By Carolyn Dowling
In the rush to embrace ubiquitous global networking and the resulting dominance of computer mediated communication, there is a risk that some of the subtler social and cognitive consequences of the technological imperative may be overlooked. Among these is the degree to which computer mediated human interactions encompass special qualities in the way that participants are represented both to one another and to themselves. The search for appropriate and fruitful metaphorical characterisations of cyberspace itself is of undoubted importance, but what of the metaphors through which those who interact within such environments are themselves constituted? The notion that we are not fully 'ourselves' when communicating through a computer, while disturbing to some, has been embraced by others as heralding new opportunities for self expression and personal fulfilment.
This paper examines some aspects of this issue in relation to a continuum of computer mediated communications environments ranging from word processing through electronic mail environments to virtual reality. In each of these areas, the potential for disruption to an individual's usual sense of identity and hence to interpersonal relationships mediated by these environments can be demonstrated. At issue are the possible consequences of such disruption both for the individual and for others with whom he or she interacts, both within and outside these environments. In discussing the various manifestations of the persona within the different computer mediated environments, consideration is given to their metaphorical aspects, both explicit and implicit.
The role of metaphor in the context of computing technology is of particular interest. Most obviously, computing is an area of rapid change in which new concepts must considerably be formed and re-formed. In such a situation, overtly metaphorical language is likely to be particularly in evidence. At the same time it is widely acknowledged that, while initiating and extending understanding through the formation of new conceptual connections, metaphor is deeply rooted in and supports the social context in which the individual and the language operate. It reinforces and conserves commonly held beliefs and intuitions about how the world works. Also well recognised is the persuasive power of metaphor - the degree to which a compelling image can shape and constrain understanding. In this regard the view of many contemporary theorists that metaphor creates rather than reflects similarity is particularly important.
Computing is an area of technology highly consonant with certain aspects of the goals and practices of a number of contemporary cultures, and as such is widely perceived as holding the key to power and prosperity. At the same time it incorporates a range of quite different capabilities which hold the potential to radically alter many aspects of society as we know it. In this situation, the tension between the liberating and constraining elements of t he metaphorical language and concepts applied to different elements of computing technology hold a special fascination.
The symbols by which we represent ourselves in the physical world are extremely varied, and together they constitute a complex and multi-faceted impression of our 'selves'. They include our physical appearance, our clothes and other possessions, aspects of our behaviour, our chosen companions, our accents and so on. Of equal if not greater importance are our words - what we say symbolically represents what we are, to ourselves as well as to others. In most current computer-based environments, the lack of other means of self-representation adds enormous weight to the significance this aspect of our self-constitution.
The possibility that our computer mediated 'selves' may differ in a number of respects from those that customarily interact in the world demands serious consideration. Such differences may be apparent to ourselves and/or to others, or perhaps may be seamlessly accomodated within existing personalities. Whether these potentials represent new and creative possibilities for the way in which we choose to define ourselves and relate to others, or whether they will cause undesirable levels of personal and interpersonal disruption and dislocation remains to be seen. For psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists who have been engaging for some time in speculation concerning the social and cultural alternatives which may be possible within the new computer mediated 'spaces' within which interpersonal interactions can occur, the technology offers possibilities which many welcome as being equivalent to the study of a new species within an alien environment, with the enormous advantage that both the environment and the entities functioning within it, having been constructed through metaphor, are open by the same means to almost infinite manipulation.
Likewise for all computer users this is a fascinating and very accessible area to observe and monitor in relation both to ourselves and to those around us, particularly those with whom we interact electronically. As is demonstrated in the paper, the effects of computer mediated environments for communication and interaction, far from being confined only to 'high tech' computing applications, can be identified in relation to the most commonplace and apparently unproblematic uses of the technology.