Being 'fully human' online
If we're going to keep arguing about "the challenge of staying fully human in the brave new online world," at some point, we're going to have to define what "fully human" means. Too often, it seems to refer to the author's preexisting preferences for leisure time. Being on the Internet is very different from being in a quiet room with a good book and a long time to think about it. So if you're someone who likes to spend Saturday in a quiet room with a good book and a long time to think about it, you might find Facebook unnerving. And Zadie Smith and Ross Douthat do. Sometimes, I'd guess, we all do.
Conversely, if you're someone who likes people but has trouble meeting them, or gets shy in unfamiliar social settings, you probably don't think the Internet has made you less human. If you live in a big city but don't like bar culture and managed to find someone to love -- and who loves you -- by e-mailing back-and-forth about your shared affection for the third season of "Happy Days" -- which of course got you talking about Nick at Nite in general, and then your families, and then the difficulties of being so far away from them -- you probably don't feel like the Internet made you less human. But those experiences tend to be left out of these conversations.
But you'll find them in Robbie Cooper's book "Alter Ego." Cooper traveled the world to photograph people who play online games, and then he matched their pictures with their avatars. Among his subjects was a 35-year-old man named Jason Rowe:
"The difference between me and my online character is pretty obvious," explains Rowe. "I have a lot of physical disabilities in life, but in Star Wars Galaxies, I can ride an Imperial speeder bike, fight monsters, or just hang out with my friends at a bar. I have some use of my hands -- not much, but a little. In the game I use an on-screen keyboard called 'soft-type' to talk with other players. I can't press the keys on a regular keyboard so I use a virtual one. I play online games because I get to interact with people. The computer screen is my window to the world."
Rowe might be an extreme example of the way many people are "fully human" online, but he's certainly not alone, and though the people he's interacting with may have fewer physical handicaps, they're experiencing something very close to what he's describing: The computer screen can be a window to the world, and an authentic one.
Consider the case of the CEO whose testimony persuaded Cooper to embark on this project: "He told me that he used virtual world games to play with his children," Cooper remembers. "He was divorced and had bad access to them, so he would meet them every evening in 'Everquest,' where they could play and chat. I asked him, what did they talk about? He told me they discussed things like homework, school, their mother; the normal stuff of humdrum reality." To me, that description of mundane conversations about humdrum reality, and not the sustained time for meditative reflection that gets lionized in many of these essays, has the ring of human life.
Posted by: jkaren | November 15, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: CulturedAnarchy | November 15, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse