Interaction, Interface, and Desire

Allucquère Rosanne Stone


I've been studying the development of virtual communities. Over the time we have identified a trajectory in the ways that these communities evolve. Some of that is relevant to the issues that we are talking about with regard to the body. The first stage is, logically enough, the young stage. In the young stage we find that the communities are populated mainly by technology-minded people who are trying to figure out how the particular environment works. For instance, we have observed this in an on life technologies environment which were in the process of setting up at the Advanced Communications Technologies Laboratory in Austin from where I come from. One of the things we see is that people do things that are very much like the old amateur radio enthusiasts which is to say they tend to say things like "Does this work?" "Can you hear me?" "Try tweaking this and it will get better!" That's what we call the young stage. Then there is the middle stage. In the middle stage you have the recognisable communities, the chat rooms. Within the chat rooms - at least in the ones that are concerned with things of the body - we find an intense concentration on sex. Then there are areas that are for other things, e.g. for discussions. The area devoted to sex is one that I have been particularly interested in because of the peculiar relationship that sex has to the body. And since this is a totally undeniable fact I like to come back to it over and over again because I like to have at least one fact that is undeniable in my talks.
Recently we have also been studying what I have been calling the mature virtual communities. And these are interesting because in the mature world nothing happens really except for once in a while. In the first place they are extremely hard to find because they don't like people bumping in and out and making random conversation or trying to get sex. The mature communities are usually closed virtual worlds which are by admission only, by permission only. You can watch a mature virtual world for hours and there are maybe ten or twelve people logged in and nobody says anything. They are all just there. They are present. They are kind of hanging out. People logged in a mature virtual community generally have this little window on the corner of their screen. These are people who generally spend their whole lives in front of screens. Having a window open in one corner means that in a sense they are logged in because that window is open. They are participating in that community by sitting quietly in it. Every once in a long while someone will say something. After hours and hours of observation someone will say something like "Hey, I found a peculiar thing happening in my script. It does this. What do you think about that?" There will be a long pensive silence lasting a few minutes or perhaps an hour or more. Finally, someone will say, "Have you tried changing line 12 to this?" More silence. Eventually the other person will come back and say "Oh, that's better. Thank you." Nobody logs out, nobody changes. They go back to sitting there again. It is very quiet. When we talk to the people who occupy these communities they say things like "It's a very nice social space. We all know each other very well. We know our habits. We don't really have to explain them to each other. We are just there." I find this deeply comforting in some ways.
There is one additional category that we call the senescent world. Those are worlds that are basically dead. They are uninhabited. You log into them and perhaps you may find one other person there. They will ask you a question or maybe not and then they will wander away. Or there may be no one there at all for long periods of time. We consider those worlds to be like planets that have evolved, life has had its day on them. Life forms have now died off but the rock of the planets still exists until the gods of cyberspace come along and wipe them out.
I want to talk for a moment about the middle period, the one with the chat rooms in which sex goes on. These communities have their origins in earlier forms of virtuality, the most obvious of which is phone sex. The salient fact here is that when people are doing phone sex, they construct bodies for each other using the limited bandwith medium of the telephone. This means voice exclusively, although in some of the environments, sound effects are used. The thing that we learned from this is that people are quite willing to convert very complex experiences into simple explanations which I called tokens as a way of conveying a lot of information in a very small space. Considering the phone sex community as one which understands a set of cues it is possible by issuing one of these cues as a speech act to elicit a very complex response from the person at the other end. This is only possible when both ends of the conversation understand what the tokens are and how to unpack them. The metaphor I use for this is sending someone a little compressed foam plastic animal which when you dip it in hot water at the other end expands into something much larger.
Several people currently working in this field have been trying to demonstrate that the idea of the locality of agency and the locality of the body is an illusion that we generate for each other. In particular one of these people is the artist Stellarc ( who has been doing body events in which he covers his body with electrodes that are connected to direct currency amplifiers and those are then connected through a computer to the Internet. Somewhere out in the Internet there are people who can wear exoskeletons that convert their movements into impulses that are sent through the Internet. The actual form in which this is done is called MIDI - Musical Instrument Digital Interface which is a pre-existing protocol that works very well for this. They move their bodies on one end and by means of the Internet at the other end Stellarc is forced to move his body the same way. Here we have a kind of a teleoperation in which who is actually operating you becomes problematic. Part of what Stellarc wants to point out by this is: who is operating you? Who is behind? What agencies are behind the movements that you are making that you consider to be entirely a product of your personal agency? But that isn't part of this talk. I did want to mention because of what Kerstin Dautenhahn mentioned about inter-species communication that there is an item you can find on the web called CHIL which is the Chicken Human Interface Language. It is part of a partly humourous experiment in inter-species intercommunication which is worth having a look at.
There are therapy units connected to special neurological wards of hospitals. Those neurological wards are designed to deal with high injuries of the spine in which the body is completely paralyzed and in which there may be no sensation left in the body anywhere below the neck. Those rehabilitation centres among other things not only teach people how to get along in that circumstance, but also on many occasions can re-educate or retrain their bodies in order to be able to experience sexual pleasure. They do that through a process of retraining people to think of their body differently. They train people first of all to consider parts of their bodies that they would not ordinarily consider as being sexual centres or centres of sensuality to be such. A favourite area is under the jaw bone. This is not an area which is subject to much contact and which is usually very sensitive. So they train people to have orgasms by touching themselves there. A man with a bald spot on top of his head trained himself to have an orgasm by stroking himself up there. I have carried this to a certain length in my performance work by remapping the surface of my body. I don't have any spine injuries, I have sensations in my body. But if you take this training as a professional investigator you discover that then you can move the erotic centres of your body around in rather odd ways. In other contexts I sometimes map my clitoris to the palm of my left hand as a demonstration and then proceed to do sexual things with it while the audience does things back. In doing so, particularly in the United States, I want to call into question the idea that there are areas of the body that you cannot see which in public are forbidden and that those have to do with the definition of pornography. What I do when I do these little masturbation pieces is definitely pornographic but it's legally not considered so. There is nothing illegal about having an orgasm in public by rubbing the palm of my hand.
I have tried to touch very quickly on the themes of the flexibility and plasticity of the coupling between body surface and eroticism and the actual virtual sense of how body sensations, in particular eroticism, works and tried to connect that to virtuality, to the agendas in some sense of community and to the ways that we as humans learn to compress and expand certain ideas of which sensuality is one of them in order to live in a virtual world. As the first example I brought up points out, a mature virtual world may go back to a state of bodilessness from which it began.