V i r t u a l   B o d i e s   i n   t h e   C i t y *  o f   B i t s
by Donald L. Baker
SCP Journal, Virtual Reality, volume 20:2, 1996, pp.16-23

Cyberspace, we are often told, is a disembodied medium. Testimonies to this effect are everywhere....In a sense, these testimonies are correct; the body remains in front of the screen rather than within it. In another sense, however, they are deeply misleading, for they obscure the crucial role that the body plays in constructing cyberspace. In fact, we are never disembodied. --N. Katherine Hayles in Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments

In Part One, I discussed two hidden building blocks of cyberspace--two mythic concepts describing cyberspace, whose proponents are currently engaged in a Darwinian struggle for cybercultural dominance. The first posits an electronic frontier, a wide-open digital vista in which cybercitizens are allowed total freedom to communicate and share files without real-life (RL) government- or community-imposed restrictions. The second model imagines cyberspace as a place of control, a place where massive quantities of data are manipulated and made useful through helpful software programs--including virtual reality (VR)--and where children are protected from obscene online material through similarly helpful software filters. The recently-enacted telecommunications reform bill leans to this second model, assigning Internet service providers the task of policing their networks to prevent the availability of obscene content.

Commenting on this model, Michael Sorkin notes that in cyberspace "the body, the person, no longer simply exists in public space but actually becomes it...."2 And VR only exacerbates the potential loss of privacy, according to art and robotics professor, Simon Penny: "[T]he prospect of real-time surveillance is so much more simply facilitated in VR: not only will the computer know where you are, but what kind of information you are accessing and where your various body parts are at the time. As digital media become ever-more encapsulating, so the possibility of permanent real-time surveillance becomes real."

Our growing fear of physical monitoring and surveillance in cyberspace is but one aspect of CyberMillennial anxieties relating to our physical bodies. What are the sources of this anxiety?

The Body in Question.

The adoption in Europe and America of the 18th-century Enlightenment belief in Reason over Faith, and the similarly man-imposed cleft between materiality and spirituality, are at the root of the problem. Loss of faith in a transcendent God and, by extension, belief in the inherent dignity of the human body are the result.

God created Man in His image, and we are intended to fulfill that function in our whole being. Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton comment: Human beings are God's ambassadors, his representative, to the rest of creation. We are the stewards he has set in authority over the earth to manifest his presence and to reflect his glory in all our cultural doings.

But note that the image consists in our bodily representation of God. The whole person, and not some inner spiritual part, is created in God's image. We reflect God's glory and represent him on earth by our total, physical presence. Indeed, visibility is of the essence, for we are to make the invisible God visible by our lives.4

In losing faith in the God of the Bible, Western culture kicked out the support for understanding the body as God's representation on earth, and particularly in the truth of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit in redeemed believers. A corresponding desire for a secular utopia romanticized the role of machines, notably in artists' movements prior to the mechanized slaughter of the First World War: The Futurists, such as Marinetti and Malevich, saw in the machine the energy and strength sufficient for the construction of utopian societies. For cubist painters, human beings began to resemble complex mechanisms. Artists such as Leger, Feininger, Kandinsky, and Picasso began to fill the visual landscape with robotlike creatures.

Beginning with the Great War, the experiences of the 20th century have provided one "body blow" after another to the culture. More humans have been killed and mutilated in our century, in more various and horrific ways, than ever before. Marxism-Leninism and Fascism in particular--the most utopian of Modern philosophies--seem to have held the greatest hatred for the body, even as they denied an otherworldly existence.

Advanced technology has been deployed for much of the century's grim-reaping. Then too, first machinery and now computers have been responsible for the loss of millions of jobs in the name of efficiency, even as many more jobs have been created by the new technologies. Industrialization--and now computerization (also known by its euphemism, post-industrialization)--has occurred so rapidly that we have had insufficient time to adapt to the existence of machines in our landscape, and to their effects on our lives. (In the U.S. only the Amish, who I derided in Part One as living in "principled cultural irrelevancy," have made the decision to accept new technology at their own pace, and in their own ways.)

Pop culture has repeatedly mirrored our anxiety over our relationship with machines, from Charlie Chaplin's struggle with ruthless metal gears in "Modern Times," to the unstoppable man-machine hybrids, The Borg, in "Star Trek.". Cultural critics Arthur and Marilouise Kroker contend the media are offering us images they call "panic bodies" that reflect "all the grisly symptoms of culture burnout:

"The hysteria around physical fitness, civil liberties, AIDS treatment, the right to life, the right to death, eating disorders, the war on drugs, surveillance in the workplace, steroids in pro sports, and the sexual exploits of public figures are all symptoms [of panic bodies].6

Multimedia artist and writer, Nell Tenhaaf, draws on Freudian psychoanalytic theory to suggest that our current fixation with cyberspace may be "a 'hysterical' fantasy of the late twentieth century...expressing an inutterable [sic] desire for a more fluid subjectivity and a body that knows itself better, and this by a simulation through technologies of enhanced organic behavior [i.e., a wired-up body]."7.

According to the PoMo (postmodern) philosophy popular in the current CyberMillennium period, the body is tainted by its inescapable connection with sex-based gender, and thereby with sexual politics--particularly the perceived white-male domination of women and the non-Western world. The following statement, from a Canadian (male) professor, is typical:

Men's fascination with technology is linked to the masculine need to be in control of the material world, to know how to extend that control, to be able to act, and to be independent of reliance on others. In this respect science and technology are dominantly male in nature and have been forged from the development of capitalism, materialism, and individualism in western culture since the Renaissance. Reason is the supporting structure of the masculine fascination with technology and its products.8

PoMo philosophy views the body as the locus of a continuing battleground for political and sexual power. Feminist author, Kathy Acker, was asked: "Your books always return to the site of the body: as a source of power, a center of struggle for power, as the place we finally exist in, as opposed to our thoughts. Why generally are you so interested in the body?" Her answer is enlightening:

When reality--the meanings associated with reality--is up for grabs--which is certainly...one of the central problems in philosophy and art ever since the end of the 19th century--then the body itself becomes the only thing you can return to....it's the body which finally can't be touched by all our skepticism and ambiguous systems of belief. The body is the only place where any basis for real values exists anymore. 9.

The Body Inadequate?

Acker, Tenhaaf, and the Krokers are responding, in their own ways, to the relentless assault of science, technology, and PoMo culture upon our self-concept. Our society is rendering the body obsolete through the technologies of communication and calculation, which mock our physical limitations. At the same time, the processes of (post)industrialization and urbanization, and the breakdown in morality derived from the "death" of God, have alienated us from one another, increasing the natural fear and distrust we have of those we perceive as outsiders. And PoMo teaches that reality is socially constructed--not objectively factual--and that language is a tool used by the powerful to control others. "According to the postmodernists," notes Gene Edward Veith, "all reality is virtual reality. We are all wearing helmets that project our own separate little worlds. We can experience these worlds and lose ourselves in them, but they are not real, nor is one person's world exactly the same as someone else's. We are not creating our own reality, however. Rather, we accept a reality made by someone else."10.

Therefore, it seems logical that our bodies are the only refuge left to us. Yet even the body is not a safe haven, for we are subject to detection, surveillance, and penetration by an increasing number of technological devices.

As a result, many today seem to harbor an "inutterable" wish to leave the flesh behind, to project their consciousness into the cyberspace of TV, computer networks, and VR. Rejecting transcendence through traditional Western religious practices, many in our culture are desperately seeking a gnostic release from the body. They seek this release in a number of ways: through orgiastic sensory experience, through Eastern religious experiences, and through escape into cyberspace.

There are some, however, who are desperate not because they hate the body, or seek safety in it, but because they see it as inadequate to participate in the possibilities available to the mind in the CyberMillennium: the comprehension and manipulation of electronic data directly through the brain; the augmentation or substitution of body parts with manufactured replacements or prosthetic devices; the possibility of life extension, even "immortality," through the transfer of consciousness to computers. The body is imagined, to be blunt, as obsolete--no longer worthy of the psalmist's praise.

The Australian performance artist, Stelarc, makes his living by demonstrating the body's need for technological augmentation. He fabricates and straps on a variety of electromechanical devices to his body, manipulating them for his audience. He has even inserted a camera into his stomach to videotape his interior. Though Stelarc asserts he is only an artist, not a scientist, NASA engineers have been impressed enough with his skills to examine his robotic "third arm." Here are some of Stelarc's ruminations on obsolescence:

It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing, beating body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is now an adequate biological form. The human species has created a technological and information environment it can no longer cope with....Distraught and disconnected, the body can only resort to interface and symbiosis. The body may not yet surrender its autonomy,but certainly its mobility. Plugged into a machine network, the body needs to be pacified. In fact, to function in the future and to truly achieve a HYBRID SYMBIOSIS, the body will need to become increasingly anesthetized.11

The perceived need for a "hybrid symbiosis" has permeated academia, with Carnegie Mellon robotics professor Hans Moravec perhaps the best-known supporter. In his book, Mind Children, Moravec advocates the development of technology that, one day in the not-too-distant future, he believes will be capable of "downloading" one's very consciousness from the physical brain into a computer, thence becoming a silicon-based life form. As Katherine Hayles points out, "it is apparent that Moravec equates subjectivity with the mind. The body is treated as a flawed and unwieldy vehicle, necessary in the early stages of human evolution but now become more trouble than it is worth...a superfluous accessory."12.

This attitude has been graphically developed in the cyberpunk science-fiction novels of the 1980s and early 1990s. In William Gibson's Neuromancer series, freelance"deck cowboys" named Case and Count Zero project themselves into a worldwide, VR cyberspace called the Matrix, from which they steal computer data for corporate clients. While not jacked-in, the hackers suffer the indignity of entrapment in the flesh, or "meat," and prowl an international street-culture where designer-drug addiction and bionic implants are commonplace.

What makes reading cyberpunk so unsettling--besides the characters' foul mouths--is realizing that Gibson and his colleagues have simply extrapolated current technology trends into the future. In the CyberMillennium, it will soon become easy to connect all sorts of personal electronic devices-- from cellphone to Walkman, medical monitoring system, global positioning system, pacemaker, etc.--into an integrated bodynet linked wirelessly to the Internet. And as we age or encounter disease and accidents, more microelectronic and inorganic replacement parts will become available to repair, even augment, our failing bodies. More surgery will be performed by computer-guided, robotic surgeons whose "hands" will prove far steadier than the finest surgeon's (who will be relegated to operating the keyboard or joystick). At what point in the 21st century will we--or our children--admit we've actually become cyborgs, experiencing what the PoMos call "boundary problems?"13.

For the rest of this article and the other articles included in the Virtual-Reality Journal, Virtual gods, Designer Universes, and the Convergence of Magic and Science.

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