Graham Ward on the destructive effect of the Internet

Source: Graham Ward, ‘Theology and Postmodernism: Is It All Over? », Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol.80, no.2, June 2012, 466-484

I used to be a heavy online game addict (and is still somewhat heavily addicted to the Internet). The decision of quitting online game for me is made out of a period of rational deliberation. After that I have always tried to organize these thoughts and share them with others, as a way to help people out.

In the 2012 June edition of the AAR journal, Graham Ward’s article on [the perpetuation of] postmodernity caught my eye. To be honest, this is not a particularly well-written piece, for he flapdoodles a lot in those philosophical jargons (from Habermas to Taylor to Jameson to Hegel to Zizek to Marx to Lacan to Lyotard to Badiou and Agamben and his radical orthodoxy folks) while his thought-flow remained somewhat high in the air (which I am not surprised at all, because this is an AAR journal and the entire AAR is currently under Kwok Pui-Lan’s direction).

However, I am intrigued by Ward’s analysis of the Internet, whereby the postmodern diverging and dissolute  trends, characterized by the perennial dialectics of communication and consumption, have finally found a common instrument of representation (p.470). Specifically, he applies what Zizek termed the ‘plague of fantasies’ (Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies, London, 2009) to describe the atavistic and surrogate forms of living of postmodern human being on the virtual reality.

  • Atavisticappearance of a trait belonging to a distant ancestor that has been dormant in recent generations. Atavistic feelings or behaviour seem to be very primitive, like the feelings or behaviour of our earliest ancestors
  • surrogate: A figure of authority who takes the place of the father or mother in a person’s unconscious or emotional life.

Apparently, not every type of internet use can be described as an atavistic and surrogate form of living. This form of living is most intensified in online games (MMORPG).

In contrast to conventional technological « tools » (like an axe, a scissor, a computer, or a car), which is subject to our active use and is intimately associated with us like an ‘extension of our  body’, the online game/virtual reality has a highly alienating and technocratic tendency than anything Karl Marx could identify at his time because it is oppressive, life-denying, and sensuous (p.473).

According to Ward,

  1. It is oppressive because we  are handing ourselves over to be colonized by the server’s control, the programmer’s imagination, and to both their ideologies and pathologies. To understand this point, simply recall how the online games are designed: the fantasy world is controlled by their programmers, and we players have no power in changing (or not following) the rules. We players are buying into a tyranny whereby the game manager can twist the rule, create an unbeatable monster, or revamp the virtual monetary system anytime. We could also only play for the finite goals and value systems they put into the game (for example, an online game I played before had no fair-trading system.).

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  2. It is life-denying because our virtual participation is vicarious: abstracted from the activity in the world that feeds our relationships with others, our sense of dependency and responsibility.Certainly this is not true to all kinds of internet activity. For example, my use of google+, facebook, academia.edu, goodreads, linkedin, and so on, is highly connected with my real life relationships with others.    It is not abstracted from my learning activity and my social concerns.But by contrast, the online game (again, I am specifically referring to the MMOPRGs) creates a nexus of identity and sense of belongings on its own. You are your avatar, and you build relationships there through your avatar with others in their avatars. This kinds of virtual participation leads to a sense of dependency and responsibility parallel to that of real life. Positively speaking, it could be an excellent training ground for youth and teenagers to practice their communication skills and virtues of mutual trust, honesty, cooperation, leadership, prudence, and so on. I know some MMORPGs are designed particularly well for serving such tasks (WoW & Second Life).
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    However, the real problem lies in its « disconnection in over-connection »: by over-connecting and committing ourselves to such virtual reality, the game is no longer for just training or demonstrative purposes; it replaces our real life by disconnecting us from out real life dealings and accountability. We could care these friends more than our significant others, and fulling the tasks for the check points more than our jobs in real life.


    (The same can be said for sports games. Sports are perfect instruments to practice the virtues I mentioned above, especially for teenagers who are most suitable for « learning from plays ». But over-committing oneself in them would be a misplacement of one’s life priorities and could ruin one’s real life. The Internet is much more addictive and entertaining, so its potential disastrous effect needs to be considered with greater care.)
  3. It is a profound alienation because its oppression and life-denial is continually pack up by its sensual attraction and displaced by the aesthetic pleasures of being entertained. This point easily connects to most online gamers, as you see every avatar is sexy and unrealistically sexual. The equipment are dreamy, monsters are awesome and powerful, and scenery are magnificent and wonderful. It drags us deeper by feeding our desire with what things in reality can rarely offer to us.
    To a certain degree the world of silver screen and the Hollywood culture are also doing similar disservice to our generation.[文摘] Kevin Vanhoozer’s Interview with Gospel Coalition

If I am to organize a forum with a special topic on the Internet culture, these are the lines I am going to trace and explicate for the parents and the youth- with my personal testimony, for sure.

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