and the "Cyber-rape" . . .
he perpetrated on LambdaMOO is widely known among professionals in computers and writing and others interested in Internet culture, online communication, and virtual communities. Julian Dibbell brought the case to popular attention in his 1993 Village Voice article, "A Rape in Cyberspace," and it soon found its way into scholarly discussions cyberspace, particularly on questions of subjectivity in online environments and the nature of online communities (see Mnookin for one example). My interest in the case, though, is in what it might have to tell us about the relationship between these powerful computer network technologies and our sense of ourselves as beings-in-the-world. Specifically, I'm interested in what this "cyber-rape" might reveal about the dialectical relationship between online communication technologies and our prevailing Western sense of self as autonomous, intellectual being.
You can get the full story of the case of Mr. Bungle by reading an updated version of Dibbell's article. The basic story is that Mr. Bungle, a character in the well-known MUD called LambdaMOO, "raped" two other LambdaMOO characters, lebga and Starsinger--that is, Mr. Bungle forced legba and Starsinger to perform "sexual acts" against their will on the MOO. Much of Dibbell's discussion of this "event" focuses on its fallout on LambdaMOO. The "rapes" caused an uproar among LambdaMOO participants, who debated intensely and at length about how they should respond to Mr. Bungle. Dibbell explores what these debates might say about the formation of online communities, with their own rules for behavior and explicit consequences for transgressing those rules.
But in the course of exploring questions about online communities, Dibbell inevitably confronts the question of the relationship between the virtual world of the MOO and the "real" world of the human beings who created and controlled the characters on LambdaMOO. As Dibbell puts it,
[W]hile a certain tension invariably buzzes in the gap between the hard, prosaic RL [real-life] facts and their more fluid, dreamy VR [virtual reality] counterparts, the dissonance in the Bungle case is striking. No hideous clowns or trickster spirits appear in the RL version of the incident, no voodoo dolls or wizard guns, indeed no rape at all as any RL court of law has defined it. The actors in the drama were university students for the most part, and they sat rather undramatically before their computer screens the entire time, their only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across standard QWERTY keyboards. No bodies touched. Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from sites spread out between New York City and Sydney, Australia. (Dibbell 450)
This complex and vexed relationship between the virtual and the real is at heart a contemporary version of that enduring Platonic binary: the mind-body split. And this is a crucial point, for the virtual environment of the MOO dramatically illustrates the separation of the intellectual self (mind) from the physical world (body). Much has been made in the professional literature of the ways in which online environments demonstrate postmodern "fragmented subjectivities," but even if we assume that the self we present online--in a MOO or a chat room or on a listserv--is our "true" or "real" self, a stable and definable entity, it is still a disembodied self, an intellectual self; it is a self that is separate from the physical world. Moreover, it is a self that, like the characters created in a MOO, is textual and technologically mediated. In a sense, legba and Mr. Bungle are us: their "essence," whatever their relationship to the physical bodies of the people who created them, is intellectual.
Dibbell seems to stumble on this very point when he describes the phenomenon of online sexual encounters (or "virtual sex" or "netsex"):
To participate . . . in this disembodied enactment of life's most body-centered activity is to risk the realization that when it comes to sex, perhaps the body in question is not the physical one at all, but its psychic double, the body-like self-representation we carry around in our heads. (452)
Utimately, I wish to suggest, this is precisely why the "rape" in cyberspace matters. Whatever else it might say about online communities or the relationship between virtual reality and real life, Mr. Bungle's "attack" on legba and Starsinger mattered not only because it sparked important discussion about community norms and related issues but also because the online self created in LambdaMOO is fundamentally the same kind of intellectual self as our conventional "offline" self: a self that is not defined by the physical but by the intellectual and the verbal.
I'm suggesting, in other words, that this case is so compelling in large part because our conventional Western sense of self as fundamentally intellectual rather than physical, as fundamentally separate rather than connected, is dramatically evident here. Moreover, the technologies in use here--the computer technologies that enable the creation of networks and online communication--both reflect and reinforce that fundamentally intellectual self. Indeed, I would go a step further and suggest that these technologies enhance that sense of self in that they enable the MOO participants to overcome the physical, to make the physical irrelevant to the formation of communities (in this case, virtual ones) and to the "actions" that take place in those communities.
And if what I'm suggesting here is valid, then we should carefully examine the broader implications of the uses of computer technologies not only for the creation of virtual communities like MOOs but for more common or conventional purposes, such as teaching writing.