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

…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).

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