Other > Self

I awoke this morning from a dream of sacrifice. Not the ritualistic kind that offers up some gift to propitiate a deity, but the kind of sacrifice meant by people doing things for other people, without thought for themselves. Awake, but still in the free-associative dreamstate, looking for a meaning to bring away from the revelation before it faded, thoughts — mine and others’ — about Second Life floated up, offering themselves to be seen in different ways.

“Why Second Life?” you might ask, and I’ll reply: For reasons which are nobody’s business but mine, Second Life is my life. All but two of the people who mean anything to me are there, and only there. Even if I have another way to reach them — by email, Twitter, Skype, etc. — they are forever and unalterably associated with where I met them and how I came to know them as persons.

But this isn’t about me; this is about them, and thousands like them… like you.

A couple of weeks ago, Lauren Jones’ posted “It’s Only Meat” in her blog called When It Changed, wherein she took some different looks at a scene from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, one of the seminal fictional works that has driven thought about virtuality. In her musings, she says:

If we assume for a second that the flesh and blood body is merely an avatar for our consciousness, just like our pixel avatars are, then we’re getting into deep water. People often say “it’s only pixels” when referring to someone’s avatar in say Second Life, the implication being that it is of no importance. But if the vehicle of our consciousness is of no importance then surely the same must apply to our meat avatars?

Turn that around: If our consciousness — our self — is the important consideration, the nature of its vehicle holds equal validity, whether it be pixels or “meat”.

Lauren concludes this way, which I take to mean that she agrees:

Finally, this also raises the question of the way people treat other people in cyberspaces like Second Life. “It’s only pixels” is used as the justification for acting badly, for saying terrible things. We would never do such things when face to face with a person and yet we do them when faced with that person’s avatar. Does that not also indicate a disconnection between ourselves and the essence of who we are dealing with?

The fault, says Lauren, is not in our avatars, but in ourselves, when we fail (or deliberately refuse) to be mindful that other avatars are also selves.

My post “More on Roleplay” was derived in part from Botgirl Questi’s theme at the time of how the art of ventriloquism might relate to the interface between a person and that person’s avatar. I said then,

[I]t has to do with the audience’s willing — often, eager — suspension of disbelief and the embracing of […] identity. This speaks to our perception of other avatars more than it does to our perception of our own…

So what about other avatars? Are they “just pixels”, non-player characters[1] you can forget about once you ctrl+Q out of “the game”? It seems that way sometimes… (make sure to read the comments). But, no: We are “other avatars”, every one of us, from the most experienced oldbie to the person who just now rezzed in-world for the first time while you were reading this. We are no more “just pixels” than we are “just meat”. We are conscious beings, with hopes and despairs, thoughts and denials, talents and shortcomings, who manifest simultaneously in the biological and virtual worlds. We are the rabbit and the duck.

Two months ago, Botgirl asked “Are virtual friends as real as physical friends?”. Today (17 November), I think she has an answer, and it is “Yes.”

From almost the start of my virtual existence, it seemed to me that the primary benefit of a second life for humans is its potential to lift up one’s first life.

Implicit, of course, in her latest entry is this: We lift up our own lives by lifting others.

Yesterday, in what has now become an incurable habit of lurking at the SLUniverse forum, I found this thread, which points to this one at the official Second Life Forum. Desmond Shang and the folks in Caledon have some plan — it’s not clear to me precisely what — to reward someone particularly good at “paying it forward”. It’s a laudable cause, couched as it is in the sentiment we unfortunately seldom see except at the approach of The Holidays, made still more laudable in the following posts in both threads. Many, many, many people live their Second Lives in the spirit of helping those “other avatars” — Us — as they themselves were helped when new.

Caledon, I have heard (not been there yet, but will correct that soon), is a steampunk sort of place; hence, once assumes, with a Victorian grounding — so thoughts of Dickens immediately arise. Desmond himself invoked Scrooge in one of his SLU posts, abeit jokingly about himself… but I have always held that these words[2] of the ghost of Jacob Marley sum the entirety of that lesson:

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

Make that “avatar-kind” as well, friend Jacob, and you will have entered the 21st Century with no less power and relevance than you had in the 19th.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
[1] Credit and warm thanks to intellectual fellow-traveler and balloonist par excellence Katelyn Manamiko for telling me, the non-gamer, what “NPC” means after pointing out its applicability.

[2] The full text of “A Christmas Carol” can be found here at The Literature Network.

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13 responses to “Other > Self

  1. Hi Lalo :)

    “Lauren concludes this way, which I take to mean that she agrees:”

    Absolutely, yes! Our avatar holds equal validity, whether constructed of meat or data because “we” are inside it. I suppose in a sense, it's like saying I'm the same person whether I'm driving a car or riding a bike (although the shape of that avatar will have a shaping effect on us in return I believe; see my blog on jugs and water (http://whenitchanged.blogspot.com/2009/07/first-life-second-life-life.html) for my thoughts on that.

    “The fault, says Lauren, is not in our avatars, but in ourselves, when we fail (or deliberately refuse) to be mindful that other avatars are also selves.”

    I wouldn't say we fail as such (unless we deliberately make a choice). It's more like we drift and lose the connection. In my blog which you kindly linked, it's like when Molly says “It's only meat” about the knife fighters. She can't see the actual flesh and blood people, only the avatars projected over the stadium. Therefore from her perspective the avatars become distanced from the essence of the actual people fighting with knives. They have become non-player characters in her world view, much like you suggest. So she can cheer on as someone's avatar is killed, divorced from the reality that down on the stadium floor an actual human being has just been killed for her entertainment.

    Of course one could argue that killing an avatar made of data does not damage the essence of the person in the same way that killing an avatar made of meat. Yet. But then the things we do to a data avatar can have genuine psychological effects on the person inside. But I should add that I'm something of an immersionist rather than an augmentist when it comes to avatars. An augmentist would have somewhat different views to myself I think :) (An augmentist sees an avatar as a playing piece. An immersionist sees an avatar as “me”. Two perspectives that are worlds apart and perhaps something worthy of further study).

  2. Thank you, Lauren :)

    By “fail”, of course, I mean those who never get the connection in the first place, to then lose it.

    New that I am to this (2nd rezday in a couple of weeks, blogging only since September), I haven't yet delved into the augmentist/immersionist dichotomy… so, thank you for the introduction. I see that I am a forthright immersionist.

  3. Wheee! My name in lights! :-)

    Now, being serious…

    I am not completely comfortable with giving “meat” avatars and “pixel” avatars equal validity. Our consciousness can be divorced from our pixel selves, but the same cannot be said for our “meat” selves. Perhaps someday it truly will be possible to live in a virtual world, and exist solely inside a computer network, but that day is not yet here.

    I certainly lean towards the immersionist frame of mind, but for me the technology is not sufficiently advanced for me to accept my avatar as 100% “me”. Plus, my single meat avatar can control multiple pixel avatars if I want to. Maybe this is old-fashioned in a truly digital existance, but it is unsettling to me how easy it is to make alts. There's something about being able to completely change who the digital “you” is at a moment's notice that makes me uncomfortable with giving meat and pixel avatars a 1:1 validity.

    Second Life is the beginning of something truly amazing. The virtual grid that eventually comes out on top of this may not be from Linden Lab or look anything like Second Life, but SL opened the floodgates, and for that I think we'll always remember it fondly.

  4. Point taken about alts, Katie — especially when you have more than one avatar online at the same time. But let me ask you (and anyone else who might be looking on): Don't you still identify most with your “main”? That is, “This is me, and those are my alts.”

    And… our consciousness' perception (if not its location) separates from its meat avatar most every night, a.k.a. dreaming.

  5. Now that you mention it, I really only think about my main account in a immersionist way – the others I see more as tools, or from an augmentist perspective.

    My main bone of contention about multiple accounts is that the distinction between someone's main and alts is not readily apparent to other people.

    I agree that in some sense we exist outside of our meat avs when we dream, but if you were to destroy our meat av our consciousness would cease to exist (some religious people might disagree but in the absence of scientific evidence I'm not going there :-). The same is not true for our digital selves, and until it is, I do not think the two are equivalent.

    That is, until someone's body can be destroyed but their essence lives on in a digital means, the two are not equivalent.

  6. Great post!

    As you describe, there is a need that transcends virtual and physical interactions to appreciate that there is a sentient being communicating through the transient form we see before us. (People ironically tend to objectify the living while at the same time investing objects with a sense of beingness.)

    On the question of the validity of physical vs. digtial identity, I think it's important to carefully define what we mean my terms such as “real”. My history (Botgirl speaking) is totally fictional. But the unique nature of my experession of personality and thought is quite distinct from that of my human counterpart. And it's been interesting to find that it's possible to not only survive, but actually thrive as a distinct virtual identity outside the mask of pseudonymity.

  7. @Katie

    “I am not completely comfortable with giving “meat” avatars and “pixel” avatars equal validity.”

    I think that one of the issues that you're highlighting here is from an ongoing debate that I believe Mark Stephen Meadows (a.k.a Pighed) best outlined when he said 'What keeps me awake at night is the question of who “I” am when I drive an avatar. The core problem an avatar presents is, what is self?' I'm sure you've read his marvellous book “I, Avatar” but if you haven't yet then I cannot recommend it enough :)

    The issue I believe depends a lot on personal beliefs about how the universe works and just what *we* are. Personally I can find it relatively easy to accept the idea that we are a consciousness that inhabits avatars. At the moment we naturally inhabit meat avatars (but then where are we before and after those meat avatars exist?) and only inhabit data avatars via those meat avatars. But I believe we're seeing a stage in evolution that will one day allow our consciousness to be transferred into other avatars. Of course history and folklore are filled with stories of those who could transfer their minds (spirits?) into the bodies of animals, objects and other people. Perhaps technology will one day allow such things to be as natural as breathing. You could also throw the idea of remote viewing and out of body experiences into this mix I think? Of course I'm very much aware that these arguments get very close to subjects such as metaphysics and religious beliefs and everyone has different views on such things..

    But as for whether we can assign equal validity between meat and data avatars. It all depends on how we define avatars. Personally I consider an avatar an extension of our consciousness, an extension that allows us to function within an environment. So I could argue “one me, multiple avatars” to a degree. But a tool is only an avatar if we project ourselves into that tool (and so we come to immersionist vs augmentist debates again). That's why although I have two SL accounts, Senban Babii is my only actual avatar. The other thing might as well be a spanner or a pencil in that nothing of myself is projected into it and it is only used as a functional tool on rare occasions.

  8. Granted, we're each going to have our own personal degree of immersion with our avatar(s). What about the others we meet? What assumptions — if any — do we make about their degree of immersion?

    Or does that matter? I contend that it doesn't. People are people, whether we meet them in cyberspace or meatspace. We respond to them 'in the moment' as they present themselves, without consciously questioning how accurately that represents the inner person; i.e., by unconsciously assuming that it does.

    … which thought causes me to wonder if the people with that “it's only pixels” attitude also treat their fellow humans like that when away from the keyboard?

  9. Lalo: I totally agree with respond to them 'in the moment' as they present themselves”.

    That said, some people we meet do not have the best intentions and may be consciously manipulating their communication (including their digital form) to achieve some undisclosed aim.

    So if in the moment I'm feeling suspicious, manipulated, etc., then that is also part of the dance of life before me.

  10. @Lalo

    “What assumptions — if any — do we make about their degree of immersion?”

    It's usually easy to tell with just a few minutes of communication whether an avatar represents an immersionist or an augmentist. Augmentists frequently mod their avatars in my experience. Immersionists are less inclined to do so (I still use the same shape I bought on day three and have only upgraded my skin three times and then only for improved quality rather than fundamental changes, I wear the exact same green eyes and my hair is always red). Take my recent blog “The Belonging Kind”. For the pictures, I needed to make some changes so I could represent the changes being made in the story. Even changing my hair colour from it's natural red was like pulling teeth! A friend of mine was helping me out and she said that it just didn't feel like me any more. With some avatars, it doesn't matter what colour hair they are wearing because they are in effect empty shells regardless. Who cares what colour a spanner is? But when an immersionist alters their avatar, you can feel that something is different I believe :)

    @Botgirl

    “That said, some people we meet do not have the best intentions and may be consciously manipulating their communication (including their digital form) to achieve some undisclosed aim.”

    Absolutely. And that's a form of body language if you think about it. We can often get the gut feeling of whether someone is attempting to manipulate us from observing their body language, their positioning in relation to us and so on. As you say, it's all part of the dance :)

  11. @Lauren: Augmentists frequently mod their avatars in my experience. Immersionists are less inclined to do so

    That's an interesting viewpoint, but one I can't agree with. We furries are somewhat notorious for “shapeshifting”: collecting avatars and wearing different ones more or less at whim. Not every one does, of course; I see some regularly, at Luskwood and elsewhere, who not only never change av's, they're also always dressed the same way. But many do — I know people who literally own hundreds of avatars, who may never look the same way two days running. I have a total of 6, of which there are four that I favor, and might be seen in any one of those on a given day — and I'll usually stick to that one for a while.

    I confess, it took me a long time to entertain the notion of shapeshifting. It was befriending others, and observing that they felt like the same person no matter how they looked, that enabled me to get past mere visual self-identification. Come to think of it, that may have been the point where I began to think about the deeper layers of what being an avatar means.

    Do I know where my shapeshifting fellows would place themselves on the augmentist-immersionist spectrum, if they were even aware of the concepts? No, and again I maintain it doesn't matter. However they appear, they are who they are, and that is ascertained by how they behave, and what they say.

  12. I do know what you're saying when it comes to people having many dozens of “avatars” but I'd disagree with your use of the term “avatar” in that way. What you're talking about (in my words) is one avatar with lots of costumes.

    I mean don't misunderstand, my avatar has several such “costumes” that can be worn but it's no different to me putting on a fancy dress costume for some event. It's still me under the costume.

    But the idea of shapeshifting to me is like lycanthropy. Let's say you start as a cat but tomorrow you change to be a dog. I'd call that a bimorphic avatar. One avatar with two possible forms. There's nothing wrong with having a polymorphic avatar and yes, I'd agree that an immersionist could happily inhabit such an avatar. I think we're just disagreeing over the use of the term avatar. You see multiple avatars where I see one avatar with a wardrobe of fancy dress costumes or in some rare cases a polymorphic avatar.

  13. Lauren: Yes, I see. I fell into the common furry habit of referring to the form as the avatar — which is how they're marketed, too. What you're talking about — and rightly so — is one's presence in virtuality, regardless of form. Thus, I am a polymorphic immersionist (which begins to sound a little like a religious affiliation :P )

    [Aside: It was not until I created an alt (who is not furry) and examined the default Inventory before I realized that what furries refer to as their avatar is an “outfit”, in more common SL parlance: shape, skin, hair, and attachments (head, tail, paws…), with or without particular items of clothing.]

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