Decentering the Self in the Technological Age
In a beautiful park, at the gazebo, stand my two friends, Avatar and Lewia. The wizard is performing the ceremony, and all is going very well. After many hours of intimate chat and romantic evenings together, today Avatar and Lewia are to be married - on the internet. This is the height of immersion to MUDlife. Life on the internet is affecting more people than many of us like to admit. I am interested in discussing the reasons for and repercussions of this sort of immersion.
The above description actually did occur, several years ago. It was around the time of the first real explosion of the world wide web, when the internet was reserved for "computer geeks" like myself. The internet offers hundreds of "virtual spaces" called MUDs for "Multi User Domain". Within these MUDs, users create characters for themselves and virtual worlds for their characters. Interaction is purely text-based, with few rules. The worlds are controlled by "wizards", users who have the power to "toad" or delete characters that are abusive or unruly in some other way. My (real life) friend and his girlfriend used to frequent "The Resort", a MUD for general discussion that has since been closed. My personal interest was quite limited, but I had to attend the cyber-ceremony out of respect. My internet personality, or i-dentity, was, after all, BestManChris. Inspired by a similar net-event described in Sherry Turkle's Life On The Screen, I have recently reflected on the repercussions of that net-wedding. For people as young as we were, twelve years old, the internet and chat rooms are an escape from the control of parents and teachers; they were a chance to be more "grown up" than real life would permit. Granted, children have been performing mock-weddings for many years, but only on the internet is the mock wedding followed by a mock-reception in which guests of all ages attend and no one knows the real identities or ages of the others.
It is often the case that adults do not understand computer systems as well as their children, so the excuse "I'm doing homework" works all too often. I think Turkle is right when she says "parents ... do need to learn enough about computer networks to discuss with their children ... and lay down some basic safety rules." (p. 227). Children have always attempted to rebel from parental control and to act more "grown up". The internet provides a new outlet for this. Children, like my friends, can have virtual sex, and even get virtually married. The danger comes when MUDlife begins to substitute for real life. Turkle describes Stewart, a person that uses the internet as a remedy for loneliness and psychological despair. Children who use internet chat rooms are still learning about relationships and social structure. When exposed to the free and often graphically sexual universe of the MUD, I fear that the seeds for a "life on the screen" are planted. They may...