Monday, November 5, 2007

Risky Business

Since reading Thomas Keenan’s piece “Looking Like Flames and Falling Like Stars,” I’ve begun to wonder to what degree risk exists on the Internet.

In Second Life we witnessed people dressing and acting in ways that they probably wouldn’t in real life, so safe did they feel behind the Internet’s screen of anonymity. Initially, Snow Crash’s Metaverse is similarly invulnerable (which Stephenson explicitly demonstrates by showing us the lack of real risk even in violent hand-to-hand combat). Yet this risklessness begins to break down with the introduction of Snow Crash, the virus that “crashes” its virtual users in real life as well, much as people jacked into the Matrix can indeed be killed by virtual means.

To bring this idea back to reality, consider your own computer. Whether playing Second Life, “lurking” on a web forum, downloading music, or updating MySpace, there’s certainly a feeling that these pursuits’ repercussions (if any) will never encroach on your real life. Of course this is not the case; at the risk of sounding preachy, we’ve all heard stories of sexual predators prowling MySpace and illegal downloaders nabbed by the RIAA. The Internet appears to be a risk-free playground, an “unreal” public space that thus has no “real” risks, yet this is arguably untrue.

The language we use to describe our online pursuits hints at risk in its connotations of physical violence and danger. Virus, corrupt file, computer crash, “blue screen of death,” hacker, firewall, troubleshooting – the terminology becomes increasingly warlike for such a supposedly safe space.

Returning to Keenan, note how he addresses issues of risk and invulnerability in the context of a so-called “virtual war”:

“Dirty hands, bloodstained ones, and the risks and stakes they metonymize, [Ignatieff] says, are necessary for responsible democratic citizenship, and he worries that the virtualization of reality and of the reality that is war can induce the very fantasies of cleanliness and invulnerability that are the most dangerous of all to democracy” (90).

Ignatieff writes of “spectators…[who] may no longer ‘care enough to restrain and control the violence exercised in their name’ ” (90). Keenan similarly observes that “virtual technologies reduce us to spectators and make killing unreal,” but he also concedes that they “[make] it more difficult to conserve a state of righteous abstraction” (92), suggesting a degree of involvement (and consequently risk) between physical participants in virtual wars and those of us connected via Internet and TV.

Some questions, then, arise. What is the relationship between risk and the Internet, in terms of virtual wars or just in general? Does spectatorship or even more active involvement online demand some degree of vulnerability? How separate are virtual and “real” public spheres, especially when it comes to violence? In this era of permeable borders and global connections, is distance even possible? Then again: is closeness possible, either?

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