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Book Review: "My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World," by Julian Dibbell (Newsday)

Filed under: Clips

MY TINY LIFE: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, by Julian Dibbell. Owl / Holt, 336 pp., $14.95 paper.

By Emily Gordon

THINGS ARE different online. E-mail, for instance, has notorious problems with tone. That stark, blocky text can be maddeningly hard to read into, and hard to write unambiguously within the conventions of brevity and a tossed-off veneer that are not really conventions at all. E-mail is still a new world of correspondence, as unwieldy in content as it is convenient in form. Yet it manages, hourly, to create and accelerate intimacies among all sorts of people — intimacies that have never been possible on so enormous a scale.

The Internet, of course, makes these oddly heady exchanges even easier, as groups of people interested in a given topic put themselves out on a multitude of limbs without ever speaking or seeing one another’s faces. Whatever the context, it’s clear that what Internet lurkers want most is to simply encounter other people and, just as important, to encounter them at arm’s length. The presumed (if deceptive) anonymity of online communication allows connections that — however impersonal-seeming the technology — involve a high degree of emotional risk. (That risk can blur into the real world, as in the recent case of a Barnard College student’s date with an e-mail correspondent that turned into a session of torture.)

Before the Web’s technicolor arrows and ads - and before goofy gloves-and-helmet getups for navigating in “virtual reality,” tackily rendered interior-decorating sites and whitewater rapids — there were MUDs and MOOs. These were (and continue to be) text-only forums — similar to real-time Internet chat rooms but intricately and gracefully programed so that once “there,” one may explore myriad landscapes and behold objects by typing a few simple commands. It’s something like simultaneously reading a novel and writing it; and the experience is shaped in large part by the other people — as many as several hundred — reading and writing that novel at the same time. Strange as that might sound, Julian Dibbell makes the garrulous terrain of one such online community admirably lucid in his new book, “My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World.”

The world Dibbell introduces us to, called LambdaMOO, was created in 1990 by a Xerox programer named Pavel Curtis and opened to the Internet-using public (at the time mostly composed of fellow programers and students) the following year. When Dibbell got there, LambdaMOO had passed through several cycles of its own history. By chance, he witnessed one of its signal events: “A Rape in Cyberspace,” as the 1993 Village Voice article Dibbell wrote about the incident was titled, and which was the seed of this book. His account of the rape — which involved, of course, only type on a screen — has provided Internet users and cyberlaw professors with fodder for countless debates about the power of words; and Dibbell presents the quandaries and characters involved humanely and with a journalist’s circumspection.

The rape furor ended up transforming LambdaMOO’s legal system from a Pavel Curtis-ocracy to a democracy, complete with referendums and policy arguments, and it’s a riveting topic. But Dibbell has undertaken a more comprehensive project in “My Tiny Life” — a necessarily patchy field report. He documents not just the electoral politics of LambdaMOO but its economics (disk space for building new things is a hot commodity, monitored by a tough Architecture Review Board); the effects of various outlaws and upstarts on the larger Lambda society; the tangles of identity made possible by MOO residents’ ability to change gender at will (an experiment Dibbell himself conducts, with charming results); the depth and suspension of disbelief inherent in MOO friendships (and relationships: ASCII love and desire flourish here), and the roots of MOOs themselves in maps, board games and — you guessed it — “Dungeons & Dragons.”

Cleverly, Dibbell tells his stories both in standard prose and in a mock-up of the script-like scrolls of LambdaMOO, using the latter to describe incidents in his real life: most compellingly, the tensions in his relationship with his live-in girlfriend caused by his increasing entanglement with the MOO. He also gets down the peculiar feeling time spent MOOing produces: “After a couple hours glued to monitor and keyboard trading words as fast as finger muscles will allow, he can sometimes start to feel a kind of meltdown going on inside him, as if the part of him that usually does the talking and the part of him that usually does the writing are getting all mixed up together.”

On the whole, Dibbell is entertaining and illuminating. His self-deprecating humor and skepticism offset the more theoretical passages of “My Tiny Life,” which (like the Internet itself) can be a headache-inducing stream of questions without answers. Dibbell is aware of the frustrations in trying to convey an essentially subjective and present-tense experience: It nearly always becomes less vital in the attempt. Some of his technical explanations, as a result, are overlong and didactic, and he gets goopy and meandering when elaborating on his own MOO programing masterpiece (a Garden of Forking Paths modeled on the principles of the “I Ching” — ‘nuff said). The liveliest sections, and the ones readers are most likely to connect with, are those on human intimacies.

In the end, the main impression Dibbell leaves is that whatever their utopian limitations, MUDs and MOOs are playgrounds for lovers of language, and that nothing the singing, dancing Web offers up can replace moments such as a Lambda Fourth of July, at which someone has designed an O. J. Simpson firework (“A thousand tiny lawyers come sparkling out of the OJ Rocket, falling like pin-striped rain through the darkness”), or a political volley in which an exasperated participant, “proclaiming the discussion now `contentious nigh unto the point of incoherence’ [proposed], for the sake of entertainment if nothing else, that future contributions to the mailing list be made `in limerick form if you oppose the ballot, and in haiku if you support it.’ Almost all the leading participants in the debate took up the challenge.” Dibbell provides, throughout “My Tiny Life,” an eloquent answer to the obvious question: “Do these people have lives?” If any writer has a life, they do.

Published January 10, 1999

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