and mind. Regarding both as two different entities, the main focus of philosophical attention was the mind or the rational, reflexive subject. In this tradition, the body was always regarded as something which was less important, even dangerous because the body was part of the empirical world, which, as already Descartes and Leibnitz, but most especially Kant were aware of, always resisted against a total rational control. The body was seen as something which was not totally accessible to reflection, something which showed the contingency and strangeness of one's own nature. As a consequence of this uncontrollable dimension which the body represents, in most of the metaphysical approaches, the body was blanked out, ignored. So Kant separated the transcendental = reflexive subject from the empirical = physical, sensual subject and pointed out that only the reflexive subject was able to become self-transparent and to gain self-control. Every question of sense and meaning was mainly traced back to rationality and the reflexive subject.
It was only in the beginning of this century when phenomenology became aware of the body in asking for the preconditions of human existence and the development of meaning, sense and knowledge. As especially the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty has pointed out, we are primarily embedded in the physical world through our body and we have a primary contact with the world by it. He shows that before we reflect on the world or before we start to speak about different aspects thereof, we already have perceived some knowledge about it through our body, we already have gained some experience, some insight. This corporeal experience of the world - and this argument really stands out - cannot be fully covered by reflection or language. It remains implicit - at least to some extent - and it influences our knowledge about the world in a profound way. Reflection and speaking about this embeddedness in the world through our body and senses is always delayed, we cannot totally explicate what we have already experienced with our body.
This not only holds true for the experience of the physical world but is also relevant for our perception of other human beings. Through our bodies, we have a primary contact with them, we have already gained some insight, some knowledge about them before we start to communicate with each other. And this experience influences the way how we perceive other people, in what way we interpret what they are saying, if we understand them. This physical experience accompanies all our communication, it manifests itself in non-verbal signs, which sometimes gain the relevance of social cues, but which remain to some extent individual and personal. By referring to the body, communication becomes a sort of resonance-behaviour, where our bodies are in continuous contact with each other, even if we are not totally aware of it.
But another aspect is relevant in this context: Taking into account that we are embedded in the world through our body brings upon a decentration or deconstruction of the rational subject. We saw already that the body and our sensual experience of the world resist total explanation and rational control. So the subject is always confronted with the inaccessibility of its own nature, with the contingency of the world in general. So, becoming aware of the body has weakened the traditional position of the rational subject.
Before I refer to the body in cyberspace, I would like to mention another, more sociological, perspective. We live in an era which is characterized by a strong tendency towards segmentation and fragmentation of society, that means society is divided more and more in small segments, like specific milieus and peculiar subgroups. This influence our concept of identity in a profound way. According to the development in society in general, the subject itself seems more and more to be characterized by a multiplication, fragmentation, or say it in a more philosophical way, by decentration. And this not only because of its physical embeddedness in the world. We are confronted with various demands according to the different milieus in which we are living, where we have to act, etc. It becomes more and more difficult to get a coherent feeling for one's own identity, to have a clear insight on who we are. The subject is decomposed. In this situation, the body has achieved the function more and more of being the last instance which guarantees continuity, identity persistence, wholeness and subjective totality, and authenticity. That means: in a culture where the psychological concept of identity is confronted with its fragmentation, where the reflexive subject has been deconstructed, it is only the body which represents presence, identity, continuity. This is especially true for communication where the body functions as a sign for authenticity and trustworthiness of what has been said. We look at the bodies of our opponent number to decide whether the other one is speaking the truth or not, we are aware of discrepancies between what is said and what the body shows, we need physical signs to understand better what the other one is speaking.

The impact of the absence of the body in virtual environments

From this background I would like to refer to the processes in virtual environments and to look for the impacts of the absence of the body, which is typical for these worlds. I will put for discussion some ideas, which came up to me in my research on MUDs and MOOS (that are virtual game environments, where people can play with each other, where they can construct virtual identities according to their own wishes and present themselves in such a form). Usually, these MUDs and MOOs are text-based, so the body is represented only as a textual reconstruction and bodily signs are - to a very limited extent - substituted by a standardized language or so-called emoticons. Because of the text-based way of communication, people can present themselves with bodies which they desire to have. So the communication partners don't know whether they are speaking to programmes or people, whether they are speaking to males or females.
Three aspects seem to me worth mentioning here:
(1) If we remind on what phenomenology has pointed out concerning the bodily embeddedness in the world, it is obvious that the body is an important factor for understanding. All the physical signs, but most particular the primary contact which we have with our opponent number via our bodies make it possible to understand what the other one means besides pure language. This primary experience of the other one is missing in communication in text-based environments - so it may be regarded as a main source of miscomprehension which seems to take place rather often here (as a lot of studies about email contact have shown).
(2) The absence of the body or its textual reconstruction according to personal desires in the MOOs turn communication into a game in the dark, as the opposite number always remains fictitious, more a product of ones own imagination than a "real", physical opponent. So, the communication in these virtual environments is characterised above all by the existence of empty spaces, i.e. by space for the imagination and fantasy, which can unfold as a result of the inadequate knowledge of the other and the absence of the body. In this respect one is communicating less with "real people" than with the products of ones own powers of imagination. This becomes especially clear when one thinks of the shock which occurs described by those participants who have sought to go beyond the virtual initial contacts into real world encounters. The statement made by one interviewee after such a "real" encounter demonstrates very nicely the nature of the dilemma: "real life gave me too much information". A concrete meeting obviously destroys that space for the imagination which not only enables people to create their own virtual self, but is also to a large part responsible for the readiness to make contact and the intensity of these virtual liaisons. It is especially the absence of the corrective effect of physical encounters, which normally sets certain limits to the imagination, which allows this sort of fantasies.
(3) Creating virtual identities in the MOOs can be described as a form of technoid self-design. This self-design implies the idea of making dimensions of ones own available and controllable. This becomes especially virulent in the question of the textual construction of the body. Here, the body becomes an individually styled project, a part of the longed-for fictional self-design which can be manipulated. This tendency may be observed in our culture generally. It is based on the wish to gain control over one's own body, to make it into a reflective project. For the physical dimension has always been regarded as that area which resisted the visions of a unified, self-aware and self-controlled subject. Even if we assume that the perception of the bodies is of course always the product of cultural and ones own description, yet it is impossible to fully keep up with the physical being-in-the-world either linguistically or reflectively. In cyberspace, which is "a congress of minds, not of bodies," we can observe a kind of recall of the metaphysical gulf between the rationalistic and the sensual subject, which seems to be attributed to the same motives. So one important motive of the Cyberpunks, trying out an escape from the prison of their own bodies and a rejection of the physical-sensual empirical world in their virtual environments, may be interpreted as a desire to blank out that dimension in their self-design which would repeatedly break and call into question this construction of the self. For this physical dimension eludes the control of a subject designing itself, as it is always confronted with its own peculiar qualities and the alienation and contingency of the world. But these physical-sensual ties with the world set a dissonant moment of inaccessibility against one's own self-designs.
In this respect the processes of virtual self-design in the nets may be regarded as desires from people who wish to achieve some control over their own self by blanking out their body, the others, and the world.