Bees And Flowers: An Essay By Extropia DaSilva


Now, if I were Aimee Weber, my God there would be so many reasons why others would want the chance to roleplay me. Talk about ‘hit the ground running!’. The successor to Aimee’s current primary would have it all: Popularity, fame, successful inworld businesses… But, Aimee has all that because the list of talents her current primary possesses goes on and on and on. It stands to reason that the longer a list like that is, the shorter the list of candidates that tick all relevant boxes will be.

Another problem for Aimee is that a lot of people are aware of who her current primary is. If that person were to die, you can be sure the sad news would spread through the Slogosphere like wildfire. There would no doubt be an inworld memorial service held in her honour. What if Aimee Weber was one of the residents who attended that event? Do you think the avatar baring that name would be treated as THE Aimee Weber? Hell, no. After all, everybody would know ‘the’ Aimee Weber is dead, even if all that was really lost was something central — but not essential — to that digital self. On the other hand, if Gwyneth Llewelyn or I attend, well…Gwyneth Llewelyn or I attend. There can be three possible reasons for our individuality:

  1. There is one RL person behind that digital self.
  2. The digital self is shared by a group of 2 or more RL people, who work to ensure ‘Gwyn’ or ‘Extie’ are perceived as individuals by the rest of the SL community.
  3. There is one person behind that digital self, but it is not the same person it was before. Again, the roleplaying is convincing enough to allow the digital self to be accepted as the same individual by the community.

If 1 HAS to be true, then Gwyn and I are as doomed to die as Aimee is. We would, after all, be ‘PrimaryBound’. But, if 2 and 3 CAN be true, so too can ‘PrimaryCentred’. Once upon a time, there was some speculation that perhaps reason 2 was applicable to Aimee. As Wagner James Au explained, ‘[one] hypothesis suggested that Aimee Weber was not an individual, but a group. How could one person engage in such extensive 3-D building and fashion design, while also keeping up with the prodigious amount of writing she contributed to 3 different SL blogs’?

I suppose that it is still possible that there really is a team of people behind Aimee, and one of them just acts as the RL, public figurehead of that digital self. Unfortunately, from Aimee’s perspective, the fact that this person stepped into the public eye and said, ‘me, me, me, I am Aimee’ was tantamount to a death sentence. When s/he dies, so does Aimee, regardless of whether s/he alone, or s/he plus a gazillion others toiling away in obscurity, breathed life into that digital self. There can be no replacement, not because Aimee’s current primary is such a prodigious talent that s/he is unique and irreplaceable (which could be the case) but because the community would not accept Aimee Weber’s existence after s/he has died, regardless of how close to that digital self the roleplaying may be.

They say everything comes at a cost. I believe reason 1 applies to Aimee Weber, since all available evidence points to that fact. This person worked damn hard to get Aimee where she is today. Why not stand up and take the credit, since s/he was the one that really earned it? Well, s/he did take the credit and s/he is being rewarded. Quite right, too. But at what cost? The death of her creation, that’s what. On the other hand, if only Aimee Weber’s primary had toiled away in obscurity, and quietly passed Aimee Weber’s account over to a suitable replacement when s/he was no longer able to run the patterns of that digital self, Aimee Weber herself would have carried on existing by all the evidence available to everybody else. But then (here comes the cost) from the perspective of anyone who knows or has heard of Aimee Weber only through the medium of digital interactions (online worlds, IM messages, blog posts and replies etc etc) that person (the RL individual behind that digital self) would be an unperson, a ‘someone’ as opposed to a person with a particular name, gender, and face. S/he would never have existed in the first place in the eyes of the online community. Only Aimee Weber would really exist, since it is only that digital self that anybody else would come to know. There would, after all, be no information that anyone could use to tag an identity to the RL person. Of course people would know ‘someone’ or maybe ‘some group’ is doing the real work (unless this is the year ???? and Aimee could be an artificial intelligence) but just being rumour and speculation is hardly the same as being a real person. One primary could retire from the role to be replaced by another, and so long as the current primary toils away in obscurity, Aimee Weber is her own digital self, effectively living indefinitely. But the price a primary pays for her indefinite lifespan is, well, total obscurity. And that does kind of suck.

Some inhabitants of online worlds might have primaries willing to pay the price of obscurity in exchange for the possibility of their digital self outliving them. Me, for one. And, maybe also Gwyn. After all, it was she who reasoned, “the physical self is merely defined as the background for the digital self to thrive” and “Extropia… considers (quite in tune with most researchers in the field) that our digital self is actually defined by how OTHERS perceive ourselves… it’s the mental image of what other people THINK you are that becomes your digital self”. Again, the primary is central but not essential. So long as someone… or something… is willing and able to run the patterns of information from which others perceive that particular digital self, there would continue to be that particular digital self.

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  • Whew. Lots to think about 🙂 I should say, right from the start, that your use of my own poor little self as some kind of “personality” to make a point is a bit skewed. As I keep repeating, about only 200 human beings read my blog every day (the rest are ‘bots gathering statistics). My blog rank on Technorati keeps falling. The number of regular readers has declined over the years, continuously so. And so on… but alas, it’s your essay 🙂

    I have to admit that this is one of the most interesting essays you ever wrote, for lots and lots of reasons. One is clearing out the idea of human beings as “narrative beings”, a concept I only had from Terry Pratchett’s books, and which I did mostly disregard as “fiction”, even if on his partnership with Ian Stewart and Jack S. Cohenon on Science of Discworld II: The Globe, this thought is echoed over and over again. It’s interesting to see someone tie this concept — that we humans are, mostly, storytellers — with the notion (or “illusion”, as some oriental philosophies would say) of the self as an invented narrative, which, of course, fits quite well in the overall concept that reality is a perception of our senses — in a way, we tell to ourselves the story of the perception of reality (and of others). I definitely favour that argument, too 🙂 In fact, it has strong and powerful consequences, and, ironically, it is a “theory of the universe” (and not only of the mind!) in the sense that “the universe is a collection of stories about what we perceive”. Science is a story, too.

    Even more intriguing were the quotes from scientists explaining the notion of self as “fragments of stories” that we assemble to, well, become “ourselves” — but that those same fragments can quite easily be assembled to create imaginary characters in fiction. Or, well, on virtual worlds. Eons ago, I wrote something not unlike that: the notion that our self is a dynamic thing that is assembled from several personality traits and that it can get “reshuffled” pretty easily when you’re younger, less so after your teens — except, of course, if you’re under the influence about some kind of drug, narcotic, stimulant, or, well, through brain damage and/or surgery. In fact, although I didn’t realise that at the time, it’s exactly because of this ability of the “ever-changing self” that drugs are able to deal with mental disorders like bipolarity or the more common depression — we can artificially “shut down” some areas of the brain, and become “different” in that way.

    Granted, if you start reading oriental philosophy or anything the classical Greeks have written 2500 years ago or more, this won’t be news. They always said that the notion of “self” was purely delusional — just a story that we tell and share with others.

    Starting from this assumption, it naturally follows that if someone can tell your story well enough, they become you. This is, in fact, one of the most worrying aspects of electronic identity theft: creeps being able to impersonate your self as good as you, and, well, use that for illegitimate (or criminal!) purposes. This is a serious crime. One that is hard to prevent. So, if the authorities already worry about identities being stolen, and incorporate that in the body of law that protects our societies, it’s obvious that “identities can be copied” (or, well, roleplayed, since that word is quite well loaded). I missed some typical examples on your essay: e.g. things like Sherlock Holmes or even Charlie Chaplin’s Charlot that became stereotypes, but whose “stories” will be immediately recognised by anyone — and we can, of course, use many more examples. Are vampires real? No. So why can anybody (in the Western world at least) define what a vampire is with excruciating detail to the point that everybody in the audience will immediately know what they’re talking about?

    So, I’m obviously not “surprised” by your essay — just surprised, in fact, about the many ties you found between (apparently) different research areas, all of them pretty much saying bits and pieces, but you managed to bring them all together under a consistent idea. Gosh, I just realise that this is exactly what you said that an essay actually is — bits and pieces, floating around, gathering into the same “story”. Nothing is new, just recycled — “newness” comes only from the insight of saying which pieces should be assembled together, and which should stay out of it. Uncanny. Very nice work, Extie 🙂

    Lastly, I always find your ideas about “immortality through avatars” amusing. Oh yes, they’re not so “obvious” — the transhumanists and extropians are usually more worried about the “mind uploaded to computers” issue. You, on the other hand, minimise the importance of the technology by itself, and point to a far easier route for “immortality”: having other people roleplaying your self (and, after all, what better “machine” to upload your mind to — a human being, which are the best known examples of “mind-running” computers that we know about? And hooray, they already exist, work fine, and we have 6.3 billion of them around!).

    The issue you always arise is the “why would someone like to roleplay me?”, and, of course, this is where we get religious — or perhaps mystical would be a less loaded word. You seem to imply that only “famous” people would likely be roleplayed by others — thus preserving their immortality. In real life, this is, to an extent, true. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is probably the archetypal detective that has been mostly roleplayed ever, just because, well, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous and his stories became even more famous. A minor detective on an even minor book of an unknown author might never be picked up ever again. Similarly, Plato has roleplayed what Socrates might have said, because, well, Socrates, even if he hasn’t ever written a single word (that we know about), was “famous” — more famous than Plato at least. Examples abound.

    On the other hand, of course, you make a good argument that “unknown” people (in the sense of “less famous”) might be “easier” to roleplay because there is little known about them, and fewer friends to “fool” (in the good sense). That argument is definitely true; the question, of course, arises:

    If you have unlimited abilities to create your own self — either in real life or, well, in virtual worlds — why should you be compelled to roleplay someone’s self? That’s something I still don’t get 🙂 I might imagine one scenario: claiming to be “Charlot” in 2009 might be far better for a performer to get an audience, than, well, claiming to be himself. Elvis impersonators are more “famous” than the real persons that impersonate them — just, well, because they impersonate “Elvis”. So there is some good argument to say that famous people (whatever “famous” might mean in this context…) will be good candidates for roleplaying. After all, mentally deranged people are keen to say they’re reincarnations of Cleopatra or Napoleon, but never of John Doe, anonymous goat keeper of a rural dwelling on the highlands 🙂

    And finally, of course, I might add some things of my own 🙂 If I’m personally not that keen about releasing so many information about my real self — and God knows I give enough hints — does that mean a) I have something to hide; b) I’m aiming for immortality, as you suggest, by forfeiting the link with my real self, so that someone else might pick up the mind-patterns of “Gwyneth Llewelyn” in the future; c) I’m just having fun roleplaying someone; d) none of the above.

    Ha! I wish it were an easy answer 🙂 And, of course, the answer is different depending on the year you ask me 🙂 It might make a whole essay one day, but suffice it to say that by disconnecting my virtual self from my real self, I’m just making a simple statement: human beings are worth by what they say and do (you might say: “the story they tell”), not because of who they are, where they’re born, how old they are, what they’re studied, what cool friends they’ve got. If there is a simple lesson I’ve learned is that I, as a person (and that is true of every human being on Earth, even if most will disagree with me 🙂 ), am worth very little. It’s just my ego that makes me think otherwise. Everybody else is way more important than me. However, we tend to “tag” people relatively to our social status, wealth, friendship, knowledge, studies, and, well, colour of skin, age, gender, religion, whatnot. I dislike “tags”. I’m just another one of the 6.3 billion human beings in existence — nothing else, and nothing more. My virtual projection into Second Life, the cute-ish red-headed avatar that walks around with a smile, a glint in her eyes, and a flower in her head (has nobody ever wondered why?), is just tabula rasa — take me for what stories I spin about myself, not for my, uh, “credentials” or “authority” that comes from immaterial and transitory things that I might have accumulated elsewhere in real life. These are completely irrelevant to what makes me a human being. And by voluntarily discarding all those “real life tags” I allow everybody in SL (and elsewhere) to tag me from scratch based on what they experience.

    Granted, this might have been my reasoning, but it has a major flaw: as time passes by in SL, I accumulate new tags 🙂 That runs, of course, against my original intentions (just an hour ago, I logged in to OS Grid, and the first guy I met there just asked: “Hey, are you the same Gwyn that blogs a lot?” *sigh* There goes my theory!). I’m sure that there is a lesson to be learned there, too. The good news, of course, is that as SL grows and grows, I become less and less relevant, and that is a Good Thing.

    And of course, there would be an easy way out, e.g. getting different avatars, different names, all the time, so that I could avoid the tagging. Alas, that doesn’t work at all. Imagine a tourist visiting a nice, peaceful, fishermen’s village at the coast. She won’t make an impression if she stays just a few days around and talks to people. She will be quickly forgotten once she leaves. But if she remains in the village for years or decades, she will be accepted by the community, and, even if they remember that she might once have lived elsewhere, she’ll be “part of it” now, and will be treated according to the way she presents herself. In a sense, that’s my idea of Second Life, strongly influenced by Philip’s own idea of “SL as a country”. I’m an immigrant here in SL, but after so much time has passed, I feel that I’m accepted now, and can contribute back to the community as well. Starting afresh every day — juggling among alts — defeats that purpose.

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