Social Interaction within Virtual Environments (Part 3 of 4)

The physical and non-physical (virtual)

To avoid a discussion of Baudrillardian proportions, I will cover only a few general aspects concerning these two modes of contemporary being. The subject is far too problematic to compress into this section, better treatment would best be found in a separate work.

The first distinction involves the concept of space and proximity. As mentioned earlier, due to what some may consider a limitation of the technology, virtual space within computer networks is most often a two dimensional representation of the exterior world; text. Similar to the method of encapsulation involved in the transfer of activity from its time and place to text, interaction is removed from a physical point of origin, rendered mobile both historically and geographically.

I consider this medium more active than conventional text based mediums because of its interactive nature. Once the text is disseminated, it may be acted upon and returned to the author. It is the level ofinteractivity, or immersibility that may be responsible for creating such a referential environment.

Within the periphery human vision, the physical world is thought to be fixed, or slowly evolving. Compared to the speeds at which some bodies travel, human bodies are relatively fixed by the power of gravity and noticeably slower. There is an element of fantasy involved in swift travel, so often the futurist space explorations in science fiction texts are at warp speeds. The mortal coil creates a rigid framework for our existence, the virtual worlds generated by computers eliminate yet another boundary.

The virtual is an area through which the physical universe is projected; texts, images, recordings, and secondary platforms on which an assumed reality exists. The exact point in which this alternate reality unfolds is a purely subjective experience. Sandy Stone uses the analogy of phone sex as a means of describing the creation, transfer, and decompression of these images:

The [phone] sex workers took an extremely complex, highly detailed set of behaviors, translated them into a single sense modality, then further boiled them down to a series of highly compressed tokens. They then squirted those tokens down a voice-grade phone line. At the other end of the line the recipient of all this effort added boiling water, so to speak, and reconstituted the tokens into a fully detailed set ofimages and interactions in multiple sensory modes (Stone 1993).

Interaction, within nets, involves the sender(s), the interface(s) (which, for the purpose of this discussion includes the transport agent), and the recipient(s). By the time self representation passes through these channels, the final image may be enormously distorted. However inaccurate, the ability to twist, create, and subjectively understand identity is what I’m regarding as a social freedom.

Along with the element of expansive, seemingly unlimited social space, another major social factor comes into play; the absence of physical coercion. This may be one of the foremost elements to consider as it is a requirement for violence, an unfortunate activity often used as a quick and effective means for the resolution of conflict. Coercion is also very useful in quickly gaining political power and maintaining systems of dominance. Within virtual spaces, physical coercion is physically impossible, conflict is often resolved without breaking the virtual metaphor.

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