In 1965, on the tail end of an amphetamine jag, Philip K. Dick wrote a novel about virtual reality. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch has a manic, Delphic prescience—it’s nearly incomprehensible—that surpasses the more robotic forecasting typical of science fiction. Ravaged by climbing temperatures, Earth in the 21st century has become uninhabitable. On Mars and Ganymede, the United Nations deposits humans to live in Earth’s bleak shadow, carving out homes from under frozen methane crystals and grayish rocks. Capitalizing on the colonists’ poor quality of life, the corporate giant Perky Pat Layouts, Inc., has developed immersive virtual-reality experiences reminiscent of Earth’s more glamorous pastimes. Most seductive is the beach template, a fantasy seaside holiday with your lithe blond girlfriend, Perky Pat.
In Dick’s novel, users “translate” themselves into virtual-reality “layouts,” where they exercise agency over their hard-bodied avatars in a state of dreamlike bliss. After entering this avatar, the novel’s protagonist awakens as Walt, dressed in an Italian-made shirt and furnished with a brand-new Jaguar XXB. It’s always Saturday here. Walt’s eyes focus on a note tacked to the wall: “This is an illusion. You are Sam Regan, a colonist on Mars. Make use of your time of translation, buddy boy. Call up Pat pronto!” Sam-now-Walt obliges, informing Pat that they’re going to the beach and that she should wear the swimsuit he likes best. “It hardly exists,” she demurs, referring to the bikini. “Actually you sort of have to have faith to believe in it.” Years later, Dick explained that he came up with the idea for Perky Pat Layouts while watching his daughters play Barbie. His wife at the time—the third of five—had exiled him to a country shack to do his writing, where, alone with a few head of sheep and cows, Dick “would have loved to see Barbie—or Perky Pat or Connie Companion—show up at the door.”
Cyberspace is accommodating to such fantasies. The on-call digital woman can be poured into the 360-degree view of any virtual-reality headset, where, operating entirely at the user’s behest, she is emotional putty. Although the term “virtual reality” wasn’t coined until 1987, Dick’s inflated corporation, peddling the immersive girlfriend experience to the masses, was no science-fiction caprice.
Virtual reality is a curious extremity. In VR, a user is the vantage point in an immersive world in which, VR developers insist, he or she may see reality through the eyes of the other, or at least in a fresh context. It may be that VR technologies are the apotheosis of the capitalist commodity: pliant enough to entertain every desire; unreal enough to maintain a certain level of hunger; and produced, for the most part, by and for white men. Everest VR guides users to the summit of the forbidding mountain. VR Roller Coaster simulates the eponymous thrill ride, while, in Adrift, gamers navigate the remains of an exploded space station. In Unity-Chan! Candy Rock Star Live Stage, a dancing, bikini-clad anime girl teases users with her swirling lengths of blond hair.
Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, and Samsung Gear VR—head-mounted hardware that delivers virtual-reality media—are valued in the millions (recently, The New York Times referred to the virtual-reality industry as a “gold rush”). It’s estimated that by the end of 2016, some 2 million VR headsets will be sold; by 2025, that number could reach 122 million. A Facebook advertisement for Chase Bank’s “Freedom Unlimited” credit card features an open-mouthed white man pressing a virtual-reality headset to his face. Escapism is a fine commodity.
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Where everything is possible, we see our desires reflected most minutely. In the early 1990s, which saw a rush of optimism spurred by the fresh face of infinite cyberspace, cyberfeminists contended that this space would bring about an infinity of ways to reimagine femininity and power. With the rise of Web-based subcultures, online role-playing, Net art, mass-market gaming, and digital avatars, the argument went, the conventional aspects of female identity would scatter online, deconstructing and restructuring IRL (“in real life”) power dynamics. The elusive, computerized feminine would slip through the fingers of her subjugators and re-form on top of them. In some instances, women were even compared to computer software.
Donna Haraway championed cyberfeminism before it formally existed. Her famous “Cyborg Manifesto,” written in 1983 for the Socialist Review, maps the modern female identity onto a surprising and irregular definition of the cyborg: “creatures simultaneously animal and machine who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted…a creature in a post-gender world.” Haraway’s “cyborg” embodies the notion that, when it comes to identity, womanhood is hybridized into simultaneously everything and nothing. As long as the body is an immaterial idea, its likeness is malleable and uploadable and potentially indomitable. Haraway’s decidedly third-wave views, informed by the idea that “there is nothing about being ‘female’ that inherently binds women,” attempt to morph reductive, binary notions of gender into logical values between and beyond the 0–1 spectrum. “Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves,” Haraway muses.
Her adherents are perhaps less idealistic, though still easily written off as techno-utopian. Cultural theorist Sadie Plant, generally regarded as the mother of cyberfeminism proper, argued that men had everything to lose from the new technics of cyberspace and digitality. Women are most powerful at the intersection of nature and artifice, Plant argues. In her view, we thrive on cosmetics and artificial adornments, fortifying technologies that we seamlessly integrate into our identities—a claim that may read as inadequate to female programmers, who aspire to be evaluated on more gender-neutral terms. Perhaps she’s right: “Cosmetics,” from the Greek kosmetike, (“skilled in ordering”), describes both the first programmer, Ada Lovelace, and the mythological Arachne, weaver turned spider.
Since the first wave of cyberfeminism fell out of fashion, it’s been argued that a complete severance of digital female bodies from real-life gender politics, as well as their universally empowering effect on IRL power dynamics, is the true science-fiction fantasy. When we “translate,” we don’t always check our biases at the login screen. A dozen years after Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” cybersociologist Lisa Nakamura bemoaned the bleeding-through of casual racism and sexism into the early-’90s online role-playing community LambdaMOO. In her sharp-sighted essay “Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet,” Nakamura asked why, in a role-playing community where users were free to identify however they pleased, so many chose monikers like “AsianDoll” and “Geisha_Guest”—caricatures of subservient Asian women. Cyberspace could be liberalism’s greatest stronghold, Nakamura’s essay suggests, and yet it may instead serve as a confirmation of its greatest fear: that we are unable to escape our biases, even in blank space.
This sort of thinking is a trap: Technology will never offer blank templates for identity reconfiguration so long as it is human-engineered. Although 57 percent of women participate in the US workforce and nearly 52 percent of professional and managerial positions are filled by them, women account for only a quarter of professional computing occupations, according to a survey by the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Much of tech is male-coded in this way—games especially, which account for 41 percent of VR programs. While 52 percent of the gaming audience is composed of women, they make up only 22 percent of the gaming workforce.
As a result, tensions are high for women in the gaming industry. In the wake of the 2014 Gamergate controversy, when an organized cadre of male gamers targeted and attacked female game developers like Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, the inclusion of women in this male-dominated space continues to be deemed a “culture war.” Anonymous misogynists, trading tricks on forums like 4chan and in Internet Relay Chats, haunt women in tech, harassing them when they achieve any measure of success or produce products tinged by the poison of feminism. Last March, a flurry of Internet commenters let it be known that the woman-launched, VR-focused nonprofit SH//FT (shiift.world), which aims to “shape holistic inclusion in future technologies,” is unwelcome in the tech landscape. After noticing a severe shortage of women working on virtual-reality programs, Helen Situ, SH//FT’s “evangelist,” organized female leaders in VR under the nonprofit’s umbrella to help incubate women-led VR initiatives. The response to SH//FT’s announcement was telling: “Gender equality is bullshit,” wrote one Facebook commenter. “VR will thrive regardless.” Referring to one of the founders, another commenter said, “I would love to see her in VR, esp in a maids costume!”
Back in the 1990s, Sadie Plant argued that “Cyberspace is out of man’s control: virtual reality destroys his identity, digitalization is mapping his soul and, at the peak of his triumph, the culmination of his machinic erections, man confronts the system he built for his own protection and finds it is female and dangerous.” Her optimism, it turns out, was wildly misplaced. In the ensuing years, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, one of gaming’s lone playable female protagonists, became only more Barbie-like in her proportions until last year’s incarnation, which left her profoundly marred. Blockbuster video games continue to portray women almost exclusively as balloon-breasted, incompetent plot hooks: fragile princesses, goddesses, sex dolls, murder victims, or, if we are lucky, seductive-warrior sidekicks. Enhanced physics draw attention to a female character’s comically inflated tits and ass every time she leaps to attack (SoulCalibur). Some games encourage their players to brutalize and abandon women, leaving them dead in the backseat of parked convertibles (Grand Theft Auto); others costume female fighters with chain-mail bikinis in which their guts and necks are completely vulnerable (Diablo).
Cyberspace is hostile to women: Our identities inside it are fixed and formulated into the lowest-common-denominator feminine, a depth encircled by barbs of masculinity lest we escape. At the onset of what’s being touted as a virtual-reality revolution, this is where we stand, and it is not inconsequential.
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The promise of virtual reality is the “immersive” digital experience. Because of this, outlets like Wired have crowned VR “the ultimate empathy machine.” Virtual-reality evangelists describe how, when users are situated in bombed-out Aleppo, gazing through the eyes of a small child, their world re-forms around their new digital identity, at least for the moment. Even the United Nations has jumped onto the virtual-reality bandwagon with the 3-D film Waves of Grace, created to engender empathy for the victims of Ebola. Excedrin, the painkiller manufacturer, is developing a migraine simulator for the Oculus Rift. A 9/11 virtual-reality simulator, remarkably, exists.
VR evangelists steeped in empathy rhetoric are, for the most part, pushing product. In that capacity, it’s almost excusable that they forget whose eyes VR users peer through; who engineers those eyes; who, in general, illustrates what they perceive. On the brink of the so-called virtual-reality revolution, 20 years past the first wave of cyberfeminism, it is clear that the obstacles to realizing some notion of “feminism” in cyberspace remain stubborn.
Traditionally, porn is among the first applications of any new technology. Even before the commercial release of the Oculus Rift this year, half a dozen virtual-reality porn companies were already creating videos in which acquisitive young men with deep pockets could get their “immersive” porn fix. Shot in 360 degrees, the videos offer a surprising level of engagement. Looking down his chin with a head-mounted display (HMD), a user sees his digital torso—almost all VR porn is marketed to straight men—caressed by a porn star in first-person perspective. (The cost of producing a VR porn video—over $20,000—is a prohibitively high barrier to entry for indie studios with a preference for less clichéd sexual dynamics.) Videos feature women enthusiastically pleasuring the user, who is often immobile on his back.
An experience somewhere between watching a sex video and hiring a sex worker, VR porn peddles scenarios in which men are at the center of their own priapic fantasies, while women—who demand nothing in return—dance attendance on them lustily. The HMD-equipped male is the sultan of his own private orgy, the axis of pleasure. To increase the level of tactile immersion, teledildonics—sex toys that mesh with pornographic software—enhance the digital-girlfriend experience. Who needs silicone anymore when there is silicon?
More of a PG affair, Bandai Namco’s Summer Lesson for PlayStation VR places users at a seaside resort. “She’s right there beside you,” the demo boasts, referring to a slender blonde with large breasts, gazing whimsically out at the beach. (Perky Pat is ageless.) Prompts appear above her head—shall she play guitar? read a book?—as she earnestly engages you in conversation. Seated just a bit closer than normal, she tilts her head and looks up at you with wide eyes. Is she Haraway’s cyborg, part machine, part woman?
It could be that the men who design and consume our cyborg bodies are digital-era Pygmalions. As the story goes, “Critical of the plentiful defects which nature had planted through their female soul…Pygmalion carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation.” Galatea, this statue whom Venus animates to satisfy Pygmalion’s sexual desires, is referred to as the simulacra puellae. We, the women who play and are played, are not unlike her.
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There is a strong continuity between the physical and digital worlds. Nick Yee, a cyberpsychologist, refers to the bleeding-through of the physical into the digital—and vice versa—as the “Proteus effect.” An avatar’s appearance, he posits, influences how we behave when we don that digital body, just as a leather jacket may inspire a combative demeanor, or a polo shirt a prim one. According to Yee’s research, that affect in turn bleeds into our IRL personae.
Research from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab indicates that when women operate sexualized avatars, clothed in body-hugging skirts and low-cut tube tops, they are likelier to accept rape myths (that a woman was raped because of her attire—she was asking for it—rather than because the rapist was a sociopath). The researchers strove for a true feeling of embodiment: Test subjects wore an HMD, and sensors tracked their movements in the virtual space, where they could view their new bodies in a mirror. Subjects were then asked a series of questions about their self-perception and body image. “Sexualized avatars may promote self-objectification,” the study concluded. “It appears that users of sexualized avatars may be at risk for developing negative attitudes towards women and the self outside of the virtual environment.” (Studies show that when men identify with male protagonists in sexist, violent video games, they are less likely to empathize with women who have been abused. The theory that violent video games inspire violent behavior is still unconfirmed.)
Virtual-reality games and experiences that allow users to embody or encounter women in asexual contexts turn up few results. Admittedly, the hardware that allows users to be fully embodied in virtual reality is not yet widely available; the time lag between their physical and digital movements is apparently jarring. But in online VR networks where users socialize through avatars—an unfettered, toneless sandbox of social play—female users have already reported harassment. On the social-VR app Altspace, Mic writer Taylor Lorenz’s avatar received an “unsolicited ‘virtual reality kiss’” while other avatars clustered around her, jokingly yelling “Harassment!” Unlike text-based cyberbullying over social-media forums like Twitter, harassment in VR, according to reports in Polygon and Mic, offers the added effect of “immersiveness”—a quality touted as VR’s greatest perk.
However, the work that does exist in this area is promising: In April, the Virtual Human Interaction Lab released a “diversity demo” that “transports users into unfamiliar and unsettling realms”—for example, being a woman of color who is “angrily harassed by a white avatar.” When the user lifts her hands in defense, they are dark and bony, not white and hairy. In Compliment, men suffer a barrage of catcalls while walking down the street. Perspective, Chapter 1: The Party illustrates a female college student’s sexual assault at a frat party from both the male and female perspectives. These programs are lost in the stacks behind first-person shooters and affectless puzzle games.
Haraway’s manifesto was reissued earlier this year. By now, the cyberfeminist ideal—attacking the rigidity of the female identity and blurring conceptions of a static female “form” through technology—should be mainstream culture, not fringe art. But there are signs that cyberfeminism is experiencing the first swells of its second wave, reincarnated into the arts collective Cybertwee, which (a little condescendingly) promises to use “cuteness, softness, feelings & prettiness” to feminize new-media arts, and the “anti-naturalist” Xenofeminism, which (a little unintelligibly) promises to construct “a feminism adapted to…abstraction, virtuality and complexity,” using “alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds.” The cyberfeminist aesthetic—alluring to look at, though perhaps unsatisfying to live by—has resurfaced just as virtual reality’s promise of embodiment and transformation realizes its potency as yet another capitalist viral-marketing tactic.
A true overhaul of the cyborg woman will come only when women are granted more opportunities to be at the helm of their digital experiences. Curiously, the ancient Greek image of the savvy nautical helmsman (kubernetike) is the origin of the word “cybernetics,” and therefore “cyborg.” In the meantime, we may hope that when Perky Pat shows up at our door, her armor is full and steely.