The Nether | Disturbing and fascinating in equal measure

A few years ago, while I was doing academic research on online creativity, I had the honour of discussing activities in Second Life with a number of users who kindly agreed to help me out. Very early on, one of those users took exception to my phraseology when I asked him what he did in Real Life.

This *is* Real Life, there is no difference

he said to me and I have never forgotten the lesson.

This is the quote I remembered when I was travelling back from Sloane Square on the tube. My friend Photini – a lady doing amazing research on online identities and communities – invited me to watch The Nether at The Royal Court Theatre as a birthday gift. (What can I say, I have amazing friends)

I do regret that it is completely sold out while I am writing this, since you will probably not be able to go and watch it but hey, this is a blog about what I do so you get the post either way.

On the surface this is what is going on: The internet has evolved into The Nether – a digital world where users are embodied (i.e. they move around  in a digital body). Instead of websites there are realms. Some for work, for education, for leisure. And where leisure is, sinister leisure is not far behind. Things are also going very wrong in the actual world – trees are now an expensive and rare commodity for example.

Morris (Amanda Hale) interrogates Sims (Stanley Townsend) about The Hideaway, Sims’s Victorian realm where they cater, for a considerable fee, to the extreme and sinister tastes of paedophiles. The users enter as anonymous avatars and interact with anonymous child avatars – behind which are actual adults. The child avatar can be handled, touched, even killed in this realm where users have, in Sims’s words, “an opportunity to live outside of consequence”.

There are a number of important and disturbing questions that the play seems to pose. How real is our online life? Are there limits to the imagination when it is manifested in a digital world? Does the digital world have repercussions that transcend its boundaries? Is it safer to have an outlet – as disturbing as it might be – as a protection against committing actual crimes on children?

To illustrate the events, the play takes place in an interrogation room and in the Hideaway. I cannot praise enough the excellent work done by Es Devlin who did the sets and Luke Halls who did the video designs. The othewordly quality of The Nether stands in stark difference to the bland reality of the interrogation room in a way that conveys the central tenet: Sims has created something extraordinary even by the standards of The Nether.

It is implied that The Nether might be a type of virtual reality which can become as good as the programmer can make it. And Sims is apparently a veritable magician, rendering a digital reality in the Hideaway that leaves all users craving for more as all the senses are fooled almost completely, to the point where love, attachment, amazement become real. So, if love feels real, is the crime real too? Could a life lived in-world be a real life?

This is one of the shocking points of the play that most reviewers skip entirely, while I think it is mightily important. For most people this might be understandable as the subject of paedophilia is so sinister that they probably feel compelled to concentrate on it. Oh and by the way, reviewers should refrain from mentioning The Matrix as a source. Please people, get acquainted with cyberpunk literature, your examples are an insult to William Gibson

Do check out the (admittedly long) video of playwright Jennifer Haley in conversation with Prof. Anthony Beech discussing what constitutes real life, and who we are in our physical bodies or in our imaginations. Watch it *especially* if you are fed up with people trying to pin the blame on video games for all those school shootings, Haley talks a lot of sense.

One of the most disturbing ideas that they discuss is the debate on whether, if one has a predisposition to a criminal activity, the digital manifestation of that activity actually legitimises and reinforces the behaviour.

Irrespective of the criminal behaviour I am much more disturbed by what I saw as one of the central questions of the play. The nature of identity and of love as they become mediated. It is no accident that the play ends as it does (yes, it’s sold out but you might want to read it). You see, *this* is the relevant question for the vast majority and for the present. We are not all criminally inclined. But we all *are* something, we have an identity and most of us manifest it in some way in the digital world.

There is a lot of research out there already about the nature of embodiment (which is an understandably old debate) and the nature of digital identity (which is admittedly more recent). I do recall of a very interesting paper I read at some point, tracing digital avatar’s line of sight, to see if people retained the same typical behaviour, i.e. you look at the person you talk to, in online worlds. Which they did.

This does not come as a surprise to old hands in online communities and activities. However, I do think that this whole debate is completely lost to a number of eminent reviewers who, let’s face it, are probably inexperienced enough to only able to compare the play to The Matrix (shudder) and understandably have the recent UK sexual abuse scandals at their forefront of their minds.

However, to only stick to the sinister – and the play does kind of bulldoze you in that position – is to miss the subtler and much more interesting implications about who we really are and how we really operate in a realm that is beyond our current understanding of what is real.


Disclosure: Saw The Nether on 06 August 2014 and we paid for our tickets in full. No prior discussion with the theatre took place.
The Nether
Royal Court Theatre
50-51 Sloane Square
London, SW1W 8AS
T:020 7565 5000

Why not check out:
The Nether – by Jennifer Haley [text review] on Postcards from the gods
The Nether (Jennifer Haley/Jeremy Herrin, Royal Court, London, August 2014) on disposition
The Nether, Royal Court Theatre – Not utopia after all on London Theatre Thoughts

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