Tag Archives: virtuality

What is social about social software?

Before we forget all about the label Social Software and move on to Web 2.0, 3.0, or whatever comes next, I think it would be useful to dwell a little bit on the use of the word ‘social’ as applied in this term. What does it mean for software to be social? Intuitively, we know that Social Software is software that fulfills some sort of social function, allowing us to form social connections, and perform social activities that give shape to social groups. But as evidenced by the number of times I just used the word ‘social’ to define Social Software, it is clear that what we have here is a tautology: by taking for granted what we understand by ‘social,’ the adjective in question both provides an absolute definition and at the same time manages to define nothing.

This point became increasingly clear while I was reading Bruno Latour’s latest book, Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory (2005, Oxford University Press). Latour is critical of the way in which the concept of the social has become a sort of “black box” which we use, perhaps out of laziness, to bracket all sorts of connections that should be explored in more detail. His goal in this introduction to ANT (actor-network theory) is therefore to “redefine the notion of social by going back to its original meaning and making it able to trace connections again” (p. 1).

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Technology, the culture of testing, and obstacles to school change

Will simulations be the next form of standardized testing?

There has been much talk in recent years about the use of simulations
and gaming in education, both for children and adults. The best
educational simulations and games —we are told— embody ‘active
learning’ (learning by doing, or the formation of knowledge through the
subjective cognitive experiences of the learner as opposed to the
passive consumption of information or facts). They also provide a safe
environment for testing problem-solving techniques without the risks
that we encounter in the ‘real’ world.

Talk about the use of simulations as a method of assessment is more
prevalent in the corporate training world than in K-12 education (see this example from Microsoft), but the application of simulations for testing seems to be an obvious one:

Simulations are expanding the computer-based testing horizon. They’re delivering benefits across the board that are ushering in the next generation of testing. Test-takers benefit from simulations because simulations assess skills, not just knowledge. Further, simulations provide a higher level of test security because the exam is not simply constructed with multiple-choice questions that may be memorized and exposed. (Wenck, 2005: Simulations: The Next Generation of Testing)

I would like to explore some of the implications of using simulations
as a means of assessment. While simulations are often presented as the
antithesis of old methods of evaluation, I would like to warn against
uses of simulations that merely replicate, with some modifications, the
norms of traditional testing. Specifically, I want to examine the way
in which both traditional testing and simulations shape the learning
process by normalizing values and creating expectations of how things
ought to work outside of the learning environment.

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Virtual Freedom and Tolerance: The Perils of Uniform Diversity

Britain’s Mass Observation project consisted of hundreds of people keeping journals of their daily lives in order to generate a sociological snapshot of British society in the 1930s. Today, researchers are undertaking similar studies of our societies by looking at blogs.

Anyone engaged in such research would probably find that our societies are not lacking in diversity. Every ethnicity, ideology, religion and fetish known to humankind is probably represented in cyberspace. But does this diversity translate into more tolerance? Given the general state of affairs in the world, the answer would seem to be resoundingly negative.

Some argue that the conflicts caused by the increased contact of dissimilar people can only be alleviated through more tolerant behavior. Thus, a keystone of modern democracy is that, despite differences of all kinds, citizens should exercise tolerance and agree that the one thing that unites us all is our desire to be governed justly and be treated equally.

On the one hand, I’m interested in exploring if technology can, by increasing the presence of diverse voices and facilitating dialogue, lead to increased understanding and tolerance. On the other hand, I’m also interested in the limits of tolerance as exercised by a society through hybrid mass-public media such as the internet.

Related to the latter line of inquiry, it seems to me that a major obstacle in working towards a genuine understanding of the Other is precisely our modern conceptualization of tolerance and freedom. Richard Hoggart, in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, described how freedom started to acquire a particularly authoritarian edge in the age of mass communications. Hoggart analyzed how print media served to construct an ‘Anything Goes’ culture in which freedom was attached to materialistic goals and consumption, excluding development of the Self and understanding of the Other in any meaningful way.

“[T]he concept of freedom may widen until it becomes the freedom not to ‘be’ anything at all, and certainly hardly to object to anything at all. A man is free not to choose, but if he uses his freedom to choose so as to be unlike the majority, he is likely to be called ‘narrow-minded’, ‘bigoted’, ‘dogmatic’, ‘intolerant’, ‘a busybody’, ‘undemocratic’… Tolerance becomes not so much a charitable allowance for human frailty and the difficulties of ordinary lives, as a weakness, a ceaseless leaking-away of the will-to-decide on matters outside the immediate touchable orbit.” (p.133)

Pressure to conform, as imposed by this brand of ‘freedom,’ prevents people from defining themselves in any moral way, and any expression of belief that contradicts any other belief results in accusations of hypocrisy or fanaticism. Thus, if one values freedom, it is best to not believe.

“The reasoning seems to be as follows: (1) The only value is freedom; (2) Therefore to have an open mind is the only firm line required; but (3) These people have suggested that some uses of freedom may be wrong; they have taken a moral line; and therefore, (4) They must be hypocrites; they are hiding something; they want freedom for themselves, but not for others. This is the other side of the coin which has ‘sincerity’ on its face. If you accept total freedom, but do not advocate any ‘line’ of your own, you may come in for praise because your muddling through indicates that you are ‘sincere, anyway’. Suggest a rule and you will attract the full weight of opprobrium for the greatest sin in the new catalogue, ‘hypocrisy’.” (p. 155)

This results in a society in which the very availability of ‘freedom’ weakens our ability to negotiate differences and draw boundaries. Are we better human beings for allowing ourselves to live in a society in which all beliefs, no matter how corrupt or perverted, are tolerated? Hoggart argues that real tolerance comes at a high cost.

“The tolerance of men [sic] who have some strength and are prepared, if necessary, to use it, is a meaningful tolerance; the tolerance of those whose muscles are flabby and spirits unwilling is simply a ‘don’t-hit-me’ masquerading as mature agreement. Genuine tolerance is a product of vigour, belief, a sense of the difficulty of truth and a respect for others; the new tolerance is weak and unwilling, a fear and resentment of challenge.” (p.134)

Finally, it is interesting to note how for Hoggart, centralization and technology went hand in hand as far as imposing this new ‘freedom.’ People in a mass society find freedom in the consumption of newer technologies, and the sense of belonging that they afford. However, although these technologies advertise new freedoms of expression and assembly, they may come at the cost of other freedoms in ways we may not have yet become fully aware of.

[T]he problem is acute and pressing–how that freedom may be kept as in any sense a meaningful thing whilst the processes of centralisation and technological development continue. This is a particularly intricate challenge because, even if substantial inner freedom were lost, the great new classless class would be unlikely to know it: its members would still regard themselves as free and be told that they were free.” (p.268)

Freedoms gained and exercised exclusively in virtuality fit totalitarian interests like a glove.

Postmodernism, Virtuality, Globalization and the (fragmented) Self – 3/3

Possibilities for Postmodern Praxis

Blood, torture, death and horror might not be in the mind of people playfully experimenting with their identities online, but we must remember that the opposition to “the West” is indeed very much grounded on the rejection of its technology and the ways of being in the world that it affords. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly difficult for cultures to opt out or oppose this arrangement. Globalization tolerates diversity, but only within predefined notions of what it means to be different. When push comes to shove, “you’re either with us or against us.”

But are technology and virtuality inherently oppressive? Can they not be instruments of subversion, even while partly complicit in capitalism? To believe that technologies cannot be re-appropriated and subverted would be to yield the power of human creativity to the will of multinational corporations. Somewhere between Audrey Lorde’s belief that the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house, and Ani DiFranco’s opinion that every tool is a weapon if you hold it right, there must be a productive space for technology and virtuality within praxis.[3] If that is a possibility, we must begin by critiquing the unsustainable practices of virtuality: mainly, it’s refusal to “get real.”

Turkle devotes part of her chapter titled Virtuality and Its Discontents to examining individuals who use their fragmented selves to flee from reality. This move, although it originally promises the thrill of experimentation without serious consequences, most often results in an impoverished emotional and social life. The personal computer revolution, which “once conceptualized [the PC] as a tool to rebuild community, now tends to concentrate on building community inside a machine.” (p. 244) On the one hand, this can be seen as a logical outcome, given the context of postmodernism and global capital. On the other, this signifies an incomplete struggle to theorize applications of technology whose power to reintegrate the individual to the world surpass their power to alienate the individual from the world. Turkle hints at the nature of this challenge by asking: “Instead of solving real problems-both personal and social-are we choosing to live in unreal places?” (p. 244) Perhaps the choice is not as much ours as we would like to think; or perhaps we are implicated in this hegemonic bargain more than we would like to admit. However, Turkle also identifies the spirit necessary to move forward: “To the question, “Why must virtuality and real life compete-why can’t we have both?” the answer is of course that we will have both [whether we want to or not, it seems]. The more important question is “How can we get the best of both?”” (p. 238).

This synthesizing approach is also a requirement identified by Jameson. Writing about Marx’s lesson on how to think historical development and change, Jameson says,

Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely to think this development positively and negatively all at once; to achieve, in other words, a type of thinking that would be capable of grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously, within a single thought, and without attenuating any of the force of either judgment. We are, somehow, to lift our minds to a point at which it is possible to understand that capitalism is at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race, and the worst. (¶ 92)

Likewise, we have no choice but to simultaneously admit that virtuality is the most dehumanizing thing we can experience, but also the only way to transcend postmodern alienation: if virtuality is a site for the fragmentation of the self to the point of anomie, it can also be, if we make it, a transitional space for psychological treatment that can be discarded once it fulfills its purpose, as Turkle demonstrates. Or, as I argue elsewhere[4], virtuality can help to revalorize what it previously devalued if we make its resolving moment the real. I will conclude by citing two specific examples of new models suggested by Jameson and Turkle to achieve this synthetic praxis.

Turkle suggests that a new form of social criticism and engagement with simulations is possible, beyond resignation or rejection. By making explicit the value assumptions, power distributions, and reductionist logic implicit in simulations, this new model of criticism would “take as its goal the development of simulations that actually help players challenge the model’s built-in assumptions. This new criticism would try to use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising. Understanding the assumptions that underlie simulation is a key element of political power.” (Turkle, p. 71).

Jameson, for his part, uses the metaphor of cartography to suggest that postmodern subjects need to draft new cognitive maps of their position vis-à-vis the world (in its full “global” complexity), much like citizens needs to mentally map and remap the city which they inhabit and through which they move. But these maps can not be unique (as in widely dissimilar) representations made by schizophrenic selves. New conceptual tools-the equivalent of the compass and the sextant-need to ensure that all maps bear a resemblance to the totality they are trying to represent. This representation of the subject’s Imaginary relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence, Jameson continues, “is exactly what the cognitive map is called upon to do, in the narrower framework of daily life in the physical city: to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of the city’s structure as a whole.” (¶103) Thus, we would arrive at a postmodern virtuality that not only helps us to understand the new, complex global reality, but that would also serve as the map to plan our non-virtual involvement in that reality.


[3] I’m using here Markovic’s definition of praxis: A complex activity by which individuals, in collectivities, create culture, society, and create themselves as “species beings”, i.e., as human beings. The moments of praxis include self-determination (in contrast to coercion), intentionality (in contrast to reaction), sociality (in contrast to privatism), creativity (in contrast to sameness) and rationality (in contrast to blind chance). (Jameson MSE notes)

[4] http://ideant.typepad.com/ideant/2003/08/far_away_so_clo.html


Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991. [http://www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/jameson/]

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 1995.

Postmodernism, Virtuality, Globalization and the (fragmented) Self – 2/3

Decentered Self and Centralized Capitalism

There is a prevalent trend to describe the human body, the self, and even our forms of organization using the imagery and terminology of computer systems. In other words, not only do we think of computers as more human, but we think of ourselves more like computers, and humanity more like a computer network. To Jameson, the narrative of a human-technological network that encompasses all is a distortion engendered by our inability to grasp the true nature of multinational capitalism: “The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating, not so much in its own right, but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp-namely the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.” (¶ 77)

A central motif in this narrative, as we have just seen, is that of decentralization: the idea that the self is not bound to one particular identity, just as an open computer network is not hierarchically linked to one central unit. “We are encouraged to think of ourselves as fluid, emergent, decentralized, multiplicitous, flexible, and ever in process.” (Turkle, p. 263-264) Or in terms of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the self is portrayed as “a realm of discourse rather than as a real thing or a permanent structure of the mind.”(p. 178) In computer terms, its “bottom-up distributed, parallel, and emergent models of mind have replaced top-down, information processing ones.” (p. 178)

To further elucidate this point, Turkle quotes Howard Rheingold:

With our relationships spread across the globe and our knowledge of other cultures relativizing our attitudes and depriving us of any norm, we “exist in a state of continuous construction and reconstruction; it is a world where anything goes that can be negotiated. Each reality of self gives way to reflexive questioning, irony, and ultimately the playful probing of yet another reality.” (p. 257)

But if the decentered self requires the internet to support its multiple identities and realities, and the internet can only be maintained with the hardware and electricity provided by multinational corporations, then we must admit that the decentered self is partly complicit in the process of globalization. In other words, the discourse of the decentered self must acknowledge how it, as a product of postmodern culture, helps to perpetuate the centralized logic of capitalism. As Jameson argues, “every position on postmodernism in culture-whether apologia or stigmatization-is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today.” (¶ 4)

Capitalism’s obsession with the new and the latest is reflected quite transparently in the flourishing of ever-new modes of identity formation facilitated by ever-new waves of electronic commodities. Turkle’s book is replete with examples of people who construct one or more alternative selves online: this process at best serves a psychotherapeutic function, but at worst merely represents new modes of consumerism and instant gratification. The following passage by Jameson helps to put this phenomenon in perspective, if instead of “aesthetic production” we read “the production of a decentered identity:”

What has happened is that aesthetic production [the production of a decentered identity] today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes) [identities], at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic [virtual reality] innovation and experimentation… Yet this is the point at which we must remind the reader of the obvious, namely that this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and horror. (Jameson, ¶ 9)

Ironically, the postmodern desire to make the idea of the self less totalitarian can only be actualized through the totalitarian mechanics of capitalism. But confronted with that reality, do we choose to throw the postmodern baby out with the bath water?


Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991. [http://www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/jameson/]

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 1995.

Postmodernism, Virtuality, Globalization and the (fragmented) Self – 1/3

If the politics of virtuality means democracy online and apathy offline, there is reason for concern.
-Sherry Turkle, Life On The Screen.

Frederic Jameson’s essay, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, describes the ethos of its time. Published in 1984, the work provides a detailed analysis of the social and political implications of postmodernism, and predicts the continuation of a trend already well in progress in the 1980’s: the further fragmentation of the self. Jameson’s predictions are validated and updated in Sherry Turkle’s book Life on the Screen (Touchstone Press, 1995), published a decade later. Where Jameson looks at art, literature and architecture in the 1980’s, Turkle looks at virtuality and the online world in the 1990’s for evidence of the postmodern decentralization of the self, and what its sustainable and unsustainable consequences might be.

Turkle argues that computers, by their very nature, help us realize the implications of postmodernism in our daily lives: “Computers embody postmodern theory and bring it down to earth,” she argues, by introducing into our common experiences “ideas about the instability of meanings and the lack of universal and knowable truths.” (p. 18) Virtual Reality, in particular, embodies a postmodern approach by serving as a site for alternative enactments of the self. As I will argue later, these alternative enactments are complex: they are representations of the self at once implicated in the politics and economics of multinational capitalism on the one hand and in an evolution towards new forms of political involvement on the other. But first, we should analyze what Jameson calls the constitutive features of postmodernism, and how virtuality relates to them.

Depthlessness and Simulacrum

There are two particular features of postmodernism described by Jameson that bear on Turkle’s examination of virtuality: depthlessness and simulacrum.

Jameson characterized the move from modernism to postmodernism as a move from affect to effect, from emotional engagement to slick superficiality.[1] “[D]epth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces.” (¶ 24) Whereas in modernism the object[2] serves “as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth” (¶ 19), in postmodernism it is merely a commodified fetish, beyond hermeneutical explanation because hermeneutics itself has been discredited. In this context, the difference between the real and the simulacrum (a copy without an original, a pseudo-event) becomes inconsequential. The simulacrum’s function “lies in what Sartre would have called the derealization of the whole surrounding world of everyday reality.” (¶ 66) The simulacrum, produced and reproduced with technology, is therefore symptomatic of the shift from a time-bound experience of the world to a fragmented, space-bound experience.

The fragmentation of the self-as characterized by the derealization of the world, the waning of historicity and time, and the inability to represent our own experience-seems to reach full expression in the phenomenon of virtuality. Turkle identifies three ways in which virtuality can skew the self’s experience of the real: first, it can “make denatured and artificial experiences seem real” (p. 236); second, it “makes the fake seem more compelling than the real” (p. 237); and third, it “may be so compelling that we believe that within it we’ve achieved more than we have.” (p. 238). However, Turkle recognizes that virtuality represents both risks and opportunities:

The seductiveness of simulation does not mean that it is a bad thing or something to be avoided at all cost, but it does mean that simulation carries certain risks. It is not retrograde to say that if we value certain aspects of life off the screen, we may need to do something to protect them. (p. 236)

In order to protect “life off the screen,” we need to explore not only the psychological implications of the electronically-facilitated decentralized self, but its political implications as well.


[1] Note on affect from the MSE resources.
[2] Jameson refers specifically to the art object, but I think his observations can be generalized.


Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991. [http://www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/jameson/]

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 1995.