Rheingold and Turkle

You write of a new social criticism that "would try to use simulation as a means of consciousness raising." Can you give us any objects-to-think-about-that-with?


Let me take two simple objects-to-think-with for thinking about simulation and consciousness raising, two examples that exist in the world today.

A first is not a mathematical simulation, but the experience of simulating the presentation of a person of another gender in cyberspace. This happens routinely when men play women and women men in virtual environments. They might be doing it in a MUD; they might be doing it in a conversation in a chat room.

When you present yourself as a person of another gender, you quickly realize things about "being" that gender in social interactions that might have been invisible to you before. Men who play women routinely comment on how much more "help" they are offered online. Conversely, women who experiment with playing men routinely comment on how little help they are offered. The men may go on to reflect on how it feels to be offered unsolicited assistance. Does it feel like nurturance or condescension, seduction or harrassment? The women may go on to reflect on how "help" has shaped them: has its availability made them more likely to see themselves as people who needed it?

A second example is playing a simulation game such as SimCity. It has been noted that race is an "absent" category in this game at the same time that it is "present" as a unnamed, ghostly factor in urban violence. When we subject our simulations to this kind of scrutiny (What is there in social life that we are unwilling to see and name and acknowledge?) we can begin to deconstruct our simulations.

This is important to do for games such as SimCity because they will increasingly be the tools through which children learn to think through the complexities of social life. It is important to do for the far more elaborate simulations on which we base social policy. If you had the right tools, simulations of the world assumed by Republican health care proposals could usefully be contrasted with simulations of the world assumed by Democratic proposals. The consciousness-raising part comes with having the materials to think with for thinking about these visions of reality.

Cyberspace is a new arena for experimenting with social practice. So, for example, experiments with constructing democratic virtual spaces can be used to think through experiments in the "real." But experiences in cyberspace can also serve to illuminate what there is about physical presence and our confrontation with its specific texture, limitations, and finiteness that must be more directly confronted. In my view, the precisions possible in simulation put the complexities of a more intractable physicality into clear relief. There may be a paradoxical effect: our fantasies about simulation have led us to believe that we could simulate people in a mathematized, rationalistic way. The possibility of the lived experience of simulation may lead to a heightened appreciation of how the real escapes such models.

Additionally, more and more of our lives will be lived in zones that are permeable to the simulated and the real, to the virtual and the real. There may be a blurring of boundaries when for example, we do "real" business in constructed , virtual worlds, but there will also be a new articulation of what the boundaries between virtual and real are.

In the domain of these new articulations will be the development of ways of talking about the virtual body that will illuminate our relationships with our physical ones. People fantasize about escape into their virtual bodies only to be shocked by the degree to which their real bodies are present in their simulations. Again, the practice of simulation will confront us with the degree to which our bodies are in our minds and our minds are in our bodies. How we think with our bodies and how our thoughts about our bodies build us, sinew and sexuality.

Brainstorms Tomorrow Mind to Mind