Throughout the course of this essay I will attempt to construct a picture of modern techno cultures in respect of the laws and norms of the world they inhabit but don’t necessarily fit into. I will try to display to the reader that these techno cultures live within our world but outside our laws, they themselves construct their own laws as they live in their own worlds, they live in our world but in another world of their choosing. I will in a sense try to find reality in these virtual worlds and try to discover what is real and what is false; try to tell the dreams from the reality, like peeling an onion. I will then move onto the more important issue of the conceptualisation of crime in a virtual world and how this relates into our society and try to answer questions around the effects these cultures have on real crime and society as a whole. I will also briefly talk about how violence and deviance is presented in video games and other such media and how this can distort, undermine or strengthen ideologies.
“We are leaving the physical world behind, and with it the touchstone of physical and natural laws, together with the [legal] notion of irreducible limits”
Today we live in a society where we can literally escape the trappings of our bodies and travel to worlds unlike our own and in this essay I want to discuss these new worlds in detail, do the old laws apply in this new world or will these new worlds come with their own laws which supersede the law of the real world? Today thriving communities of people exist in online games and because these games like World of Warcraft exist in a fantasy world, so to comes this fantasy culture, a community of people linked by computers; a cyber culture. These cyber cultures do not so much borrow from real culture but invent and replace real culture with an entirely new one. These are cultures which do not necessarily rise from a specific agenda they are communities forged by commonality. In some cases not feeling a part of a real culture can lead people to a created culture, we have seen this type of thing before in Stanley Cohen’s work on sub-cultures; people who do not fit in make their own sub-cultures, but obviously these cultures still exist in the real world therefore are still governed by laws. Which is why cyber cultures are so interesting because not only are they devoid of specific legal laws some are not even governed by simple laws of nature, for example; in world of warcraft you can use magic, which is as far as I know impossible.
Although specific legally binding laws do not apply in virtual worlds we have become accustomed in our time for technology used as a vehicle for crime from for example; a bullet from a gun killing someone, or tying in with our subject; people who use the internet as a medium for spreading offensive material.
Disembodiment and Deception
“when we sit down at our computers and sign on to the internet we are no longer “in” our physical setting but are relocated to a “generalised everywhere” of distant places and “non-local” people” (Morley and Robbins 1995: 132)
We are not so much moving into a post-human society but more so into a post-body society as it is a common occurrence in modern life to form bonds with people you may never have met or had any human contact with, in fact often people marry in games like World of Warcraft and never even meet their partner until after the wedding if at all. Humans today are computer mediated; we have found a way to do the normal things we do everyday without having to move from the comfort of our homes. This relationship is symbolised as a computer ‘oneness’ humans have formed a symbiotic relationship with machines. This raises many questions around culpability as it becomes harder to tell where the human begins and the machine ends. How can the law punish a machine? Are actions like assault less severe if they are mediated by a machine? Establishing harm is hard enough in the real world; in a virtual world it becomes virtually impossible.
How far does the human consciousness actually transcend into the virtual world? We cannot very well say all the way, we cannot say we exist in cyberspace in the same context as we exist in real space so there is a clear difference between the two states of being, a gap if you will, it is this gap that complicates virtual crime. Virtual crime is not the same as real crime in my opinion; in the world of video games for example you can torture, murder and engage in numerous virtual criminal activities without consequence, when does this become crime? People make fictional characters on online games all the time the only difference is if they are killed it becomes an annoyance to the person who created them and wanted to continue playing as that character. A characters worth in this context is measured in regards to whether it will be missed or not, whether the loss of the character causes inconvenience for its creator. Quite a sobering thought if you compare it to the context of a mother losing her child, as we have established that bonds can be formed without bodies so in theory we can say someone could mourn a fictional character’s death if they felt emotionally connected in some way. Think about this in the context of films as well, why does a sad film make us cry? Surely we have no stake, no connection to the fictional characters involved. Now we come to a point where we understand the purpose of this media is to engage the viewer or the player, their intention is to connect you emotionally to these fictional characters, immersing you into the storyline simply to keep you playing or watching.
Authorship of the Self
This brings me on to my next point regarding online games and the authorship of self and identity. Today we can be anyone, from killers like James Earl Cash to just ourselves or an improvement to some degree. The internet gives us freedom to recreate ourselves in any way we choose. You are encouraged to adopt alternate personas in all online games, encouraged to be someone else, to escape. Human beings are becoming purely beings of information that can be moulded into an innumerable amount of shapes. Gender seems to be the most important factor regarding interactions on the internet, the most commonly asked question on the internet is; “RUMorF?“ which means; “Are you male or female?”. Height, weight, age and socioeconomic status are less important on the net, it’s as if we live without out our bodies on the net so what they look like or where they come from are not important only our identity really matters and gender is bound so much more with identity than age or weight.
Virtual relationships only require the other party to be what you desire and since people can be whatever they want in the virtual world it does not matter if you are not in the real world. Gender is the central feature of interaction over the internet but gender is more stereotyped, there are no limits to how one might describe oneself in cyberspace because of this people recreate themselves as stereotypical ideals, interactions become stereotyped and have less variation than that of face to face interaction. O’Brien refers to this as ‘hyper gendering’ for example cross dressing, these men or women recreate what they think the opposite gender should be; the world without constraints has instead of created new types of identities has increased homogeneity, people become more and more alike, because they stereotype themselves. So an important thing you should ask yourself when you are talking to someone on the internet is whether or not this is a real person or a fabricated role they are fulfilling
Zoonen argues that the internet is a gender free playground simply for experimenting with gender symbols (Van Zoonen 2002: 12).The internet is a new method of presentation and a new tool for invention; it is the postmodern tool of self creation.
Today we have sites like facebook that are literally places for people to promote themselves, they are; “fan-clubs to one’s self” (Di Giovanna 1996). This is brings us into a new age of cultural narcissism and obsession with being recognised.
The body is the only truth on the net we only know what we are told or shown (miller 1995). Freedom of being is far greater on the internet because people can lie and conceal stigmatised aspects of their personality and body (Sherry Turkle 1995: 12); criminals can pretend to be nice, paedophiles can be twelve years old, fat girls can be skinny, ugly into pretty, the list is endless, people choose interaction on the net because they can be their own creators. The internet allows for a sort of ‘cosmetic surgery for the self’.
Heightened freedom also creates heightened restraint, racism and sexism are amplified by excesses of freedoms on the internet, the lack of consequences allows our true feelings and thoughts to submerge and because of this certain groups can be marginalised.
Women in particular are seen as victimised on the internet by things created by men such as pornography and prostitution but the fact is everyone including women can find some power on the internet even if it’s in the form of pornography, webcam pornography run by the women on them for instance.
A whole new world exists on the internet with new crimes and new punishments, new forms of deviance and control all together. Games in this way can be coercive and satirise the real world to further agenda’s demonizing certain groups of people. Social organisations are defined by how they control themselves. Social control relies mainly on the social group finding an individual accountable for his actions; this is made harder in a place where the body is left behind. Cyber space can enhance or erode the methods of social order or control.
We believe that interactions in cyberspace will lead to the flourishing of democratic institutions but most online groups are anarchistic or dictatorships. Cyberspace is the home of vast power imbalances. Dictators in fact are still alive and well on the internet as the creator of forums or internet games has absolute power over those in the game. This person literally has the power to remove people and punish people in his world.
Do cyber-communities strengthen real communities or does the net ensnare people making them easier to control and keep an eye on?
“Information technology has the obvious capacity to concentrate political power, to create new forms of social obfuscations and domination” (Theodore Roszak 1986)
The internet, because it makes communications instant can be used to further political goals or undermine the power of existing political powers, used to circulate propaganda and change viewpoints, mislead and confuse people into believing urban myths and stereotypes, so it can be means to control and to liberate. Elizabeth Reid puts forth the idea that in games you are still enmeshed in rules and social expectations sometimes even more so in games than in the real world because it is a manmade experience where things are expected of you rather than the real world where you can basically do whatever it is you wish. Although people are less inhibited in online games as they become their character. Internet bullies issue empty threats of violence that can be construed as harmful in a legal sense, this is to do with the lack of consequences and inhibitions also people will tend to form attachments towards other game users in the game or can act out in a more violent way, emotions and connections can be heightened from the sheer lack of consequence, internet gaming becoming a new form of drug. It is also a danger to children if not properly monitored as the internet allows children to form attachments on their own terms with possibly coercive people that might want to hurt them while the parents are none the wiser.
Reid claims that the virtual world is a return to medieval times as the body albeit the virtual body is the site of punishment. In games if you transcend the rules or laws of the world you can be removed or stripped of your powers, killed or banned from the game, this is the virtual bloody code.
Deviance made easy
It used to be that to get hold of pornographic material you had to go to a specialised shop or news agent and exchange some very uncomfortable glances and feelings of embarrassment but now we can stream whole films instantly without even having to go outside let alone pay for them. One of the most celebrated and demonized facets of the internet; is that it gives people the means and the privacy to be as deviant as they want (John Naughton 1999: 34-35). It is a breeding ground for the darkest fantasies of mankind with limitless possibilities. Censorship of the internet is virtually impossible which is one of its greatest attractions, but if we are to assume that people or societies as a whole can be harmed by having access to certain material, we must conclude that the potential for harm is increased merely by the existence of the internet.
“The line is increasingly blurred between ‘playful’ and fraudulent, inclusive and exploitative, accessible and extremist, ‘deviant and criminal” (Yvonne Jewkes and Keith Sharp 2003: 03)
The internet has done more than just make deviance easy it has confused the very notion of what is acceptable and what is deviant, deviance is in the eye of the beholder (Becker 1963). What is classified as obscene material is subjective, and there is this constant struggle between what it is our right to see or show for purposes of our expression and freedom and what the government wants to keep from us.
It is our duty essentially as free thinking people to keep the government at bay as it is theirs to keep us at bay in terms of what we can and cannot see. The argument here from John Stuart Mill is that the government should not be this paternal figure that decides what it is we should and shouldn’t have access to in terms of information. According to Mill as long as no harm comes to anyone it is permissible to do whatever you like but then we come back to who defines harm. “Sexuality prohibited becomes the sexuality produced” (Adler, 2001:273) Adler argues that the fact the government restricts these behaviours makes them more interesting and thus by prohibiting something you actually cultivate it. The opposite side of this theory is asking does the internet satisfy curiosity or erode the browsers view of right and wrong? (Matza, 1964) Drift theory suggests that child pornography only works to fuel the paedophiles’ sexual appetite, propelling them to further deviance; if this is correct then harm is inevitable
“Control over content no longer rests with one, powerful, interest group, but potentially with each and every individual user” (Yvonne Jewkes and Keith Sharp 2003: 03)
This to some is a great step forward in terms of freedom of speech as more people from different backgrounds have the ability to have their say without needing a great deal of power or wealth and I applaud it for doing so but on the other hand the possibilities for subversion are just as great. As you’ve seen through the course of this essay democracy isn’t really what runs the internet, it’s almost like a frontier town in a western, on the edge of law order, out of the reach of law. You only have to look at how popular sites like Wikipedia are to see the damage the internet can do. Wikipedia is a commonly used portal of information but the information is subject to change by any of its millions of members, so whether the information is true or complete falsity is yet to be seen. So what you accept to be true from a website which is thought to have encyclopaedic knowledge could in fact be a complete fabrication with the intent to mislead you.
“The news stories invariably lead some people to blame the internet as a haven for vice, abuse and illegal activity[and] they may be right” (left 2002; unpaginated)
The idea that crime on the internet is new is opposed by Grabosky (2001), he refers to it as; “old wine in a new bottle” computer hacking is only a new form of highway robbery, paedophiles were not created by the internet just made more visible, so the internet isn’t necessarily a ‘haven for vice’ but it makes vice more visible, more accessible, the only response necessary is the evolution of crime control. What I’m trying to get across is; increasing the visibility of suffering doesn’t necessarily mean there is more suffering just that it is less avoidable, which I think is a good thing, it makes it harder for people to ignore suffering and stay complacent (Slevin 2000).
Throughout the course of this essay I’ve tried to establish the effects (if any) virtual worlds have on our own in regards to law and deviance and society. Power (2003) argues that it is possible to have real moral wrongs in virtual communities[and that] people can act in virtual communities in ways that both establish practices and moral expectations and warrant strong identifications between themselves and their online identities’ (Powers 2003). So you cannot deny that virtual worlds have the power and in some cases intent to warp the ideologies of the people in them, and that there are people in these virtual worlds who seek to intentionally cause harm and offence, but establishing harm is still almost impossible as it is too subjective. Harm in these circumstances relies on the sensitivity of the individuals involved. Words cannot physically harm in normal circumstances and attacks on internets games are mostly texted based, but the point is the identities people make on these games are in the same respect text based and maintained so there is a connection to the person, so psychological harm can be done (Williams 2001).
Real and virtual are connected in these circumstances so real lives can be affected by the workings of virtual ones. In terms of video games like Manhunt, it has an eighteen age certificate for a reason, a mature mind can look at such material and be simply entertained and realise that this material has no effect on how they perceive the world. Obviously it is harder to differentiate real from virtual. Children can still get their hands on it over the internet but it is far easier for children to get on websites and internet games where they can be exposed to offensive people and material even if their are age restrictions because they just lie. In summary I do think techno cultures have the ability to distort conceptions of crime but only to those of a sensitive disposition, who are more susceptible to suggestion than others (i.e. children), and I suggest that these games prohibit their use by these people and have a more rigorous age screening process. You could argue against this and say; “Why shouldn’t it be the offensive people who are regulated more thoroughly?” I would respond; to do so would be to restrain freedom of speech, it should be the right of every person to have the freedom to offend whomever they choose within the confines of the law.
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