For almost two decades, the city of Gerloch, in the Nevada Desert, has witnessed an annual pilgrimage of thousands of people. They come together – for one week – to bring to life an alternative social enclave known as Black Rock City. This festival takes place in the last week of August, and reaches its zenith, over Labor Day weekend, with a celebration of fire denominated as Burning Man. Black Rock City is the name of this temporary community which materializes in the middle of Black Rock Desert, near the city of Gerloch, in North Nevada.
The Burning Man Festival is a massive social settlement supported by a solid urban infrastructure that dissipates itself when the week is over. During the other weeks of the year, this transitory experiment in alternative community breathes through the hearts and minds of those who experienced, like a paradigmatic imprint of the social essence that brings forth the birth and function of a community. To the inhabitants of Gerloch, this symbiotic relationship has given an opportunity for profound social interaction with an array of diversified individuals and their life stories passing through the city in their annual caravan. It’s an exchange of information among distant worlds; a celebration of culture. It’s information technology in action.
Experiments in social communities, like the Burning Man, have been present in our culture since individuals, within a dominant society, were faced with oppression and social control. The provisional character of such uprisings against conformity reveal quite an ominous fate. Philosopher and poet Hakim Bey mentions the transitoriness of these communities in his anarchist essay “The Temporary Autonomous Zone – TAZ”. “The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it.” (101) Another quote from Bey’s essay confirms the same idea: “Like festivals, uprisings cannot happen every day – otherwise they would not be non-ordinary.” (100) Had the community a longer life-span, the System would, voraciously, swallow it down, and impregnate it with the same operating ideology which served as the triggering point of active confrontation.
Conversely, the World Wide Web has engendered a prodigious amount of data and virtual spaces that beckons all of us into the simulacrum of human experience. The net is a highly marketable place. The globalization of the internet resulted in a proliferation of net tools and services. Among a large assortment of services, chat rooms are simply the most peculiar. Chat Rooms are public spaces where people can chat with other people online. Like the Burning Man festival, chat rooms are temporary social enclaves that bring people together in the interstices of society. The most common chat types are: Internet Relay Chat or IRC, Web Chat, and Instant Messenger (like ICQ, AOL, Yahoo! and MSN Messengers). The social character of the Chat Rooms (hereafter CR) has given people, from all over the world, the capacity to communicate with each other in various levels of intimacy, fittingly consistent with the form and characteristics of the medium. The virtual domain of the CR colors and motivates the types of conversations, and consequent behavior of the individuals interacting. “Comuniteks”, like IRC,materializes social environments on the net.
A CR is a safe place for social exposure. The chatter is most always privately installed in the comfort of his/her home. All alone, the person lets go of initial inhibitions, and, successfully, interacts with other people, forming friendships which, most often, fail to make the cross into actual life. Although the web cams entered the scene and made things more convoluted to the users of the matrix, the anonymous experience of the CR provides the seminal impulse to instigate fantasy and experiment with role-playing.
The person gradually incorporates a virtual personality, and begins living a life independent from his own reality offline, in many cases, annihilating the latter with maladaptive behavior and estrangement. According to various studies, CR addiction, and its related implications have started to be a subject for concerns by many psychologists. The pattern of behavior – among people who frequently engage in CR activity – has been identified as leading to a series of increasing symptoms which imprisons the person in a sort of obsessive-compulsive state of mind. What started as a positive forum for social experience became an escalating generator for mental disorders. The frequency the person visits CR and the time spent chatting will serve as the basis to classify the addiction.
The psychological phenomenon of CR addiction can clearly place this cyber tool in the list of other nefarious entities such as drugs, alcohol, gambling and sex. But, isn’t the individual free to establish the intensity of the relationship with the elements of the objective world? What prompts someone towards the excess, the abuse? What major role does our society and culture play in facilitating our entanglements? How can we know when we are becoming addicted to something? What are we missing from life?
An addiction always points to a lack of some kind that the person struggles to fulfill by covering it up with something that brings pleasure. In the case of the CR, the basic motivator is a need for successful social interaction and intimacy with other humans. Deprived of positive emotional experiences in the real world, and – as citizens of our cyber times – we turn to our technological toys as a way to fill the cumbersome existential void. We set ourselves in a rut that sucks the spunk out of our lives, and forces us to yearn for that gleam of freedom, which is the natural aptitude in the human spirit still breathing life into our automated bodies.
Psychological studies are still scarce in the field of cyber societies. The few studies available, interestingly enough, indicate maladaptive behavioral symptoms that aggravate towards addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Another interesting aspect of online activity, the studies show, is that it is often related to sex. We could actually say that its presence on the internet marks the paroxysm of prostitution and pornography. Our old brothels entered the 21st century and claimed their cyber status. The studies show an alarming number: “At least 200,000 US internet users are hooked on porn sites or X-rated chat rooms, researchers have found”. The information appears on the website of BBC News online, and was based on a study published in the journal “Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, in March 2000. The number is likely to have increased since three years ago.
Our society has reached impressive levels of technological evolution. Complex surgeries are done routinely in the hospitals through miniscule incisions monitored by state-of-the-art equipments; News and information are globally transmitted with real time precision; cell phones, digital sound, magnetic resonance imaging, satellites, you name it. On a materialistic perspective, our lives couldn’t get any better. Yet, another technological gadget will come along to fill the gap we haven’t thought about. No more need to wait around for something we don’t have. It’s practical and fast. It thinks for us. The pace of life in the age of technology is so increasingly fast that makes us take our concrete reality for granted. The richness in precision and detail leaves the unpredictability of life out of the picture. Are we expected to employ the same pragmatic system in search of an understanding of our minds? Unfortunately, when we enter in contact with the objects of our creation, a lot more than the mere push of a button is involved.
In the concocted world of the chat rooms, the ontological void is seemingly fulfilled in a psychological environment conducive to pathological behavior. Isolated in the concrete social space, and fraught with the tension that real social interaction begets, the person is drawn to the enticing anonymity of net encounters. Sitting at the computer and talking to the world purveys a sense of power, control and prestige. Everyone curiously reads the life fabrications of the others. You become the author of your profile. You can rewrite the aspects you don’t like about your life. You can present a new portrait of yourself, an efficient “avatar” (in cyberpunk terms) tailored to your whims. We can wear as many masks as the scenes require. We can hide our identities, tell embarrassing secrets, act out our fantasies, and reveal the shadow of our souls. All this we can do without compromising our image to the world. We entered a new sphere and adopted one or multiple virtual personalities.
There is – in the confines of the CR – a high degree of permissiveness that enables the person to relax and let go of censorship. Cybernauts of age groups ranging from 18 to 90 are attracted to erotic conversations on the net. An intriguing nomenclature came to life to discuss the phenomenon: “Cyberinfidelity”, “Cyberaffair”, “Cyberlover”, “Cybersex”. The dichotomy existing in these words points out to the root of the problem. The words imply an actual social activity within the domains of the cyber world, where the participants don’t have physical contact with each other. The permissiveness and anonymity prevalent on the CR are decisive ingredients that cause the person to repeat the experience.
All this activity may seem harmless at first glance. However, when we take a closer look, and consider the big picture, we start to see when the internet, or the CR, becomes a mental hazard in the hands of people who experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and inadequacy toward social relationships. CR will provide a potent tool that will augment the isolation and trigger addictive behavior as the person tries to escape the feeling of guilt derived from the experience. Like with alcohol or narcotics, CR addiction undergoes the same cycle dynamics which incapacitates the individual from having conscious control over his instinctive drive. In “Imaginary Social Relationships”, John Caughey examines the fantasy attachments fans develop with their media idols. Coughey affirms: “In some ways fantasy relations are often better than real love relationships. Media figures are more attractive than ordinary mortals, and they are carefully packaged – through makeup, costuming, camera angles, and film editing – to appear even better.” (58) In a similar way, CR interaction is founded upon the fabricated personas of its members.
With such grim reality-inspired scenario, it’s hard not to feel helpless using the medium. We get the same feeling of helplessness in Judith Williamson’s “Urban Spaceman”, when she discusses the sociological implications of the inception of the walkman in our lives. “The walkman is a vivid symbol of our time. It provides a concrete image of alienation, suggesting an implicit hostility to, and isolation from, the environment in which it is worn. Yet it also embodies the underlying values of precisely the society which produces that alienation (…) individualism, privatization and choice.” (506) From all this, we understand that capitalism alienates the individuals, pushing the essence of what defines society out of the system. Expected behavior is easier to attend to and control. We live with the illusion of freedom, exercising our will within acceptable parameters of choice. While the walkman isolated the individual within the urban landscape, CR offers everyone a powerful social ersatz.
The entire framework of a cyberchat provides the subconscious with leeway of expression which is materialized through role-playing activities and fantasy. Perhaps this might be one of the reasons for the escalating number of cybersex. Free from the constraints of self-judgment and socially established censorship, the cyber personality assumes the command and acts out suppressed desires and instinctive impulses. There is an assorted volume of sexual options catered to each individual taste. Sex has always been a social barometer that indicates the levels of chaos and disorder in a system. Socially banned activities will proliferate in lustful chambers of the virtual bordellos on the net. Of all the many uses of relay chats, cybersex is sure a crowd pleaser. In an internet article published in the website of the Center for On-line Addiction (COLA) the statistics attest to the ongoing trend. The writer quotes an author: “There are an estimated 70,000 sex-related Web site with 200 new adult web sites that include pornography and interactive chat rooms being added per day (Swhartz, 1998).” Another passage in the same article reveals an interesting phenomenon that validates the idea of addiction: “Many people may automatically believe that the primary reinforcement of the online sexual act is the sexual gratification received from the experience. Studies have shown that sexual stimulation may initially be the reason to engage in cybersex, however, over time, the experience is reinforced through a type of drug “high” that provides an emotional or mental escape or an altered state of reality.” Why do people find it satisfying to engage in erotic interaction with strangers mediated by the computer? Obviously the natural social pressure has been eradicated from the experience. The person can play out pent-up desires that send them back to early stages of psychological regression in their pursuit of self-gratification. The addiction is intensified with the inevitable impact of the concrete world in total discrepancy with their mimetic virtual identities.
Online sex is in perfect synchrony with a culture that engenders unethical ideologies to cash in on our instinctive nature. We only have to look at advertisements, movies, the entire media, and the hodge-podge of methods used to alienate the masses by offering an illusion of freedom and choice. In the harrowing movie “Salò, 120 Days of Sodoma”, Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini creates a horrifying tale, set in the Mussolini era, replete with intense sexual aberrations like coprophilia. The film shocked catholic Italy, and caused an overall uproar. The underlining intention of the filmmaker, however, was to portray the quality of life of those living under the forces of capitalism. We can only shake in terror in face of such saprophytic society.
The treatment for CR addiction – or any other addiction for that matter – involves acceptance and gradual awareness of our relationship with the object of our obsession. Treatment for social dysfunction should rely on our understanding of the elements at play in our times. Man’s creations should come to life to assuage our condition on this planet, not to cause us ruin, bankruptcy and distress. Let’s not blame the wine for our intoxication. Excess is the cause of addiction, a natural state of imbalance. Life exists outside the computer. We can decide to turn the machine off for a while, and try and recapture the innocence of living. And that brings us back to the Burning Man experience. Perhaps the very reasons for the occurrence of the “temporary autonomous zones” are that humanity needs to dive into the ocean of chaos, now and then, to find out about the rules that govern their lives. Are such rules representing our most sacred ideals and beliefs? In a world devoid of the controlling eye of the State, each person becomes responsible for the welfare of the group. It’s surely a utopia to dream about lawless societies reminiscent of ancient times when there were still uncharted territories on the globe. The El Dorado now lives only as an archetypical seed in our hearts. Within the muddled context of our times, authoritarianism and domination seep through the minute cracks of our psyche. Under such condition, it is necessary a colossal effort on our part to discover what truly represents our tastes, opinions and convictions. In the apparent reality of the system, language and form are manipulative tools to induce us into a state of social anesthesia and conformity. It is, thus, that we support the same dominant values and codes we abhor. After all, the concept of freedom is never an absolute practice.
Are we going to wake up one day like Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”? Are we doomed to live our lives and have a similar negative fate like that of the dystopian social universe William Gibson envisaged in his 1984 novel “Neuromancer”? Are we running towards the downfall of our civilization? These are difficult questions to answer. Sometimes, however, our downfall could be just one click away.
Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone. 2nd Edition. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1991.
BBC News Online . 200,000 net porn addicts in the US. 2 March, 2000. BBC News Online. 11 Apr. 2003
Caughey, John. “Imaginary Social Relationships”. Media Journal: reading and writing about popular culture . Eds. Joseph Harris, Jay Rosen and Gary Calpas. 2nd ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1999.
Center For On-line Addiction. What is Cybersexual Addiction? Center For On-line Addiction, A Subsidiary for ebehavior. 11 Apr. 2003 <http://www.netaddiction.com/ cybersexual_addiction.htm>
Williamson, Judith, “Urban Spaceman” . Media Journal: reading and writing about popular culture . Eds. Joseph Harris, Jay Rosen and Gary Calpas. 2nd ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1999.