Book Review: Allucquère Rosanne Stone’s The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Twenty Years On

By Oliver L. Haimson

To read Tom Boellstorff’s introduction to this book reviews series, head over to The Book Review as Conversation.

Introduction

Desire and Technology It has been twenty short years since Allucquère Rosanne Stone published The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, yet her questions about relationships between the self, the body, and technology remain as salient as ever. Stone used “close of the mechanical age” to describe the latter part of the Twentieth Century, a time of transition to new technologies, many of which were virtual (Stone, 1995), a shift when people began to realize that personae in cyberspace were just as real as personae in physical space. In this context, Stone asks, what do material bodies mean (1995)? In 1995, with Y2K approaching, it did seem as though things would naturally come to some sort of “close” as the clocks turned over and computer code threatened to trigger chaos in the absence of the four digits needed to represent the year 2000. Yet Stone clearly realized that there was no end in sight to the technological transitions so prominent in the 1990s. In 2015 we continue to wonder at Stone’s questions, at how to understand ourselves as technologies come and go, and with the promise of new technologies that will once again reinvent the ever-shifting relationships between self, body, and technology. When Stone asked “what is happening to sociality and desire at the close of the mechanical age?” (1995, 17), she knew that its answer was as ever-shifting as the technologies it addressed. This book creates a heartfelt and enduring dialogue with its reader. It is a text that draws one into understanding one’s own sense of the temporal complexities of self and technology.

Social technologies are an important medium to explore issues of self, body, and technology, because such technologies are part of ourselves: they shape us. Stone writes, “it’s hard to see what they do, because what they do is to structure seeing” (1995, 167). The book’s enduring contribution lies in giving us a view of the invisible and helping us to begin to understand some of what structures our social relationships and relations to self. Stone explores the questions of relationships between self, body, and technology through several different subjectivity frames: the multiple, the liminal, and gender.

The Multiple

Stone considers that choosing how to represent oneself online or in virtual worlds can be difficult because each of us has no true or “root” identity or persona; instead, selfhood is an amalgamation of different identities and personae. She writes, “My current I has been as palpably a mask to me as any of my other I’s have been” (1995, 2, emphasis in original). The self moves differently than the body, and sometimes in places that exclude the body, such as virtual worlds and online settings (Stone, 1995). When self is multiple and often masked, how do people navigate technologically-mediated self-presentation and sociality?

Stone emphasizes the basic premise that there is no one-to-one relationship between physical bodies and personae (Stone 1995). She uses several compelling examples to explore this idea: a woman with multiple personalities, one of whom was raped; a male psychiatrist who embodied a beloved female persona online for many years. Stone argues that there are many possible relationships between self and body: multiple people in one body (e.g., the woman with multiple personalities), multiple people outside a body and one person in/outside of many bodies (e.g., a group with collective identity) (Stone 1995). We each embody and interact with each others’ embodiments of one or more of these configurations, and surprisingly, Stone finds that this is not difficult or confusing for people (1995). In virtual worlds, for instance, people know that they are interacting with people who have multiple personae. However, they interact with these personae just as though each were a separate person. Thus, the legible body is the social one, not the physical.

Stone showed us how technology can help us to reject the idea of a person as a single social unit, and instead embrace the multiple. In the twenty years since, we have seen technology both embrace and reject faceted identities. Assumptions around what bodies and selves should do and how they should relate to each other are built into the affordances of particular social technology platforms (Stone 1995). Each platform allows different ways of answering Stone’s questions about the relationships between body, self, and technology. In the last twenty years, technological acceptance of multiple identities has shifted in waves over time. Some technologies, such as virtual worlds and online forums, allowed great agency in experimenting with personal identities (Turkle 1999), as did early social network sites like MySpace. Then, other social technologies like Facebook and LinkedIn emerged and told people to stop experimenting, and instead to represent one true, “authentic” self online (Haimson 2015). At the same time, other sites allowed multiplicity and anonymity: on Tumblr, users could maintain as many accounts as they wished, and on reddit, users could communicate anonymously and with the option of throwaway accounts (Leavitt 2015). New waves have come in the form of brief slices of anonymous social sharing enabled by applications like Yik Yak, Whisper, and Snapchat. Recently, technologies have pushed us away from and then allowed us to come right back to the multiple. Yet many people use all of these tools in tandem, layering, for instance, an “authentic” Facebook profile with anonymous snippets of self on Yik Yak with disappearing photos on Snapchat, in what Stone may call personae on top of personae on top of personae. It may really be “personae all the way down” (Stone 1994, 81).

The Liminal

Technologically-mediated identities are often representations of or experiments with who people are becoming (Stone 1995). Stone shows us the ways that identities are not only multiple, they are liminal. In Harraway’s (1985) words, we are truly all cyborgs now: we depend on technology for our personae and its representation, and thus technology has become part of our personae (Stone 1995). Stone uses several examples to illustrate this point: Stephen Hawking, whose ability to communicate depends on his prosthetic computer-mediated voice, and phone sex workers, who not only use telephones to transmit information about bodies and sexual acts, but actually transmit bodies and sexual acts through telephone wires. With technology as part of ourselves, Stone says, we are boundary creatures, crossing over and pulling together the technological and the physical.

Stone takes the boundary creature metaphor one step beyond cyborg to vampire, and develops her argument through a character she calls the Vampire Lestat. The vampire metaphor allows the reader to understand the fraught, conflicted nature of inhabiting a transitional identity. Such creatures “invoke by their simple existence the disruption of classificatory schemata that calls traditional identity formation into question” (Stone 1995, 182). In horror stories, people do not generally set out to become vampires; they do not typically solicit the baggage that comes with such an identity (e.g., allergy to sunlight, necessity of surviving on blood). Similarly, people do not tend to seek out liminality, and in fact, many do not even consider liminal identities’ existence, until they are confronted with a transitional identity in their own experience. Such transitional identities are what Stone calls the “Dark Gift.”  Once you are blessed/cursed with a transitional identity, “there is no way back to a simpler and less problematic time” (Stone 1995, 183). Because technologically-mediated identities are inescapable in our post-mechanical age, there is no avoiding the Dark Gift in some measure. The boundaries between virtual and physical, biology and technology have become permeable (Stone 1995). Thus, we all have some measure of the vampire gaze, which, “once achieved, cannot be repudiated; it changes vision forever” (Stone 1995, 183). Thus, Stone argues that we must all become fluid in transitional identities.

Gender

Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto

Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto

Stone also explores the complicated relationships between the body, the self, and technology through the lens of gender. Gender, even though it is a social construction (Butler 1990), is still based on relation to a physical body (Stone 1995). Gender swapping was in the 1990’s and remains today common in virtual worlds; in particular, many men present as women avatars (Stone 1995). Virtual worlds are an important way for people to explore identities that they may not yet be comfortable presenting in the physical world (Bruckman 1993).  Stone describes the ways that gender crossing online allows people the advantages of gender change without the disadvantages: “They enjoy the attractive and pleasurable qualities of being othered without having to experience the oppression and disempowerment that are part of its construction as well” (120). Men using female avatars can log out if they become uncomfortable, and go back to being men in the physical world (Stone 1995). But can they, really? Some, yes, may be able to log out and go back to living life as a man, feeling fully comfortable. But many others inhabit and will continue to inhabit that multiple and liminal space between male and female, and cannot ever actually “log out.” By Stone’s own argument, they have been given the Dark Gift, and their vision is changed forever. However, I think what Stone means to say here is that in social situations in the physical world, men who use female avatars online will still be read as men, and treated as men, with all of the accompanying male privilege. They would be treated very differently were they to present as a woman or a gender-non-conforming person in identical physical social settings. People with different subject positions have different privileges, and those with “masquerading” identities, who exercise their Dark Gift, come to understand this (Stone 1995).

Stone goes on to argue that in cyberspace, where identity performance, play, and disruption are possible and even encouraged, the “transgendered body is the natural body” (1995, 180). Meanwhile, in physical space, the “transgendered body is the unnatural body” (Stone 1995, 181) In a sense, then, the transgender body is posited as a particular site of the war between biology and technology, natural and unnatural (Stone 1995). This is especially interesting when we consider that to Stone, “natural” here means invisible or default. Transgender is an identity that embraces both the multiple, as in embodying multiple genders (whether in the same or in different temporalities), and the liminal, as in embracing transition and crossing the boundaries between genders. In 1995, the multiple and the liminal dominated online and technologically-mediated spaces, thus making virtual spaces feel natural for many transgender people. It appeared as though this would continue to be the case.

Instead, however, many online spaces have begun to substantially “other” transgender identities, returning the natural, the invisible or default, to the cisgender. This has been accomplished primarily through binary gender classification schemes (Male/Female) and enforcement of “one person per account” policies (e.g., on Facebook). Much as Stone found that the researchers and management at Atari Labs had different interpretations about what interaction means, online platforms often have different interpretations of whom we should be allowed to be during interactions than users do. Although gender classification schemes in some online arenas have expanded to include “Custom” or “Other,” identifying as such literally posits transgender identities as other, in opposition to default or natural, as they were for Stone. The multiple and the liminal, now, are not only unnatural in the physical world, but are unnatural in many online settings. This is what Stone means when she says that vampires’ existence is “the challenge and the promise of virtual systems” (1995, 183). Vampires cannot always fit into daylight technologies like Facebook, no matter how they try to twist around in the shade with workarounds like multiple accounts and avoid direct sunlight like real name documentation.  Vampires have instead found other social technologies where the multiple and the liminal are again natural, anonymous platforms without the tyranny of static accounts, where the impossible one-to-one relationship between physical body and persona is not assumed or enforced.

Conclusion

Stone’s theory is readable and convincing because it is conversational and personal. She remarks that her somewhat unconventional way of writing is employed as a way to change academic discourse and open up new ways to exchange information (Stone 1995). Her writing style is an incredibly persuasive and humanizing tool, reminiscent of noteworthy feminist essays and memoirs also published in the 1990s (e.g., Allison 1994). Several times throughout the book, Stone brings up Lippman’s corollaries for interaction (as referenced in Brand 1988), one of which is that the virtual world should give the illusion of having no more limitations than the physical world. Stone’s writing style gives the impression of having few limitations, and thus makes the subject matter also seem boundless. It seems there would be infinite possibilities for relationships between body, self, and technology. It almost seems impossible, then, that twenty years have passed, and yet not much is new.

So what do material bodies mean, and what are the relationships between body, self, and technology? These are still the questions that we ask ourselves twenty years on. Stone showed us the ways that selfhood is multiple and liminal, and the ways that gender identities can be a unique combination of the two. But it is not only transgender people who experience faceted and changing identities; this is a challenge for us all as we embrace new social technologies and try to understand our bodies and selves in relation to them. We all have the Dark Gift because we all struggle to represent one or many personae in one or many different sociotechnical platforms among different configurations of people. Even the platforms that we use are constantly changing. Stone identified vampires as the challenge for technology, and we vampires continue to be the challenge. Stone writes, “the war of desire and technology is a war of transformation, in which, if we look deeply enough, we can make out the lineaments of our own vampire future” (1995, 183). We are in that vampire future now, and we will continue to transform. If we look deeply enough, we can see the next twenty years. What is new about networking with technology? Nothing and everything: “Inside the little box are other people” (Stone 1995, 16). The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Oliver Haimson is a PhD student in the Informatics Department at University of California, Irvine’s Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, where he studies social computing, online identity, and gender and sexuality. In particular, his research focuses on gender transition and social media. He is a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a Eugene Cota-Robles Fellowship, and a Faculty Mentor Program Fellowship, and is part of the STAR Group (Social and Technological Action Research) and LUCI (Laboratory for Ubiquitous Computing and Interaction). Oliver received his B.S. in Economics at Carnegie Mellon University, and participated in the iSchool Inclusion Institute (i3). He publishes in venues like ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) and ACM Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Work and Social Computing (CSCW). Prior to his academic pursuits, Oliver was a founder of Boxcar Books, managed independent bookstores for a number of years, and toured and recorded as guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter in several rock bands. He lives in Costa Mesa, California. Contact: ohaimson@uci.edu, oliverhaimson.com

 

Works Cited

Allison, D. (1994). Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature. London: Pandora.

Brand, S. (1988). The Media Lab. Penguin Books.

Bruckman, A. S. (1993). Gender Swapping on the Internet. In Proceedings of INET ’93. Reston, VA.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble and the subversion of identity. New York and London: Routledge.

Haimson, O. L., Brubaker, J. R., Dombrowski, L., & Hayes, G. R. (2015). Disclosure, Stress, and Support During Gender Transition on Facebook. In Proceedings of CSCW 2015: ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing.

Haraway, D. J. (1985). A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s (pp. 158-81). Center for Social Research and Education.

Leavitt, A. (2015). “This is a Throwaway Account”: Temporary Technical Identities and Perceptions of Anonymity in a Massive Online Community. In Proceedings of CSCW 2015: ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing.

Stone, A. R. (1995). The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (1999). Cyberspace and identity. Contemporary Sociology, 643-648

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About Emma Louise Backe

I graduated from Vassar College, which makes me an official liberal-arts witch, where I majored in Cultural Anthropology and English. I focused on the intersection between medical anthropology and folklore, indigenous narrative practices and healing techniques, and the role of language and storytelling in healing. I'm a logophile at heart--the bookish type that's always carrying around three or four books, loves experimenting with language, and has something of an Indiana Jones complex. I've worked in South Africa at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit; interned with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The NAMES Project Foundation, and the UCLA Center for Art and Global Health; served as Head Consultant of Vassar College's Writing Center; volunteered with Peace Corps on community health empowerment; and worked as the Research Assistant at The Global Women's Institute at George Washington University. I have spent most of my professional career working on human rights issues, specifically violence against women and girls and reproductive health rights. I am currently pursuing my Master's at George Washington University.

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