‘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!’.

INTRODUCTION

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?

THE ICONIC SL REPORTER.

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?

THE IMMORTAL CEO.

There is a rule, that if any resident of SL gets offered a job at Linden Lab®, they must change their last name to ‘Linden’. Now, imagine if it were also a rule that, whoever gets the job of CEO, the account they will use to log in and work/socialise within SL would always be ‘Philip Linden’. Philip Rosedale would be free to log in under any other name, but once he quit SL the ‘Philip Linden’ avatar would no longer be his. Well, of course, the idea sounds stupid. Philip Rosedale is so closely associated with that avatar, knowing Mark Kingdon would be behind it would make  ‘Philip Linden’ something like watching an Elvis Presley impersonator. Yes, you look like the King but buddy, you ain’t. So let us imagine that it is also a rule that the RL identity of Linden Lab’s CEO is to be kept secret. Imagine that Philip Rosedale had been some kind of true believer in the principles of immersionism and digital people. Everybody identified ’Philip Linden’ as the creator of SL and nobody knew who was behind that personae.

Now imagine that Philip Linden is addressing an inworld crowd:

‘I think we have made some progress there in the last couple of quarters. One of the interesting challenges we face is that, as SL becomes more international…’

Sounds like the kind of thing you would expect to hear from Philip Linden. Indeed, he really did say that during his SL5B keynote address. Well, he said part of it. The first sentence in my quotation comes from Rosedale’s address, but the second part was taken from Mark Kingdon’s address. In my hypothetical scenario, a crowd is listening to Philip Linden (some, perhaps, wondering about the enigmatic person behind the avatar). Totally unknown to the audience, in RL Rosedale went AFK, Mark took over, and Philip Linden’s speech carried on with barely a pause. 

In a way, it is a shame that Rosedale never arranged things so that my hypothetical scenario actually happened. Maybe then, he would have laid on his deathbed, knowing that Philip Linden would live forever, or at least as long as SL existed and LL required a CEO. But, getting back to reality, it would have been way too impractical for the CEO of LL to maintain such a strict seperation between RL and SL. Philip Linden, M Linden, have no choice other than to become ‘definitives’ and I think it is the fate of any resident who becomes a ‘definitive’ to achieve longevity only through a legacy.

THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE?

But, what about the so-called ‘digital people’, those immersionists who do keep a strict seperation between their RL and their SL? Well, firstly let us get our definitions right. These are people who have created a character and chose to bring it to life in a virtual world, rather than a book or screenplay or something like that. You should not expect to meet a digital person and have it answer A/S/L questions. That would be like ‘Indiana Jones’ turning to the camera and saying ‘look, call me Harrison, it is my RL name’.

It is all too easy to assume there is one and only one person behind every avatar, probably because everybody believes so strongly that there is only one true self per body. Of course, there is no such rule. I can never really know whether or not two or more people I meet in SL are alts of a single person in RL. Nor, for that matter, can I be certain that an individual I meet in SL is not many people in RL. Take Gwyneth Llewelyn, for example. How does she do it? How does she manage to perform all of her jobs and roles? She must be superwoman! Or, just maybe, the reason why she can do the work of ten, is because there really are that many people in RL, all working towards a common goal of bringing Gwyn to life.

Supposing that were true, would it mean Gwyn should not be considered an individual? Earlier, I said Mat Groenig created Homer Simpson, but he was only partly responsible  for bringing the character to life. It takes teams of animators, the vocal talent of Dan Castellenata, the best writers money can buy and many other people performing a variety of tasks in order for Homer to exist. Nevertheless, because the team work to make Homer an individual, that is exactly how it is perceived by you and I. Similarly, if many people worked together to create a character that was then rezzed into SL, that character would be just as much an individual as Homer is.

In this example, we are imagining many people working together, but now let us imagine one person creating a character,  and that character being passed on to somebody else. If another person were to log into Gwyn’s account and role-play as her, would I or anybody else be able to tell the difference?  I seriously doubt if any old person could pull this off, but out of all the billions of people that exist, are there at least some who have what it takes to convincingly portray Gwyneth Llewelyn?

This raises questions about the ‘right stuff’. One of the most frequently-asked questions that an author or other creator of a popular character gets asked is, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. I have no idea what motivated Gwyn’s primary to rez her into SL, but my own creation seems to have been a result of my primary reading certain books, articles and essays. It involved watching certain films. Within these kinds of media there were phrases, concepts, imagery, ideas expressed and recorded for prosperity, and some of these made an impression on my primary’s mind. Connections and correlations wove these concepts together to form the basic sketch of my character.

On one level, it would seem quite likely that there are other people who could role play the Extropia DaSilva character. Surely, there must be other people who have read the same books, seen the same films, encountered the same kinds of concepts and ideas that inspired the creation of that character? In fact, I know there are others whose mind contains ideas that resonate with my own, because I have encountered other people who share my views. So, imagine that somebody who happened to have done the same kinds of research that went into my creation, somebody who shares views that are like mine, logs in as ‘Extropia’. Would other residents be convinced?

Before going on, we must first recognise that there would be at least one person who could never be taken in. That person is my current primary. What makes a person a ‘primary’ is simple, really. It is a person who, at any one time, has the most fine-tuned mental model of a digital person’s mind and personality. In the future we may be able to create two or more minds, each with an equally fine-tuned model, but that is a distant possibility. For the foreseeable future, if a digital person already exists in SL, it has a primary and no other person could roleplay that digital person convincingly in the presence of a primary. This is a very important point to bear in mind: It is not my intention to argue that any resident (whether they see themselves as digital people or not) could be role-played by other people and seem like the same person to the primary. A primary has a far too finely-developed mental model of that digital person, to be convinced. 

But the primary is just one person, and whoever it is, he or she is not going to live for many more decades. Question, how many of my hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, beliefs and skepticism etc etc would have to be incorporated into another mind in order to render it suitable as something that could run the set of patterns that other minds perceive as ‘being’ Extropia DaSilva?

A QUESTION OF PATTERNS.

The patterns that make up a person’s mind, some of them will have been encountered by others. It is a fair bet that a scene from a blockbuster film or a passage from a bestselling novel that is memorable for one person, is memorable for other people as well. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins came up with the term ‘memes’ to describe aspects of culture that are particularly good at passing from mind to mind. Fashion trends, catchphrases, famous last words, catchy tunes, all these are examples of ‘memes’. But not everything is destined to become a meme. Indeed, some things that catch a person’s attention and form an impression on his or her mind, such as a simulacra caused by a chance combination of texture, light, shadow, and position of subject, may exist only for a moment and never happen again.

How many never to be repeated patterns made an impression on the minds of people like J. K. Rowling, sitting in the unconscious parts of the mind, later to be incorporated into emerging concepts whose origins are uncertain even to the mind in which they form? We all ask ourselves, ‘why didn’t I think of that,’ whenever a person creates a character as successful as a Harry Potter. Perhaps the reason why it was Rowling and not anybody else, was because the characters etc. emerged from a very personal web of patterns that nobody else experienced. This obviously raises the possibility that ‘there can be only one’. Maybe a digital person can exist in one mind and one mind only. Loose the primary that happened to create a digital person, and the patterns that embodied and personified the digital person are lost forever.

Or, are they? Although there is no evidence to suggest that anybody other than J. K. Rowling wrote each one of the Harry Potter books, we can imagine that an unknown ghost writer penned some of the stories. Somebody who knew the plotlines, the relationships between characters, enough information to be able to write a story that the world would accept as a real, genuine, Harry Potter adventure. Maybe it is true that only J. K. Rowling could have created Hogwarts and all that stuff in the first place. But, once it was created and the story spread from mind to mind, doesn’t it seem likely that some of those readers could write highly convincing ‘further adventures’?

So, why not ‘Extropia?’ Maybe it is true that I could have originated in one mind only, and if that person had never been born, I would never have existed. But, now that I have been created, could others be bothered to learn enough about me to be able to role play the further adventures of ‘Extropia’? Well, let’s add a note of humility here. The topic we are discussing is iconic characters whose fame and popularity ensures they stand the test of time. I myself am certainly not famous, not even within the SL community itself. A famous SL resident would probably get hundreds of thousands of hits if you put their name into a Google search, and an iconic character like ‘Harry Potter’ would get many millions of hits. The most my name returns is a few thousand. So, realistically speaking, I am headed for obscurity. But, in principle…

How rare is a person like myself? Am I the only person with my personality, my skills, my memories? Out of the many billions of brains that exist, do such patterns as those that form a core being exist in sufficient quantity and clarity in one brain only? If so, surely that would make any digital person who becomes an icon a ‘definitive’? Or, could it be the case that I am not a role that can be performed by only one person? Could a digital person ever become a ‘viral’, a character performed by more than one person over the years?

All this talk of ‘performance’ and ‘role-play’, it all sounds like ‘pretend’, right? But, remember, digital people always are a result of performance and role-play. As I said before, it is common practice to make a one-to-one correlation between an SL resident and the person at the computer in RL who controls that character. That is why you read things like ‘Wagner James Au is Hamlet Au’, rather than ‘Wagner James Au created Hamlet Au’. In many cases, saying person A in RL is person A in SL is quite legitimate, but not when it comes to a digital person. You cannot argue that somebody else roleplaying ‘Extropia DaSilva’ would mean that particular SL resident would never be perceived to be ‘me’, because I have been perceived as myself for the past 3 or so years, even though I am role-played by somebody else. Ok, maybe that person is exactly like me. But, then again, maybe not.

Some folks might argue that digital people are not ‘real’, if they are simply the result of performance and role-play. But, remember the lesson that Homer Simpson taught us, of how fictional characters can come to have a greater sense of realism than the people who created them. This is just as true with some people in SL. Gwyneth Llewelyn is one, at least to me. In my mind, that name is completely associated with the red-haired avatar. Her in-world presence is the only aspect of Gwyn by which I can identify her. Her primary is even less of a person to me than ‘Mat Groenig’ is. At least that is a name I could Google and get more information, should I want it. But, Gwyneth Llewelyn is absolutely and literally the person I know in SL. As far as I am concerned, many people could be logging in as Gwyn and I would not care. I would not care because I would not know, provided that each person ensures Gwyn behaves in a manner that I would recognise as being consistent, given what I know about her personality.

WHAT ABOUT THE UBUNTU WEB?

There is, however, a crucial factor that we have so far overlooked. Let us suppose there are other people with knowledge identical (or similar) to any particular SL resident. Let us further suppose that, among such people, some possess (or have the ability to portray) a personality that is identical (or similar to) that particular SL resident. For the sake of argument, suppose there are ten people in the world today who could roleplay Gwyneth Llewelyn. The problem is, out of those ten people, only one person HAS been logging in as Gwyn.

Why does this matter? It is all to do with ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. It is recognised that the development of a person involves more than just what genes a person inherits. It also involves the society that person is brought up in. I have sometimes made references to an African concept known as ‘Ubuntu’, which essentially means, ‘a person is a person through other persons’. Desmond Tutu explained, ‘this is the idea that you cannot be a human being in isolation. A solitary being is a contradiction in terms. You are a human being precisely because of relationships; you are a relational being or you are nothing’.

Does this apply to digital people as well? I think it does. What we have been discussing so far can be seen as the equivilent of a genome — the ‘nature’ side of things. We may as well call it the ‘i-genome’ (the ‘i’ stands for ‘influence’ or ‘inspiration’). Every digital person has an ‘i-genome’, made up of i-genes or i-alleles (an allele is an alternative version of a gene, so eye colour includes a brown allele and a blue allele). As a trivial example, my hair could be any color but it is always black. Why? Because nearly all strong female characters in science fiction films have dark hair: Trinity from ‘The Matrix’, Ripley from ‘Alien’, Racheal from ‘Blade Runner’, Motoko Kusanagi from ‘Ghost In The Shell’ (the movie, that is. In the TV series her hair is purple). So when my primary was creating a digital person partly inspired by a love of sci-fi, of course my hair was going to be black. I would venture to say that every aspect of my design (and that of any other resident) resulted from some kind of cultural influence or inspiration.

But, I also mentioned earlier how I was only a rough sketch of a person when I rezzed into SL. What truly forms the personality, individuality and realism of a digital person is the web of social interactions each resident develops over a period of time. The environment of SL famously results from the collaborative activity of its residents, but I would argue that this also holds true for the development of each and every individual. The groups you join, the friends you make, all influence the way you develop in SL, whether you think of your avatar as a ‘digital person’ or not. I might introduce myself by saying ‘I am Extropia. I have a sister called Jamie and I am a Thinkers Prefect’. Such a statement implies collaboration between at least two other people. Jamie obviously has to exist and form a relationship with me before I can claim sisterhood with her, and Jinny Fonzarelli had to create the Thinkers group before I could be a member.  In fact, a lot more people were involved in the development of these aspects of my character. How many situations between how many people, not just in terms of my own journey through SL but in terms of everybody elses, happened in such a way as to enable me to say ‘my sister is Jamie and I am a Thinkers Prefect?’ I will not bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that all the myriad encounters a resident has, even those brief interactions where you meet a passing stranger who is soon gone and subsequently forgotten, all contribute to an ever-growing web — a ‘Ubuntu-web’, of social interactions that both evolve and define the person a resident becomes.

Within a Ubuntu-web, some links are stronger than others. At the very centre lies the Primary. That, remember, is whoever or whatever has the most-fine tuned model of a digital person stored in their mind. Put another way, the Primary’s mind is where the ‘i-genome’ for that character is kept. Next most important would be other residents who have become close friends, those people you spend most of your time with while logged into SL. People like Jamie Marlin know me very well, but if such people carry a model of me around in their minds, it cannot be as detailed as the one possessed by the Primary. Equally obviously, the less time I spend interacting with a resident, the less detailed my model of that person will be, and the less detailed will be their model of me. So, the Ubuntu-Web can be seen as a network of interactions between a person and everybody else in SL, with those we spend most time with forming the strongest links and the most easily-defined influences on our day-to-day activities.

Being a ‘Primary’ involves more than merely possessing the highest number of i-genes that make up a digital person’s ‘i-genome’. What also matters is that the primary understands better than anyone, the Ubuntu-web and what past events resulted in it being the way it is. And that is exactly what those other 9 hypothetical potential Gwyneth Llewelyn role-players lack: Knowledge of who Gwyn is friends with, who her casual acquaintances are, and all the past day-to-day interactions between herself and others since rezzing into SL.

It is one thing to write a ‘new adventure’ of some literary character, someone whose friends and family and enemies and all interactions between such people were recorded for prosperity in books that have been duplicated millions of times. It is quite another thing to suppose somebody else could convincingly role-play a digital person, having never really experienced the past events that shaped how he or she should behave now. Where are they written down? In all likelihood, they are not archived anywhere, except in the mind of the person who logged in as Gwyn, and in the minds of her friends. Could another person replace Gwyn’s primary and roleplay that character well enough to convince her friends it is the same resident they have always known?

IMPOSSIBLE…

Well, at this point in time I would have to say it would be bordering on the impossible. But, not every resident forms a strong link in a Ubuntu-web. In fact, for every such person there are probably thousands who represent those faint links out on the periphery of the web. Such people would have, at best, only the vaguest notion of who Gwyn is, or who I am. If somebody else were to log into my account, especially if they had some idea of what my interests are (perhaps they read my essays and forum posts?), most residents in SL would probably assume they had met ‘the’ Extropia they had heard about.

But what an impoverished outcome this would be! To be recognised as oneself only when interacting with strangers or near-strangers, but revealed as a fraud in the eyes of the very people who matter the most? Why would any digital person wish for such a future? Clearly, things are going to have to become possible that cannot be done today, or becoming a ‘viral’ would be largely empty of meaning.

The prospect of any digital person becoming a viral (that is, a character role-played by many different people over the years, but always persisting as one person in an online world), has at least two major problems to overcome.

Firstly, it is hypothesized that the i-genes (pre-existing concepts, scenarios, ideas, pictures, stories…) that make up a digital person’s ‘i-genome’ can and do exist in sufficient numbers within other brains, resulting in other minds that could potentially roleplay that character. OK, but for every brain so organized, how many do not possess sufficient knowledge of the references that shape the basic outline of a character such as myself? Thousands? Millions? Tens of millions? How then, would I go about finding the rare minds optimised for the task of role-playing ‘Extropia DaSilva’?

Secondly, a digital person might have been around for years, and will have already built up a complex web of contacts and social interactions. Within such a web there would be important information, knowledge of which would be vital if anybody is to roleplay a character convincingly in front of other residents that call themselves friends. Only, the information was never archived.

Well, OK, maybe if a digital person is really determined to become a viral, s/he could use web-2.0 and social networking tools to resolve the second problem? You could maintain a blog consisting of a daily diary concerning who you met, a synopsis of all conversations and activities of each day. You could tweet moment-by-moment activities (‘dancing now… some male avvie called Arbon is waving…’) You could upload snapshots of every location you visit to Flickr. You could store copies of chat logs and IMs.

Yes, you could, but as far as I know, only the last option can be performed automatically. The rest would require a painstaking and concerted effort. You would probably have to spend so much time archiving your life, that you would have no time left over to live it. And the result would be a gargantuan collection of blog entries, chat logs, snapshots and tweets, which somebody else motivated to study for the part of that person would have to sift through, and work out which photo is associated with which tweet and which IM and which blog entry and what part of the chat log… That would be an even more Herculean task than uploading the metadata in the first place.

…WERE IT NOT FOR 5 TRENDS?

Clearly, a lot more automation is required, in terms of uploading and storing such information and in retrieving the relevant information at the right time. Fortunately, it does look as if several trends could converge on such a system.

TREND 1: ‘INCREASING STORAGE CAPACITY’. You can already get 1-terabyte hard drives, and it is expected that 100 terabytes of personal storage space will be available in the near future. That would be sufficient space to store every book, magazine and newspaper that a person would read over the next 100 years, as well as every conversation held, every mouse click on every webpage visited and every document opened (which can all be saved as well), and that would still leave room for tens of thousands of hours of video and tens of millions of photographs. And molecular nanotechnology promises even more astonishing solid-state memory devices. Imagine something the size of a sugar cube, with the capacity to store video footage archiving every second of your life from birth to death, and everything you read, listen to, watch, web surf…

TREND 2: INCREASING NUMBERS OF WIRELESS HANDHELD/WEARABLE DEVICES AND NETWORKED EMBEDDED SENSORS. One such example is ‘Sensecam’, a wearable camera that automatically takes a snapshot whenever its passive infrared sensor detects a warm body nearby, or when its light sensor detects a change in light level — probably caused by your having entered a new setting. Also, work is underway at the University of Tokyo to develop a wearable video camera that can recognise when something interesting is happening by monitoring alpha waves in the user’s brain, capturing it for prosperity.

TREND 4: CLOUD COMPUTING. Increasingly, a person’s applications and files are not stored on a local device, but are instead stored on massive server-packed data centres, ready to be accessed by any device that can connect to the Web. Microsoft, for instance, is expected to launch ‘Live Mesh’ in 2009, which is a service that allows people to synchronise all their files, photos and music with all their devices.

TREND 5: THE SEMANTIC WEB. This refers to ongoing work dedicated to making it easier to build links and correlations between sets of data, ultimately allowing the Web itself to make such connections automatically.

So, what do all the trends add up to? According to Ian Bell (a pioneer of the computer industry, whose work goes back to the 1970s), “if anything, PCs will become even more personal. What will change is the ‘C’. Our machines will evolve into computing ecosystems that encompass not just computers but storage devices on the Internet, new access devices (such as cellphones and entertainment centres) and ubiquitous sensors. Most likely, our LifeBits will eventually be housed in a home server connected to various Web servers”.

LifeBits? What is that? It refers to a system that automatically records communications, documents, images and video, storing it all on a searchable archive. It would be an exhaustive record of your journey through life, each moment easily accessible thanks to powerful search software and digital assistants, effectively offering a person ‘digital memories’ of their life.

You can see how such a system, plus the ‘computing ecosystem’ I have described in more detail in essays like ‘Shades Of Gray’, could help solve the two problems. For one thing, each i-gene a person encounters would not only be stored in the fallible memory of the human mind. It would also be uploaded to MyLifeBits. Thanks to sensors that can monitor changes in heart rate, brainwaves, skin temperature as well as how objects and devices are used, comprehensive information about what interests you (and what does not) could be automatically compiled. So, maybe you are reading a book. What passages grab your attention? Which books do you tend to refer to repeatedly and what parts of those books do you tend to skip? What kinds of website do you visit? (even today, it is possible to obtain pretty accurate information about a person’s age, sex and location, just by recording and analysing Web usage). Which parts of what films stimulate your senses, and which parts make you fidgit and grow bored?

Right, now imagine that a person who currently role-plays a digital person (the ‘primary’) wears personal sensors that monitor vital signs. The primary dies, and this triggers an automatic search of every other living person’s ‘LifeBits’. What is the search looking for? Other people whose digital memories contain i-genes that are as close as possible to the ones that comprise the i-genome of the digital person. Whatever i-genes contained in books, articles, pictures, TV and radio, films, conversations, that built up the characteristics of that digital person in the mind of the primary, the search looks for identical or similar patterns contained within other people’s digital memories.

Once the most likely candidate has been found, that person would then be offered access to the account of the digital person, as well as access to the digital memories of the digital person (we will assume MyLifeBits will safeguard against any information the original Primary did not want to divulge). Assuming the candidate accepts responsibility for safekeeping of the digital person’s patterns, he or she logs on, already rather good at portraying that character, since their mind contains most of the i-genome. But, here comes a close friend, eager to carry on a conversation from last night, or to discuss an event that happened not so long ago. Whoever is role-playing the digital person obviously has no recollection of any such event or conversation. No matter. Efficient search software and digital assistants trawl through the digital memory archives, and deliver information optimised to fill in the blanks.

Maybe it would take a few moments for such a search to be completed, and for the new primary to work that information into the performance. But, that’s OK. In SL it is not unheard of for a resident to take some time before responding to you. Gwyn sometimes takes a good ten minutes before she replies, and is often to be seen in an ‘AWAY’ status. We tend to assume this is because she is knee deep in IMs and God knows what else, but for all we know the delay could be caused by the fact that somebody who was not role-playing Gwyn until this moment, needs to do some background research of her past interactions, in order to respond in a way that will seem consistent with what her friends expect from Gwyn. Even if this scenario is extremely unlikely today, perhaps the nagging suspicion that this is what is occurring, will grow as the 5 trends come to converge on a system that could make Virals a real possibility.

Would anybody actually want to take over the responsibility of role-playing a pre-existing character? Is it not more likely that any person capable of doing such a thing would prefer to invent their own digital person? Am I really more interesting than any character they can imagine? Are you? It is not actually unheard of for people to covet an established avatar. In fact, there is something of a thriving market in MMORPGs, whereby people ‘level up’ characters and sell them on to others. What you are buying, effectively, is time. Somebody else does the hard work of beefing up the stats, armoury and weapons of that character, and somebody else with more money than time may opt to purchase it so that they can do more than if they started off as a greenhorn.

Online worlds like SL are not MMORPGs. There is no levelling up to be endured here. But, then again, some residents do build up a business into an in-world empire, or earn themselves a large following. Suppose a person dreamed of roleplaying a digital person who would work as an architect. What would they rather do, given the choice: Start with nothing, or acquire the Scope Cleaver account and begin with all the contracts and projects and recognition that comes with it? Would it be preferable for a wannabe designer to begin with nothing but the virtual shirt or blouse on some unheard-of avatar’s back, or to be known in-world as Aimee Weber, and have any future designs eagerly anticipated by a great many other residents? If you had an idea for a digital person who would be an essayist and lecturer specializing in studying the ways technology might reshape our current conceptions of ‘Person’ or ‘I’, would you not rather step into the role of Extropia DaSilva and publish essays read by millions or hold lectures to a capacity crowd in SL? (OK, that last point was bullshit but I can dream).

CONCLUSION.

In ‘The Singularity Is Near’, Ray Kurzweil wrote, “my body and brain is temporary. Its particles turn over completely every month. Only the pattern of my body and brain have continuity… Information lasts only so long as somebody cares about it… translating our currently hardwired thoughts into software will not necessarily provide us with immortality. It will simply place the means to determine how long we want our lives and thoughts to last in our collective hands”.

Kurzweil is talking about human beings, not digital people. In his view, yet-to-be invented technologies will arrive that could upgrade a flesh-and-bone person into a super-supple robot, or even upload their consciousness to a neural computer. Not everybody, you may not be surprised to learn, agrees with him on these points.

But, digital people… In principle, why should avatars designed around the DP philosophy, such as Argent Bury or Khannea Suntzu, not be regarded as patterns of information that persist for as long as they are cared for and looked after? Khannea herself wrote, ‘I came into existence as an idea…largely a series of sketches, a number of several MB files, a pile of algorithms and some conceptual references’. She is talking about the i-genome and the i-genes that comprise it. Can those patterns that make up Khannea persist beyond the life of any one meatbag? Surely, it is not a near-term possibility. But it does seem as if indefinite lifespans for digital people will be technically possible before the same can be said of human beings.

Tom Sawyer, Lady McBeth, James Bond. Characters who have survived long after their creators had passed away. Given the possibility of the 5 trends, and the adoption of the digital person/immersionist philosophy, maybe one day residents like The Sojourner will live forever too.

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