PRESENT CASE STUDY 2
Digitizing Material Bodies
This section of our web text argues for a return to the technofeminist rhetorical imperative of paying attention to new technologies. We hope that technofeminist work will continue to analyze emergent technologies for their potentials, uses, and effects. As new technologies increasingly permeate our everyday lives, we argue that sustained critical attention and access to these technologies is needed.
To illustrate one possibility for applying technofeminist rhetorical analysis to emerging technologies, we offer this brief case study of alternate and virtual reality, which we use to point particular attention to the ways that embodiment interacts with and complicates these technologies. We hope that technofeminist work will increasingly recognize these complex interactions, while also continuing to explore concepts of access and intersectionality in relation to new technologies.
Recent developments in virtual and augmented realities have caused a material (re)turn in digital rhetoric. Composition is changing, and so must our theories and methodologies concerning digital composition scholarship. Digital identities, both physically and digitally material, require a methodological framework that considers the social, cultural, economic, material, and political implications often lost in digital translation. We believe technofeminism can recognize these gaps.
The relationship between technology, access, and embodiment necessitates rearticulation so that we can interrogate the integration of virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR) both in and out of the classroom. We question: How does embodiment, or disembodiment, function in virtual spaces? What is the relationship between “the material body to the ‘sensory’ simulation provided by virtual technologies” (Balsamo, 1996, p. 125)? Do augmented and virtual realities transform body subjectivities? In this section, we analyze developments as they are occurring now and may occur in the future using a technofeminist rhetorical approach, continuing, as we have in our previous section, to emphasize the intersections of access and embodiment.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are terms often used interchangeably, resulting in a continuous misrepresentation of the respective technologies. This is problematic considering the fact that each technology proposes a completely different take on reality. The problem is not with the language used—as both terms concretely differentiate themselves from each other—but with the ways in which the terms are represented in dominant discourse. Because both technologies are staking a claim in the discussion of reality-altering devices, a clear distinction must be made.
At its most basic, augmented reality (AR) is different from virtual reality (VR) “in that in VR people are expected to experience a computer-generated virtual environment. In AR, the environment is real, but extended with information and imagery from the system” (Lee, 2012, p. 13). AR combines the virtual and the material, while VR is just that: virtual. VR often has similar uses to AR, but the lack of material reality within VR limits the potential of the system. Although the two technologies are related, “unlike its cousin virtual reality (VR), AR enhances the real environment rather than replacing it with computer-generated imagery” (Biocca et al., 2007, p. 164). Much research concerning the rhetorical implications of VR has been presented throughout the past decade, but AR still remains understudied and seemingly undervalued as a potential mainstream technological evolution.
Over the past few years, AR and VR peripherals and applications have flooded the market, but the costs associated with these technologies are high, restricting access to many consumers. For example, the most popular versions of these technologies are expensive: the HTC Vive ($600), Oculus Rift ($500), and Sony’s PSVR ($450). Adding to the costs associated with these peripherals is that they are useless without a system (either PC or console) that can support them—restricting access even further. A computer with enough processing power to sustain extended virtual and augmented reality use averages around $1000, while a new PlayStation 4 Pro could cost upwards of $400. Even this recognition does not take into account the need for additional software (applications, games, videos, etc.), hardware (PlayStation Move/camera, Vive Knuckle Controllers, wireless adapters, etc.), and space (6.5 x 5 feet minimum). We recognize that access to these peripherals is limited, which has resulted in a shift from personal use to a more destination-based experience. VR users tend to be experiential (through one-time use at a specific location specializing in virtual reality “experiences”) instead of daily, home users.
Many cell phone companies have recently released much more accessible—through hardware requirements as well as cost—AR/VR peripherals (Gear VR, Google Daydream, etc.) that utilize specific phones as the screen. Although much more basic and limited, these peripherals offer additional options for users unable to fulfill the excessive hardware and monetary requirements for the more powerful and established peripherals. Yet these phones can still cost between $500–$900 without the extra required hardware (headsets, controllers, cameras, etc.) and software. And, importantly, as much as access is necessarily limited by financial and spatial requirements, it is also limited by general knowledge concerning augmented and virtual realities and their differences.
As with all new technologies, AR and VR are undergoing a relatively rapid evolution. Not only do interpretations of AR and VR technologies become muddled within the discourse that surrounds them, but recently, physical AR and VR systems have become intertwined as well. By attaching a microcomputer-controlled webcam to the front of VR optical head-mounted displays, users are able to blend material reality and virtual reality in a way similar to the early Sensorama (Figure 1). This has led to experimentation with material reality projections in VR headsets.
Figure 1. An image of the Sensorama, one of the earliest known examples of a digitally immersive peripheral. Photo from wikimedia.org.
One instance of this experimentation that we have been tracking is “The Machine to Be Another” artistic showcase, which allows users to “switch bodies” with another user. Two participants strap on modified VR headsets, and their perspective is transmitted through the headset of the other user. Agreed upon motions and actions dictate the movements of each user to imitate simultaneous actions that better simulate the actual “swapping” of bodies. When one user looks down at their body, the other user’s body will be projected through their headset. Thus, for the users, it will feel as though they are looking at their own body, but their own body is not represented through the augmented reality—the other user’s body is.
This interesting technological combination is what has influenced Francis Macarthy’s research in particular and has caused all of us to question the stake of space/place, identity, and most importantly, embodiment, within these various peripherals. As part of his research, Francis designed a practical case study based on the “Be Another” art installation. For almost two minutes, Francis and his partner “shared” their bodies and embodiment with each other. In the section that follows, we interrogate the affordances, limitations, and impact of virtual body swapping in virtual reality spaces.
It might sound like the plot of a clichéd 1980s movie, but recently, Francis and his partner switched bodies…virtually. As a heterosexual, white, speaker of mainstream English, middle-class male, Francis doesn’t identify as underrepresented or as a scholar in the margins—just the opposite, he feels as though he won the privilege lottery. On the other hand, his partner identifies as a transnational and linguistically diverse female emergent scholar with interests tied to multilingual composition and transnational rhetorics. He is 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 135 pounds, while she is 5 feet tall and weighs 95 pounds. Needless to say, there are obvious material, physical, and cultural differences between the two.
Using a Samsung Galaxy S8 with a Gear VR headset, Francis and his partner were able to experience a moment in time through the guise of each other’s virtual bodies, as shown below. As argued by Kristin Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki (2012), “without our bodies—our sensing abilities—we do not have a world; we have the world we do because we have our particular senses and experiences” (p. 3). But, with the use of a combination of virtual and augmented realities, Francis and his partner no longer “had” their bodies. After recording two separate videos from their particular point of views, Francis and his partner watched each other’s videos and “reenacted” the movements through the VR headset (Figure 2). This created a sensation of body swapping that allowed them to view the world from another body.
Figure 2. Gifs showing Francis’ perspective during the time when he “switched” bodies with his partner.
But, instead of allowing them to transcend their material bodies, “whereby the physical body and its social meanings can be technologically neutralized,” Francis and his partner ended up as body tourists similar to those of the stereoscope movement of the early 20th century (Balsamo, 1996, p. 128). Initially, the stereoscope was a device that allowed users to perceive a sense of depth in static images by displaying two versions of the same image from slightly different angles—think of it as a primitive version of the View-Master ( the stereoscope and View-Master are shown in Figure 3). Because of its marketed ability to transport viewers to a variety of distant places, “the stereoscope promised middle-class audiences a more literal access to the cultural knowledge and cultural capital of more mobile, moneyed classes,” in the same ways that virtual and augmented reality peripherals promise users an out-of-body experience (Malin, 2007, p. 409).
Technologies continue to be marketed as a way for those with monetary and hardware access to experience the world as someone else, without the stakes of material reality. In many ways, Francis felt what it is like to have the body of a 5-foot-tall Spanish woman, but no matter the sensation, he will never know what it is like to embody his partner. He can live as his partner for a moment in time, but any intersectionality is imagined. He is a tourist in her body without the implications her body carries. Therein lies the difference—a difference that technofeminism makes apparent.
Technofeminism has long promoted the idea of the body as a process over a product. As a product, the body “is the material embodiment of ethnic, racial, and gender identities, as well as a staged performance of personal identity, of beauty, of health (among other things). As a process, it is a way of knowing and marking the world, as well as a way of knowing and marking a ‘self’” (Balsamo, 1996, p. 3). We argue that this distinction becomes even more prevalent with the recent growth of virtual and augmented reality peripherals and software. Virtual and augmented bodies promise “emancipation from the frailties and failings of mortal flesh and have reached a new crescendo in the cyberspace age” (Wajcman, 2004, p. 3). The time Francis spent as his partner supports these claims, while at the same time it complicates the body as a physical and material construct. As early as 1996, theories surrounding VR technologies acknowledged this complexity.
Although cyberspace seems to represent a territory free from the burden of cultural and physical identities, it serves as another site for the technological and no-less-conventional inscriptions of the gendered, race-marked body. In this virtual world, communicative distance is overcome while power over the flesh remains. Divisions of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality are present, but the freedom to establish a separate digital identity allows for minor concealment (genuine anonymity is a myth) and/or a brief glimpse of communication through an unfamiliar perspective. The Internet “doesn’t just disembody; it also re-embodies, endowing its inhabitants with idealized cyberbodies. . . in a sense, the computer becomes a prosthesis” (Monroe, 1999, p. 70). We argue that, as an extension of our physical bodies, the technologies that inhabit many of our lives must be recognized for the material potential they carry. So despite the fact that VR technologies offer a new stage for the construction and performance of body-based identities, it is likely that old identities will continue to be more comfortable and thus more frequently reproduced (Balsamo, 1996).
This perspective, although decades old, remains as an accurate representation of virtual bodies and their existence in virtual and augmented realities. It is through the removal of the material body that the virtual body is able to reveal the impact of virtual and augmented realities on material, cultural, and social embodied implications.
Our removal of the physical body from embodied scholarship might seem counterintuitive, but the ability to virtually generate a variety of embodied experiences complicates embodied feminist rhetorics. Digital technologies tend to “facilitate the blurring of boundaries between man and machine and male and female, enabling their users ‘to choose their disguises and assume alternative identities’” (Wajcman, 2004, p. 66). Similar to cyberfeminist and technofeminist theories of digital identity, digital embodiment exists as a flexible process dictated by the user (as well as the software/hardware designer/developer). Illusions of privacy, anonymity, and equality that exist throughout digital communication help users to not only idealize and realize new virtual and/or digital bodies, but also new identities to inhabit them. As Arola and Wysocki (2012) argued, “…digital technologies can shift our sense of bodies-as-primarily-eyes to sensing how embodiment is also through skin and other senses; such expansion can happen, that is, when we use digital technologies not for their visual capacities but for their enactive potentialities” (p. 7).
Technofeminism helps to reveal the body’s relationship with digital networks, because “we’ve long accepted the theory that virtual interactions are necessarily embodied” (Cohn, 2016, p. 80). Thus, our material bodies often impact the ways in which software and hardware designers recognize our embodied experiences. However, many of these novel technologies, including AR and VR peripherals and software, are not necessarily designed or created with all bodies considered. Nor do they recognize how our varied experiences and embodiments shape what we know and how we know it. And, importantly, while material and digital embodiment exist in relation to each other, they also are separate from each other. As Jenae Cohn argued, “there is an imaginary relation at play between the embodied and virtual, one that suggests that the embodied is more persistent, dominant, and normative than the virtual” (Cohn, 2016, p. 81). This imbalanced perception ultimately limits new perspectives and representations of virtual embodiment both in and out of scholarly discourse. Digital rhetorical theories alone do not account for this complex relationship. Thus, we propose that a more technofeminist, body-centric approach will help to better realize and understand the ways in which the body acts upon digital networks as well as the ways in which digital networks act upon the body.
As digital communication technologies continue to become further integrated into the daily lives of more and more people across the world, we recognize that embodied experiences continue to shift and blur the boundaries between physically material and digitally material bodies. This, ultimately, allows for a more thorough investigation of the implications of contextually embodied experiences. According to Leigh Gruwell (2015), “our embodied experience shapes what we know because we experience the world (and the world experiences us) through our bodies” and our digital material bodies must be treated with the same complexity as material bodies (p. 119).
However, as we’ve previously mentioned, these technologies have substantial costs and pose other physical and spatial complications that limit access and overall representation through technology design and use. One issue that tends to substantiate these barriers is the idea that technologies are often viewed as merely tools instead of cultural artifacts that carry social, political, and economic weight. Technology is “perceived as something that humans need not have much to do with except for deploying it and then using it as a tool to accomplish a task. But digital technology implementation and usage is not as straightforward as the analog technology of the hammer (not that even the hammer isn’t a complex, culturally-embedded object)” (Rodrigo & Romberger, 2017, p. 69). Technofeminism helps to dispel this perception by opposing these oversimplified perceptions of technology, examining how we understand our relationships to and with technologies “and with ourselves and the world around us” (Frost & Haas, 2017, p. 89). To fully comprehend the complex relationships we share with the technologies that surround us, a technofeminist perspective is necessary.
Even at its most accessible, virtual reality is still inaccessible for most users, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Already, VR has become a destination technology. Users are more likely to treat VR like a vacation instead of a daily-use technology (such as a personal computer or video game console). But this does not relinquish us from understanding our relationship to the technology. Additionally, augmented reality is only at the wellspring of its potential. The applications of combining virtual and physical realities are nearly endless, and this is why we need technofeminism more than ever. As we mentioned earlier, VR and AR peripherals share much in common with older technologies, such as the stereoscope, that also promised an escape from physical and material realities. Ultimately, “what these VR encounters really provide is an illusion of control over reality, nature, and especially over the unruly, gender and race-marked, essentially mortal body” (Balsamo, 1996, p. 127). But, as we have argued, this is merely an illusion. The realities of existing through another body do not account for the stakes involved in material embodiment. Also, the bodies that experience virtual or augmented embodiment tend to fill the white, middle-class male stereotype. As with the stereoscope, “there are clear costs and barriers to entry, and not everyone can enter” (Fielding, 2016, p. 105). Although more affordable and less technologically complex options are now available through cell phone-based headsets and software, access to VR and AR is still limited. Francis was lucky enough to have been able to experience a moment in time through the eyes of someone else. But regardless of the technology, a technofeminist analysis underscores that embodied experiences will remain inaccessible through virtual and/or augmented means. The next section of the webtext further discusses implications and possibilities for technofeminist analysis in the future.
To continue traveling through our webtext, learn about the importance of early technofeminist scholarship to our work in the Past section, read our other Present case study on technofeminist interventions in Flint, or continue to the Future section to consider the possibilities for where technofeminist intervention may move next.