by Curt Cloninger - [ lab404 ]

"I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this world."
- Cypher

The Cult of "Turn Off Your Computer" Must Die

I spend a lot of time online, often reading and posting to bulletin boards. Invariably, when the discussion turns toward any sort of online community minutiae, some anonymous participant chimes in with the following pearl:

"Man, you dudes are taking this online stuff waaaay too seriously. You need to unplug, turn off your computer, and go for a walk or something. Get some perspective."

Bang! The cult of "Turn Off Your Computer" has struck again! Logically, of course, the above argument defeats itself. If I'm wasting my time discussing online community issues which genuinely concern me, then this anonymous clown is monumentally blowing his time parsing through a discussion he admits is banal, all the while posting to tell us how we could better spend our time. "Unplug," she typed. It's like yelling, "don't shout!"

Those who advise us to unplug and get a life are operating under the false assumption that what happens online isn't real. This is why most members of the cult of Turn Off Your Computer (or TOYC, for short) post anonymously. Such individuals play online as if they were playing a Playstation video game. They keep their actual selves safely back in the real world.

But the online world is not a game of Mario Brothers. The online world is networked, which means there are living PEOPLE out there. Yes, the computer is the interface to this network, but the network itself is comprised of people, not computers. Any place where people share beliefs and concerns and humor and friendship and commitment -- that place is a real world.

While ruminating on the differences between intellectual property and physical property, Electronic Frontier Foundation Chairman Brad Templeton makes the following observation:

"The relationship between a person and the thoughts they create is the most real relationship in the world. Unlike all the other forms of property, especially real estate, my ownership of the creative thoughts in my own head exists without law, without society, without philosophy...

My ownership of my land, my so called 'real' estate is much more dubious. I just paid money for it, down through a chain to somebody who got assigned it by a government, which conquered the region it's in from tribal groups who, while they had it in their "territory" were using it marginally if at all. I need have no intrinsic relationship to my land. I get to claim it as property because there is a document down at the County which society will accept and back up with police."

I realize that I am more than just my online persona. But I am also more than just my in person persona. Who I am online is no less real than who I am in person. It's just differently mediated. All this is true, provided I choose to share my real self online. Turn Off Your Computer cult members can't perceive the realness of the online world, not because its realness doesn't exist, but because they refuse to present their own real selves to the online community. And, as C.S. Lewis observes, "How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?"

TOYC cult members remind me of Shakespeare's Iago, refusing to enter into accountable human society. When Iago's treachery is discovered and Othello asks him why he did it, Iago's response is chilling: "Demand me nothing; what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak a word." Iago simply unplugged. The reality of the society in which he lived was merely virtual to him, and he wreaked great havoc on it as a result.

The inability to act vulnerably and enter into accountable human dialogue is to Shakespeare's mind diabolical -- literally demonic. To those of us living online, who have laid bare our personalities in this strange impersonal medium, such unwillingness to give account for one's actions is downright subhuman. Personally, I'd rather live in an online world populated by committed PEOPLE who perhaps take things a bit too seriously at times, than in an online playpen with a bunch of anonymous/pseudonymous cynics perpetually advising me to turn off my computer and get a life.

I have a life -- a REAL life, and part of it is online.