Jill Walker responds in turn

Jill Walker responds in turn

2004-04-02

“Thinking around the responses,” Jill Walker reconsiders how gender and identity influence the reader-reading-the-reader in Online Caroline.

It is fascinating that since Turing, we have thought of the ability to play roles as the crucial test of a machine’s intelligence. The Turing Test tests whether a machine can pass as a woman. Not just as a human (do we know what a human who’s not playing roles is like?), but as a woman. Role-playing is a fundamental human quality, one without which we could not survive as the social animals we are. Every day we play the roles that are expected of us: I behave as a woman, as a mother, as a colleague, as a friend. You fill these or different roles. This way of thinking leads us to imagine our bodies as separate from the roles we play, and perhaps that means from our minds. Once body and mind are separated, it’s easy to think of humanity as connected to the mind, to the roles we play or our personality, and to think of the body as somewhat arbitrary.

Online communication allows us to ignore bodies, at least on the surface. What difference does it make, really, if a “personality” we meet online has a single body, or instead, a computer or a group of authors behind it? If we assume that the relationship between body and personality (or role, or whatever we call it) is arbitrary (as has been argued of the relationship between sex and gender, for instance), it is surely irrelevant whether Caroline, or indeed Jill Walker, have bodies and hair. The Turing test was devised in 1950, when bodies were thought to determine our lives and the ways in which we act. Bodies and roles weren’t commonly thought of as arbitrary then. It was a time when men were men and women were women, and if men weren’t clearly “men,” but homosexuals, they were given hormones to change their bodies. Presumably the theory was that changing the body would change the mind as well. Turing’s own history tragically demonstrates this: “[Alan Turing] told police investigating a robbery at his house that he was having `an affair’ with a man who was probably known to the burglar. Always frank about his sexual orientation, Turing this time got himself into real trouble. Homosexual relations were still a felony in Britain, and Turing was tried and convicted of `gross indecency’ in 1952. He was spared prison but subjected to injections of female hormones intended to dampen his lust. `I’m growing breasts!’ Turing told a friend. On June 7, 1954, he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. He was 41.” [Gray]

I’m very attached to my body and I don’t think the relationship between my body and the roles I play is arbitrary. I like Toril Moi’s description of the relationship between body and gender roles as being neither necessary nor arbitrary, but contingent. She quotes Simone de Beauvoir: “The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and a sketch of our projects” [Moi, 59]. My body - and my hair - matter to the way in which I grasp the online world. My body matters to the way in which I read Online Caroline. I present or represent my body in my relationship with her by telling her my age and hair color and that I’m a mother and other more or less intimate details. Warren Sack’s personal web site ( http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/~sack/) has a photo of himself (a demonstration of his possession of a physical body) alongside otherwise very abstract, professional, un-bodily lists of publications and academic experience. My web site (http://huminf.uib.no/~jill) has no photo but a constantly updated blog, which in its own way is a demonstration of my subjectivity and lived bodily experience. We all appear to feel a need to bring our bodies online in some sense.

As both my respondents point out, Online Caroline can certainly be seen as a successor of Eliza, who tries to fool the reader into believing she is really a woman. Online Caroline is also fiction, and fiction has always presented a fictional world that is meant to be taken as real for the space of the reading. What is different from most traditional fiction is that Online Caroline has blurred borders between the fictional world and the real ordinary world where we have tangible flesh-and-blood bodies as well as represented bodies. This blurring is heightened because Caroline draws the reader into the fictional world. When you read Online Caroline you are drawn into the same narrative level as Caroline herself.

This narrative equivalence of reader and protagonist is extremely interesting. Sack’s reading of it as a competition where the reader and Caroline compete to be interpreted as “real” is fascinating. The first lines in my essay on Online Caroline really are striking in their insistence on a feminine imagery, and especially since the images I used (of wet hair and a shower) are so typical of the male objectifying gaze Sack refers to: imagine shampoo ads with half-naked women or the shower scene in Psycho. Why on earth did I choose such a way to ground my reading of Online Caroline? Though I didn’t consciously think of those lines as being about objectifying myself as “woman,” I did want to illustrate the equivalence in narrative terms between me as reader and Caroline as protagonist. Since Online Caroline draws the reader into the fictional text, I think it was crucial to draw the awareness of this into my writing.

It’s interesting that in Turing’s imitation game only one competitor can win. The interrogant can’t decide that both players pass as women; only one can pass. Rather than displace the biologically female, or for that matter, human, reader from her (or his) proper identity, Online Caroline reveals the insecurity of such an identity at all. Online Caroline unsettles our feelings of autonomy, of being a subject reading an object, a reader reading a text. This is a text that manipulates the reader in a different way than traditional fiction because it fictionalizes the reader. In this sense the reader is displaced. I don’t think the displacement has a lot to do with gender, but perhaps it does reflect our ideas of humanity and subjectivity. By limiting my role - my allowed space within which I can perform autonomously - to one-word replies to a series of multiple-choice questions, Online Caroline pushes my role-playing to an extreme.

The question of how men and women and probably heterosexuals and homosexuals read Online Caroline differently is interesting, though outside the scope of my research. When I create an alternate reader-character and call “him” Jack, I’m not seeing what it would be like to read Online Caroline as a man. Of course not. I can only read as myself. What Jack can show me is how Caroline responds to a male reader. The very names I chose for the characters are indicative of the narrowness, the shallowness of the roles permitted by the text - in English, the given names Jack and Jill have been frequently used simply to signify a generic man and woman.

I have noticed that men who read Online Caroline tend to think she’s flirting with them. On the other hand, discussing the experience of reading Online Caroline with two other female researchers, Lisbeth Klastrup and Elin Sjursen, we agreed that we felt that our relationships with Caroline were like the relationships between girlfriends. Caroline constantly asks for advice but never takes it. Men often take this as trickery, of breaking a contract of reading. In a short paper he presented at Hypertext 2001, William Cole wrote that

By gesturing at obeying the reader’s instructions, Caroline briefly promises the reader real power over the outcome of the narrative. Just as quickly, however, the promise is withdrawn…. Indeed, it seems that the main point of this episode is to create friction between Caroline and the reader, to show her resisting the reader’s advice and questioning his or her conception of her. [Cole, 70]

Caroline’s behavior is just like most of my girlfriends’, though. If they ask whether they should leave their boyfriends, they don’t really want an answer; they want empathy. As a man who read Online Caroline commented (and he shall remain unnamed), “If a beautiful young woman asks you whether she should leave her boyfriend, you tend to assume she’s flirting with you.” This is anecdotal evidence and quite unscientific. It does suggest that there are very different ways of interpreting a computerized character like Caroline who draws the reader into a fictional relationship. It would be wonderful to read a proper survey of these interpretations.

References

Toril Moi. (1999). What is a Woman? And Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

William Cole. (2001). “Choice vs. Interaction: The Case of Online Caroline,” in Hugh Davis, J. Yellowlees Douglas and David D. Durand (eds.), Hypertext 2001. Århus: ACM, pp.69-70.

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