After virtuality: a postmortem on early internet culture
For a few heady years in the 1990s, “the virtual” was set to transform the very fabric of social life. Virtual identities meant we could become experimental selves, free from traditional markers of race, class and gender. In virtual communities, we would engage in global public discussion about the topics that really mattered to us. Because we had left behind the real world and its arbitrary forms of hierarchy and exclusion, all that mattered in these virtual public spheres was the value of our ideas, and the clarity of our reason. Virtual reality, meanwhile, was set to replace the technologies of film and television. Why settle for mass produced entertainment on TV when you could put on your VR helmet and be in the show?
Well, so much for the virtual future. In recent years, there has been no shortage of signs that new media technologies do not transform the fabric of social life, but are simply drawn into it. Going online once meant transcending the confines of the everyday, but now there could be nothing more routine. By the mid-2000s, the metaphor of cyberspace, which had been synonymous with virtual reality in the 1990s, had little connection with the social media and networking sites that populated our online experience: “Cyberspace was somewhere else. The web is where we live.” (Levy and Stone, 2006).
It’s no surprise, then, that webcommentators and researchers have worked hard to rid the field of its virtual associations – to point out how the concept amounted to no more than a confused reaction to new technology. Far from an explanatory concept, the virtual makes it harder to understand the web and its social and cultural effects. But how far should media studies go in dismissing virtuality and the early internet culture it represented? How has the concept and its criticism been configured so far, and how does this measure up to the new media histories now being written?
For some, virtuality did not so much disappear as become domesticated, while the hype that surrounded it moved on to newer technologies. Unfettered online communities and virtual realities have been reduced to an “electronic suburb” (Norman Klein, quoted in Manovich, 2005). But if cyberspace has become dull, the sense of wonder that accompanied it survives elsewhere. Lev Manovich describes a new paradigm of media technology that he calls augmented space (also called ‘augmented reality’), where information turns the physical world into a hybrid of virtual and real space. In this new regime, display surfaces multiply as do mobile technologies that allow for an information-enhanced “overlay” to be placed onto the physical world – in practice, this means technologies like the Amsterdam-based Layar and the highly anticipated Google Glasses.
Another notable narrative of the virtual’s demise is its commercialization and the removal of a utopian impulse. This is clear enough when comparing augmented reality ventures to their virtual counterparts from the 1990s, as the former lack any critical component. Layar and Google Glasses are cool, but are not supposed to make the world better or democratize media; their purpose is to make it easier to find a nearby Starbucks.
This is in line with what Steven Shaviro calls the rise of “virtual economies” (2007). In the 1990s, text-based virtual worlds such as LambdaMOO facilitated creative identity play. If you felt the categories of “Canadian,” “female” or “human” didn’t apply to you, here was a space where you could literally rewrite your existence: more comfortable being described as a gnome or a hippie robot? Not a problem. This still holds for the graphical virtual worlds that are popular today, but with an important qualifier: now you’ll need to pay for your accessories. By introducing currencies and, most importantly, scarcity, virtual worlds like Second Life reinforce the idea that self-expression is largely about what products one chooses to buy. As Dibbell notes, LambdaMOO also allowed users to also experiment with social structures and political organization, the work of creating what he called a “tiny society” (1998). Second Life, by contrast, is governed by the familiar logics of ownership and consumerism. Shaviro laments this change, but warns against any nostalgia. For him, the transition to virtual economies serves as a necessary reminder that the reality of libertarian-capitalism is one that won’t be overcome through technology alone (2007).
A third take on the disappearing gap between the on- and offline is that we are now finally realizing how revolutionary new media may actually be. Clay Shirky, for example, makes the classic argument that a technology is only truly disruptive after it becomes commonplace (2008). The sense that the web is an “elsewhere” falls apart when your mom friends you on Facebook, for example, but this change is also what enabled Egyptian protesters to use social media to organize and publicize their calls for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s government in 2011. A similar point is made by Ethan Zuckerman, whose “cute cat theory of digital activism” playfully correlates the most trivial uses of web 2.0 platforms to their potential as tools for activists (2008). As we let go of the metaphor of cyberspace, it becomes possible to see how the web has become meaningful within existing social institutions and practices.
It is hard to fault these observations and arguments. Our online lives are not fantastical or inherently emancipatory, as once seemed to be the case, while recognition of the “actual reality” of the web has opened our eyes to significant real-world applications. At the same time, though, conceptual histories of new media (though still few and far between) show how these various critiques fail to fully capture the complexity of virtuality and early internet culture.
The foundations of virtuality as it appeared in the 1990s can be traced back at least to the mid-20th century. What N. Katherine Hayles calls the “condition of virtuality,” or the assumption that information is logically distinct from the material world, was made possible by the emergence of cybernetics as a general science for understanding human behavior and society in terms of information exchange, feedback and self-regulating systems (Galison, 1994; Hayles, 1999). Taking such ideas out of their military and university contexts, members of the counterculture used cybernetics and associated information technologies in their efforts to create self-sufficient communes – “tiny societies” that intended to reverse the hierarchies and disparities typical of the mainstream society they were rejecting. These historical ties would continue to resonate in the 1990s as Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold and other veterans of the counterculture helped shape understandings of new media technology as productive of a new world made up of information and logically distinct from the material one we inhabit (Turner, 2006).
This countercultural presence was clear in Mondo 2000, the tech culture magazine now remembered as the druggy, hippie precursor to Wired, but that during the height of its popularity in 1993 was seen as a harbinger of a fast arriving age of virtuality. By putting articles on hackers and the latest VR hardware next to interviews with William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary, Mondo represented a conflation of these 1960s and 1990s scenes. The strange combination was perfectly summarized by the tagline for Time’s cover story on Mondo and the new cyber- subcultures: “virtual sex, smart drugs and synthetic rock ‘n’ roll.”
Perhaps more important than its efforts to tie computing to the revolutionary spirit of the counterculture, Mondo offered an influential vision of the relationship of virtual technology to existing media. On the one hand, this was antagonistic: similar to Howard Rheingold’s statement that virtual community might circumvent the spectacle of mass media and promote meaningful dialogue, regular contributor John Perry Barlow wrote that VR could challenge media saturation and television-inspired passivity by helping users to reconnect with one another (Rheingold, 2000; Barlow, 1993).
On the other hand, Mondo painted a more ambivalent picture of virtuality not as a means to transform social life, but rather as the integration of publicity culture into it. “Rarely are we defined by who we are in person-to-person contact,” wrote founding editor R.U. Sirius (aka Ken Goffman) in the magazine’s first issue, “We are defined by the information and images we send out, how we package ourselves […] Within virtual reality, your concept of you is you” (1989: 85).
In this vision, the virtual is not so much an emancipatory effect of new technology as an expansion of the fictional character of mass media. One of the key moves in the magazine was to highlight this aspect of media culture, whether through deconstructions of news media or, in one memorable case, the creation of the band Mondo Vanilli (an ironic tribute to Milli Vanilli). Here, the critical edge of new technologies was not the ability to circumvent mass media, but rather to perform acts of subversive infiltration. References to media pranks and related tactics featured heavily in the magazine. One article chronicled the controversy surrounding Negativland’s song “Christianity is Stupid” – the band stated in a press release that the song was a favorite of David Brom (a teenager who murdered his parents and siblings in 1988), a fabrication that was then reported as fact by various news outlets and generated subsequent coverage. As regular Mondo contributor Mark Dery would argue, such spectacular acts (which he called “culture jamming”) aimed to foreground the ability of mass media to deceive and obfuscate, while suggesting the potential of new technology for formulating an oppositional response (1993).
This particular version of 1990s virtuality – which might be summarized as the marriage of media culture to information technology – remains under theorized, but its connections to contemporary web culture should be obvious.
Social networking sites are not virtual communities in the sense that Rheingold coined the term, but they do represent the kind of personal mass media suggested by Sirius and others in Mondo 2000. Rather than create communities of global netizens, these platforms have helped bring techniques of publicity into everyday life, as they enable (or enforce) what Clive Thompson has called “micro-celebrity” (2007). We’re encouraged not to experiment with who we are, but rather to narrate our lives, manage our public appearances and garner attention in the form of likes and retweets.
Meanwhile, the legacy of spectacular resistance and the media prank can be seen in one of the few remaining examples of virtuality’s subcultural and oppositional stance. The digital activist group Anonymous has been theorized as a gateway to collective political action, but this is one that is layered in irony and pop-culture references – from the iconic Guy Fawkes masks poached from a graphic novel to calls to action that resemble movie trailers more than they do political communication (Coleman, 2011). Tellingly, one of the group’s first organized actions in 2006 was to “jam” the highly-commercialized and sanitized virtual world Habbo Hotel (Singel, 2008). Despite the label of ‘hacktivism’ so often attached to Anonymous, its defense of an online world free of government or corporate control is more often a reproduction of the kind of publicity-driven resistance that featured so heavily in Mondo 2000.
More generally, what Mondo teaches us is that early internet culture includes undercurrents and assumptions that remain unexplored, and these may help to contextualize (rather than obscure) the current situation. Ultimately it is a good thing that virtuality is losing currency as a category for describing new media culture, and this is a development that will help those who are trying to understand the medium and who care about its future (Morozov, 2011). At the same time, we also need to revisit the historical and cultural conditions that made new media “virtual” in the first place.
Michael Stevenson is promovendus bij Mediastudies aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam, waar hij tevens colleges geeft. Een paar van zijn onderzoeksinteresses zijn vroege cybercultuur en de hedendaagse webcultuur, wat duidelijk terug te vinden is in dit artikel.