home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap
home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap

Not Without a Body? Bodily Functions in Cyberspace

Ute Hoffmann , 97

  jump-off point



It has become common knowledge that the technologies of cyberspace - electronic networks, computer-mediated communication and virtual reality systems - remove us from our body and the embodied world. Yet, in a somewhat ironic turn of history, the very same technologies have fuelled an expanding interest in the nature of embodiment.
The rise of interest in the body is certainly related to a broader range of phenomena such as the refinement of practices of technological body modification and a set of popular cultures of the body. It is difficult to avoid the ubiquity and presence of the body which is reflected in an outpouring of literature on the body in social and cultural studies. As Featherstone & Turner (1995) point out in their introduction to the first issue of the new journal Body & Society, the body figures particularly in the study of the social significance of the body, the active role of the body in social life, the differences between gender and sex, the relation between body and technology, the study of health and illness, and the sociology of sport.
When the program committee of the 6th International IFIP-Conference on Women, Work and Computerization (WWC) decided to include the body as one of the topics for discussion the focus was on bodies that quite literally disappear into cyberspace. In the Call for Participation the topic was announced as follows:
Not Without a Body? Bodily Functions in Cyberspace (How) Is the body represented in cyberspace/virtual reality and to what end? The body as interface. Transgressing the gendered body? Incorporating software agents.

The conference provided an interdisciplinary forum for researchers, practitioners and users in the field of information technology. The series of IFIP WWC conferences has developed a strong tradition of seamless discussions across different disciplinary perspectives and areas of practice. This tradition has also been passed on to the panel that eventually dealt with bodily matters and the discussions of which are documented in this paper. The panelists come from a variety of backgrounds that include biology, design, philosophy, psychology, sociology and transgender theory. They are (in order of appearance):

Kerstin Dautenhahn, Lecturer at the University of Reading, Department of Cybernetics, UK. She has previously held positions at the German National Research Institute for Information Technology (GMD) and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Artificial Intelligence Lab. Originally trained in biology, Kerstin Dautenhahn has integrated her interest in natural living systems into the area of robotics and social agents. Her research goals are the investigation of social intelligence and individual interactions in groups of autonomous agents, including humans and other animals, software agents and robots.

Gloria Mark, Research Scientist at the German National Research Institute for Information Technology (GMD) in St. Augustin, Germany. She works in the area of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) where as a psychologist, she has studied group systems in use. She has worked on projects involving electronic meeting rooms, collaborative hypermedia authoring systems, and PoliTeam, a groupware system designed to enable long-distance cooperation between government workers in Bonn and Berlin. Currently, she is working on a team to develop The Social Web, to facilitate social experiences in cyberspace.
Christina Schachtner, Professor at the University of Marburg, Institute of Education Science, Germany. She has authored articles and books on software development, children and computer, and technology and gender.
Judith S. Donath, Assistant Professor (as of 1/98) in the MIT Media Laboratory, currently involved in research on the design of on-line social environments. She is the designer of a number of on-line systems, including the Electric Postcard, the Visual Who, and the Sociable Web, and was co-organizer of the on-line exhibit Portraits in Cyberspace and the event Day in the Life of Cyberspace. She is the author of a number of articles on life and behavior in cyberspace, and her interests include identity and deception in cyberspace, and virtual fashion.
Alluquère Rosanne Stone , Assistant Professor in the department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas, and director of the Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory, where she studies issues related to interface, interaction, and desire. She has previously held positions at the University of California San Diego, National Institutes of Health; Bell Telephone Laboratories Special Systems Exploratory Development Group, has been a consultant, computer programmer, technical writer and engineering manager in Silicon Valley; and worked with Jimi Hendrix in music recording. Currently, she is director of the Group for the Study of Virtual Systems at the Center for Cultural Studies, UC Santa Cruz. She is the author of a number of articles and books on cyberculture.
Barbara Becker . Research Scientist at the German National Research Institute for Information Technology (GMD) in St. Augustin, Germany. She has authored articles and books on philosophical and sociological implications of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, media arts and media theory.
The overall theme of the conference was "Spinning a Web from Past to Future" (Grundy et al. 1997). The body's destiny lends itself as hardly any other subject to making continuity and breaks visible while crossing over into cyberspace. At this point a few remarks are in order of how the Projektgruppe Kulturraum Internet comes in. In part, the link between the group and the panel is a personal one and stems from the previous involvement of the editor of this paper in the Special Interest Group "Women`s Work and Informatics" of the German "Gesellschaft für Informatik" (GI) who organized WWC 97. More important, however, is the relationship between the work of the Projektgruppe Kulturraum Internet and the issues explored at the panel at the conceptual level.
Cyberspace provides a range of technologically mediated environments within which humans - but not humans alone - can interact. These environments offer possibilities of new forms of disembodiment and reembodiment which trigger inquiries in the very notion of embodiment. At the same time the displacement and the transfiguration of the material body illustrate a more general aspect: technologies of Cyberspace open up spaces of transformation which affect longstanding domain assumptions about the nature of social relationships and the division between the material and the social and the technical and the social. The investigation of the body (Müller 1996), strategies and sites of network ordering (Helmers/Hoffmann/Hofmann 1996) and the issue of non-human agency (Helmers & Hoffmann 1996 and Helmers/Hoffmann/Stamos-Kaschke 1997)
In the remainder of this introduction I would like - very briefly - to outline a tentative framework for the issues addressed by the panel. As the most common denominator the panelists traverse and explore spaces of "body building": how are bodies performed? Thus, the notion of body is treated as a verb rather than a noun. The spaces and modes of body building addressed by the panel can be characterized further by using a series of divisions through which the discussions cycle.
First, there is a concern with the questions of what is done to the body versus what the body does . The latter pertains to the embodied bases of the practical constitution of social life. The idea of embodiment as a universal prerequisite of meaningful encounters within and across different species - animals, humans and robots - is perhaps most explicitly pointed out by Kerstin Dautenhahn.
A second gradient relates to the body as "material-semiotic object" (Haraway 1991). There is a tension between the representational notion of the body versus functional accounts of the multiple ways in which material and technological bodies are engaged in heterogeneous relationships. Gloria Mark poses some basic questions that arise when there is no longer a single body but both a virtual and a physical body
A third concern relates to the question wheather or not the body remains not only at the heart of social life and social interaction, but also the heart of personal identity. Christina Schachtnerargues that sometimes it might be useful to "lose" one's body, i.e. one's bodily limits in the machine or in the virtual realm created through this machine. What is effected through such a move does not necessarily lead to the romantic fusion with the object. Rather, an intermediate space can be created as a resource for designing bodies and identities which transcend the current order of things and discourse.
Anne Balsamo (1995) highlights the many different ways in which the merger of the "biological" and the "technological" can occur. Corresponding to the multiple figurations of technological embodiment in which the body and technology are joined in a literal sense there exists a variety of ways by which (dis-)embodiment can be achieved in virtual worlds. The distinction between compression and extension is a fourth area of investigation into the translation of the material to the virtual body. We have a variety of choices of online interaction: text-based or graphical, asynchronous or synchronous, video and audio. Judith Donath takes a look at how different online environments allow for or constrain the construction of body language without the body.
Users can be quite inventive in their use of narrow-bandwith media in order to experience and exchange body sensations. The flexibility and plasticity of the coupling between the body surface and body sensations is highlighted by Sandy Stone. She also points out time as a fifth gradient in studying (dis)embodied online communities. There are not only multiple modes of disembodiment, reembodiment and emotionl attachment associated to bandwith but also to the different stages through which virtual worlds evolve.
Finally, Barbara Becker uses the distinction of presence and absence of the body to discuss changes in the construction of reflexive self-identity. The range of ways in which one can represent one's (dis)embodied subjectivity has become much more varied and flexible. Virtual self-design opens up new spaces of imagination. In the end, however, the virtual self cannot do away with the fact that somehow there is always a body involved even if some people may try to forget about that.
The panel has touched upon some of the issues that are central to body building in Cyberspace but not Cyberspace alone. Other issues, while also important, for some reason or other did not receive the attention they deserve. To mention only three of them: In talking about the (dis)embodied social agent the question of who is the agent of reprensentation needs to be examined more closely. Playing in the MUDs is one thing, the digitized representation of corporeal identity, for example the Human Genome Project, is quite another. Such projects give rise to complex issues of institutional, access, and property rights regarding the body. The question of what happens to the gendered body is another area that needs further exploration. Will the transgendered body actually be the natural body in cyberspace as Stone (1995: 180) has suggested? What will be the interplay between our lives inside and outside of cyberspace? Cyberspace more often that not has been conceptualized as a parallel world to the so called real world. It might be more appropriate, however, to talk about Cyberspace in terms of embeddedness and the virtual as part of the real.
The sensitivity to diversity and difference is a central feature of the panel. So, is there a need for a cybertheory of the body? To me, the commitment to an open theoretical style that translates across different areas of research and diciplinary perspectives seems to be more worthwile than a unifying approach. There is not just always a body involved, there are endless possibilities of (dis)embodiment.

The Physical Body in Cyberspace: At the Edge of Extinction?
Kerstin Dautenhahn.

Flying Through Walls and Virtual Drunkenness: Disembodiment in Cyberspace?
Gloria Mark

Between Deconstruction and Construction: Contradictory Body Experiences in Software Development
Christina Schachtner

Body Language Without the Body: Situating Social Cues in the Virtual World
Judith Donath

Interaction, Interface, and Sensuality
Sandy Stone

To be in Touch or Not? Some Remarks on Communication in Virtual Environments
Barbara Becker


Balsamo, A. 1995. Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contenporary Culture", in: M. Featherstone & R. Burrows (Eds.). Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk. Cultures of Technological Embodiment. London: Sage, 215-237.

Grundy, A.F. et al., eds. 1997. Women, Work and Computerization. Spinning a Web from Past to Future. Proceedings of the 6th International IFIP-Conference Bonn, Germany, May 24-27, 1997, Berlin: Springer.

Helmers, Sabine, Hoffmann, Ute & Hofmann, Jeanette, 1996, Netzkultur und Netzwerkorganisation. Das Projekt "Interaktionsraum Internet". WZB Discussion Paper FS II 96-103, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung.

Helmers, S. & Hoffmann, U. 1996. "Demokratische Netzpolitik - (k)ein Platz für Agenten", in: E. Bulmahn et al. (eds.). Informationsgesellschaft - Medien - Demokratie. Kritik, Positionen, Visionen. Marburg: BdWi-Verlag, 269-275.

Helmers, S., Hoffmann, U. & Stamos-Kaschke, J. 1997. "(How) Can Software Agents Become Good Net Citizens?" Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, Vol.3, No. 2, Februar 1997

Helmers, S., Hoffmann, U. & Hofmann, J. 1996. Netzkultur und Netzwerkorganisation. Das Projekt "Interaktionsraum Internet". WZB Discussion Paper FS II 96-103, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung.

Müller, J. 1996. Virtuelle Körper. Aspekte sozialer Körperlichkeit im Cyberspace. WZB Discussion Paper FS II 96-105, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung..

Stone, A. S. 1995. The War of Desire and Technology at the End of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap
home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap

Projektgruppe "Kulturraum Internet". c/o Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB)
Reichpietschufer 50, 10785 Berlin. Telefon: (030) 254 91 - 207; Fax: (030) 254 91 - 209;
; http://duplox.wzb.eu.