Here's Me Looking at Me Looking at Me Talking: Communicating in Graphical Cyberspace

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    This paper derives from a broader inquiry into the nature of communication, mediation, agency, identity, materiality and embodiment in 'inhabited' virtual environments (see Cerulo 1997 and Lyman & Wakeford 1999 for reviews of the methodological issues involved in social and humanist studies of technology and virtual environments). The focus of the paper is a study of selected technosocial interactions in an academic conference which was held in graphical cyberspace in November 1998. Such a novel and spectacular hybrid media event raises many questions, and the investigation of such environments opens up in a refreshing way the complexity of what it means on particular occasions to inter-act, to inhabit, to belong and to be embodied — with the result that familiar ways of analysing and categorising social interaction or technical systems are disturbed. In order to tackle these issues, several different but potentially complementary perspectives can be applied to understanding how computer-supported communications technologies are designed and used in practice. First, we can draw upon the last fifteen years of research that productively examines people engaged in computer-supported activities to determine how people themselves constitute their everyday practices out of the resources and affordances of the technical setting (eg. Bowers, Pycock & O'Brien 1996, Heath, Luff & Sellen 1995, Jordan & Henderson 1995, Suchman 1987, Thomas 1995). However, much of this small body of CSCW and CMC literature is primarily based on experimental studies or high-tech prototype VR systems that have little praxiological or social significance (see many of the studies in Finn, Sellen & Wilbur 1997). Instead, I have collected ethnographic and interactional data from several of the popular, widely distributed, low-tech, virtual environments. A second source of inspiration is from studies of science and technology (STS), particularly ANT (actor network theory) and the work of Bruno Latour (as well as Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles). They give us a better understanding of techniques, practices and networks that intimately involve both humans and nonhumans (see Haraway 1997, Hayles 1999 and Latour 1999). A third source is the critical work of the philosopher of gender Judith Butler, who rethinks our notions of performance, subjectivity and agency (see Butler 1997). Lastly, there is Bolter & Grusin's (1999) alternative model of re-mediation. Here, the focus is on the different ways in which re-mediation is performed and their effects on agency, subjectivity and identity. With these methodologies, it is hoped that a more lively and populated account can be given of virtual interactional practices, with virtual participants immersed in hybrid media (which have some of the qualities of more familiar broadcast and interpersonal media) and engaged in performances of re-mediation. Theory Semiotic, poststructuralist or postmodern cultural studies of the mass media have often made grand theoretical claims about simulation and inauthenticity (eg. Baudrillard), about the impact of technology on our sense of identity (eg. Turkle), and about the possibilities for a utopian transcendence of mundane life and the body (eg. Leary). Recent studies of practical interaction in new media, on the other hand, have soberly countered this tendency to see flux and fragmentation everywhere. Instead, technologies are made at home in everyday, routine social practices; that is, they are settled in and used to get things done as they are usually done. Harvey Sacks, a founder of the field of conversation analysis, has taken a position which is in marked contrast to Marshall McLuhan’s slogan that ‘the medium is the message’. Sacks claims that “the technical apparatus [of the telephone] is, then, being made at home with the rest of the world. And that’s a thing that’s routinely being done, and it’s the source for the failures of technocratic dreams that if only we introduced some fantastic new communication machine the world will be transformed. What happens is that the object is made at home in the world that has whatever organisation it already has” (1995: 548). I am attempting to steer a different course and privilege neither account. If such things could be separated, then both technologies and subjectivities are "made at home" with each other, which means that 'home' is mobile, nomadic and transformable (Urry 2000). It is too easy to separate out human social life from the inhumanity and coldness of artifacts and technologies, and then to look for the impact of one on the other, to subsume one into an explanation in terms of the other, eg. in a social constructionist account of a technology. Insights from cyberstudies (Hayles 1999) and actor-network theory (Latour 1999) in studies of science and technology can help us grapple with the complex issues of mediation, agency and artifact in a posthuman world. One consequence of this revisioning of 'the social' and 'the technical' is a conception of agency that does not privilege human actors nor the originary subject, challenging us to re-examine what it means to inter-act, to participate, and to talk in the media. If we have a more lively and more inclusive notion of agency, then we should, of course, reconsider the historicity of artifacts and bodies. We need to investigate what gets treated as body or artifact, real or virtual in practice. Indeed, for Michel Foucault (1980), "it is one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires come to be identified and constituted as individuals." Moreover, we can see these assemblages as performances of social ordering, of performing the social link, of localising and globalising. They are attempts to extend collectivities or actor-networks in and through translations, displacements, and alliances figured over new changes of scale (see Latour 1993, 1999, Law 1992).
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationStudia Linguistica et Litteraria Septentrionalia: Studies Presented to Heikki Nyyssönen
    EditorsJames Haines, Elise Kärkkäinen, Timo Lauttamus
    Number of pages18
    Place of PublicationOulu
    PublisherDepartment of English, Oulu University, Finland
    Publication date2002
    ISBN (Print)9514267486
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


    • Cyberspace
    • Virtual Reality
    • Identity
    • Body
    • Remediation

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    McIlvenny, P. (2002). Here's Me Looking at Me Looking at Me Talking: Communicating in Graphical Cyberspace. In J. Haines, E. Kärkkäinen, & T. Lauttamus (Eds.), Studia Linguistica et Litteraria Septentrionalia: Studies Presented to Heikki Nyyssönen (pp. 127-144). Department of English, Oulu University, Finland.