Reinventing the self

Transhumanists like Extropia DaSilva claim that if you get enough data about the digital representation of a person’s self, you can recreate it (the research paper quoted before alludes to the difficulty of knowing if you’re talking to someone’s sister instead of the person you know that uses a particular handle), thus, in a sense, achieving immortality — in the sense that you’re able to “continue your self” by presenting a consistent image to all your friends and acquaintances, even if the physical body behind the handle is not the same one. I’ll refer you to her essay to follow her clever argumentation.

Forgetting for a bit the extreme limit of “avatar-life-after-physical-body-death”, Extropia nevertheless also considers (quite in tune with most researchers in the field) that our digital self is actually defined by how others perceive ourselves (and less than how we perceive ourselves). This is indeed a crucial point to make. There is no digital self without interaction with others. And, indeed, it’s the mental image of what other people think you are that becomes your digital self. This happens because the only “interface” we have to recognise someone’s digital self is through computer-mediated communication. Thus, the handle, the avatar (or picture), the way we talk and chat, and what we do become the digital self. The physical aspect of the “self” is not important. The richer the amount of information we infer about someone’s “self”, the more real (more alive?) they seem to us. In fact, while meeting someone digitally for the first time, we might just rely on physical clues: we want to see their pictures, talk to them on the phone, or even meet them physically. After we have talked to them (digitally) for quite a while, however, we have revealed our selves to the other parties, and in our minds, we get a quite elaborate picture of who they are, how they think, and how they behave.

Since our brains are so good at reasoning with an insufficient amount of data, it comes to a point where we gather “enough information” to have our brain trigger the perception of self. Thus, the “handle” (or avatar) on the screen is not just a bunch of letters. They become a real person — granted, one that we only perceive digitally, but nevertheless a person.

This is one of the many amazing abilities of our brains, but it shouldn’t be so surprising to us. For centuries, people “met” each other via postal mail. They wrote as much as they could about themselves, exchanged letters over extended periods of time, and eventually married — this was deemed not only to be commonplace, but even proper. With the advent of digital communication the process not only became faster — messages are transferred at the speed of light — but richer. We can convey much more information about our selves than we could with a simple paper-based letter posted on the mail. It’s not surprising, thus, that we tend to make more friends digitally than, say, pen-pals. (I guess that you need to be 30+ old to remember what those were…)

When dealing with flesh-and-blood acquaintances and friends we also require a certain amount of data about the other person to reason about who they truly are. Granted, body expression, taste, clothing, and environment help us quite along the way — so we get a wider variety of input streams about another’s self than, say, through a paper-based letter (where we only know what they write, but cannot see the expression on their faces the moment they wrote the letter — we have to infer that from the writing, and actually we’re uncannily good at that, too!). However, virtual worlds like Second Life definitely go several steps towards providing a rich stream of self-defining data. Avatars do not have taste or smell, but they most definitely have a 3D body, clothing, and an environment — and they can also give audio clues (eg. voice chat, sound gestures) on top of that. They’re also adequate to provide a certain amount of limited body expression. We all have learned to interpret that someone standing still for a long time is not interested in our conversation but actually answering IMs. When they are looking wildly around, we know the human behind the keyboard is happily clicking on SL’s interface and not paying attention. If you talk with your back towards the other avatar, you’re probably a newbie. And so on. These small visual clues are part of SL’s very limited body expression — but compared to what you can do on a text-based chat, it’s far more. And researchers definitely consider that digital selves exist on simple interfaces like MUDs or even IRC channels. Second Life just allows far richer digital selves — in the sense that they’re able to provide a huge amount of information about themselves, which allow our brains to trigger the “sense of a human being” much quicker.

Granted, not everyone is particularly interested in having a digital self. Hopping between avatars, using different shapes every day, engaging in different role-playing scenarios, etc. will “confuse” the overall message about a person’s digital self and we’ll have a harder time figuring out how the person behind the avatar thinks. In fact, researchers consider that ability of “self hopping” quite interesting and a major characteristic of Internet-based communication: we’re not restricted to one self in the digital world.

On the other hand, I’m prepared to bet that the vast majority of people you know in Second Life have a definite, single digital self. You’ve all met exceptions, I’m sure. Also, you’ll have met people that refuse the notion of digital self. Some will shrug it off saying that “it’s only pretending and thus doesn’t count”. Some will make the dubious claim that “this self is just my real self”.

But is it really? Not quite. According to the quoted researchers above, your own self it is strictly tied to your physical, atomic body. Disembodied bodies have, by contrast, digital selves, which have a fundamental difference: they exist only in the minds of others. (See also Extropia’s thoughts on this). To put it in another way: you can live in the physical world as a hermit on a mountain, and your self, as long as your body is sound, still exists. One cannot exist without the other, but, on the other hand, your self’s existence is independent of where you are. You are yourself everywhere, no matter if anyone’s around to watch you or not.

On online communications, however, the reverse is true. One avatar that never met anyone does not have a digital self. It exists — you can prove that you exist, your login has been accepted, and you can move your avatar inside SL without problems. But without interacting with others, nobody knows you’re there (or even if you’re just a ‘bot, ie. not a human being).

This strange concept shows that digital selves emerge from communication with others and they become real selves for everyone else. This mostly means that while you might be aware of a difference between your physical self and the digital self (for instance, research show that we’re more open in expressing our feelings and talking about our inner problems more fully with complete strangers in digital communications), nobody else is aware of that. In fact, even claiming “I’m just like that in real life too!” is just contributing to adding to the information of your digital self: in this case, you’re the person that is always claiming to be the same in the physical world. Your physical self, for instance, doesn’t go around saying to everybody they meet: “hey, I’m exactly like that inside my mind!” Ironically, you can get away with saying that in digital communication, but you’ll be classified with terminal insanity if you’d say it out loud in the physical world 🙂 This just shows how indeed both types of selves are different.

We can thus come back to Bennetsen and see his dilemma between Augmentationism and Immersionism in a different light. Immersionists are people who accept their digital selves as different from their physical selves (even if the difference is just one: accepting that others view your digital self based on what you tell them, while your physical one is part of your physical body). Augmentationists refuse to accept the difference (extreme augmentationists, usually people recently arrived to digital communications, might even refuse to accept the existence of digital selves, but if they’ve been given a solid background in the scientific method, they’ll know that they have to refute existing scientific research to back up their bold claim 😉 ) and rather rely on the notion that the digital self is an extension of the physical self, not a difference.

As you can see, from the point of view of the relationship towards the self, both “extremes” are not that different after all! Both will separate, to a degree, the physical self (that does not rely upon others to exist) from the digital self (which only exists in relationship to others). Immersionists accept the difference; augmentationists don’t see a “difference” except as an extension.

Negative escapism as defined before is thus the act of forfeiting your physical self in the pursuit of an environment where only your digital self is important and nothing else matters. This is the typical scenario portrayed by the (bad) media when criticising virtual worlds and digital communication at all: we feel so attached to our digital selves that we lose the sense of still existing in the physical world. While extreme cases might exhibit this behaviour, I believe that these are really borderline exceptions. Most people are aware of the separation between both. Some enjoy to explore their digital selves to a higher degree than others. Most, however — and this is really just my experience — will try to provide as much information about themselves as possible, thus making their digital self as rich and “alive” to others as much as they can. This is described by the authors of “The Digital Self: Through the Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others” as the narrative aspect of the digital self: you are (literally!) who you say you are.

Role-playing is the act of narratively creating a different digital self from your own physical self. It’s done for fun and amusement on the vast majority of cases (unlike what many tabloid journalists would like us to believe); it’s also used by psychotherapists as a form of therapy.

Thus, through narrative, we reinvent our selves (digitally), and the end result might be very close (or identical) to your physical self (this would mean that every one of your friends and acquaintances would immediately recognise you “in the flesh” based on your digital narrative), or quite different (if nobody would recognise you). There is, however, always a process of narrative involved; always a degree of reinvention; it’s just the end result that matters. And, as said, most people, minus a few borderline cases, will end up with a narrative which is ultimately pretty close to their own physical selves.

Immersionists, of course, are quite keen on reinventing their digital selves and make a clear separation between their digital selves and their physical ones. There are good reasons for that. Since it’s the environment (and other people are part of the environment, too!) that defines the digital self, the environment also becomes fundamental and gains value because of that. Thus the old saying (which has been out of fashion recently), “What is done in SL stays in SL; RL is RL”. Augmentationists, of course, will see the flaw in this kind of reasoning: SL is an extension of RL, thus what we do in SL affects our RL, and vice-versa. In this case, I’m afraid that both ethics, morals, and the legal system are solidly supporting the augmentationists’ view.

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