As virtual worlds develop on the Internet and become more integrated into people's daily lives, we need to examine issues concerning how people are represented, and how these representations through the electronic medium affect people's social relationships and own identities. We can ask questions such as, what is the social function of the body, and what does the absence of body mean for social relationships? How is the body represented in cyberspace/virtual reality and to what end? What kind of interface should we consider to represent the body, and what effect would it have on communication and understanding? When we consider social agents, what effect will new forms of physical appearance (or lack of) have? And with new physical representations should we expect new gender roles, perhaps in addition to the identity deception and temporary personae that we already see in cyberspace?
Mitch Kapor and John Barlow wrote: "The old concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context, based as they are in physical manifestation, do not apply succinctly in a world where there can be none." Perhaps we need a new discipline in order to broaden our insight and understanding of our virtual selves. The traditional disciplines of anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology and philosophy can be supplemented by this new discipline. It is becoming known as cybertheory.
We are living in an age that may be on the verge of immersing itself in a digital culture. This leads to some basic points that we need to consider. First, when we enter a virtual world, is it fair to say that our consciousness is separated from our bodies? When we consider this, we can refer to the mind-body problem in philosophy, where the relationship between the mind and the body has been interpreted in different ways: materialism vs. idealism, and the Cartesian tradition where a clear distinction between mind and body has influenced our point of view up to today. This distinction is exemplified by Daniel Dennett's (1982) point that people of a disembodied society would not get intoxicated, since it is the brain that gets drunk, and the blood supply of the body is not connected with the blood supply of the brain. On the other hand, although real grieving has been reported to occur when people's MUD characters are killed, death in a virtual world does not mean that our physical bodies have died. Should we really speak about disembodiment, or rather should we imagine a background-foreground relationship with our bodies where they exist more in the background as we enter a digital environment?
To what extent do we project our own bodies into a virtual world? Conventions and standards of bodies in the real world are too often carried over into virtual environments: the beauty myth is manifest in descriptions of bodies as sexy and beautiful; similarly, many examples of virtual characters represented as strong and powerful bodies also exist. Although in electronic worlds, status does not play a strong role in determining interactions, users have not completely escaped from the idea of status in many MUDs and MOOs. This holds true whether one chooses to be a wizard or when one is of lower status, in which case they generally treat a wizard with extreme deference and respect (Curtis, 1996). Are we too deeply infused with the notions of beauty, power, and status that our virtual characters must also represent these conventional ideas? Does the fact that we see so many examples of real world conventions about the body transported into the virtual world mean that we are really disembodied? Are we not portraying bodies of our virtual characters as those that we wish our own bodies to resemble? How can we transcend the beauty myth in a virtual world and develop new ideas about the attractiveness of other individuals?
Our perception of a virtual world is still mediated through our senses in our physical bodies. However, the sensory information available in such a world is different and restricted, compared to our physical world experiences. Whereas in real life we receive sensory information through multiple perceptual channels, in a virtual world sensory information is restricted, either through a single or very few channels. In a text-based MUD, physical descriptions of ourselves and others, our gender, personalities, are all conveyed through a single channel. In a graphical virtual world, although visual information is present, it is often packaged into stereotypical representations. How does our use of different perceptual channels affect our ideas about our own and other actors' representations? Although sensory information is different to our real world experience, technology is already providing us with new ways to explore movement in virtual environments. We can fly over landscapes, penetrate walls, enjoy multiple views simultaneously, move through all corners of Euclidean space, and step outside our portrayed representations, and back in again. Will these new experiences push our awareness of our body further into the background, will we feel completely disembodied, or will we be able to bring these bodily movement experiences back into our physical worlds to think anew about our own physical selves?
Dennett, D. 1982: Where am I? In: D.R. Dennett and D.R. Hofstadter (eds.), The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, Harmondsworth, Eng.
Curtis, P. 1996: Excerpt from Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities. In: M. Stefik, ed. Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors, Cambridge, MA.