“Why did this woman collect dolls? Was it one specific moment where she suddenly said, ‘I know: dolls’? Or was it a whole series of things, starting from when her parents first met that somehow combined in such a way that, in the end, she had no choice but to be a doll collector”? — spoken by Clyde Bruckman, a character in an episode of ‘The X-Files’.
Do you control your avatar, or does your avatar control you?
What a silly question! After all, unless you have given your avvie some measure of artificial intelligence, it cannot do anything until you cause it to happen. Without you, it is a lifeless, mindless object. How can something without a mind control something blessed with one? That is what makes answering my question a bit of a no-brainer.
But, let’s consider another relationship that exists between something that has a brain and something else that does not. A bee has a brain. It is capable of making decisions and carrying out actions. All things are relative, of course. Compared to the human brain, a bee’s can only be described as a disappointment. But compare a bee to a plant and the insect clearly comes out on top in terms of cognition. Plants do not have a brain or nervous system; they are mindless organisms that bees exploit as a source of food.
While they don’t have a brain, some plants do have flowers. Flowers are more than merely beautiful displays, they are advertisements crafted by tens of millions of years of natural selection. The purpose of advertising is persuasion, and that is achieved by understanding the psychology of your target — their hopes and fears; their secret motives. A good advertisement is effective at manipulating behaviour. Thanks to evolution, flowers are superb at manipulating the behaviour of certain other life forms, one of which is the bee.
In ‘The Extended Phenotype’, Richard Dawkins portrayed flowering plants as controllers of bees, writing “plants, lacking muscles of their own, [use] insect muscles as effector organs to transport their pollen… fueling those muscles with nectar… Eyes and ears are entry points to the nervous system, and there may be patterns… which, if properly deployed, could be as effective as direct electrical stimulation”.
So, a flower’s shape, color and scent are patterns ‘designed’ to enter a bee’s head through its sense organs, trigger nerve impulses that activate muscles and drives like hunger, so that the bee is drawn irresistibly to land on the flower and deposit or carry away a package of pollen. What does this teach us? It shows that your avatar does not necessarily need a brain or a mind of its own in order to exert control over you. What it needs, are patterns that will influence your behaviour in ways that are beneficial to it.
GWYN’S ALTERNATIVE FUTURES.
What might Gwyn’s primary (let’s shorten that to GP) do tomorrow? One possibility is that GP will cancel all accounts for online worlds and social networking sites that ‘Gwyn’ is signed up for. So long, Second Life®, farewell Flickr, bye-bye blogs. GP may have alternative accounts that s/he continues to access, but Gwyneth Llewelyn is not seen or heard from again. What would be the consequence of such action? It would mean Gwyn had died. OK, I admit nobody (probably including myself) would actually think of it in those terms. Gwyn is not dead; she is simply doing something other than participating in online worlds and social networking sites. But if, like me, your only contact with her is through those web-based communication chanels, GP’s act of cancelling them would completely cut you off from any further contact with Gwyn. So, regardless of the health of her primary, Gwyneth Llewelyn would have ceased to exist by any practical definition.
Alternatively, GP might login to one or more of Gwyn’s accounts. Maybe Gwyn spends some time in SL, taking care of business or meeting friends. Perhaps she sees sights that catch her eye, capturing them in snapshots that she duly uploads to her flickr account. Perhaps a conversation among friends or a point raised during a discussion piques Gwyn’s interest enough to warrant an essay, or maybe she leaves a comment on some other person’s blog. Whatever, it let’s us know that Gwyn is alive and well and active as ever.
People who know Gwyn will agree that, while both scenarios are possible, they are in no way equally probable. She is my friend and I would be sad indeed if, tomorrow, I were to discover Gwyn had gone offline and would never return. But, if I were to discover her status was offline tomorrow, it would not concern me in the slightest. The very idea that she might remain offline permanently is, assuming nothing terrible befalls the primary or the Internet itself, flat-out absurd.
But should I really be so sure? It has been noted by the likes of Sherry Turkle and Tom Boellstorff that time resists virtualization. In other words, while you can open up many IM windows and maybe run several online worlds at once, your attention can only focus on one or two windows at a time. You may be able to have an embodiment simultaneously in every online world running on your PC, but you are almost certainly AFK in all but one of them at any given moment. Sherry Turkle reasoned, “doing something precludes others”. Arguably, Gwyn is in permanent competition with those ‘others’, the alternative activities that vie for the primary’s time. Life has plenty to offer away from SL, blogs and all that. And the Web itself offers near endless opportunity for developing alternate personaes. There is always a chance that GP’s interests will no longer be focused on Gwyn’s ‘digital self’, or the digital self of anyone else, for that matter. For Gwyn, though, it is essential that these distractions do not have a permanent hold on GP. S/he MUST be drawn back time and time again, not just to the Web but to Gwyneth Llewelyn’s accounts in particular.