Monday, November 12, 2007


In reading the selection from “Smart Mobs,” I was surprised to find that even amidst exploration of wireless devices, mobile communication, and imagined communities, Rheingold continually returns to the physical, the locative, the earthbound.

His description of Botfighters demonstrates this strange contradiction. Botfighters is “a game that involves virtual persona, mocking text messages, [and] location-sensing technology… [Players] spend too much of their time chasing game opponents around Stockholm… After the virtual battle, the four exchanged good-natured insults via SMS [and] decided to meet face to face” (18). Later, Rheingold gets technical: “Players sign up on a Web site, create a “bot,” name it, and arm it with guns, shields, batteries, and detectors. When their mobile telephones are on, the players receive SMS messages about the geographic distance of other players” (19).

Botfighters’ Internet and SMS elements are clearly vital to its success, but the game’s continual return to and focus on Stockholm’s physical landscape implies that virtuality is not enough. This is not the first time we have seen such a trend: although global connectivity via computers and cell phones ostensibly displace the need for physical proximity and tangible interaction with one’s peers (friends, neighbors, buddies), in reality geography still seems to be quite necessary.

In the MySpace article, for instance, we read that most of a user’s friends are people he or she already knows in “real life.” Right off the bat, Aula’s creators “construct[ed] the physical locus of their community center” as they sought to “design a space where virtual communities and mobile tribes could mingle in the physical world” (17). Lovegety, too, uses “devices [that] recognize another Lovegety in the vicinity” to effect “location-based matchmaking” (xvii). And of course, many cell phones incorporate built-in GPS (global positioning system) technology.

All this makes me think of Rheingold’s early description of how the new, virtual public sphere “of the texting tribes” uses “bursts of terse communication [to] link people in real time and physical space” (2). Clearly the physical, local public sphere is not so close to disappearing as some new media prophets would have us believe. In fact, some of these examples suggest that virtual and mobile innovations, global in scope, are helping to create a more functional, connected, and communicative local geography. Maybe we’re not yet ready to let go of our land.

Do unrooted innovations like wireless Internet and mobile cell phones suggest a reality more or less grounded in the physical? In light of Keenan’s writings on a “virtual war” and my earlier question about virtual violence or the possibility for a nonviolent war, what do you make of Botfighter players that chase each other around a physical locality but hurt and kill each other virtually? If online avatars’ faces ever achieve Juanita’s level of expressive nuance, will physical interaction become less necessary? But can we ever truly dispose of touch?

1 comment:

Ann said...

Although this doesn't answer your question of touch, I was wondering about your thoughts on expression. While I was home this summer in Korea, I had the oppotunity to watch a little too much TV and noticed the number of video phone commericals whose premise was giving long-distance couples the ability to see each other. I'm not 100% sure on this, but I don't seem to remember the couples in the commercials actually speaking, they were just looking at each other via mobile and smiling wistfully into the distance. While video phone still doesn't address the loss of physical contact, it is one step above the pre-programmed facial expressions of the avatars in Snow Crash, or the preset bank of SMS smiley faces.