Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life

My Avatar is Not Me, or, Why Virtual Worlds Will Not Become Appliances

Maybe the Grid has been more stable lately, or less stable, or maybe there’s one of those collective deep breaths as the community waits for, well, whatever it waits for – the next CSI build? The next Burning Man? The first pronouncement from Governor M. Or Agent M. Or Organic M.

Smoke puffed from the upper windows of the Lab, black and filled with morning, and then the white smoke told us that He Had Been Anointed and now we’re all waiting for his appearance on the balcony.

And in the idle time we wonder whether M will play Medvedev to Rosedale’s Putin (OK, sorry, mixing up metaphors), or we start to wonder whether we should change our prim hair, it might be time again, or maybe we start wondering about all those 2D games we keep hearing about, or the happy hamsters over on OpenSim getting their own little grids up and running, and in the meantime some boorish newb has insulted our sense of propriety and we’ve got this feeling that the social norms have been upset and it’s time to reinforce the TOS.

So we end up with competing threads. On the one hand, virtual worlds like Second Life will fade away:

Second Life and it’s walled/closed ilk will fade into the sunset in the next 24-36 months….Look at the rapid progress towards standards with OpenSim and Sun’s Wonderland, and you can tell that walled garden virtual social worlds, even with all the great diversity of experience and creation, are one evolutionary step behind.

And on the other, the long-time residents of Second Life worry that social norms have been eroded and look to the Terms of Service (TOS) to help re-establish a sense of trust:

Tacit laws are difficult to understand, to share with newcomers and to spread across a large population. Tacit laws are also more prone to unfair balances in power and influence, which serve as particularly bad influences on new and emerging markets as those afforded by virtual worlds.

Now I don’t know about you, but I feel stuck. Outright written rules fail us, and tacit governance is nearly impossible if not unbalanced at scale. Where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us at the root, the elephant in the room, with that which is so ill defined that while we write laws around it, socially we embrace a tacit governance that allow us to rationalize our circumvention of legality in a case by case way.

That root, is trust.

Fragile Faith

Rheta Shan hits all the high notes in arguing that Second Life’s defining feature is its sense of immersion, because the disconnection from avatar and identity is no more than what’s possible on a mySpace profile:

Because 3D avatars make sense even if they are no more disconnected from RL identities than Facebook profiles are — the immersive sense of a place to be in, the intuitive simplicity of walking up to a person to strike up a conversation, the option to do things together nicely balance the disorientation and bewilderment its sheer size and lack of structure beget — and there are other advantages as well. As technical deficiencies become less, we can be sure to see this kind of social metaverse attract a larger audience, an audience to which the idea of disconnecting identities might be utterly outlandish.

Maybe we’re losing faith and it takes our seers and those with experience to remind us of the virtues and features that define the ‘platform’ in the face of all those other platforms, all those phone-based worlds, and gaming macro-sites, and Metaplace mini worlds.

The “brands” have lost faith – they’ve moved on to 2D worlds and places like Kaneva maybe, little phone games or banner ads in Grand Theft Auto. The learning curve is too steep, and they’re looking for the sweet spot between reach and time – some perfect combination of accessibility without losing the deep immersion, or at least big swatches of your calendar, they want to keep you up all night playing with their brands (in a nice tightly controlled way, if possible) and they want to make it easy for your friends to join up too without needing a 3 hour course on how to fly or attach your hair.

The stat watchers are losing faith – the uptick in new users is stalled, concurrency is barely, just barely, ticking upwards, and the number of premium accounts has dropped.

And the residents lose faith every time the asset server forgets to send their underwear along, or transactions are frozen because, well, “we’re just too busy right now”. Philip’s promise at the last SLCC was all talk and t-shirts and no discernible follow-through – wasn’t Havok supposed to fix things? Maybe Mono will? Hmmm…your shoe is in your ass, by the way, might wanna reattach.

We Have Come of Age

In his new book Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff documents the years he spent doing rigorous anthropological field work in Second Life and has produced a stunning monograph that may well one day rank as a milestone in the study of virtual worlds.

Tom’s job, being an anthropologist and all, is to look at the mundane and extrapolate its meaning to a wider culture. He devotes an entire section to the concept of AFK – something which I hadn’t thought about, something so embedded in the way of Second Life that it’s, um, second nature. From something as simple as AFK, from the modes of communication like IMs and public chat, he’s able to circle out into wider and wider meanings, and deeper and deeper insights.

Tom’s book is nothing short of revelatory, partly for being a solid piece of research, but more for the insights he comes to, and the argument he’s made that virtual worlds can be studied on their own terms – something that residents would nod noddingly to, but which is an important marker to the rest of the egg heads behind their ivy walls (oops, sorry Tom, don’t mean you, your head is far from eggy).

Tom looks at the Terms of Service, at changes to the code, at the role of the Lindens and comes away recognizing the impact they have on the community, but this is subservient to wider contexts, other meanings, other artefacts created by the residents, no matter how traumatizing the changes to policy or the code. He draws a parallel between the governance of Second Life and the shift from sovereignty to what Foucault termed “governmentality”, meaning a shift from a governance that was self-justifying to one in which it resided “in the things it manages…the instruments of government, instead of being laws, now come to a range of multiform tactics(emphasis added).

Tom observes that “the company claimed to employ a laissez-faire mode of governance, which can be seen to reflect a “virtual governmentality” combining modern logics of governmentality, creationist capitalism, and the “Californian Ideology” that is predicated upon “an impeccably libertarian form of politics”.

These observations alone are worth the cost of the book. But it’s in his broader concept of techne that perhaps holds a hint for the future of Second Life, and other ‘walled gardens’.

Our Strange Loops

I love Tom because he helps to articulate my vaguely formed notion of Strange Loops and which was described by Douglas Hofstadter in his book I Am 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.

Tom talks about personhood in virtual worlds and observes that for many, virtual worlds seem more “real” than the actual world (a term he prefers to real life, or the real world, because it also implies actuality and speaks to the gap between virtual and actual, an important finding of his studies):

The theme of Second Life permitting access to an interior self that in the actual world is masked by an unchosen embodiment and social obligations was common… Residents often linked these transformative possibilities to the experience of avatar embodiment. Avatars were not just placeholders for selfhood, but sites of self-making in their own right.

On this front he quotes a resident who said that “despite everything, who I am still seems to come out, so perhaps I discover my essential self through my avatar” and another who commented that “my offline self is becoming more like my avatar, personality-wise. It’s like SL has grown on me and looped back”.

He then goes on to examine the issues of alts and how they can “oeprationalize the gap between actual and virtual into a resource for fractal subjectivity, into a kind of “dividual” (rather than “individual”) selfhood for which persons are “constructed as the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them”.

This fractal subjectivity deepens his insight into the idea that there is an instantiation of a discontinuous self – that there is a clear gap between where one alt ends and one begins. But that this gap is not exclusive to alts, but rather the very basis upon which virtual worlds are built.

“Such a gap,” he says “Is the product of techne, and a precondition for homo cyber, the virtual human.”

In Our Tools We Trust

I favour the idea of Second Life as a story box:

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.

Tom echoes this sentiment, empathizing with the concept as an anthropologist because, after all, anthropological writings “are fictions in the sense that they are something made, something fashioned – the original meaning of fictio – not that they are false or unfactual.” But it is in this fashioning of stories that virtual worlds are representative of techne the counterpoint to which is episteme, or history, and reminds us of W.H Auden’s musing on storytelling and the notion of a secondary nature mediating the human: “man is a history and culture making creature, who by his own efforts has been able to change himself after his biological evolution was complete. Each of us therefore has acquired what we call a second nature, created by the particular society and culture into which we happen to have been born”.

And he draws attention to the idea that there is a lot to be learned about the interplay between the actual and the virtual but that much research on virtual worlds “is predicated on a cultural assumption that if a boundary is transgressed it is thereby blurred or weakened. However, a large body of anthropological work…demonstrates that crossing a boundary can strengthen the distinctiveness of the two domains it demarcates.”

He argues that virtual worlds are not unique because of their tools, because in fact humans have always been virtual – they have always used tools to move into the future. What makes virtual worlds unique, in his mind, is that we now have a tool we created in which we have tools for creation. Virtual worlds are an extension of the continuity in which humanity crafts itself through the gift of techne. (At which point, I should probably introduce a note of caution that Tom IS afterall from California, hehe).

Yet alongside this continuity of crafting ourselves through culture, there is change. In this age, “humans can, for the first time, create new worlds for human sociality”. This does not mean that there are not other technologies that allow this, but Tom posits that “at issue is simply that virtual worlds have unique characteristics and social significance that does not hinge on a direct relationship to the actual world”.

“In virtual worlds we can be virtually human, because in them humans, through techne, open up a gap from the actual and discover new possibilities for human being.”

My Avatar is Not Me

Rheta believes that my notion of the story box is primarily a collective notion:

Where he was wrong was in thinking the storytelling experience is collective. It is not. It is individual, even where the multitude of residents interacts. They interact because a story without an audience might as well remain untold. But the essential thing about this is that it doesn’t make a community out of the multitude. It’s a cacophony, not a campfire group listening to the griot.

And that gets us into the territory of whether we’re defined or whether society partly defines us, but sure, we’re not telling a group tale, our tales are our own. But we are formed because of our culture – and culture is about place, and it’s about our stories, and our artefacts, and it’s about the banal and mundane. It’s about what AFK means and how communication is different when we can both chat in public and in IM. It’s about my new couch or my house at the beach.

My avatar is my interface to a culture, and in this case, the culture in which my avatar performs (just as I perform in the actual world within my own culture) has the unique property that it’s recursive and that its basis is techne – one in which the tool we’ve built in silicon and wire contains the tools within it.

We can fret about other worlds, and we can worry about the sustainability of the cultural norms, but what’s unique about Second Life compared to say World of Warcraft is that is allows techne within it, rather than being simply performed there. Sure, there’s a culture in Wacraft, and you can fall in love, and there’s social norms and governance, but it’s stasis. It doesn’t embed the ability to move the human journey forward.

Facebook might be a culture, or it might be an indicator of a larger cultural change. And you can put little 3D rooms on your Facebook page or walk around with a little virtual room on your cell phone, and you can decorate your room and you can socialize, and, yes, cultures can emerge – but those cultures might be very thin indeed. Because as Tom points out it’s not just social norms, it’s not just a sense of place, or how we relate to our avatars that matters, it’s that we’ve been handed a tool set and from it, we have the opportunity to extend our journey as virtual humans and through virtuality itself find the gap between it and actuality which represents our potential.

It’s not so much about immersion or augmentation which are debates that I often feel like it misses a deeper point. And I talk about tools a lot, and how I want to push the limits of those tools, whether for collaboration or just to make cooler looking prims.

And maybe Tom has given me the way to think about that, because techne is the paramater that creates that gap, that sense of possibility, because it embodies both the continuum of our virtuality, which began when we first picked up a rock, and it embodies change, that great ride forward into all the profound wonder and understanding, and all the possibilities for both hope and pain that our foundation in techne implies. The companies who use virtual worlds for collaboration will find out soon enough that you can’t just graft old cultures onto new tools, they demand new models. And so they may not become immersionists, but they do become frontierspeople within the wider domain of a culture based on recursive techne and the gap which can be widened by immersion but which is not precluded without it.

Christian can predict the end of Second Life and a whole new range of 3D applications, and all those things are probably true. But simulations or commercial 3D or collaboration environments are not culture – they’re mostly the application of more refined tools to the last generation of cultural norms. Only within virtual worlds like Second Life might we extend the notion of virtuality past sociality, identity and place and deepen our human journey, whether by walking through that space holding hands, rezzing a prim, or meeting those other avatars for a business meeting who are – well, they’re you, and yet they’re not.

We’re not escaping anything. We’re moving forward on the powerful journey of being human. But Rheta is right: we’ve just begun exploring the possibilities.

Welcome to the deepening of the world.


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