Second Life

Pais Kidd and My Strange Loop (Escher, Godel, and Second Life)

Pais Kidd writes reflective entries on his blog about his experiences in Second Life. He helps to cut through the stereotypes about identity, play, and the moving of emotions and experiences between the “real” and the “virtual”.
His most recent entry is a very thoughtful and touching blog on identity and the insight that his avatar is an augmentation of his real self, and that his real self has become an augmentation of his avatar identity, as evidenced by both real and virtual dog tags he exchanged with his partner:

His post comes on the heels of several other conversations and readings:

- A friend asked whether I thought people acted “more real” in a virtual world than they do in real life. This on the theory that the avatar mask is a distraction – what looks like a ‘disguise’ may in fact be a better way to represent the “real you” than, well, the real you.
- I was sent a link to a research paper that assessed queer identity against the backdrop of post-Cartesian thinking where the mind/body duality is challenged with a separate duality of person/environment. The author, Donald Jones, quotes Pierre Levy who says that “the virtualization of the body is…not a form of disembodiment but a re-recreation, a multiplication, vectorization and heterogenesis of the human.”

Rather than losing the body, says Donald, it is instead “rearticulated within virtual space as the boundaries of body/self are extended through the mediation of technology.

Pais’ blog, these other conversations, my previous posts on reflective architecture, have me thinking about a book that has greatly influenced my thinking over the past year: I Am A Strange Loop.

A strange loop is epitomized by Escher:

In his book, Hofstadter takes a stab at defining a strange loop:

And yet when I say “strange loop”, I have something else in mind — a less concrete, more elusive notion. What I mean by “strange loop” is — here goes a first stab, anyway — not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.

He uses Godel’s incompleteness theorem as a starting point for the examination of whether mathematics lends any clues to the possibility that systems, including systems of thought and “being alive” are self-referential in some way – strange loops, in other words, where systems are products of themselves.

I’ve started to wonder whether virtual worlds constitute a manifestation of the ’strange loop’ phenomenon.

Reflective architecture, which I’ve written about previously and is covered in detail at The Arch may open one doorway to strange loopiness. The idea that our virtual selves might enact a response from objects which then adjust our own responses to those objects – and the further idea of the tracking in time and space of motion, start to leave us with the notion that in persistent worlds the absence of our avatars may not be the same as our absence.

The idea of the recursive city – a layering of the virtual with the real and back again, was covered in a paper examining a virtual London by the thinkers at CASA.

Our message is that digital representation opens a cornucopia of possibilities in representation and communication through a variety of devices which in turn can be embedded in the city, Escher-like, and which indeed are rapidly becoming the city.

Replace the word city with “self” and the concept of the recursive self, the strange loop, starts to take on heightened meaning.

Escher also captured the strange loop phenomenon in Escher and the Droste Effect:

In this case, replace the picture of the city with a simulated city, and insert an avatar within the ‘real gallery’ and the strange loopiness of virtual worlds starts to become more evident.

Batty et al comment that “effective recursion where the experiences are meaningful imply some strictness of control over these strange loops, tangled hierarchies they may be but hierarchies are structured, not random.”

I’m not trying to turn the emotional response to virtual worlds into math. But both Godel and Einstein found debates in the incompleteness theorem and quantum mechanics that went beyond formulas and into the question of whether God exists.

Maybe people like Pais and all the other writers, thinkers, and individuals who live in virtual worlds are grappling with a strange loop that is manifestly more apparant than Godel’s incompleteness theorem. These are just the early days for understanding how strange this loopiness really might become. At some point in the not so distant future, our avatars WILL exist without our presence. We will feed extensions of ourselves with desires, time, direction….and those extensions, our avatars, will start to feed things back – dreams, emotions, activities, concepts and information, which will in turn…

My ears perk up when someone talks about balance, identity, the difference between the real and the virtual, because I think these questions are important not just related to our task of being human and to understand how our human-ness might change because of our lives in synthetic spaces….but also because I think we’re asking these questions because deeper and more profound truths and patterns are being explored that were not so easy to grasp or identify when our common social tools were more limited.

Random thoughts, maybe and hardly a school of philosophy or anything new, but I’m struck by the implications of examining synthetic worlds as a new manifestation of the strange loop phenomenon, and by the idea that we’re quickly coming to grapple not just with the idea of the recursive city, but perhaps the recursive self.


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