Virtual Sacrilege

(Here is the keynote speech from the March 10 SXSW panel, also available at our new blog, Virtual Sacrilege.)

The subject of this session is transgression in digital environments, transgressive acts that have been considered wrong in our social and cultural environment. We are speaking of piracy, trolling, copyright infringement, civil disobedience, theft, griefing, fake authenticity, malicious rumors. The list goes on and on,

We will argue that transgression is now an integral part of our daily lives.

In one way or another, we are all breaking down traditional notions of justice, fair use, morals, property. If we are not actually responsible for transgressive acts, we still live with them and accept them and consume them.

The goal of this panel is to open up debate, in order to better understand the impact of virtual transgressive behavior in the so-called “real world”, and to understand how that real world has been trying to catch up with the pace of the mayhem. We will also propose that an interesting phenomenon may be taking place: transgression may be being used by “official” channels as an ambivalent marketing device.

The universe of transgression is extremely large. It is simply not possible to contain its seemingly endless variations within this next hour. We therefore decided to focus on a series of cases that have had more evident impacts and consequences, and to analyse their social and cultural impact.

I started becoming interested in the subject of virtual transgression as I read Julian Dibbell´s seminal book “My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World”. (Originally, I intended for Julian to join us at this panel, but unfortunately he had prior commitments). “My Tiny Life” is an account of the early days of Multiple User Domains, and Dibbell begins by telling us the story of a virtual rape occurring at the LambdaMOO community in 1993. In Dibbell´s words:

“While certain tension invariably buzzes in the gap between the hard prosaic RL facts and their more fluid dreamy VR 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 yet defined it. The actors in the drama were university students for the most part, and they sat rather undramatically before computer screens the entire time, their only actions a spidery slitting of fingers across standard 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.”

“Months later, the woman in Seattle would confide to me that […] posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face – a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting.”

And then extrapolates:

“We are witnessing a paradigm shift in which the classic liberal firewall between word and deed is not likely to survive intact. After all, anyone the least bit familiar with the computer, knows that it operates on the principle that states that the commands you type are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as “make things happen,” the same way pulling a trigger does. They are incantations. The logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.”

It is remarkable that these words were written fifteen years ago: they still describe with total accuracy the dilemma in which we are stuck.

Flash-forward to the present. If the paradigm shift Dibbell described still applies, the formal sophistication and pervasiveness have grown exponentially. Assault still happens in Second Life, just as vandalism on John Edwards´campaign headquarters made it to the national news, just as the September 11 attacks were reenacted. In face of this, Philip Rosedale, chief executive of Linden Labs, defends that Second Life activities should be governed by real-life laws for the time being. This “for the time being” is revealing, in that it acknowledges the impermanence and ambiguity of virtual transgression.

But the magnitude of virtual transgression has gone far beyond VR communities, and now includes video games, consumer culture, media events and religion. In June 2007, Insomniac Games released a Playstation game named Resistance: Fall of Man. One of the key locations for this violent game was Manchester Cathedral, in England. The Church of England did what it had to do: condemn the game as sacrilegious, demand an apology, and threaten with a lawsuit.

But the surprising element was the actual outcome for the Cathedral itself: the number of visitors rose, and one may wonder at the financial benefits that may have come out of this. Months later, St. Paul´s Cathedral in London followed suit as a scenario of Hellgate.

In light of all this, the traditional sociological notion that transgression is an act of deviance may no longer mean much. Transgression is now woven onto institutionalised discourse and narrative, it is a factor of cool, it is a sales pun. SL needs griefers as an integral part of its symbolic capital.

Heitor Alvelos, Austin, March 2008


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