Inventing enlightened ways of relating to e-environments

Written by
Ekaterina de Vries,
PhD at the Center for Law, Science, Technology & Society Studies (LSTS)
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Pleinlaan 2 /1050 Brussel

To invent enlightened ways of relating to e-environments may mean playing on their actual affordances and constraints[1].

Relating to the new

The last decades a wide variety of e-environments (online and off line data bases, MMORPG’s, cyber-learning rooms, etc.) has emerged with a speed and abundance that would even make a swarm of Colorado beetles blush. This novel form of environments raises the more general question how to relate to the new. What happens when one encounters, discovers, or fabricates something which is new, such as a formerly unknown species, land, or person?

Transposing ways of engagement

Often our default position towards the new will be to frame it in ways that are already familiar to us: we engage with our children as our parents used to engage with us, when abroad we behave with the same manners as those which we use in our home country, we anthropomorphize our pets(e.g. Haraway, 2008), etc. It seems easy enough to transpose familiar modes of engagement from one environment to another.

Mimicking familiar modes of engagement in novel modalities

Thus, unsurprisingly, inhabitants of virtual worlds largely seem to mimic the modes of engagement from their first life: e.g., research shows that real world “social norms of gender, interpersonal distance, and eye gaze” are transferred into Second Life (SL) “even though the modality of movement is entirely different (i.e., via keyboard and mouse as opposed to eyes and legs)” (Yee, Bailenson, Urbanek, Chang, & Merget, 2006, p. 115).

If it looks, swims, and quacks like a duck – is it a duck? Perceived and actual affordances

Looks can be deceiving. A “realistic painting of a door on a wall” might give the false impression that one “could open the door and walk out of the room”, while a cupboard door without a “perceivable handle”, can make it “impossible to figure out how to open it, even if the cupboard affords opening”(Norman, 1998, p. 124). In the digital world, in a similar vain as in these two basic examples, the “perceived” and “actual” affordances will often fail to coincide. For instance, while large parts of SL seem to mimic Real Life (RL) in a rather slavish way – a house, a car, clothes, a swimming pool, etc. – the affordances of these objects are not so much actual than semiotic, merely perceived. Who needs stairs if you can fly? Who needs a house if there is no wind or rain? Who needs a pipe when there is no way of experiencing nicotine, smoke or a flavor? A mode of engagement wherein appearances (‘perceived affordances’) take the upper hand over architectural affordances, could be called ‘shallow’ (cf. Carr, 2010). However, this shallowness also appears to be a condition for the freedom which is to be found in e-worlds.

Freedom – but what about the unperceived constraints?

One of the motives to spend part of one’s first live, in a digital environment is the freedom from bodily, social, geographical or financial constraints. Yet the fact that certain burdening constraints from RL are lacking, or at least less stringent, does not imply that SL is a world without constraints but merely that those constraints are different from those we experience within RL. Although SL lacks such constraints as DNA or gravity, its particular architecture which is, for example, embedded in the fact that it is based on underlying computer code and that you rely on the capacities of a graphic card, creates its own affordances and limitations.

Enlightened liberty

Yet, awareness of architectural constraints is not opposed to an experience of freedom – on the contrary, in problematizing our relations to the surrounding world and its limitations, i.e. working “on our limits”, we engage in “strategic games of liberties” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50) which can give raise to a more enlightened experience of freedom. Moving beyond appearances, we could try to play on the actual affordances and constraints of novel e-environments.

What is to be done?[2]

The question which lies in front of us is: do we live like children of the pre-enlightenment era, inhabiting the surface of digital appearances, believing in the in a world of myths, badly fitting explanations and crooked analogies, or do we live like enlightened adults who know the world and the natural laws which govern it? The answer is not given: after all, enlightenment comes often at the cost of a sobering disenchantment. As Coleridge famously wrote: A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn. Is it not better to live in the illusion that we finally discovered a world without constraints, of pure freedom – even if it comes at the risk of a brusque disillusion when confronted with constraints and affordances?

It is a question which is not only posed to the user in a general way (what kind of life to live? what kind of liberty to strive for?), but also to the policy maker (what kind of literacy is required?), the lawyer (can laws be used in analogous ways – e.g. cyber property, virtual rape, e-privacy, etc. – or is a new legal vocabulary called for?), the artist (is the screen just another canvas, or could one operate on another level, like e.g. code perfomer Gazira Babeli?[3]), the software developer (should perceived and actual affordances coincide or not?), the legislative power (who are the addressees of the laws applicable to e-environments: minors or enlightened citizens?), and the e-researcher (different medium, same methods? is the digital realm just an advanced space for storage, exchange and analysis of data, or does it require a novel scientific mode of engagement?).

Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows. What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader (pp. 32-50). New York: Pantheon.

Haraway, D. J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Norman, D. A. (1998). The invisible computer: why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Yee, N., Bailenson, J., Urbanek, M., Chang, F., & Merget, D. (2006). The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital: The Persistence of Nonverbal Social Norms in Online Virtual Environments. The Journal of CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 115-121.

[1] The ideas proposed in this manifesto have been developed more extensively in: De Vries, K, “Avatars out of Control. Gazira Babeli, Pose Balls and ‘Rape’ in Second Life”, in: S. Gutwirth, Y. Poullet, P. De Hert, & R. Leenes (Eds.), Computers, Privacy and Data Protection: an Element of Choice, Springer 2011 (forthcoming).

[2] The old revolutionary and utopian question as famously posed by Chernyshevsky in Chto delat’? (1863).

[3] For general information, and in Second Life performances and artworks can be experienced in Babeli’s gallery in the Locusolus region.