About two months ago, some of you might have caught a discussion panel sporting Robin Harper — aka Robin Linden — and Jack Balkin — professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School. It was hosted by the USC Institute for Network Culture and Global Kids as part of the MacArthur Series on Philanthropy and Virtual Worlds and was somewhat curiously called « Philanthropy and Virtual Worlds: Do Avatars Dream of Civil Rights Considering Civil Liberties ».
Of course, the event was not actually held with that fancy strike-though title ; it went live under the simple heading « Considering Civil Liberties ». But it was originally announced as « Do Avatar Dream of Civil Rights » (see here and here ; and take note of the above mentioned Global Kids URL while you’re at it). One week before the event proper, the title suddenly changed.
I have been trying to put this curious title morph out of my mind for a while (in fact, I had latched on the whole issue originally for the panel’s content, and was hoping to get my teeth into that. Nothing more be said than that it was rather anti-climactic, though it did cure me of my dread of Robin Linden). But somehow, I can’t. It irks me.
Granted, it is entirely possible someone just noticed that another paraphrase of Philip K. Dick’s best known novel title sorely lacks in originality, and decided to change the title because of that (not that the new one shone in that regard). Still, I find it a rather surprising thing to do on such short notice, and I’m left wondering… What if, instead, someone realised that they had leant so far out of the window, trying to be funny and clever, that gravity was taking over ? Pondering how soft that concrete sidewalk will be on landing can do wonders for a change of mind.
For a sidewalk there is : one week before the sudden change in title, Tateru Nino posted A person chooses, a tool obeys on Massively. And sparked a discussion which took me by surprise. I would not have expected that alluding to the avatar as an entity in its own right would be such a contentious matter. Neither did the panel organisers, it seems.
The gist of Tateru’s argument, in case you haven’t read her post, is that an avatar is nothing but a tool, a « device without intention » no law can directly apply to, and that the tool’s user is the only actor in the play. It was followed by a heated debate on the comments, and has not ended there. In fact, I have found the whole issue to be as recurrent as it is contentious — with people flatly and vocally denying the avatar might ever be a legal entity in its own right again and again, both in private conversation and in public discussion. The Wunder Waffe in this discussion seems to be the need for trust and accountability when dealing with « real money ».
Now there’s a lot of holes you can poke in these arguments, starting from the question what makes money « real » (it seems that « a lot » is the keystone of reality, when it comes to money) and ending with asking if the tool simile isn’t a tad too conveniently simplistic when we speak of human activity — never mind the interesting, if still hypothetical, question of what to do with bots once their AI is sufficient for them to blend into the general population (you might want to refer to the above mentioned seminal work by Mr Dick before judging too hastily).
Still, the issue fundamentally puzzles me. It’s like the aug / imm thing I haplessly blundered into earlier : I’m not sure I really get it, and I’m not convinced I believe what I get.
I haven’t got much to say about Tateru’s argument, dependency and its implications. Taken at face value — metaverse avatars do not exist independently of their meatverse operators — it obviously holds true. But then, the same might be said of about anything else on this planet. Everything depends on something else at some level. As to reality, I’m not even going to touch that with a ten foot pole (feel free to joke about this) — I’d be so far out of my depth I’d never hit the ground again. And anyway, discussing reality somehow inexorably seems to degenerate into a purely intellectual exercise, provided you go meta enough. Which I’ve always considered futile, because at the end of the day, whatever your professed stance on reality, like Hume’s sceptics, you’ll still leave through the door. Or, as Philip K. Dick put it, « as soon as you begin to ask what is ultimately real, you right away begin to talk nonsense ». Real enough for me will have to do until further notice, at least as long as I still manage to communicate about it.
But that doesn’t bother me. Those questions miss the point altogether, if you ask me. Because the real (ahem) question about the avatar as an entity is not that of reality, or dependencies, but of identity.
Or rather, identities.
Please keep in mind I am no social scientist or psychologist, and that I most certainly am no philosopher. I’m just making this up as I go. I’m happy to be taught better. ‘ere we go :
As far as I can tell, identity is very much a fluid thing. Yes, yours and mine both. I still have to meet a person who does not change, be it ever so slightly, in different contexts.
Think about it : identity (how we perceive ourselves, how we behave, and how we are perceived by others) reflects the situation we are in (i.e. at work, in bed, in public, in front of a class, etc.), your relationship to the persons involved (i.e. your spouse, your lover, your parents, your kids, your sisters / buddies) and the history of these situations and relationships. These are the contexts of our identity, and it is pretty obvious that who we are shifts and changes according to context. But in the meatverse at least, the contexts are usually meshed together so tightly, often largely overlapping, that the range of the shifts and changes is pretty small.
This makes it easy for us to lump all of these identities together, defining them as facets of one larger identity. Basically, what we end doing is saying « it’s all me ». Well, mostly, that is. Some people dissociate their identities far more sharply, be it for organic (schizophrenia) or for professional reasons (actors) ; in both cases, common wisdom is to dismiss this, either as a fluke due to a medical condition (which side-steps the issue instead of addressing it, but never mind) or as a somehow lesser phenomenon — « it’s just acting » (tough that sentence is one only people who haven’t spend some time around professional actors — plural — will utter in good faith).
The limits and cohesiveness of these contexts are a recurring topic of literature, though it often disguises itself as a discussion of civilisation (random examples, bridging two centuries : Stevenson‘s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Golding‘s Lord of the Flies). Well, literature, right ? But what about those good German husbands and fathers, ordinary men without political affiliations, who, when called to arms in the 101st reserve police battalion started ruthlessly murdering thousands of Jews in the hinterlands of Nazi occupied Poland ?
Bereft of its usual contexts, identity can change fast and drastically indeed.
Which is where the virtual comes into the picture. The peculiarities of Second Life You-Know-Where as a social space have been noted and commented upon more than once. If you feel left out on the topic, I’d recommend reading Kit Meredith’s and Zippora Zabelin’s blogs (passim if you ask me, but Kit’s A Sense of Place and My Rezbian Theory as well as Zippora’s Me, myself and I will do in a pinch ; or the resume of John Urpeth’s study for Proximity London, if you prefer a more scientific approach).
Quoting Kevin Kelly, courtesy of Dusan Writer : « In Second Life You-Know-Where, 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. » But Second Life You-Know-Where goes beyond the chat room. Visual feedback, the vibrant texture of a living society, and the almost universal array of things possible in its space put it in a class of its own. It makes it a new context far richer and complex than any we are confronted with in the meatverse. And it invites us to unlink the identity we project into that context by its very mechanisms.
You might not really notice before you have been around some time. Building its own social network, creating its own history unhindered by its operator’s contexts, your AV will develop its own identity. Yes, it’s linked to the others, of course — but especially if you prefer not to bridge the gap to the meatverse, it might be much less subtly different from what you think as facets of your identity than you’d expect. And you might find yourself hosting two identities, without noticing at first — until you fall in love.
Falling in love in SL is the ultimate watershed. Seeing how much we insist on considering our identity one, it is utterly amazing how many people manage to have a relationship in SL Y-K-W (and yes, the feelings are genuine, I know what I’m talking of) without actually considering it conflicting with their meatverse ones. Extending Kit’s theory, you could talk of poly-rez-amoury. But it would be missing the point again.
What we do when faced with SL Y-K-W love is choose : choose between trying to absorb our metaverse identity into our meatverse one — or accommodating two identities in our mind, separate but communicating, each aware of the other. It’s a frightening choice to those among us who realise what is going on, however diffusely. It certainly is to those who immerse themselves reluctantly (and it accounts for much of the clamouring for RL names or even RL identity disclosure from that quarter, I’d say). No wonder there are so many vociferously denying that avatars are, or can be, entities in their own right. The legal and business aspects brought up in these debates could be solved. The matter at hand is on what terms. Clinging to familiar concepts and solutions will not help.
But it is also a knotty issue for those who have translated their awareness of the boundary between the spaces into their metaverse persona, as I have come to realise lately. Because what we face is not easier to accept if we’ve previously considered ourselves one, or have opted for two, separate. Accepting we have become two, united is a huge leap of faith. But once we do, it’s actually a surprisingly uncomplicated cohabitation, as I have found out — the only problem being sorting out the areas where the two indentities overlap. It’s a bit like a sharing a flat with somebody you rather like. You might squabble about who has to carry out the trash occasionally, but that’s all there is as conflict.
I’m keenly aware I’ll be considered barking mad by many after reading this. Maybe I’d be better off indeed in a nice room padded with comfy rubber, spoon fed by muscular orderlies, restrained by a straitjacket (actually, I’d probably quite enjoy that, but that is neither here nor there). All I can do is ask you to take my word it only sounds mad until you try it for yourselves. Because it’s what so many residents of the metaverse have done already, when faced with the problem, thought they only rarely have blogged about it as straightforwardly as Zippora did. If it is madness, it’s a collective one.
Be it as it may, it’s a step I have made. And I suspect that shedding our current notions of identity might be the next step in our evolution. You are welcome to join me — all of me.