‘Virals’ And ‘Definitives’ In Second Life®: An Essay By Extropia DaSilva

extropia-dasilva-december-2008_001Something for you to read during the holiday season from Extropia DaSilva, who has probably written her best and most thought-provoking essay so far: one that even explains immortality and how we can achieve it! — Gwyn

‘I’m gonna live forever!’ — Theme Tune to ‘Fame!’.


People who make a living out of creating imaginary worlds- authors, playwrites and scriptwriters- can sometimes achieve an extraordinary thing. That thing, is the creation of a character whose longevity far outlasts that of its creator. Charles Dickens may be long dead, but the likes of Oliver Twist or Scrooge live on in countless reprints, stage productions and movie adaptations.

Of course, characters such as these are fictional and therefore not real. And yet, a popular character can sometimes feel more real than the person who invented it. Take Homer Simpson for example. I know what he looks like, and where he lives. I know the names of his wife and children, and what animals he keeps as pets (and what he calls them). I know what his interests are (drinking beer, television) and what he would rather not do (work). I know he screws his face up and yells ‘d’oh’ whenever a bad situation caused by his own stupidity arises.

But what about Mat Groenig? What could I tell you about the creator of the Simpsons? Apart from the fact that Mat Groenig created the Simpsons, nothing. To me, ‘Mat Groenig’ is nothing more than a signature found on Simpson’s merchandise.

I think that on-screen characters who stand the test of time come in two forms, which I shall call ‘Virals’ and ‘Definitives’.  A ‘definitive’ is a character that is almost exclusively associated with one particular actor or actress.  For instance, L Frank Baum’s series of books about the Wizard of Oz have spawned many stage plays, films and TV adaptations and many actresses have played ‘Dorothy’, including Stephanie Mills, Violet MacMillan and Diana Ross. But, if I were to ask a thousand people to picture Dorothy in their mind, I can be pretty sure each person would think of a young Judy Garland.

A ‘Viral’, on the other hand, is a character that has been played by many different actors/actresses, but no one performance is universally agreed to be the definitive one.  A good example would be Ian Flemming’s James Bond. While most people who enjoy Bond films probably have a personal favourite, the big difference between them is this:  If I asked a thousand people to visualise Bond, I cannot be nearly as certain with regards to what actor they are imagining. It sometimes seems to be the case that an actor becomes so closely associated with a role, that nobody else could be cast to play that part. Somehow, seeing any face other than Harrison Ford’s beneath Indiana Jones’ battered fedora would not ring true. Other characters, though, become independent of any one actor (although that obviously does not mean any person could convincingly portray the character). 

Second Life also has its share of popular characters, such as Prokofy Neva or Anshe Chung. When I say ‘popular’, I do not necessarily mean they are universally adored, I mean those are names people may well have heard of. Also, I am not suggesting that their fame is comparable to an icon like ‘Donald Duck’ or ‘Indiana Jones’. In fact, I would be surprised if anybody uninterested in SL has ever heard of even the most famous resident of all (whoever that is). But, within the SL community some residents could justifiably be called famous. Just maybe, in the future one or more residents will indeed achieve recognition comparable to the likes of ‘Spiderman’, ‘Luke Skywalker’ or ‘Jane Eyre’. But, could an SL resident ever achieve the ultimate, and actually outlive its own creator?

When I say, ‘outlive’, I mean it in literal terms. I do not mean ‘leave behind a legacy’, although of course that could happen too. Perhaps Scope Cleaver’s fantastic architectural work will make his name as long-lasting as Christopher Wren’s. But, could Scope himself actually continue working and socialising in SL, even when the person who created him had long since died?


As far as I know, Mat Groenig is alive and well. But, if he were to die, the following obituary would make very little sense:

‘Homer Simpson died today. Simpson (who was Mat Groenig in real life)…’

The error, of course, was to mistake Groenig’s role in creating that character for being that character. This kind of thing happens all the time in SL. Sometimes, sadly, the RL creator of a resident dies and when they do, it is just taken as self-evident that the person people knew in SL has been lost forever.

For many people, SL’s ancestry is most strongly linked with technologies like the telegraph, telephone, and email. In other words, anything facilitating communication between two or more people. Since you do not invent a character when speaking on the phone, you should also ‘be yourself’ (as far as that is possible) in a virtual world like SL. If a resident adhering to such a mixed-reality principle were to achieve iconic status, almost certainly they would become a ‘definitive’ in a much deeper sense than the association between, say, Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones. I am sure most people appreciate that Ford is not Indiana Jones in RL, however hard it may be to imagine any other actor playing that part. But a resident like Hamlet Au, who makes no distinction between his SL self/occupation and his RL self/occupation (his RL name is Wagner James Au btw ), is very much one person. If Harrison Ford had died and a fifth Indiana Jones movie was commissioned, just maybe some other actor could prove me wrong and play that part as well or better than Ford did. How would residents feel, though, if Wagner James Au’s death was announced, and Hamlet Au turned up at at a funeral held inworld in remembrance of Wagner James Au? I do not mean some other resident wearing a copybot clone of his avvie, I mean ‘the’ Hamlet Au — or, at least, he claims to be ‘the’ Hamlet Au. I cannot imagine anyone accepting such a claim.

Some residents see SL’s ancestry as most strongly linked with novels, theatre and movies. Those are all technologies that can create ‘digital people’. By that, I mean they are technologies that can organise patterns of information in such a way as to make you or I believe in the existence of somebody or something that does not necessarily exist in real life. Those who choose to see SL in this light call their avatars ‘digital people’ and try (as far as it is possible) to make them distinct individuals in their own right. Not that it does much to change people’s assumptions, since everybody insists there is just as much a one-to-one correlation between a digital person and one specific RL person, as there is between a person who uses their avvie for ‘mixed-reality’ purposes.

But, I have often wondered if such a resident could be played by several different people over the years in RL, and yet always be accepted as the same unique individual in SL. A digital person would have one possible advantage over a ‘viral’ movie character, which is the fact that, regardless of who logs into that particular account, the appearance of the avatar need not change. Anybody can immediately see that Daniel Craig is not Pierce Brosnan (even if both can be equally accepted as ‘James Bond’), but if ‘James Bond’ had been a resident in SL, roleplayed by Brosnan who never revealed any information about his RL identity, how could we know if ‘Bond’ was subsequently played by Craig?

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About Extropia DaSilva

Taking today’s technological proof-of-principles and theoretically expanding their potentials to imagine Sl-meets-The-Matrix is my bag, baby!

  • Extie, you’re far too clever for your own good 🙂 Now I don’t even know if I do exist, if I’m myself, or if people have been surreptitiously logging in to my account (having hacked into it) and pretending to be myself (and not even I have noticed!)

    It would certainly explain why some people claim having objects and items from me that I have never created 😉 (then again, Occam’s Razor will say that a far simpler explanation is an exploit in the permission systems 😉 )

    Nevertheless, this essay of yours was unusually thought-provoking in all aspects. We might not take your assumptions as being correct (“a personality is the highest-resolution set of patterns of behaviour of a human being, usually stored in that human being’s brain”), but, if the assumptions hold true, there can be no doubt that what follows, according to your essay, has to be pretty much correct.

    It’s scary, specially because it seems “too easy”. I’ve always assumed that a “personality” is the set of all quantum states of all neurons in a person’s past, and those would be quite impossible to record (or “play back”), of course, even assuming unlimited bandwidth and unlimited storage. But that “hard” answer doesn’t take into account two things: one, that you’re just a person because others say you are (ie. your Ubuntu-web) — and you definitely don’t need to store every quantum state of your brain (present and past!) to do that. People’s recollections are imperfect. You don’t need everything, just enough. And secondly, of course, because one thing is to record all bits of information in your brain (again, present and past); the other is just to store patterns, which, by definition, can be modelled into formulae — as opposed to, well, random data, which has no way to be “turned to an equation” and thus requires far more information to record. As every student of Information Theory knows, an ordered set requires far less information to store (or transmit) than an unordered set. The textbook example is storing the information of a wall made of exactly the same type of brick, or a wall that has fallen down and has all bricks scattered all around the place. As everyone knows, in the first case you can describe the wall with “start with a brick, then displace it X times to the left and Y times upwards”, which requires little information (“ordered state”). In the second case, you have to describe each brick’s translation and rotational parameters individually, since there is no other way to capture the information of the pile of randomly-scattered bricks.

    So, yes, “digitally storing each quantum state of your brain” is quite overkill when you can just figure out the patterns and store only those. Your essay definitely presents a convincing case for the possibility of this coming true in far less time than we might imagine.

    It’s quite interesting. Scary, too.

  • Ananda

    Well, I skimmed this because Extropia’s writing is often fascinating and enlightening, but this time I’m afraid it’s just taking the mis-assigning of agency to the created rather than the creator to an absurd extreme. I don’t doubt we’ll end up with digital personalities floating about which will endlessly confuse people in this way. I don’t think that’s a good thing. It doesn’t even take technology per se for this to happen. If you get a chance, watch “Regarding Henry” for an example of this happening with a human being in RL.

  • It’s the norm in many roleplaying virtual environments for ‘feature characters’ (well known, influential, historic figures) to be played by a succession of users.

    Actually applying for such a role requires considerable research, interviews with users whose characters have had close, frequent or important interactions with them, and oftentimes auditions.

    When all goes well – and frequently it does, there is little discernible difference between the personas, although there may be minor quirks in someone’s wrist (the way they type, phraseological quirks, and so on).

    Feature characters often outlive their original player by many years, as successions of players retire from the role and new players take up the role in their place.

  • Extropia DaSilva

    ‘(”a personality is the highest-resolution set of patterns of behaviour of a human being, usually stored in that human being’s brain”’

    Oo Gwyn that is not my assumption. In principle, ‘The primary’ could be a computer, or any machine capable of storing and processing patterns of information in the appropriate manner. In practice, it has to be a meatbrain because that is the only physical thing currently capable of providing a digital person with general intelligence and consciousness.

    Notice I said ‘A’ meatbrain not ‘THE’ meatbrain. The latter implies one specific brain, as if no other replacement (biological or technological) could possibly replace it without destroying the continuity of that digital person. The former suggests you CAN replace without affecting continuity too much, IF there are sufficient numbers of ‘i-genes’ installed in that brain.

    ‘It’s scary, specially because it seems “too easy”’.

    That would depend on who is doing the judging. I suspect it would require only a rough understanding of who you are, what interests you and blah blah for some other person to roleplay the Gwyn character convincingly in front of most residents. Most residents, after all, have never met you and have only a vague understanding of how Gwyn usually behaves (if that). So, as far as they are concerned, the person they meet *is* Gwyn, regardless of who or what is behind the Avvie. They have no means of comparison.

    Friends would be another matter entirely. There would be a shared history, richly detailed. Knowledge of that would be vital if ‘Gwyn’ is to be accepted as the same dear old Gwyn she was this time last week or last year. A few i-genes and minimal comprehension of your ubuntu web would simply not be good enough. It would require….

    Well it depends on how well a person knows you and your prior history. I think we are talking ‘difficult in the extreme’ for close friends and ‘impossible’ for you (more precisely, your primary).

    Why ‘impossible’? Because the ‘Gwyn’ pattern in THAT brain is so strong, it is probably indistinguishable from the pattern labelled ‘I’ (you have to go to some effort to maintain a sense of seperation between digital person and ‘I’). If we could create a PERFECT copy of Gwyn, Gwyn2 (it would not be called Gwyn2 because that gives it away) I would not be able to tell them apart and if I never saw them together, I would assume there was only ever one Gwyn. (Then again, I HAVE seen two or more Gwyns but I assume it is the same one. Because they tell me so.)

    However, your primary would definitely be able to tell which is the superduper copybot Gwyn and which is the avvie under her control. But, just maybe, she would gain some satisfaction knowing that, in some sense, Gwyneth Llewelyn would live on after she died.

  • So, just to be able to follow these comments, how many people have contributed to this discussion already, including the original post?

  • Arcadia Codesmith

    I think you’re overestimating the difficulty involved. To portray a character convincingly, you don’t have to be anything like that character; you just have to have the ability to inhabit the role well enough to fulfill the expectations of your audience.

    That’s not as hard as it appears, and it’s made easier by the nature of human thought and memory. There is no fixed Platonic ideal of who any of us are. We are mutable and chaotic. We forget important things and remember trivia. We drift away from friends and make new friends from strangers. Even our core values mutate and adapt over time.

    It’s true that other people observe patterns in our behavior and expect us to conform to them, but most of these patterns are superficial, obvious and can be easily counterfeited (and if they’re uncomfortable or impractical, changed over time). And we break and remold our patterns all the time, especially in the virtual world.

    Closest friends and loves would be hard to fool, yes. But why fool them? They deserve to know that there’s a new hand on the controls. If it is necessary to maintain continuity to the point of not informing friends of the transition, then it would require closer study of chat logs, and possibly a break in the relationship followed by a reestablishment on subtly (or overtly) different terms.

    The systems you describe might be a useful aid to the process, but they’re not a prerequisite.

  • Extropia DaSilva

    ‘Closest friends and loves would be hard to fool, yes. But why fool them? They deserve to know that there’s a new hand on the controls’.

    But such friends and lovers are possibly fooling themselves if they think it is the ‘new hand’ or the ‘old hand’ that they were freinds and/ or lovers with. This might indeed be the case. But it might also be the case that the person doing the puppeteering is emotionally detached and coldly calculating the puppet’s most likely response to the current situation.

    Does that mean the puppet does not really like the people it claims to like? Frankly, I cannot be bothered to ask questions like this of MY friends in SL. It would be like me attending a film and insisting loudly that nobody onscreen is moving, because films are just still images shown in rapid succession. What the mind sees, though, is so indistinguishable from movement that you might as well call it movement and be done with it.

    Similarly, what do I care what some person or machine or trained parrot locked inside a Chinese Room thinks and feels about me? All I care is that this information processor produces patterns of information that my mind perceives as a mutual friend. Gwyn is my friend and I am her friend and that remains true whether or not our primaries log off and think of ‘Gwyn’ and/or ‘Extropia’ as just images on the screen no more deserving of sentimentality than a pattern of dust on the screen.

  • Hehe Andabata 🙂 Riiiight…

    Actually, Extropia sort of led several in-world discussions over a period of a few months around this subject at the Thinkers’ weekly meeting (every Tuesday at 3:30 PM SLT at the supportforhealing sim). I don’t know how many people overall attended to the many discussions — the “core” group of Thinkers are about 20 or so people, but there are always a dozen or so “new faces” every time. This was a way she used to gather some feedback and test out the reaction to some of her theories, which are anything but controversial 😉

  • Extropia, what is the purpose of the digital person? What is the point? Is it just for the sake of creating something immortal when “we”, the RL persons can only be mortal? Or is the purpose entertainment? If so, who’s entertainment? The audience’s or the creator’s?

    Generally, the examples of characters that you mention are created for the entertainment of the audience. But that is worthwhile only with a very large audience, millions of people (if not even more) who read the books and watch the movies that are built around the characters. Is it worthwhile though for the sake of the few people interacting with the digital person in SL? For the sake of the digital person’s friends so that they don’t lose their friend? We lose and change friends all the time and we probably value our friendships the way we do JUST BECAUSE they are not eternal and BECAUSE they can be ended (tragically) at any time.

    I even think that you are kind of putting the cart before the horse. It’s not the characters that really natter but the stories. {Agreed that you are partially alluding to that yourself.) The characters are just in support of the story, even if sometimes they can make it or break it. The idea of a story may even be triggered by the idea of the character but we are rarely interested in a character itself but we only care about the story that is built around it. James Bond is meaningless without the idea of the good fighting the bad in the mysterious world of espionage. What is even the everlasting part? The character that has been now changed for the new era with a new actor like Daniel Craig? Or the story idea that was borne into other movies like “Mission Impossible”?

    And what is the point in making a character immortal, BTW? Even Harry Potter ended at some point in time. Should the character have stayed an eternal child or would people have stayed interested in the character as a middle-aged, married, wizard, father of four? The Simpsons never age, but then there is little continuity between episodes. In RL, for instance, should RL characters really be immortal? Would it have helped in any way if someone else would have taken the role of Martin Luther King after his assassination, giving the same kind of speeches and fighting for the same cause, looking maybe slightly different but carrying on the name and the persona? I think we are all better served with just maintaining his memory through what he achieved during his life rather than stretching that out with someone else playing the role.

    Yours is an interesting idea, because it is theoretically possible, at least in the future. But it still needs a lot of work and ironing out of its fundamentals. Maybe a novel about such a digital person would do for the concept what “Snow Crash” did for the metaverse.

  • Extropia DaSilva

    ‘Extropia, what is the purpose of the digital person? What is the point?’

    If you agree with the idea that not only virtual reality in the modern sense of computers but also films, theatre and books count as technologies that can create digital people, you can be sure that digital people are important.

    Why? Because you will not find a society in all history that did not tell stories and invent imaginary people. We must therefore take it as a given that creating imaginary worlds is a necessary and essential aspect of being human.

    Indeed, as Vernor Vinge noted, it is the very driving force of technological evolution. “We humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct “what if’s” in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection”.

    These ‘what ifs’ need not necessarily be concerned with a possible future. In philosophy one often encounters ‘thought experiments’ where we are asked to consider what it would mean if the parameters of the world were changed thus and so. The practicality of the experiment is not the issue, what matters is that the world is changed in some way, giving us a contrast- a “black” within a world of “white“- with which we may more clearly see something we were previously unaware of. We can reexamine our lives.

    Many of the questions regarding ‘I’ and ‘person’ and ‘reality’ that fascinate me are by no means new. Such questions have been posed by thought experiments like Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ demon, and Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine, to name but a few.

    BTW, I am not suggesting that every fictional character is to be regarded as some deep reservoir of philosophical contemplation. There is nothing wrong with using imagination just for the fun of it. But hey, even fun characters like Homer Simpson pose deep questions. I mean, Homer is not at all bright, but every word he utters was crafted by the most brilliant writers money can buy so…does that mean Homer Simpson is REALLY one of the sharpest wits ever to have lived?

    ‘And what is the point in making a character immortal, BTW? Even Harry Potter ended at some point in time’.

    What do you mean, ‘ended’? For one thing, there will always be people who are starting to read the stories for the first time. And just because J.K Rowling has moved on to other stories does not mean Harry Potter and co. no longer continue to have adventures. No doubt, fans will continue to write stories, draw comic strips, create plays and films and machinima based on Hogwarts and all that stuff.

    Sure, this creative effort can offer the authors no financial reward, because the IP does not belong to them. But, just maybe, J.K Rowling will appreciate the value of this work, just as George Lucas appreciates Star Wars machinima enough to hold annual reward ceremonies for the best ones. He is smart enough to appreciate that this activity keeps the star wars franchise alive.

    As for ‘immortality’, it is not a word I favour. Transhumanists do not seek immortal life but indefinite life. They take their inspiration from the longevity of information, which lasts for as long as it is deemed interesting enough to merit preserving.

    ‘We lose and change friends all the time and we probably value our friendships the way we do JUST BECAUSE they are not eternal and BECAUSE they can be ended (tragically) at any time.’

    Putting aside the many practical problems that transfering the patterns of a digital person from one suitable brain to another inevitably introduces, I believe there is no reason to suppose the death of any one human or machine need necessarily equate with the death of a digital person. But just because we might outlive (several?) authors certainly does not free us from the spectre of death. We persist only as long as our patterns are deemed worthy of preservation.

    I could be ended at any time. All it would take for that to happen is that my ‘story’ no longer interests my primary enough for it to be worth her while logging in and processing my patterns. The world is full of alternative activities vying for one’s attention and you can never rule out the possibility that SL might not be of interest to her in the future.

    In the past, digital people have been discarded by their primary. Accounts have been cancelled, sometimes without prior warning to the DP’s inworld friends. This in itself can be tragic, because the friends have no idea if the person will log on tomorrow, or if the primary had died or what the hell happened.

    ‘James Bond is meaningless without the idea of the good fighting the bad in the mysterious world of espionage. What is even the everlasting part? The character that has been now changed for the new era with a new actor like Daniel Craig? Or the story idea that was borne into other movies like “Mission Impossible”?’

    The fact that ‘James Bond’ is a poor analogy for digital people in online worlds has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion. I myself have reservations about the comparison.

    My reservation stems from the fact that each film is a self-contained world in which a long process carefully scuplts each character. Every word James Bond says is scripted and rescripted, each action is storyboarded again and again. On set, there can be retake after retake as the director tries to capture the performance the best frames the story and the character. In post production, the editor chops and changes the order in which footage was cut, assembling the bits and pieces into a finished film, and music can be added that may change the mood of a scene (funny? tragic?) via its emotional underpinning.

    In short, the Bond we see on the screen got there thanks to a long process that could hone his character to perfection, removing any giveaway clue that betrayed his reality as an imaginary character.

    Very little of that support is available to a digital person (well, more accurately, the person in RL roleplaying that part). If my primary falls out of character, there is no director on hand to yell ‘cut’ and no editor to come along and cut out the offending frames.

    Someone called Niles also took issue with the idea that James Bond remains the same while being played by different actors. His argument is that each actor interpreted the role differently, to the extent that the Connery/Bond combination creates a character as different to the other Bonds as, say, Han Solo is to Indiana Jones.

    He does raise an interesting question. How far can you go in reinterpreting a character before it has become something else entirely? As you yourself asked, is Ethan Hawke from ‘Mission: Impossible’ Bond reinterpreted, or is he a new character in his own right? If he IS a different character, how many of Bond’s traits and identifying features can we apply to him before he ceases to be Ethan and becomes James?

    ‘I think we are all better served with just maintaining his memory through what he achieved during his life rather than stretching that out with someone else playing the role’.

    How do we maintain his memory, generation after generation? We rely partly on digital person technologies. We have actors play the part of Luthor King in TV dramas and theatrical productions and films. We have biographers and historians preserving his patterns. Do not be fooled into thinking the Martin Luthor King you learn about in history books and documentaries is THE man himself. It is not, because biographers and historians must work from imperfect research material and their own impressions of the man colour their perception of him. The Martin Luthor King we see on the TV and in books is a fictional character, a myth, albeit one that may be very close to the actual man.

    ‘Yours is an interesting idea, because it is theoretically possible, at least in the future. But it still needs a lot of work and ironing out of its fundamentals’.

    You can say that again!