Post-immersionism

Gwyn Embarassed in RL Office - Original Photo by http://ClintJCL.wordpress.com/

Henrik Bennetsen, in his old masterpiece article Augmentation vs. Immersion, launched one of the biggest debates in the history of Second Life®’s psychology. The clarity of his ideas finally defined the two possible relationships a resident of Second Life might have towards the virtual world: either as a different space or as an extension of the real space.

Bennetsen cleverly explains that both visions are imaginary ideals on the opposite sides of the scale, and that, in reality, there aren’t any “pure augmentists” or “pure immersionists” in SL, but always a mix of both. As time goes by, immersionists will slowly give way to augmentationists, but they will never disappear completely. In my article here I claim that one reason for that is because some immersionists will become post-immersionists instead.

Escapism and the Magic Circle

Current-generation SL residents generally scorn self-proclaimed immersionists by considering them merely escapists, a term that actually fits well to many (most?) MMORPG players. In MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, for instance, few players are anything but role-playing a game for fun (granted, there might be exceptions, since even WoW has a huge social component that is alluring for many; just because you look like an Orc that doesn’t mean you can’t use WoW as a dating service!). A game is just a game with rules, and you act according to those rules. What happens “outside the game” has little relevance — after all, few games give you extra levels for establishing RL business or marrying your partner in RL (I might even be persuaded to say that no game does that!), but only by completing tasks or quests or whatever they might be called inside the game’s rules and environment.

A few illustrious thinkers call this the “Magic Circle” of games, where gamers deliberately step into the “magic circle” and leave their RL problems behind, in search for some fun and entertainment — under the rules of the game world. While online computer games are definitely the ultimate in possible escapism, they are by far not the only type; you just need to take a look at how perfectly normal and calm people become furious football fanatics during a match to see how there is a “magic circle” for non-computer games as well. Similarly, one can argue that watching TV or reading a very good novel has the same kind of “magic circle”.

Escapism is usually used as a pejorative word, in the sense that someone who deliberately tries to “ignore” what really exists around themselves in order to fulfil a need for having fun and entertainment — instead of having fun and entertainment without escapism, of course. Closed-minded individuals attribute escapism to either immature minds, or disturbed minds, or simply weak individuals who are unable to deal with their own troubles and seek a refuge in a “different place” (inside their minds) to escape from those troubles instead of dealing with them. They argue this is a mental condition that ought to require some sort of treatment (usually, fighting depression or lack of self-confidence). This is naturally one typical way of describing escapism, one that is popularised by the mainstream media and many authors of novels or plots for TV series. Immersionism is thus often described by them as collective escapism, where groups of individuals simply engage in escapism together — a sort of collective hallucination which exists by sharing the same set of rules and ideas about a world that doesn’t exist in the physical reality.

This is, of course, looking at things from the worst possible angle. In fact, most people engage in escapist activities without even thinking twice about it; and even fully “immersed” individuals, as the Wikipedia article on the Magic Circle points out, will “leak” to the outside world — for instance, by having your WoW character listed on eBay for sale.

Second Life (and social virtual worlds with the complexity of Second Life) make everything so much complicated because, well, not only it’s not a game, but there are no rules but the ones you define for yourself. The usual references to escapism are made about how one party (namely, the entertainment industry) defines an environment where escapism is possible, and the rest of the individuals just accept that environment as a valid one for their escapism. SL allows self-escapism, perhaps not unlike what an artist experiences when creating their own piece of art (or performing on a stage), and where the only “reality” is the one they create. A similar experience is described by computer programmers when developing software applications. It’s thus different from, say, watching a football game and forgetting all about your true self; it’s more like being so engaged in designing the rules of how football should be played that you forget everything else.

Studies about what happens to our mind when we’re logged in to SL are as yet scarce and not conclusive; we have mostly a lot of anedoctal evidence to present, but no statistical, scientifically formulated results. What seems apparent is that escapism in Second Life comes mostly from re-inventing your own self while immersed in a virtual world and this is definitely not universally widespread. It is also just one aspect of immersionism — immersion can occur without bringing any “urge” or “desire” to “re-invent yourself”. As we’ll see, the “urge” might not be there, but it nevertheless happens.

Why escapism in Second Life?

Consider for a moment how someone plays a goal-based MMORPG. A few don’t really care about role-playing, finding it a distraction or annoyance at best, or simple and plainly ridiculous, since in most MMORPGs, being good at “acting” a character, doesn’t correlate in getting a higher level character (old-time pencil-and-paper RPGs, however, have the opposite goal! Good role-players might get awarded extra points by the GameMaster just because they’re good at acting, even if their game skills are mediocre). Knowing the rules and bending them to your advantage certainly gives a player a better advantage, as well as good eye-hand coordination, and, in some degrees, charismatic manipulation of other people to make them do what you wish just to improve your player character (and sometimes, in an altruistic way, improve everybody else’s player characters). Those are the characteristics that can often be attributed to a good MMORPG player — acting is secondary, and sometimes only available on some “shards” of popular games, where the majority of players have much more fun with the role-playing possibilities than with actually completing tasks and quests to advance their characters. Modern MMORPGs tend to acknowledge the two types of players (role-players are usually the minority) and accommodate both, usually on different servers, but not always.

INSILICO at the surface

Second Life has many role-playing areas. Typical examples include Caledon, the Star Trek fan areas, the awesome INSILICO sims, or the vast diversity of Gorean landscapes, but there are far more. In those communities, you’re expected to role-play your character, and residents might take offence if you refuse at least to make an effort (being unpolite and verbally aggressive in Caledon will get you a few eyebrows raised; stepping out of character in INSILICO can even get you banned from the sims). I would consider, though, that most people see this just as a minor form of escapism — the one associated with the “fun” of re-living a set of rules and conventions popularised by a certain type of literature, and the enjoyment of re-enacting those rules and conventions. In a sense, the “rules and conventions” are brought from outside Second Life and used as a “pretext” for establishing a form of entertainment. If you wish, it’s like playing music: music has rules and conventions, and by following them, you can engage in performances according to those rules, which will make you focus on the “artificial rules” first and much less on the environment surrounding yourself.

This form of positive escapism is obviously always highly regarded, and rarely the word “escapism” is used: we’re concentrated in performing a musical piece, we’re enthralled by listening to a performance, we’re absorbed by a good book or a good movie. The point being that we clearly separate what are the “rules for positive escapism” — musical notation, for instance — and what is “the real world” where those abstractly created rules don’t apply. Someone might swear a lot iRL, specially when furious or offended, but be Victorian-polite while rezzed in Caledon. That particular individual will probably not define herself or himself (either iRL or even in SL outside Caledon) as being an extremely “polite” person — they just do that while they’re in Caledon for fun, but recognise that once the “fun” aspect finishes (they log off), they’re back in the real world where swearing not only is allowed but often demanded 😉

It is thus important to clarify that in this article, my notion of positive escapism always relates to the normal pursue of an environment where you can “shut out” the boring or depressing real world for a few hours and just have good, old, plain fun. Having fun and enjoying ourselves is part of the human condition, it relieves stress and keeps us healthy. For some it’s watching TV; for others it’s going to the pub and drink with your friends; for others still it’s going to a football match; a few like to read, others to listen to music, and finally, the creative types might spend hours engaging in producing or performing art forms. In the late 20th century we just added a new form of entertainment to all of that: online presences, either in the form of games (MMOGs and MMORPGs), or in something way more complex which we’ll analyse next.

Negative escapism is probably a contradiction in terms; I’d prefer the term hallucination or self-delusion to describe a condition where an individual is firmly convinced that a different reality is in place. While the mainstream tends to confuse escapism with delusion, there is a whole gap separating both things which have little to do with each other. Escapism brought us Shakespeare and Bach or Vivaldi and Michelangelo; delusion brought us serial killers and fanatical terrorists. That’s how you should interpret my choice of words.

The digital self

The first online environments, when the Internet was really very young and used by a tiny minority, but BBSs abounded, has brought us an interesting new abstraction. Since the days the telephone was invented, we started to view an abstract number (a sequence of digits) as “representing” a human being, or, more precisely, as a means to communicate with a human being. Thus, the number 555-1234 might represent Jane Doe, and if you wish to communicate with Ms Doe, all you need is to remember to dial 555-1234.

This doesn’t exactly mean that Jane Doe is 555-1234. The number 555-1234 is just an abstract manifestation of Jane Doe in the context of the telephone system. Being quite used to the telephone system these days, there are few philosophers that might claim that 555-1234 is effectively an “avatar” of Ms Doe in the “virtual world of telephoning” — but, in fact, that’s pretty much what it is. We’re just so used to the distinction between a telephone number and a flesh-and-blood person that we never think of it that way. After all, talking to a person instantaneously around the world is exactly the same as talking to that person sitting next to you, right?

Well, almost right, but not quite. When on the telephone, we automatically adopt a certain number of rules and procedures, and even a different language. We start by saying “Hello?” (or “Mochi-Mochi” in Japan…) and often, when the line is noisy, “Can you hear me?”. Since we lack body language — like looking meaningfully at someone, or doing a gesture indicating boredom — we use different things instead. “Meaningful silence” conveys a lot of expression. With enough training (and we all get that training pretty quickly from a tender age!) we can detect from someone’s voice if they’re happy or sad, even if they’re not really laughing or crying (some call centres train their operators to always answer with a smile, because the other party at the end of the line will be able to “sense” the smile).

When a couple of lovers spend ages on the phone, nobody will consider that “immersion in the telephone system” — although it’s exactly what it is (even though it might not be escapism — on the other hand, what is phone sex with a stranger but just another form of escapism?). We’re so “immersed” in voice communication without physical presence that, during a phone call, we forget all about the world around us — thus, no wonder most countries in the world limit the use of mobile phones while driving. And in polite business environments, it’s considered very rude to pick up phone calls in the middle of a meeting — because obviously that person is going to “forget” all about the meeting and focus on the person on the phone instead.

This, however, is so ubiquitous in our society that we totally ignore how immersive phone communications actually are. It’s just part of life in the 21st century, and we’re used to it for 130 or 140 years.

Computer-moderated communications added something else. BBS operators had “handles” or “nicknames”, and these were usually designed as merely a way to facilitate communication. My email address, gwyneth (dot) llewelyn (at) gwynethllewelyn (dot) net, is primarily designed to allow anyone on the Internet to send me email. It’s just an arbitrary sequence of letters and symbols that designate a communication port via SMTP that will eventually find the way to my computer, and is totally equivalent to the example given for Jane Doe’s phone number. My email address is not my self. I just express myself through email messages — and in a sense, by reading my emails, my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues can get a grasp about my thought processes, feelings and emotions, just like they can “see” if I’m smiling or crying on the phone.

As those “handles” or “nicknames” became more widespread, however, a certain interesting development occured. To a degree, you might never meet the “person behind the handle” at all, but just read what they write (or, if they’re artistically inclined, see their pictures/images/movies that have been released on the Internet under that nickname). From the perspective of someone who never met the “person behind the handle”, there is little difference between the “handle” and the “person”.

This is one of the most fundamental changes in the way we started to attribute importance to handles. But it shouldn’t come to us as a surprise — after all, again, call centre operators, when answering “You’ve called Linden Lab, how may I help you?” are the company. When you’re talking with a LL representative at the phone, that representative represents the company in your mind (and your attitude on the phone will represent what you think about the company). This, of course, is just a step of further abstraction of what happens when you go to a shop and talk to an attendant there — for you, that attendant is the company, even if she might be just a humble employee and barely know the company’s mission and values.

The ability to extrapolate from a part to the whole is typically human, for positive and negative reasons — after all, on the negative side, it’s at the core of racism, homophobia, chauvinism, fundamentalism, and all other negative emotions where you classify a whole group of people based on your direct contact and experience with an element of that group. The novelty here is that “nicknames” or “handles” (just like “telephone numbers”) tend to be uniquely identified with the individual who bears that handle.

Thus, in normal conversation, we don’t usually say “I’ll drop a message to Gwyn’s electronic email address for her to read” (although that form of speaking hasn’t still completely vanished) but we tend to say “I’ll talk to Gwyn by email over it”. The difference is subtle. In the first case, we’re still considering the medium (SMTP, in this case) to be relevant for communication. In the second case, the medium is less relevant, just the ability to communicate to the individual matters.

It’s a bit premature to extrapolate to saying that someone “is” their email address, like we perfectly know that someone is not their phone number. However, there is certainly a strong bond between both. And to a degree, we’re “protective” of our handles — we get furious when our phone number is bombarded by marketing call centres and our email address by spammers.

When enough data about a person is available digitally, and when the primary mode of communication with that person is, indeed, in digital form, it also means that the perception others have of the “person behind the nickname” is entirely based upon what they publish about themselves digitally (text, images, videos, and, well, avatars…). This concept of digital self is the object of serious research, since it’s quite a new area. If you’re not willing to read that paper to the end, the abstract is here:

The impact of others in telecopresence on the formation of self has not been well studied. Existing research on self in cyberspace has mostly focused on issues related to the presentation of self. A major question researchers have been trying to answer is how people present their selves to others when they become disembodied and anonymous in the online world. The question the present study attempts to answer, however, is almost the other way around – how do people come to conceive their selves when others become disembodied and anonymous? This question is particularly important for understanding the influence of the Internet on teenagers who are yet to form a stable view of themselves. It has been found that the characteristics of the telecopresent others do produce a different “looking glass” that gives rise to a digital self which is different from the self formed offline. Teenagers’ playful online performances are therefore an integral part of the process of self formation. As such, the “intimate strangers” or “anonymous friends” teenagers associate with on the Internet play an important role in affecting the development of self in online children.

Although that paper in question addresses mostly the how and why children and teenagers reinvent themselves when communicating online, it still manages to make a point: disembodied communication through a digital medium allows us to explore different facets of our self.

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.

Post-immersionism

Immersionism (and remember, there is never a “pure” form of immersionism; it’s an abstract concept that defines a stereotype that doesn’t exist) thus starts from the following assumption: if all human beings inside a virtual world only have a self (a digital self, in this case) that results from the ability to interact with each other through that very same virtual world, the virtual world itself is the defining element that gives existence to them.

The concept of “existence” is a complex one. There is no doubt that — barring a few ‘bots — we all exist independently of Second Life, or of being logged in or not. This follows from the fact that our physical selves are not constrained to exist only when interacting with others, but that it exists in spite of those interactions. So we cannot say that when Second Life goes down, we cease to exist.

However, we can make that assumption for the digital self. It seems clear that when Second Life is down, the digital selves cannot interact with each other, and thus, by definition, they cease to exist. That’s one reason why immersionists are often strong virtual world evangelists and wish virtual worlds to continue to exist. A virtual world like Lively, when shutting down, caused the “virtual death” of hundreds of thousands of digital selves, who, by losing their ability to interact through Lively, ceased to exist. So continued interaction through digital communication is actually a requirement for digital selves to exist.

However, this cannot be so drastic! After all, if I log off from Second Life, I’m not interacting any more — does this mean that my digital self “dies” (to be “reborn” as soon as I log back in again?)

Certainly not. After all, even if we’re not in touch with our friends in the physical world, we know they exist nevertheless, even in the absence of communication (granted, if the period since the last communication is too large — say, half a century! — we might start thinking that they have sadly departed the physical world).

So although my digital self “ceases to interact” when I’m logged off from Second Life, it doesn’t cease to exist. After all, I still write blog posts when I’m not logged in, and other people read them 🙂 (well, a few do, anyway). People still find me at Twitter. I reply to emails. And even if there are longer periods of inactivity — because I’m busy with something — people still have a notion that my digital self “continues to exist” even outside Second Life.

Now this is a less researched aspect of digital selves — their persistence beyond the digital environment in which they are (usually) perceived. And I might claim that Second Life has indeed brought a slight expansion of the whole concept.

World of Warcraft players usually blog a lot about WoW and they also participate on WoW forums. Thus, in a sense, although they’re just “digital selves” when happily slaughtering Orcs, they persist in the discussion outside WoW itself, and by reading what they write — although we don’t get such a rich visual interface that way — we continue to “add” to the perception of their digital selves. On other platforms, people sometimes abandon their “handles” when posting on forums and blogs — they write things like “John Doe, who in WoW plays the character Drakonian Overlord…”. Many, however, will sign their posts and articles as “Drakonian Overlord” — but there is a limit to how far they can go.

Now take a look at what happens in Second Life. It goes way beyond that. Aimee Weber (closely followed by yours truly) trademarked her avatar name, and all her projects (real life projects, that is) bear her “handle”. She’s the girl with the purple butterfly wings. And she’s “bigger than life” that way. Why?

Consider that Aimee’s work has not been limited to interacting in Second Life. It has far outgrown SL itself — it became her RL job. She participates regularly on conferences and workshops — because her digital self is so rich and full, I can quite well imagine that her business card has something like “Aimee Weber, also known in real life as [insert Aimee’s real name here]”. In fact, several SL residents have, indeed, changed their RL names to become their SL names.

Mitch Wagner, aka in SL as Ziggy Figaro, even comments on that:

In America at least, a person can call themseves whatever they want so long as there’s no intent to defraud, and I expect the same is true for the rest of the free world. Most people never really need to change their names.

So the question is really not “what’s in a name” — although so many are terribly paranoid about pseudonyms — but more about how the digital self influences the physical self.

Consider, for the sake of the argument, that Wagner James Au had never been invited to write New World Notes. Would he be the (real) world’s most prominent virtual world journalist and invited to write a book? Very likely not 🙂 — although he’d continue his career in writing games reviews. However, his contact with Second Life developed his career in (possibly) completely unsuspected ways. And I’m not even mentioning Anshe Chung, of course, who would probably be still living in an obscure neighbourhood somewhere in Germany with her accountant husband instead of masterminding with the Chinese Government to create high-tech jobs in China, designing content for virtual worlds. I jokingly ask my friend Maria Gherardi when she’ll drop her RL job and commit full-time to fashion design, even if it’s just SL fashion design. In RL, however, she has no chance of becoming a fashion designer for RL brands.

But feel free to develop your own list. No matter how “big” or “important” these things are, there is a trend going on, which has started probably in early 2006, and becomes more and more relevant with each year that passes: digital selves become more real than the physical ones. The “realness” comes from the fact that they’re mentioned. Most of us who have posted articles frequently using our avatar names will be quite surprised once they start doing searches on Google, and see how little their RL names come up (try GoogleFight for some fun, but take into account that having a very “normal” name like John Smith will completely give the wrong impression). This is not surprising. For most of us, Second Life is either our major hobby or our line of work, and we spend more time enhancing our digital self than worried about what our real self is publishing out there. We post images in Flickr, machinimas on Yahoo, we blog, we write on forums, we publish on SlideShare… we tweet, we add comments on Facebook, all using our digital selves. This adds up. And, ultimately, the digital self becomes bigger than the physical self. Remember, the digital self is only defined by the amount of interactions it has with other digital selves. The “growth” depends on that amount. The sense of being “bigger than life” comes from an understanding that a certain digital self has more narrative than the physical self (which is certainly true for an incredible amount of SL residents).

One should not be very surprised — after all, pseudonyms like Marilyn Monroe became quite bigger than what Norma Jean Baker had ever accomplished before being Marilyn. And you can think about popular bloggers or YouTube directors who have gone through the same process. Although we only experience their selves digitally — through what they write or the videos they make — they are “more real” than many others who never contributed to the vast Internet, and have interactions with far more people than, say, popular real life celebrities. If the “size” of the digital ego is just measured in how many people know you, it’s quite certain that some digital selves have quite a bloated ego!…

The method through which a digital self actually becomes “more real” than the physical self — in the sense that it accrues from an ever-expanding narrative that encompasses an increasing number of digital interactions with other human beings – is what I actually call post-immersionism: the point where the digital self is at the focus and “spills over” to the physical self, in the sense that the physical self is merely defined as the background for the digital self to thrive.

Delusional? Not quite…

Life in the Post-immersionist world

Hiro Pendragon has often claimed that he would never do business with someone with whom he hadn’t talked on the phone. This followed a series of developments in 2007 when it was clear that the level of mistrust due to anonymity (or pseudonymity, to be more correct) in Second Life had reached astonishing proportions, to the point where SL residents started to effectively engage in all sorts of scams and illegal activities and completely break trust. Linden Lab tried to introduce age validation and we were looking ahead for more similar steps to be taken to restrict fraud. The ban on banking was one of those steps.

In a smaller scale, fraud in the unregulated business environment is rampant. SL residents not only copy content, but they set up fraudulent companies (some in SL, a few even in RL!) engaged in all sort of scams. Or they do the oldest trick in the world, which is to engage in business (again, SL or RL) and default on payments, confident that they’re above being sued, although, as we know, that has happened as well in a few scattered cases. But in general, mistrust is the dominant force on the business side of Second Life, specially on the “real life” side of it.

Frauds are not new on the Internet, either, and the difficulties are the same: hard to verify the claims, transnational borders are way easy to cross to avoid lawsuits, and verifying people’s identities is way too hard. Governments could only protect their citizens saying that the same set of laws regulate virtual businesses. So if you’re caught, you’ll go to jail (or be subject to fines and lawsuits). The difficulty, of course, is “catching” the miscreants. Several countries in the world have deemed spamming to be illegal, but that didn’t make the world-wide spamming stop for a heartbeat. Allegedly, Nigeria’s suit of email scams already contributes positively to its GDP. The list of “Internet frauds” is vast, and, to a degree, completely unresearched, since it’s so hard to track down a scammer.

Business is about trust. The most important aspects of the “Trust Equation” on that linked article are credibility (ie. what people say and how they say it), reliability (ie. what they actually do) and intimacy (ie. the amount of information they feel comfortable with in sharing with others). This is naturally just one of many ways of defining business relationships, but, in general, I believe that all these aspects are important.

Any starting company has probably very low scores on all those aspects. But after some time they’ll start at least to improve one of the aspects: credibility, which tends to be spread around. Your potential partner might feel attracted to the perceived high value of credibility, and if they have a good experience with your reliability, they will trust that they have a solid relationship.

Intimacy is where certain (valuable) knowledge is shared, and here is where, for instance, we saw the collapse of the many banking systems in SL before the ban: they were all quite unwilling to reveal any data about how their systems actually worked, or what they were actually doing with all that money from investors. In a sense, one might blame the current financial crisis on the reverse aspect: banks lent money without getting any data from their clients, and thus when they suddenly found out that the majority of their clients were unable to pay for their loans, the world-wide banking system crashed. Or almost.

Even if you take a look at that article, you’ll see that there is quite a mix between “the business” and “the persons working in the business”. This tends to give a feeling that business trust relationships are both personal and institutional. Thus, if you wish to strike a deal with, say, Microsoft, you can trust the institution: they’re credible and reliable, and probably open enough to share information with you. But you’re also going to trust the person you’ll be contacting with: you expect that person to be credible, reliable, and intimate with you, too.

When we move over to business using telecommunications, some things necessarily change. Most of us won’t be able to physically visit Microsoft’s HQ in Redmond, WA; however, most of us will trust that it actually exists (at the very least, we can use Google Maps to see its location). We don’t ask anyone about Microsoft’s credibility and reliability directly — we can read all about it on the news, or, better, watching as the stocks go up, always a fine way to trust a company. So we’ll implicitly trust anyone from Microsoft that comes to offer us a deal — we expect such a trustworthy company to act sensibly and hire trustworthy employees as well.

However, the difference is that in most cases you will not have access to direct validation. You rely on indirect sources to verify Microsoft’s credibility and reliability (even if it’s just talking to a business acquaintance which can vouch for them). And unless flying to Redmond is an option, you’ll have to trust that the person who just walked into your office and offers you a business card from Microsoft actually is who she claims to be. You can most definitely check her up over the phone or by sending an email address and be satisfied with the answer — but the truth is that you have no way to make sure that the phone call wasn’t routed elsewhere and that a fake email server intercepted your message and someone in a basement answered it for you. Granted, when dealing with Microsoft, there are far more layers of checking up credentials, but I hope you see my point.

But the smaller the company, the harder it is to check those credentials. When I met one of the Lindens that happened to visit my country, and we went out for dinner, how could I validate that he was actually who he claimed to be? (I hope he’s not reading this!!) Well, actually, we exchanged emails, and I think he mentioned on his blog — written under his avatar’s name, of course — that he was going to visit. He also had my phone number. However, the truth is, how did he know that I was who I claimed to be? 🙂 After all, I didn’t send him my ID card. This blog could have been written by a ghost writer (a few people humorously comment that they think that Extropia DaSilva is one of my alts, something that amuses us both), or even a series of ghost writers all writing under the same pseudonym. We could even share the same avatar account on Second Life, defeating LL’s request on the ToS not to share passwords. My company could be completely fake — after all, how many people know how to look companies up? All there is to “check” is a rather outdated WordPress blog, which suspiciously is hosted on the same virtual server than my personal blog (then again, a few millions are hosted by DreamHost) with a phone and an address. In fact, if someone goes to that physical address it’s highly likely that they’ll never meet any of us there — we’re all telecommuters most of the time and work from home. Most of the team does not live on the same country, or not even on the same continent. So… how does that relate to the equation of business trust?

In spite of a large amount of lack of physical validation, nevertheless, I might unashamedly boast that I have a certain degree of credibility and reliability. The more interesting aspect, of course, is that both of these are completely unrelated to my physical self but only to my digital self. (I’m actually used to it; since at least 1994 I’ve been engaged in similar ventures, where my physical self had little relevance to my credibility or reliability; Second Life is just the latest and greatest in digital communications) And obviously I behave in the same way when contacting new potential business partners: I check them up on LinkedIn or Plaxo first, to see what they have done, and how well known they are. Ironically, I trust their digital selves more than I trust their real, physical selves. In this day and age, if you don’t have anything about yourself on the Internet, how can I know if you are who you claim you are? 🙂

This inversion of the role of how to “trust” in a business environment is what I call post-immersionism. Intimacy comes from the willingness of a person’s digital self to provide data about themselves online — if you wish, to present a narration for their digital self that I can check up. If you have no digital self with a narration online, I will mistrust you. Why? Well, my question will be exactly the reverse one that Hiro asks: not why you don’t pick up the phone or meet me in the flesh, but why don’t you reveal anything about your digital self? If you’re not working hard on presenting yourself digitally, it means you have “something to hide”!…

More conservative business persons will obviously claim the reverse is true. Having a lunch with a client or driving to see their offices is the way to make business. It’s the old male stereotype of “feeling a man’s grip” (mostly crushing delicate bones in the process…) to gauge their “reputation”. Well, traditions are all very well but… why should a handshake be more “trustworthy” than a webpage showing an artist’s portfolio? When hiring an artist I don’t wish to evaluate how strong her handshake is, but how good she can develop a concept — and for that, I prefer to know in advance how good she is. I can do that by visiting her webpage, and read the comments, and see who links to her, and if there are any reviews from other professionals… a handshake definitely doesn’t convey any useful information.

Similarly, having a phone call to an obscure mobile phone is of little use to me. I remember dealing with AT&T, eons ago, at their offices in Spain. I was quite reluctant to talk with them over the phone, because all I had was a mobile phone for one of their reps. How could I look up a phone number and say: “this number belongs to an AT&T sales rep?” I could call their offices and ask if that phone number belonged to my rep, but the answer (at least back then) would be: “I’m sorry, but we cannot give out the personal mobile phone numbers of our employees”, which was a popular policy. So how did I know this guy was for real? Very simple: he had an AT&T email address. And once I could check that this email address actually worked, it was pretty sure I was “talking” to the right person. I trusted AT&T not to give out AT&T email addresses to anyone. So doing business over email was safe and had a higher degree of trust than over the phone, where I had no clue if I was talking to the right person.

What about personal relationships? Hiro Pendragon claimed that for personal relationships, a phone call is not important:

Personal – yes, sure. I have had and have and will continue to have meaningful personal relationships with friends whom I only chat with via text.

Although Hiro and I left the discussion at that, I believe that his theory is simple: the stakes are higher when talking business or talking friendship 🙂 I never commented back to him on that old post of his, since personally I tend to value friends above business, but I’m sure that many feel otherwise. (After all, losing a friend just makes you sad; losing a business might mean no food, no heating, no home, and have your whole family suffering, so I guess that Hiro does have a point.)

As time goes by, and in spite of the criticism of the move towards the digital space having more pitfalls and traps than by doing business “in-the-flesh”, I believe that the dominant attitude will be to trust more and more what people do on the Internet (and write about themselves, and are peer-reviewed that way). We can get way more data out of the Internet about some person or some company than using any other method. In a sense, the “person” or “company” becomes the data we read about them on the Internet. And thus we’re back to the point where we started: once we cross back from the digital world into the physical world, and we begin to forge relationships on the physical world because of the ones we forged on the digital one, then we become post-immersionists: the digital world is where the focus is, the physical world — and what we do to establish relationships in the physical world — becomes less important. In a sense, post-immersionism is reverse augmentationism: the physical world becomes an extension of the digital one!

This might be not as far-fetched as it sounds. I’m pretty sure that almost everybody who is reading this long essay keeps in touch with the majority of their friends on a daily basis — online. They will also send many more emails to their business acquaintances than have physical meetings in the flesh — and some might even send more emails than make phone calls. Although we still enjoy the occasional special meeting with our friends when we go out with dinner with them or join them to do something together over the weekend, during the rest of the days, we’re not “forgetting” them, but send them text messages, add comments on their Facebook profiles, read their blogs, send them direct tweets, and generally keep in touch with them all the time — just not physically. Even in business we do the same — I might meet physically with my accountants once every quarter, but we exchange emails every day. My business partner in NY sometimes calls me up every other month or so, but we spend almost an hour together every day on emails and in-world meetings in Second Life. In a sense, even a “phone call” is the first step towards post-immersionism, since it replaces the physical self by “something else” which is not quite you (I get more angry on the phone than in the physical presence of someone, for instance!). While our society has fully embraced phone calls as being part of our digital self, and is slowly moving ahead to do the same with emails (specially once we can get rid of all those spammers), things like Group IM on MSN/Gtalk/Yahoo or even virtual worlds like Second Life are still too new for us to fully embrace it. But… it’ll come. Nobody in their right mind thought of sending a lawsuit to court by email in 1972 (when Internet email was just invented), but these days, in my country, the court doesn’t accept documents submitted any other way. You can’t even walk in there in person with your ID card and two witnesses and drop the document on a table. If it’s not sent by email and digitally signed, it’s not valid. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years courts will meet in Second Life and they won’t accept anyone physically entering a courtroom at all — I hardly believe that, but it might happen… — but, granted, it’s too soon.

The fun bit about post-immersionism is that at some point we’ll all be post-immersionists and the term will totally lose its meaning. It’s just controversial right now for a limited time 🙂

gwynwirecard

A note on the photo above. Wirecard is a German bank which has had a virtual presence in Second Life for quite a while. They couldn’t care less if they emit a perfectly valid Mastercard, usable anywhere, with your avatar name (they don’t provide credit, just debit cards). When I showed this card to a friend of mine, he just commented: “now I totally lost the remaining trust I had in the banking system”. The amusing bit, of course, is that you have no way to know if that picture is real or a forgery, since it was clearly photoshopped to blur the numbers (so I could presumably add the fake name on it, too), and you have no way to tell if it’s really me holding the card, or if that’s my real computer. Post-immersionists won’t care, so long as I’m able to pay for what I buy with this card!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
%d bloggers like this: