Am I Me: The Voice of the Avatar

An Earlier Me
Are there earlier versions of me?

I have this idea that avatars can mean more to us than stand-ins for our atomic selves, that they are more than just proxies for meeting in person and a convenient way to give us something visual to look at while we stare at PowerPoint slides together.

But I’ve been feeling out of synch lately, as if everyone else has decided that we should explain avatars as nothing more than glorified chat clients, and that to make them palatable to people who haven’t been here before we need to connect them on a sort of 1:1 direct basis with our birth names, and probably make them look like us, and port all of the conventions and dress codes of the actual world into the virtual one.

It’s why the new Second Life Web site kind of rubs me the wrong way: it feels like a giant ad for Miami Beach or Milan or somewhere – filled with beautiful, glamorous people wandering around excessively gilded places but where we ultimately don’t worry about much more than whether our hair style is unique (yet not too unique) or whether we own the hottest new pair of shoes. I mean, if I wanted Sex in the City I’d run out and buy the DVDs.

It’s not like I don’t get how hard this is to explain. I’ve tried explaining it to people at work or clients and I’ve gotten better at sort of easing them into it. Start small, talk about how you meet “people” from all walks of life from all around the world – and isn’t that a great way to save money and to make collaboration easier from a distance?

But it’s the conversation that follows which is more important – because I’m convinced that if virtual worlds keep pounding away on the ‘meet cheap’ drum then we’ll be collectively hitting our heads when something better and cheaper comes along – and our clients or colleagues or friends will have missed the point.

So long as we miss the stories about identity, and creativity, and innovation, and ‘deep collaboration’ then people will pigeon hole virtual worlds into “WebEx with avatars” and they won’t come back – someone will invent some little iPhone widget that provides a snappy, easy-to-use video conference system and by comparison virtual worlds will seem clunky and cartoon-y.

I mean – you think Cisco isn’t working on a dozen different ways to get together virtually that have nothing to do with avatars?

Whose Voice Is It Anyways?
It’s funny how these things go, because against this backdrop, my aunt e-mailed me. I never get a lot of time to explain avatars and virtual worlds to her, and I pointed her to this blog. And she asked the question:

“Well I have finally started reading your postings. I am still struggling with the difference between your voice and that of Dusan. How does your brain and thinking change when you write as Dusan?

….Is there an avatar for dummies site that I could check out that would explain the basics? I’m sure that avatars wouldn’t want to be bothered writing such a thing.”

Now – you need to know my aunt to know that she’s not being coy or tongue-in-cheek or anything (you get so used to sardonic humor on the Web you start assuming that someone is being snarky or ironic).

But her question gets to the heart of it don’t you think? Based on a 20 minute conversation about virtual worlds and reading a few of my, um, pithy posts, she’s either asking whether I have a split personality and is secretly phoning my relatives to see if I should get help, or she’s asking the question that most of us don’t get around to until the 6-month mark (what is it about hitting 6 months in a virtual world that brings out all the identity questions?): am I me?

Now, if only there was an easy way to answer.

Being There
So the first thing to understand is the sense of being there. Which is also counter-intuitive proposition number one: how does staring at a computer screen and an avatar representation of yourself (and others) equate to a sense of presence?

And it’s not a detached thing, not like playing a game or solving a puzzle where the ‘thing’ is outside of you. I’m talking about your brain…your focus, emotions and attention actually sort of being present inside that 3-D space. And this feeling will only increase with time as screens become larger, as we use more gestural devices, as we start to lose the keyboard and the mouse entirely and yeah, maybe eventually get to those goggles so that our field of vision is entirely contained in a virtual space.

Now, there are lots of theories about this. There’s all the brain plasticity stuff and neural pathways and whatever else. Nick Yee had his famous (though flawed) Stanford study on how our avatar appearance impacts our sense of self-worth. And this week, I came across a study that seems fairly well designed, which concludes that avatar posture and eye contact impacts how we act:

The researchers were able to influence participant behavior by changing the eye gaze of the avatars the participants were seeing. For example, if a person was speaking and the researchers wanted that person to keep speaking, the researchers would make the other avatar continue to make direct eye contact (even if the real person was not doing so). The avatar that was made to look attentive and passive was also be made to nod to indicate agreement or understanding (even if the participant was not doing this), which made the human on the other end continue to talk longer.

In other words somehow our brains see avatars as people, and respond to them in the same way.

And I’d propose that it’s not just people, it’s also environments. I was talking to someone the other day who said that she felt cold when she’s on a sim with snow.

Or I can say that I feel more relaxed when I’m here (which is also one of the reasons I bought it in the first place, it has an almost spiritual effect on me, and might also partly answer another question from my aunt about yoga practices in SL):

Eshi's Flower Tower

Eshi's Flower Tower Photo by Bettina Tizzy
Photos by way of Bettina

So when Philip Rosedale, guru and mad quip genius, said that the great thing about Second Life is that it doesn’t have the threatening eye contact of real life – he wasn’t wrong (he’s rarely wrong, he just expresses his rightness in endearing ways). What he was pointing out is that we can be in a place….not just watching a place like you watch a video, but actually feeling like you are THERE….and that place can be kinder and gentler and you can connect with the people in it in ways that your mind and heart interpret as real.

But is My Avatar Me?
So, premise one: it feels real.

Premise two: if it feels real, our avatars are therefore US.

Except, well, it depends on what your definition of “me” is.

There are as many theories about avatar identity as there are schools of sociology or philosophy or approaches to anthropology. It strikes me that virtual worlds can accommodate them all.

Maybe the avatar is our shadow self. Maybe avatars are socially constructed personas. Maybe avatars remind us in the Buddhist sense that reality is illusory anyways. Maybe our personalities are so integrated and well-rounded that our avatars really ARE as tightly coupled to our ’selves’. Maybe they allow us to assume parts of our persona in order to explore those inner voices that may otherwise have no place for expression.

In one way, avatars are no more or less ‘different’ from who we are than how we express ourselves in different atomic and on-line communities: I may be one person at work and another at home and another at the local club and another on Facebook.

Where the difference arrives, I believe, is that we are given a fuller range of tools with which to express personality: we can assume a different gender, become an animal, be older or younger, more beautiful or more terrifying. We can dress and interact in environments that make us rich. Or we can wear tattered clothes and wander through an alternate steampunk universe or in silico future.

The Story Box
So we have places that provoke a reaction – relaxed, gritty, modern, warm, terrifying, sterile….whatever. And we have a sense of presence in which we are able to express sides of who we are using a wider range of expression than available in actual life.

And where this gets even more interesting is that we share these spaces, and the spaces that we share can be co-created.

The simple experience of building something with someone else in a shared space is, I believe, the great (mostly unmeasured) power of user-generated virtual worlds.

And this combination is what I call the Story Box (and which also gives rise to what Prokofy called the Crystal Ball, a concept with which I completely agree).

It’s a story box in the same way that Alberto Manguel discusses poetry in his Massey Lecture:

Makers shape things into being, granting them their intrinsic identity. Still in a corner of their workshops and yet drifting with the currents of the rest of humanity, makers reflect back the world in its constant ruptures and changes, and mirror themselves in the unstable shapes of our societies, becoming what the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario called “celestial lightning rods” by asking over and over again “Who are we?” and by offering the ghosts of an answer in the words of the question itself.

Virtual worlds extend our personal poetry into a community of shared exploration and creation: of our identities, our environments, and of our personal and communal meaning. They are not immune to the flip side of positive creation, of course, but they allow us to explore the limits of our humanity. As Kevin Kelly wrote:

A major theme of this present century will be the pursuit of our collective identity. We are on a search for who we are. What does it mean to be a human? Can there be more than one kind of human? In fact, what exactly is a human?

We get to play with answers to these questions online. In Second Life, or in chat rooms, we can chose who we want to be, our gender, our genetics, even our species. Technologies gives us the means to switch genders, inhabit new forms, modify our own bodies.

At the same moment, we have the rise of hyper-realities. These are simulations so complex, convincing, and coherent that they have their own reality force. A fake so good, it is sold and bought as a fabulous fake. A Disneyland so enticing, that it spawns its own “fakes.” There must be something there to fake. Or Photoshopped images so obviously unreal that they have their own reality. Synthetic materials more desirable than natural ones. Originals inferior to their reproductions. Who cares what is real and what is memorex?

These hyper-realities launch questions such as whether a assault in virtual space counts as an actual violent assault or mere virtual assault. How much of our real lives is mental? How much of reality is a consensual hallucination? Where do our minds end and outside begin? What if it — everything outside of us — is all mind?

The faster and greater our lives become mediated — the more time we spend communicating through technology — the more urgent this question of “what is real” becomes. How do we tell the difference, if any, between realities and simulations? How do these redefine humans?

Our Obligations
So we explore these frontiers and express ourselves in different voices than our own which are, nonetheless, who we are – the gift we’re given in this world is to create, and the product of that gift is as much an expression of who we are as the soft murmur of touch and talk before we go to sleep.

But coupled with the opportunity for exploration is the peril of power, because code, like the unspoken norms of a group or tribe, is not morally neutral.

Code, which is increasingly interconnected with the tools for self-expression, even if it becomes self-perpetuating and written by the machines themselves, holds peril because values are embedded in how it’s created. This threatens the moral structures upon which our communities are based because it threatens our concepts of privacy and individuality and tribe. Code gives rise to change which is not inherently bad. But we often fail to extrapolate how the values embedded in the code that gives rise to that change will play out – we either pretend its not there, or we pretend that it’s immune to the tendency towards concentration of power.

And I’m going to dig out the quote I previously pulled from a speech Philip Dick made in 1978:

So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it.

Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.

And so the promise that we can somehow remain authentically human because we’re able to respond to change, because of our innate ability to bounce back, because we can deal with the new. But I’d propose we can only do so if we also remember the many ways in which our universes can break down.

“We hold fast to a social identity that we believe lends us a name and a face, but equally fast we move from one definition of a society to another, alternating again and again that presumed identity. Like characters in a story that keeps changing, we find ourselves playing roles that others appear to have invented for us, in plots whose roots and consequences escape us. .Even when declaring allegiance to one place, we seem to be always moving away from it, toward a nostalgic image of what we believe that place once was or might one day be….and yet, partly because of our nomad nature and partly due to fluctuations of history, our geography is less grounded in a physical than in a phantom landscape. Home is always an imaginary place.”


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