By Jason Lipshin
Since the mid-90s, it has become something of a truism to celebrate the potential of the Internet as a communications medium. Such an attitude is obviously well-founded – among many other capabilities, the Internet’s unique confluence of TCP/IP and DNS protocols have allowed many people the unprecedented ability to connect across vast geographical distances both in real time and asynchronously. In fact, many Internet critics have often used the term telepresence to talk about the ways in which remarkably potent feelings of intimacy, embodiment, and community can be fostered in such circumstances of remote connection. But what if the Internet, in its gargantuan steps towards realizing Marshall McLuhan’s dream of a “global village,” gave us the equal capacity to alienate and distance ourselves from one another? What if our much-hyped virtual connections really only amounted to a kind of tourism or passing, a pendulum swinging uncertainly between bonding with and exploiting one another?
These ugly questions come to the fore in Wafaa Bilal’s wonderful new book Shoot an Iraqi, which I picked up on the suggestion of a friend. Bilal, who is an Iraqi performance artist, created an interactive piece called “Domestic Tension,” in which he sat in a small room with a remote-controlled paintball gun for an entire month while Internet users from around the world shot at him twenty-four hours a day. Once the project went “viral,” Domestic Tension spurned international controversy in a variety of arenas outside the typical gallery circuit – on both CNN and Slashdot, the ethics of Bilal’s endeavor became a hot topic for debate.
While Bilal’s rationale for his project was to raise awareness about the gap between the “conflict zone” of his war torn homeland and the “comfort zone” of the United States, I often had the uncomfortable impression that the project acted as a litmus test of the unmitigated racism towards Muslims in the post-9/11, American context. For instance, free to be as cruel as they wanted under the Internet’s cloak of anonymity, a particularly enthusiastic group of users figured out how to hack the regular paintball gun into a machine gun – shooting pellets at Bilal at a much more rapid and malicious rate. While Bilal had hoped that seeing a real live person at the receiving end of their bullets would cause these users to rethink their attitudes, he found that they were in many ways just like those “arm-chair warriors” of the US Army, bombing Iraqi villages from their remote bases in Colorado.
Thankfully, not everyone saw the project as an opportunity to scapegoat their anger – in fact, on a few occasions, a group of users orchestrated swarm log-ins to the project’s server to temporarily shut the operation down; in effect, protecting Bilal from the waves of virtual cruelty. But, despite these glimmers of nobility, I actually think that the actions of cruelty tell us a lot more about the complicated ethics of virtual spaces and their possible (often devastating) interactions with the physical world. To me, Bilal’s “arm-chair warriors” act like the real-life counterparts to Ender Wiggins, unsure if the flashing targets on their bombing interfaces represent real or virtual people. Domestic Tension, thus, takes on an important meaning in addition to simply “raising awareness” about the war in Iraq: in a climate in which video games and warfare have become virtually indistinguishable, perhaps the most vital question is what becomes of empathy in their confusion.