In December, Time magazine’s annual “Person of the Year” honor went not to Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Kim Jong-Il or any of the other usual suspects, but to “you”: each and every one of us using or creating content on the World Wide Web. Time’s cover showed a white keyboard with a mirror for a computer screen, allowing each of us to see his or her own reflection. To justify the choice, the editors cited the global shift from earthly institutions to the emerging digital democracy where individuals – you – are both citizen and king.
There was more to this choice than meets the eye – and in more than the usual sense of the term. If there ever was an ideological choice, this was it: The message – the new cyber-democracy allows millions to directly communicate and self-organize, bypassing centralized state control – masks a series of disturbing gaps and tensions.
First, the obvious irony, everyone who looks at the Time cover does not see the others with whom he or she is supposed to be in direct communication. They see the mirror-image of themselves. No wonder Gottfried Leibniz, the 18th century German philosopher who invented the binary system, is one of the predominant philosophical references of the cyberspace theorists: Consider his metaphysical concept of “monads,” those entities of perception, which are to the mental realm what atoms are to the physical, though “without windows” that directly open up to external reality. Isn’t that eerily similar to what we are reduced to when immersed in cyberspace? The typical Web surfer today, sitting alone in front of a PC screen, is becoming more and more of a monad with no direct window onto reality, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet increasingly immersed into the global network, synchronously communicating with the entire planet.
One of the latest fads among sexual radicals is the “masturbate-a-thon,” a collective event in which hundreds of men and women pleasure themselves for charity. Masturbate-a-thons build a collective out of individuals who are ready to share something with others. But what are they actually sharing? The solipsism of their own stupid enjoyment. One can surmise that the masturbate-a-thon is the form of sexuality that perfectly fits the coordinates of cyberspace.
This, however, is only part of the story. Additionally, the “you” who recognizes itself in its screen-image is deeply divided: I am never simply my screen persona. First, there is the (rather obvious) excess of me as a “real” bodily person over my screen persona: Marxists and other critically disposed thinkers like to point out that the supposed “equality” in cyberspace is deceiving. It ignores all the complex material dispositions (my wealth, my social position, my power or its lack, etc.). Real-life inertia magically disappears in the frictionless surfing in the cyberspace. What Virtual Reality provides is reality itself deprived of its substance. In the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like real coffee without being the real thing, my screen persona, the “you” that I see there, is always already a decaffeinated Self.
Second, there is the opposite and much more unsettling effect: the excess of my screen persona over my “real” self. Our social identity, the person we assume to be in our social intercourse, is already a “mask,” as it involves the repression of our inadmissible impulses. However, it is precisely under the conditions of “just gaming,” when the rules regulating our “real life” exchanges are temporarily suspended, that we can permit ourselves to display these repressed attitudes. Recall the proverbial impotent shy person who, while participating in a cyberspace interactive game, adopts the identity of a sadistic murderer or irresistible seducer. It is too simple to say that this identity is just an imaginary supplement, a temporary escape from his real life impotence. Rather, the point is that, since he knows that the cyberspace interactive game is “just a game,” he can “show his true self” and do things he would never do in real-life interaction. In the guise of a fiction, the truth about one’s self is articulated. The very fact that I perceive my virtual self-image as mere play thus allows me to suspend the usual hindrances that prevent me from realizing my “dark half” in real life – in cyberspace, my “id” is given wing.
And the same goes for my partners who I communicate with in cyberspace: I can never be sure who they are. Are they “really” the way they describe themselves? Is there a “real” person at all behind a screen-persona or is the screen-persona a mask for several different people? Does the same “real” person possess and manipulate more screen-personas? Or perhaps I am simply dealing with a digitalized entity that does not stand for any “real” person? In short, interface means precisely that my relationship to the Other is never face-to-face, that it is always mediated by the interposed digital machinery whose structure is that of a labyrinth. I “browse,” I err around in this infinite space where messages circulate freely without fixed destination, while the Whole of it – this immense circuitry of “murmurs” – remains forever beyond the scope of my comprehension. The obverse of cyberspace’s direct democracy is this chaotic and impenetrable magnitude of messages and their circuits that even the greatest effort of my imagination cannot comprehend. Immanuel Kant would have called it a cyberspace Sublime.
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A decade or so ago, there was an outstanding TV ad for beer in England. Its first part staged the well-known fairy-tale: A girl walked along a stream, saw a frog, took it gently into her lap, kissed it, and, of course, the ugly frog miraculously turned into a beautiful young man. However, the story wasn’t over yet: The young man cast a covetous glance at the girl, drew her towards him, kissed her – and she turned into a bottle of beer that he held triumphantly in his hand. For the woman, her love and affection (signalled by the kiss) can turn a frog into a beautiful man, while for the man, it is to reduce the woman to what psychoanalysis calls a “partial object,” that in you which makes me desire you. (Of course, the obvious feminist rejoinder would be that what women witness in their everyday love experience is the opposite: One kisses a beautiful young man and, after one gets too close to him, when it is already too late, realizes that he is basically a frog.)
The actual couple of man and woman are thus haunted by the bizarre figure of a frog embracing a bottle of beer. What modern art stages is precisely this underlying spectre: One can easily imagine a Magritte painting of a frog embracing a bottle of beer, with a title “A man and a woman” or “The ideal couple.” (The association here with surrealist Luis Bunuel’s famous “dead donkey on a piano” is fully justified.) Therein resides the threat of cyberspace gaming at its most elementary: When a man and a woman interact in it, they do so under the spectre of a frog embracing a bottle of beer. Since neither of them is aware of it, these discrepancies between what “you” really are and what “you” appear to be in digital space can lead to murderous violence. After all, when you suddenly discover that the man you are embracing is really a frog, aren’t you tempted to squash the slimy creature?