Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression

False Dichotomies and the Limits to Virtuality

Limits to virtual reality?

At this week’s Metanomics Community Forum we’ll be talking about “Limits to Virtuality”. Following are a few thoughts ahead of the discussion.

What kinds of limits would you place on virtual worlds? Would you let your 4 year old play around in Warcraft? Would you let your 6 year old have an avatar? Should virtual worlds be rated like movies with gatekeepers at the door but otherwise letting the parents decide? I mean, maybe Bambi is too violent for some kids…it’s all up to the family or community, right?

I got to thinking about these things watching my nephew last week. He’s a few months shy of two years old. He watches maybe 30 minutes of television a day. There’s a laptop or two in his house but they aren’t used to teach him spelling or language or something. He plays in the park and has a seemingly endless fascination with the texture of sand. He moves it around, he pours it on his legs, he shovels it into a plastic dump truck.

I know it’s that uncle instinct or something, but around him I suddenly become a complete Luddite and start harboring fantasies of shielding him from technology and the Web and Wii Fit or whatever until he’s, well….18 maybe? That tactile experience is what I wish for him – that it not be replaced by jamming a mouse in his fingers or letting him use one of those Fisher Price kid’s keyboards or whatever. He can get to prims later – I want to make sure he know how to use real building blocks first before his experiences are mediated by a screen.

False Dichotomies
It’s clear that there’s no dividing line between childhood and being digital. There’s no magic age when suddenly you’re ready to pick up technology.

My nephew is intensely curious about the sound the microwave makes – he watches the digital clock count down and gets this look of delight when it beeps ready. He likes playing around with cell phones – I don’t think he’s planning to make calls anytime soon, but the buttons fascinate him, and the way the phone opens and closes – the same fascination he has with toy trucks where the doors work.

Growing up digital means that digital just sort of creeps in. In our rush to categorize and draw dividing lines we can neglect individuality: your 13 year old might be mature enough to go to a PG-13 movie, but your neighbor’s kid might have nightmares for the next three weeks.

But I’m struck by how easily, as adults, we create these false dichotomies, and as virtual worlds evolve and join the mainstream I’m increasingly frustrated with how quickly we’re trying to ‘normalize’ virtual worlds – to make them conform to our received notions of morality and governance and identity.

Immersionists vs. augmentationists. Real names vs. virtual identity. Games and worlds vs. reality. The singularity vs., well, NOT the singularity.

It frustrates me because I would expect that people who are in virtual worlds NOW, who are experiencing them, understand that they are a rich field for exploration, they are predictors of trends, they give hints of what’s coming tomorrow – and yet they seem to ignore all that and there’s a move to somehow slot virtuality into the received norms of the rest of our lives.

I suppose I can’t help thinking, when I’m feeling particularly apocalyptic, that this trend towards normalizing virtuality will either lead to new forms of tyranny, or those people doing the normalizing will be swept away not realizing that they were in the middle of a change that they refused to accept.

Games vs. Real Life
One of the godfathers of false dichotomies is Edward Castranova. His first book, Synthetic Worlds, was a landmark – it demonstrated that virtual worlds weren’t just about fantasy, but rather contained real value, real economies, and therefore shouldn’t be dismissed.

His follow-up book, however, Exodus to the Virtual World, which was an extended application form to hire Castranova as a consultant, proposed the following:

- Because use of virtual worlds is increasing, more and more economic value will shift to them
- This will create a “threat” to reality – your productive citizens of today will all be wasting time in Warcraft tomorrow, depleting the GDP of nations and shifting entire economies to a global mirror economy held in virtuality
- As a result, governments, enterprise, and schools will need to re-craft reality to make it more appealing and game-like.

Castranova proposes (and, I’m sure, can be hired to help) that businesses, therefore, need to make work more like WoW. An employee clocks in, is provided a series of quests for the day, is paid based on how well they ‘farm’ those quests, and maybe levels up if they do things really well.

Now, aside from the terrifying idea of governments and companies using risk/reward systems to ‘program’ their employees and citizens via the immersive lessons of games and virtual worlds, Castranova fails to recognize the other ways in which “reality” responds to virtuality. He sets up a false dichotomy: virtual worlds don’t compete with a drab, non-gamelike reality, they compete with varied realities, just as virtual worlds have varied mechanics and levels of engagement.

Reality doesn’t compete with virtual worlds by becoming more game-like. It competes in all the ways that people respond to technology, change, and other macro forces: more people take up Yoga or spirituality, say; companies focus on being green or supporting sustainability as a value; parents spend more time with their kids, or teachers start to include curricula teaching about privacy on-line, or how to be careful what you post on Facebook.

Identity and Normalizing Culture
I’m kind of tired of beating this drum because it doesn’t seem to make a difference anyways, but there’s also a false dichotomy between ‘real-life names’ and ‘virtual identity’. I’ve posted about this before, and I suppose I’ll post about it again.

This week, it’s Valiant Westland who picks up the “we need to be real” mantle, claiming on 3DTLC.Net, in relation to a story on corporate policies related to avatar gender:

“Much of the experiential “data” (opinion) on gender switching in virtual world business settings, such as that collected by IBM, was collected during the bleeding-edge phase of virtual world adoption, when everyone involved was acutely aware of the socially avaunt garde nature of the virtual community. These days are over. Mainstream businesses utilizing virtual world tools will NOT tolerate behaviors that are going to distract or potentially offend their clients or partners.”

Um. OK. The frontier days are over, I guess he’s saying, and the lessons that the early adopters learned are worth – well, they’re worth nothing. Clean up your act, kids, switch to an avatar that looks like you, buy one of those vanity names so that you don’t have to hide behind avatar identity because mainstream business is coming and they have ZERO tolerance!

There’s a false dichotomy: the “avaunt” (sic) garde is fluid, organic, understands identity play, is immersive and virtual. The “real” world of business is hierarchical, stuffy, and will only adopt virtual worlds if all the, well, fun is taken out of it.

But beyond being a false dichotomy, this is part of a broader and often subtle trend to ‘normalize’ virtual worlds so that they conform to our received cultural standards and understanding of how business works, how we short hand identity, how we perceive other people. And this normalization is about one thing: control.

But I continue to propose that virtual worlds will not succeed because they make meetings cheaper or save the ozone layer or are even maybe a little more fun than your normal WebEx PowerPoint presentation: they will succeed because they are part of a broader trend in which the old models of corporate control and hierarchy are giving way to new organic organizational models: what I sometimes call the ‘feminization of the corporation’.

So when I hear people arguing that we need real names, in order to establish real trust, and we need to bring in the corporate dress codes and norms from the ‘real’ world – what I hear is: “this stuff, if we let it, can get out of control, it upsets our corporate models, and maybe if we make it seem more like what we’re used to we’ll be able to keep a grip on what we sense might be something a little threatening to our way of doing work”.

Sorry. Too late. And it’s not just virtual worlds that threaten your hegemony.

The Tribal vs. the Territorial
In a previous post I looked at the morality of ‘alts’ (secondary avatar identities) and proposed that in some ways they are perhaps a response to the growth of tribal morality as a trend facilitated by technology:

I’d also propose that this will open new pathways in discussions of morality, with virtual worlds as test beds for ethical theories. The response to whether alts are good or bad implies an ethical framework. If we presume that assuming an alt is a moral failing because it challenges the underpinnings of community, then it may imply that virtual worlds open the gate to an age in which morality is judged as pre-rational and tribal, rather than modern and territorial.

Whether this is for better or worse, it implies a return to “guild hall” days. It would imply that we would increasingly see small walled off communities within virtual worlds with deeply enmeshed codes of moral conduct in which the good of the collective is enforced at the expense of individual freedom. In MMORPGs, this collective conscience has been shown to be far more powerful than individual freedoms, and social norms are strictly enforced.

And maybe the tension between territorial (or perhaps a better word is individualistic) morality and tribal morality is the place that we will increasingly need to frame our decisions about how to react to technology, change, and shifts in where power and value is accrued.

Wikipedia gives a nice definition of the difference:

“Celia Green has made a distinction between tribal and territorial morality. She characterizes the latter as predominantly negative and proscriptive: it defines a person’s territory, including his or her property and dependants, which is not to be damaged or interfered with. Apart from these proscriptions, territorial morality is permissive, allowing the individual whatever behavior does not interfere with the territory of another. By contrast, tribal morality is prescriptive, imposing the norms of the collective on the individual. These norms will be arbitrary, culturally dependent and ‘flexible’, whereas territorial morality aims at rules which are universal and absolute, such as Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’. Green relates the development of territorial morality to the rise of the concept of private property, and the ascendancy of contract over status.”

It’s a false dichotomy to say we must choose one or the other. What matters is articulating that there ARE choices, and that those choices will put us somewhere on the spectrum between establishing our place in the world as individuals with property and boundaries and digital portfolios of our own…or establishing our membership in tribes, where we adopt the cultural norms and expectations of others in order to belong within a collective where the values and good of the group might trump that of the individual.

Virtual worlds, in this light, become an important site for exploring the issues of tribal versus territorial morality. Studies of MMOs have shown that new users are pushed into assuming the cultural norms of the collective, pressuring them to adopt the “habits of the realm”, with the idea of guilds being the most visible manifestation of the concept of tribes. In Second Life, I believe that the avatar and the concept of ‘ownership’ are important governance principles that allow an exploration of how territorial morality can intersect in a looser and less-structured way with the idea of tribes….and yet there are still tribes, whether the tribe of coders or the steampunks of Caledon.

On the broader Web, we are often confronted with transactional choices about territory and property: we are asked to give up information about who we are and what we’re interested in, and in exchange our Web-based experiences are more personal, more connected to things we value. These transactional choices are often obscured or invisible – something which I find a frightening loss of our individual power to choose. We give up data on ourselves and that ownership is passed on to a corporation in the vague hope that their motivations will somehow be narrow enough to shield us from an abuse of our personal data.

These tensions require that we ask questions and form our own framework from which to make decisions about how to engage with technology, with tribes, with informational transactions.

Yesterday, a movie rating was about as tough as it got when it came to framing decisions about how our kids interact with culture. Now, with culture on-line, the decisions are far more subtle and, perhaps, more profound, because technology asks us to make a series of choices in which over time we subscribe or opt-out, protect or relent, reveal or hide – and the payoffs are not always clear, and the tribes we join don’t always post their rules at the door.

In excerpts from an interview by Tish Shute a few years back, Eben Moglen of IBM commented:

“I see again and again the ways in which people now find themselves unable to make certain life choices easily because there digital self has acquired an inflexibility that constrains their non-digital self.

We don’t want that to happen to people. We understood when the Soviet Empire decayed that all over it were places where people felt trapped in webs of surveillance and betrayal and interaction that had a kind of sinister feeling even if there is no Gulag and there is no shooting…But we are aware that these webs of knowledge about us are beginning to control us because our digital persona is subject to leverage and to being interfered with in ways that matter.

(On-line environments) have got to tell you what the rules are of the space… it has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up my avatar to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I have got an avatar that doesn’t go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.”

I may not entirely agree with the policies at ThinkBalm about ‘real identity’ but I respect the rules and deeply appreciate that they post them at the door.

It’s not a choice between games or no games: we need to decide for ourselves, or on behalf of our kids, whether an on-line space is asking us to give up information that we prefer to reserve, to understand the rules and cultural norms even if they aren’t clearly posted, to come to some kind of insight into what sort of tribes we’re joining and what we might be giving up or gaining if we belong.

Maybe in the end what I’d like for my nephew is what Eben Moglen described, and yet I despair that those places are increasingly rare: a clean and well lit space, even when he wanders far from home.


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