« Wired on Virtual Greed | Main | Castronova on NPR »

Jan 26, 2004



The most annoying thing about the interview (my incoherence aside - I think I can kiss goodbye to my knighthood) was the fact that the only expert they could find to debate TSO with me was Susan Greenfield. I don't suppose they'd have asked me to debate neuroscience with her, so it's odd that they chose her to debate virtual worlds with me. She's written a book that mentions computer game addiction, which I think must be the connection; it's not a lot to do with the goings-on in Alphaville, though.



Yes, given that Richard’s letter was about free speak and the ‘reality’ of the virtual you would have thought that they might have pitched up someone from a free speech group such as Liberty or a philosopher, or even a psychologist.

This aside, the points made seem echo those made by many adults about the kids today. The statements: “ignoring each other and ignoring the outside world”, “in some cyberspace” and ”glassy-eyed on the keyboards, staring into the screen, to again know that they're ignoring the press of the real world” although followed with “Now I'm not … saying that's a bad thing” heavily imply that it is.

The take seems to be that there is a physical world and that any meditated interaction it not only secondary but in some way is an interaction with some kind of nihilistic empty other.

Whereas being ‘there’ and ‘here’ can add an extra-dimension of experience and connectedness with other people not necessarily reduce the kind of ties that we currently have. Are two people together on mobile phones really ignoring each other or are they negotiating a different type of social interaction where they actually are together yet at the same time with others, the two forms of presence surely mix and match the situation they happen to be in at the time.



I think that some of these forms of communication and interaction (if I may phrase that to include both cell phone usage and virtual world immersion, as disparate as I consider those two to be) necessarily suffer from a very real social stigma. i.e. I will gladly tell my friends that I learned about X when I was speaking with my old friend Y on my cell phone last night but I am much more loathe to admit that I learned X when I was speaking with a friend Y in Second Life last night. Along those same lines, considering how uneventful and quiet my New Year's Eve was (seeing as I spent that night in Second Life rather than the crowded local pub), I tried not to give a direct answer when someone asked what I did. ("Errr.. well, I ummm.. I spent the night.. online...")

One interesting point, and this goes to my view that cellular phone usage and virtual world immersion are entirely dissimilar, is that while cellular phone usage carries its own form of stigma and/or rules of propriety, it is much more acceptable to be speaking on a cell phone versus playing in a virtual world. Personally, seeing as the cell phone use is much more public and prone to disrupting and annoying other people, I personally find cell phones to be infinitely worse and less acceptable. If only the cell phone users at the local restaurant chose to play MMORPGs at instead...


I’m recalling a conversation with a conservative 20 year old, who was noticing a big culture gap with her 13 and 14 year old sisters. Her sisters would as soon sit at the computer an IM their friends as walk down the street to gather face to face. Seems to me, she could only see the losses in such communication, whereas her sisters were also experiencing some gains. Susan Greenfield seems to be in the first camp, and Richard in the second. Which camp you are in is somewhat mediated by age, but with a lot of variation. Myself, I’m in the “kids today” camp by inclination rather than by calendar.

I love face to face conversation, and body to body contact. But the amplifications of electronically mediated contact can only grow over time, while the traditional physical kind is a non moving target. So I would expect the attraction of the latter to grow over time. I can see that being very worrying to Susan Greenfield. From her writings on neuroscience, its clear Susan Greenfield is very much in the camp that claims embodiment is what makes us who we are. A disembodied AI could never be “one of us”. So I don’t think its entirely surprising that the BBC would see her as a good foil to someone who clearly comfortable with disembodied spaces.


I don't think the issue is really one of embodiment vs non-embodiment. I would say that Greenfield's analytical failure is in not realizing that our technology is an extention of our organic birth-embodiment. Strangely, these same people implicitly accept older forms of technology as extentions of ourselves--eg when driving, most people don't say "Turn the car right at the intersection", or "that driver's car hit my car"; they say "turn right...", and "he hit me". Some trouble is had when the extension becomes intangible, remote, asynchronous. This may be a more relevant "digital divide" than the priviledge/access question. The keyboard and monitor isn't a disconnect between bodies--it's an extension of faces and vocal cords. If she sees "glassy-eyed", then it's because the real sensory terminus of the the body at the keyboard is on a dozen other monitors around the world. In effect, she's looking at a point along the optic nerve and expecting to see an iris.

Regarding Alan's comments on cell phones: it's not the technology that is disrupting or annoying--some people can sit next to me on the bus speaking on their phone and not bother me a bit. But then there will be the decent-seeming person halfway across the room who answers his phone and immediately increases his speaking voice by 40 decibels. MMOGing is necessarily private right now, but with the proliferation of wireless and portable, powerful computing, I'd expect to see people gaming in public before long--some of whom will no doubt prove an annoyance.

Regarding SG's comments on cell phones (which echo a great many others'): Although she maintains a fair air of neutrality, it is apparent that these cell phone users "ignoring each other and ignoring the outside world" bothers her at a personal level. But why should anyone care if a stranger walking by on the street is talking to someone else, if we assume they won't be speaking to us either way? Seems to be some sort of indignance at the refusal to acknowledge the limitations of the viewer. Sour grapes, perhaps. But if we consider that the stranger walking past is implicitly illustrating just how subjective our own "reality" is, then it makes sense that it would bother those with an ingrained notion of heirarchical social reality.


SG>I'm not saying it's good or bad, but what does it say about the lives they're living nowadays? That they find it more interesting, and more stimulating, more "reassuring" in this other world.

I think this comment is healthy. In fact, I wish more people in the 'videogames are evil' camp would consider the possibility that the deficit here is not with the individuals playing the games, its in the lifestyles and experiences that real life offers those people. For many people in our world, mediating all contacts through cyberspace may just be a sensible strategy, a proper response to either chaos or a gray nothingness that their daily life provides. We pundits may find it hard to believe - how could Dark Age of Camelot be more interesting than a life of reflection, teaching, writing, loving, child-rearing, travel, and good food? Well, not everyone has access to all of those things, and I think this is what SG is pointing out.

Personally, I suspect that relationship and physical space issues are probably the most powerful predictors of VW immersion: people who live in close quarters with people whom they don't connect to, have obvious reasons to jump through the computer screen and meet other people.

Mimi Ito of USC gave a talk at UCLA the other day, about teen culture in Japan. Her belief is that SMS messaging and Yugi-Oh and the rest creates a separate sphere, where oppressed teens, who live in very close quarters with untrustworthy parents, can go to find a little freedom. The same logic applies to VWs, I think. This theory also explains why immersive graphical VWs are so popular in Asia: population density.


I haven't read any of her books (because I'm not a neuroscientist), but I gather that Susan Greenfield argues that the effect on players of computer games in general seem is that they lead to a form of sensory deprivation which has neurological effects. I guess the line of reasoning is that if you shut out the outside world, your senses don't stimulate your mind in the same way that they would if you didn't.

This may well be true (at least until we can make VWs more sense-rich, if that's what it takes to stop brain rot). However, as John Humphreys points out to her, what about books? Here, she has to backtrack because books are considered the highlight of culture (as opposed to computer games, the lowlight). I was ready to point out that actually virtual worlds started out text-based, but I didn't get a chance to reply before the time ran out.

Virtual worlds aren't regular computer games. Neither are they some generic "cyberspace" on a par with mobile phones and email.

It would be interesting to know whether the graphical versions do have physical effects on the brain that the textual versions don't, but neuroscientists are going to have to learn a lot more about computer games in general, let alone virtual worlds, before we find out.



Hellinar>Her sisters would as soon sit at the computer an IM their friends as walk down the street to gather face to face. Seems to me, she could only see the losses in such communication, whereas her sisters were also experiencing some gains.

In Plato's "Phaedrus" (http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/fowler/phaedrus14.htm), Socrates decries the use of writing as a devalued form of communication good only for entertainment.

Virtual worlds aren't the only technology to make people more remote from one another. I think we can probably argue that they're also good for entertainment, though.



There's another letter about TSO in The Independent today, written by a player. The author complains about the original article and takes EA's side in the argument.

http://argument.independent.co.uk/letters/story.jsp?story=485115 (about half-way down, under "cyber-citizens").


The comments to this entry are closed.