McKenzie Wark on Mon, 11 Jan 1999 23:12:22 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Memoir/Technology: On Julian Dibbell's Tiny Life

McKenzie Wark

A review of:
Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World
Henry Holt, New York, 1998
ISBN 0-8050-3626-1, 336 pages pbk,  US$14.95

It seems like an odd way to categorise a book. On the back of most paperbacks,
under the ISBN number and the price, is the genre, so booksellers and book
buyers know where to put it and what to expect from it. On the back of Julian
Dibbell's new book My Tiny Life, the genre, oddly, is 'memoir/technology'. And
what an interesting cross-pollination this hybrid book turns out to be.

My Tiny Life is an account of the author's time spent logged on to LambdaMOO, a
weirdly named, strangely configured, virtual world. When logged onto Lambda,
one can create a character for oneself, talk with other characters, explore
it's rambling house and unlikely extensions, or build new extensions to it
yourself. All this happens in words, not pictures. LambdaMOO is more like a
collectively written novel than the intensely visual World Wide Web. The
TinyMUD software that Lambda runs on has the virtue of being a very open simple
and flexible one. 

Dibbell's memoir describes a moment in the history of cyberspace that took
place "about halfway between the first time you heard the words information
superhighway and the first time you wished you never had." It is an important
book, because it's author was present at a moment when this technology was
still new, and still had the capacity to make us think long and hard about it's
nature, and by extension, the nature of all human-machine interactions. As
Dibbell writes, "new technologies like this one have a history of sowing
metaphysical derangement in the minds of those who first behold them."

Now that we're all getting bored and cynical about new media technology,
Dibbell ask us to "shut our ears for the time being to techno-utopian ecstasies
and look without illusion upon the present possibilities for building, in the
online spaces of this world, societies more decent and free than those mapped
onto dirt and concrete and capital." His experience with Lambda leads him to
the conclusion that, while no utopia, it was all the same a great and viable
experiment in the spontaneous creation of a society that is, at least, no less
just than the ones in which we spend 'real life'. 

There's a famous story about a 'virtual rape' that took place on Lambda. A
somewhat sensationalised edit appeared in Australia in the Good Weekend
magazine. Dibbell was the author of that story. My Tiny Life begins with
Dibbell's account of this so-called 'Mr Bungle affair' that is free from
editor-imposed histrionics. 

The exact status of 'virtual rape' is probably less interesting than what
LambdaMOO did about it. It formed itself into a polity and empowered itself to
eject Mr Bungle, after due process. This was the less often reported side to
the 'rape in cyberspace' story: that it's possible to do something about it, at
least after the fact.

Dibbell asks whether, in the information age, the classic liberal distinction
between word and deed still holds up. Commands typed into the computer are both
word and deed, or words that do not so much express an opinion but which make
things happen. Hence it is appropriate to think about what kinds of 'text-act',
on a computer system, are acceptable -- and which are not.

The emerging Lambda polity decided to 'toad' Mr Bungle, the character accused
of 'textual harassment, meaning that the character was erased and it's author
prevented from logging on from the originating email account ever again. 

Before the Mr Bungle affair, Lambda had a three tiered 'class' system. Bottom
of the rung are guests, people with no permanent character on the MOO. Next up
are people with registered accounts, who have characters and virtual homes for
them. Top of the heap are the wizards, people with access to considerably more
important parts of the computer program that runs the whole show. 

At the time of the affair, Haakon, the wizard mainly responsible for running
it, had circulated a document in which he called for a 'new direction' in
Lambda social order, one in which the wizards would continue to hold special
powers that enabled them to keep the software actually running, but would
abdicate responsibility for adjudicating social disputes, and for deciding who
needed to be toaded. In the wake of the Mr Bungle affair, Haakon implemented a
whole system of petitions and ballots. Lambda's characters would have to assume
responsibility for negotiating their own social disputes. 

It's curious how quickly the Lambda population took to self-government.
"Getting lost in the vast underbrush of legal and legislative documentation
introduced by the new political order was in fact fast becoming one of the MOO
populace's favourite 'leisure' activities."

Interestingly, one of the things that obsessed this newly-minted polity was
'immigration policy' -- just how many people should be allowed to create
characters? The more characters, the richer the social life, and the more
interesting architecture gets created -- but also the longer the 'lag'
experienced by people logged on. It's the problem of defining a community by
who it excludes, as with the Mr Bungle affair, only raised to a more abstract

Dibbell gets caught up in the politics of Lambda himself when he decides to
build a feature called the Garden of Forking Paths. This rather elegant bit of
digital poetry, part Borges and part I Ching, would take up more than Dibbell's
quota of hard disc space. The way around this would be to ask the 'quotacrats'
of the Architecture Review Board for more. 

Getting increases in quota approved seems on Dibbell's account to be a
particularly fraught process. Lambda was always a small community, with not
more than a few thousand really active members. While it was in size small
enough to support the idealised kinds of communitarian virtue, in practice it
could also be communitarian hell. Most active characters had some previous
history with all of the other characters. Everyone was connected by friendship,
love, hatred or paranoia. Decisions always appeared biased one way or the

Things really got out of hand when the character Minnie used up her building
quota and was refused more. This formerly blithe virtual spirit turned into a
mass of paranoid petitioning and politics. "The web of her messages spread like
kudzu across the surface of the lists, consuming and at last becoming her
identity as it grew."

Fortunately politics was not the only thing that interested Lambda's
inhabitants. Quite a few "flipped their bits" for amusement, and created
characters of a different gender. LambdaMOO supported several options. My
favourite, in my brief spell on Lambda, was the 'spivak' gender. This had its
own set of pronouns: e, em, eir, eirs, emself, and "its own roles, its own
predilections, and even its own genitalia (think tendrils)."

Samantha was the character into which Dibbell 'morphed', and he offers a subtle
account of this now commonplace experience of net gender-bending, in which he
seeks, but does not quite find, a state of 'postgendered grace'. 

"In VR, it's the best writers who get laid." Dibbell considers what "category
of thrill" having 'sex' by typing into a compute and reading another's typing
might possibly be. He decides, in the end, that it is the ecstasy of
'lucidity', an awareness of being caused by writing, but writing with another.
"It was as if we had stumbled onto the secret source of all the free floating
libidinal energy in the Moo -- and it turned out to be the simple possibility
that sometimes the act of representation itself can be erotic."

Somewhat less of a thrill was the ongoing need to get enough quota to build the
Garden of Forking Paths. Dibbell begs and borrows quota from others, and gets
to thinking, along the way, about whether quota of space in the hard disc might
not function more like money. In the delirium caused by his desire to finish
the Garden, he dreams of setting up 'Quotto' -- a lottery in which characters
might gamble their quota on the hope of winning more -- with Dibbell creaming
off a little for himself from every transaction. 

Why stop at just once vice? Why not set up a virtual whore house, where
'tinyvamps' might offer quality tinysex -- for a price? Dibbell soon realises
that he is not the first to fantasise about such things, and probably won't be
the last. What's interesting is that most people have already decided, on
LambdaMOO at least, that they don't want their life there to operate on a
virtual cash basis. Some people may desire a 'political' dimension to their
tiny lives, but few want to be entrepreneurs of bits.

As Lambda's population increased, the texture of life became more 'urbanised'
-- more anonymous, more direct. It moved from community to society. Dibbell
records the nostalgia many Lamda old timers feel for the good old days when it
was a small community, but he records also the growth of sophistication, and
possibly of justice, in this virtual polity. The key event here is a petition
to 'toad' Minnie. Like Mr Bungle, Minnie made a nuisance of herself. She took
anyone and everyone off to mediation, she challenged every ruling, she
petitioned, she lobbied. All very tiresome. 

What matters to Dibbell is that the move to toad her was soundly defeated.
Dibbell thinks that the decision to toad Mr Bungle was probably right -- his
conduct was outside what could be deemed acceptable to the policy. He thereby
defined the boundaries of that polity. But Dibbell found something positive in
the fact that the majority of people who voted decided that, no matter how
irritating Minnie was, she had a right to belong. The polity could also define
itself by its capacity to include. 

It's gratifying that Dibbell's book does not end either with an ode to virtual
utopia or a moment of shattered disillusionment. This is altogether a more
mature and thoughtful book about virtual life. Dibbell decides to leave
LambdaMOO, all the same. Partly, its that tinysex is messing with his real life
relationship. Partly, it's that his real life partner thinks his fascination
with Lambda is a symptom a deeper malaise --an inability on his part to quit
being a voyeur and commit to life. 

There's more. "The distractions I needed most to leave behind were deeper
ones", Dibbell writes. "They were the seductions natural to any world built
from the stuff of books and maps: the siren song of possibility, the vivid
presence of the half-imagined, the freedom of words and thoughts to fly beyond
the here and now and trace the shape of every road not taken." In other words,
virtual worlds carry with them a utopian proclivity that they share with other
kinds of textuality. The promise of the sign. 

While Dibbell leaves Lambda, it doesn't exactly leave him. As he writes, while
still in it's thrall: "he's aware of a presence, a kind of phantom continent,
lying sunken just beneath the surface of his thoughts: the MOO. It's with him
everywhere he goes now." I suspect that presence, even if in a dimmer form is
still with him. Dibbell seeks to make this plain in alternating sections which
describe virtual reality and then real life, or VR and RL, but where
conventional prose describes VR life and the distinctive diction of LambdaMOO
describes everyday encounters. Even so, little elements from one world creep
into the description of another. The book enacts the subtle creep of mediated
into nonmediated life, and vice versa. 

This is why to makes sense, in the end, to categorise such a book with the
ungainly 'memoir/technology'. Ultimately, it's about the juxtapositions and
intersections of the virtual, the everyday, and the way the self makes its way
between them, and makes itself up as it goes along. What it shows is that there
is no neat causal relation between real life, virtual life and subjective
experience. Dibbell, like all of us, makes it up as he goes along, only Dibbell
manages, along the way, to provide a modest, readable and yet wonderfully
precise account of it.

McKenzie Wark
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