Art and Exploration, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression

The Avatar Afterlife

The Long Now Foundation posts speculation that our avatars will soon be programmed with our online preferences, leading to an afterlife for our digital personas:

The software used to track the online behavior of users, within in particular system (virtual worlds or social networks) could be modified to track the entirety of their online behavior, over a longer space of time – say thirty years. At the end of this period the data could be used to program an avatar. This avatar would inhabit a virtual world or worlds and be programmed with all the users personal data, preferences and potential responses– would this lead to an avatar afterlife?

This takes the idea of our digital personas in a slightly different direction from an uploaded consciousness, something that Philip Rosedale famously predicted in comments to Wagner Au in his book The Making of Second Life when he saw a day in which he’d be uploaded into the code and live forever (and which picks up on Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity notion, which is either a freak cult of Silicon Valley types, the future, or an idea that’s long since outlived its usefulness (I vote the latter)).

“Creating a copy of online behavior and programming an avatar to respond to stimuli in the way the user has been during their digital life is not suggesting consciousness, merely sophisticated replication. This scenario has some intriguing consequences. Amongst them are the possibilities an individual could leave money to their avatar rather than their children in order to support their avatar afterlife, or that future generations would have access to a representation of their ancestors – but would having access to the temporal wisdom of our forebears be of any use? A digital representation of life could continue unhindered in a virtual environment, after real-life has ended.”

This idea, that our avatars will become embodiments of ourselves beyond their current state as interfaces and control mechanisms for virtual worlds leads to my concerns over privacy, identity, trust, and a stronger definition of the “states” in which an avatar can exist.

I’ve previously written about death in virtual worlds, and the insight this gives us into the concept of avatars as more than an online persona but both extensions and separate entities from ourselves, in a sort of strange mirror house in which we might eventually ask the question: where do I begin and end, and when does my avatar’s existence start as an independent entity:

My belief is that issues of identity will be one of the profound social issues of our time. I say that in the broadest possible terms but these issues of identity will partly arise because issues of avatar identity may drive new discussions about national identity, reputation, social systems, and personal narratives.

Many of us equate the avatar with a user, a one-to-one relationship. But what happens when one avatar is run by more than one person? What happens when one person has more than one avatar? Does an avatar’s death merit grieving when we can’t be sure of a one-to-one relationship?

Death, when we see it in a simple one-to-one situation in a virtual world opens up the strange sensation that there are circles within circles of meaning. Not only do we grieve a real person who has died. We can also grieve the avatar as a separate individual. The two circles may overlap, or they may not, and we may increasingly start to feel that it may not make much of a difference - what matters is how well we know the person who is gone.

When someone dies, virtual worlds remind us that the person who is gone was many things to many people. To some he was a son. To some a lover. To some a friend. Avatars remind us of the multiplicities of our identities - and the death of the person behind an avatar reminds us that all these roles are just that - roles, for behind our masks, illusions, and ways of relating to the world we are fully human, and with hope we are whole.

One of the powers of virtual worlds is that it gives us a new toolkit of creative expression. Through this toolkit we might find new strength, community, and archetypes. The fluidity of identity, the shuttling of meaning back-and-forth between our real and virtual selves, and the ways we learn and communicate all create a fertile ground for new discoveries.


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