Home » Uncategorized » On escape, enhancement and exceptionalism

On escape, enhancement and exceptionalism

Last week I did a guest spot in a lecture at (although whether it was really “at” is a moot point) Surrey University. The students’ regular lecturer is Lee Campbell and we share an interest in the idea of embodiment online, particularly its role in performance (although Lee knows way more about the performance angle). His module is actually on Digital Performance.

I used this as an opportunity to bring together three different (though linked) strands of what I’ve been researching and writing about, digital identity, online spaces and embodiment. The linking theme of all of these is really that we aren’t just physical beings; that our interactions with technology are so integrated with our sense of selves, spaces, bodies, that the technology is an extension of us. Understanding who we are (and more relevant to using TEL) understanding how we act online, can be informed by adopting this perspective. And by “act” I mean it in both senses, or rather that  an essential part of acting (as in performing an action) is acting (as in performing).

The question about whether I was actually “at” Surrey Uni is a debatable one because I was at home, on the sofa. My image and voice were on a screen in a classroom there through the auspices of Skype. But where I actually was was kind of my topic.

Also to put together the presentation, I pulled together bits from three different presentations. The one on identity was re-used from my SOLSTICE keynote from a couple of years ago where I contrasted developing my identity in the physical world (cue pictures of me as a baby, in toddlers clothing, in a baggies strip, and as a 15 year old nerd) compared to four stages of my avatar (standard start-up form, first bought skin, more textured skin, sitting in a home). While describing this I said that my identity up until 15 was purely an offline one because …. because the internet hadn’t been invented.

I’d never actually mentioned that in a presentation before, but of course, for students now, that’s quite a novel idea. OK there was ARPANET, but I was nearly 30 before anyone I knew had actually been online.

That aside led to being positioned with a weird sort of authority “as someone who was around before the internet”. The question I was asked though was “as someone who was around before the internet, what do you think about the use of virtual worlds and games as a means of escapism?”

Working in virtual worlds, it’s a question I’ve been asked before. The games-based learning field leads into it too. Recently at a conference I was asked whether we should be encouraging students to play games.

My answer is always a bit inconsistent, because I’m not sure what assumptions are leading people to ask the question, so I try and answer both simultaneously.

The first is that there’s something wrong with escapism. There isn’t. I’ve spent a large proportion of my life escaping to some fictional world or other. A central thesis of Saler’s “As if” (“As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality” – an exceptional book, I assume from the small amount I read before I lost my copy – or maybe it escaped) is that the completeness of fantastical worlds is so that they can function as places to escape to. And those sorts of fictional worlds have been around for a long time. Games have been with us for thousands of years. I’m sure the reason our ancestors sat around a few pebbles and lines drawn in the sand it was to escape from the daily pressures of hunting down bison or evading sabre-toothed tigers (editorial caveat: I’m not an anthropologist).

But this isn’t the sort of escape that the gaming naysayers are worried about. If someone is curled up in an armchair with a Trollope (I’m thinking Anthony but Joanna would do), that is A Good Escape, but if they’re firing away at the Covenant in the latest Halo, that’s a Bad Escape. No coherent reason is given for distinguishing between the two.

The other is that escapism is happening when it isn’t. This applies particularly to when they’re contesting virtual worlds. The name Second Life doesn’t help in this argument, in that it implies something other to normal life. My response to these people is that the online world is an authentic experience for those who take part in it. That the relationships built up there are as real as those in the physical world to those that want them to be. That this extension of our bodies, lives, selves, spaces into the virtual is a real change that society has experienced, and that actually ignoring it is the real escape.

So … as someone who was born before the Internet my position is: “If you haven’t fought off the Reapers in Mass Effect then you need to ask yourself the question, “why not? What are you trying to escape from?””

The reason for the double-standards is, of course, that technology is still seen by many as exceptional to the human experience, not an integral part of it. It’s something that’s added on to what we are, and we are losing ourselves in. It has at its route a technophobia or even neophobia; that technology itself is seen as other, and any change towards incorporating it is a move away from some imaginary golden age ideal of what being human is.

This issue has cropped up in conversations at work about the idea of Technology Enhanced Learning, with reference to beliefs, anxieties and miscommunications about the idea of Enhancement. Some people see the TEL agenda as being one of trying to impose some sort of technocratic imperialism on them. Others feel that they are being singled out for enhancement because they aren’t performing.

This is difficult for someone that just gets excited about new tech to realise, and communicate with. For me change (with or without technology) is an essentially human thing. The first caveman who picked up a hand axe must have been excited about it, they’re such undeniably cool things. But even then there must have been other people who looked on them with suspicion and carried on hitting things with ordinary shaped rocks.

I tried to encapsulate these various positions into a single matrix (because simplifying things is how I deal with them). This is what I came up with:

Change is for all Change is imposed on the disadvantaged
Technological change is an essential part of the human condition Extropianism Technological dystopianism/class warfare
Technology is dehumanising Technophobia The eugenics debate

These could probably be expanded with some examples. But that’s probably for another time. But for a little self-test here’s an item taken from today’s headlines.


Now I admit there are ethical issues, and we need to engage our brains before making a decision, but isn’t the initial emotional instinctive reaction to the idea of GM babies “woah, cool”?  Isn’t that the most human response?





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