Bees And Flowers: An Essay By Extropia DaSilva

Extropia petting Morgaine

“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.


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.

What is it that is actually doing the job of drawing GP irresistibly back to the Login screen? Is it Gwyn herself, or is it merely the online friends, groups and other facets of the social networks that GP built up through, and accesses via, the ‘Gwyn’ avatar? Well, what IS Gwyn, anyway? The standard answer is that Gwyn is GP, but Gwyn herself recognised that this is, at best, only a partial answer. In her essay on ‘post-immersionism’, she wrote, “the method in 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 humans — is what I call post-immersionism: the point when a 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”.

Gwyn, then, exists not in the mind of the primary alone, but as a pattern distributed, maintained and developed via interactions with the other people who make up her ‘Ubuntu Web’, my term for the ‘ever expanding narrative’ of ‘digital interactions’. Notice, also, that Gwyn alludes to *her* existence as becoming more solid as interactions focus on her more than the person behind the scenes; her puppeteer, GP.

The following quote, from Wagner James Au’s ‘The Making of SL’, seems to be an example of post-immersionism in action: “Google searches for my real name first turned up my avatar, or sites associated with my avatar”. He goes on to comment that this is “a sobering realization, since a writer on high-tech issues survives inasmuch as Google recognises his existence; in that sense, my success was now dependent on my avatar, Hamlet Au”. This is hardly unprecedented, of course. ‘Elton John’ is a household name but ‘Reg Dwight’ is not. If a stage name or a pen-name can become more recognisable, why not the name a person is known by in cyberspace?

For some people, the relationship between the person and the avatar is not so much akin to ‘Mary Anne Evans and George Elliot’ (the latter being the pseudonym of the first), but more like ‘George Elliot’ and ‘Silas Marner’ (the latter being a character invented by the former). The author Tim Guest once attended a conference held by the famous Anshe Chung, noting that she made repeated references to “my creator, and in fact she requested those present focus their attention on Anshe, the virtual self… rather than the real person“. I happen to know the name of Anshe’s primary, as would anyone who has Googled ‘Anshe Chung’. The same goes for ‘Prokofy Neva’ and ‘Aimee Weber’. Running searches for those names will bring up sites that tell you what the primary of each person is called, if you care to know. Gwyn, though, has taken post-immersionism to a whole other level. Googling her name fails to bring up sites that also reference her primary. Seemingly, as far as the Web is concerned, Gwyn just IS Gwyn. Her ‘digital self’, the blog posts and replies she submits, the groups she belongs to, the business negotiations and online friendships she develops, her Flickr snapshots, tweets and the avatar we identify as her, are not just content created BY Gwyn. Collectively, it IS Gwyn. A grand pattern made up of many parts, ensuring she exists in the mind of others; persists in the mind of the primary, as compelling an influence on that mind as the pattern of a flower’s shape, color and scent is to the mind of a bee.

It makes little sense to ask, ’is it Gwyn or is it the groups, friends, blogs etc that entice GP back to the computer’ because those things ARE Gwyn. Furthermore, LivelyExtie questions the assumption that Gwyn is ’primarybound’ rather than ’primarycentered’.


When it comes to Lively, Google’s short-lived 3D chatroom, I seem to suffer from amnesia. I cannot remember ever logging-in. Nor, for that matter, can I recall registering an account. But, it seems I did. You see, when I tried to set up an account, I was told to pick a name other than ‘Extropia DaSilva’. That name had already been registered. Presumably, then, ‘I’ had an account with Lively and may even have logged-in and participated in whatever people did there, but my mind held no memory of having done so. Well, I am confident that my memory is fine, so that must mean somebody else had registered the name ‘Extropia DaSilva’. You could put this down to coincidence: Somebody just happened to choose the exact same name I would have chosen. Or, maybe someone wanted to keep me away from Lively, and thought that if they registered an account under my name that would somehow achieve that. Or…

Somebody was roleplaying me.

Now, it seems obvious from my perspective that this ‘Extropia DaSilva’ could not possibly be ME. After all, I had never even been to Lively. There were no memories of my time in Google’s chatroom that influenced the person I believed myself to be today. But, then I thought about what my reaction would be upon seeing a name familiar from SL elsewhere on the Web — an avatar in Lively with the name ‘Morgaine Dinova’, say, or a reply posted on a blog by ‘Prokofy Neva’. I would not assume that this was somebody else who happens to use an identical screen name, I would believe it was the same Morgie and the same Prok from SL. Wouldn’t you?

I have to say, I struggle to see what might currently motivate somebody other than the person who created me to roleplay ‘Extropia DaSilva’. It is not like I am famous or anything. But, what about those residents who are famous? If I wanted this essay to be read by many more people and referenced on many more blogs than is typical for something I wrote, a surefire way to achieve that aim would be to credit Gwyneth Llewelyn as the author. It is perhaps true that simply putting her name in place of my own would not be sufficient to make people believe she wrote it, because some people may recognise my style of writing. If I really wanted it to pass as an essay ‘written by Gwyn’, I would likely have to mimic her phraselogical quirks and literary style. Having read a great many of her essays and having spent many hours chatting with Gwyn, I do have some idea of her way of expressing herself, so I probably could write an essay in the style of Gwyn.

Of course, no matter how accurately I reproduced her style of writing, there is one person who would know straight away that Gwyn did not really write it. That person is GP. It might convince anybody else, but since GP would not have any recollection of having written it, s/he would know it was not a genuine Llewelyn essay, just as my primary knows LivelyExtie could not possibly be me. But, then what? Would GP expose the essay as a forgery, or keep quiet about the fact? Either way, we can say the essay would be accepted as something Gwyn actually wrote unless:

  • Gwyn herself indicates otherwise or,
  • The majority of people believe otherwise.

This reasoning also applies to an avatar with a familiar name. Extropia DaSilva IS Extropia DaSilva, provided two conditions are met. One: *I* do not indicate otherwise (i.e. the person pupetteering that Extie denies being ‘the’ Extie whatever that means, or somebody else claiming to be Extropia DaSilva convinces others that another avvie baring that name is a fake). Two: The majority of people do not believe some avatar’s claim to be Extropia DaSilva. The question is, why would people assume somebody called Extropia DaSilva was NOT ‘me’? Presumably because ‘I’ was acting in ways inconsistent with what people would expect.

In my essay, ‘Virals And Definitives in SL’, I argued that a character created and roleplayed by someone might ‘outlive’ that person, provided somebody else was willing and able to puppetteer that avatar convincingly. I assumed this would be very difficult to do today, and LivelyExtie shows why. The person roleplaying me in SL could not access Google’s chatroom, and the person presumably roleplaying me in Lively could not access SL. To be precise, both COULD have accounts in SL AND Lively, but one person would have an avatar called ‘Extropia DaSilva’ in SL but not Lively (although the name could be very similar), and the other person would have an avatar with my exact name in Lively, but not in SL. ‘I’ had never so much as logged in to Lively, but it is possible that whoever puppeteered LivelyExtie logged-in to SL and observed my behaviour. Therefore, if someone had come to SL from Lively where they met ‘me’ for the first time, they may well have asked questions about ‘my’ past that were utterly unfamiliar to me. They might then begin to wonder if I was actually the person they thought I was. On the other hand, someone from SL who was vaguely familiar with my SL personae might be convinced that LivelyExtie was the same person, if the roleplayer was acting in ways not too dissimilar from SLExtie, but I assumed it would take an exhaustive knowledge of my SL history, almost as detailed as my primary’s knowledge of me, for anybody else to roleplay me convincingly in front of close friends. I suggested that, in the future, a person roleplaying a particular character might automatically upload vast amounts of information about their character’s daily life, and that subsequent roleplayers might be able to trawl that database using highly efficient search engines that can quickly deliver information needed to fill in ‘memory blanks’.

However, somebody called Arcadia Codesmith replied to the ‘Virals And Definitives’ essay, arguing “I think you’re overestimating the difficulty involved. To portray a character convincingly… you just have to have the ability to inhabit the role well enough to fullfil the expectations of your audience. That’s not as hard as it appears, and it’s made easier by the nature of thought and memory… We forget important things and remember trivia. We drift away from friends and make new friends from strangers. Even our core values mutate and adapt over time. It’s true that other people observe patterns in our behaviour and expect us to conform to them, but most of those patterns are superficial, obvious, and can be easily counterfeited… and we break and remould our patterns all the time”.

Something that lends weight to Arcadia’s argument is that, once I am logged-in to SL, nobody ever interrogates me in order to be sure I really am THE Extropia DaSilva. Nor, for that matter, do I subject my friends and acquaintances to any such test. Occasionally, I ask a friend about some past event, and they tell me they do not remember it. I put that down to the fallability of memory; I do not leap to the conclusion that my friend has been replaced with a forgery. I should point out that you are generally not allowed to pass your account on to someone else (it is not, however, totally forbidden) and Linden Lab strongly advises against anyone divulging their password. That may be why everybody just assumes whoever they meet again in SL must be pupetteered by the same RL person. But, I have a feeling this assumption would hold, even when we encounter familiar names outside of SL. An essay or a reply by ‘Prokofy Neva’; an avatar with the name ‘Extropia DaSilva’. So long as the essay was reasonably close to Prokofy’s style, and so long as that avatar was acting in ways reasonably close to how people would expect ‘me’ to act, I doubt if anybody (other than the primary of Prok or Extie. I repeat, OTHER than the primary of Prok or Extie) would suspect it was anybody else.


What does it mean to be ‘PrimaryBound’ or ‘PrimaryCentred’? An avatar is PrimaryBound if there is one — and only one — RL person behind that identity. This might be because somebody claims sole ownership of a particular name, and can successfully argue that an avatar, blog post, etc. bearing that name is not something they were responsible for. Another reason for being PrimaryBound is because nobody else would want to roleplay that part. On the other hand, to be PrimaryCentered is to allow for the possibility that somebody else could take on that personae. I would imagine that such people would be roleplayers already; those who think of their digital self as a character they created and developed (akin to the George Elliot/Silas Marner). People who prefer to think of their digital self as a pseudonymn (akin to Mary Evans/George Elliot), are probably unlikely to permit others to take on that role and would rather let their digital self expire when their actual self dies.

‘PrimaryCentered’ posits other RL people willing and able to roleplay a pre-existing digital self. Tataru Nino kindly informed me that this kind of thing can and does happen in MMORPGs. “It’s the norm in many roleplaying virtual environments for ‘feature characters’ (well-known, influential, historic figures) to be played by a succession of users. Actually applying for the role requires considerable research, interviews with those who had close, frequent or important interactions with them, and oftentimes auditions. When all goes well- and it frequently does — there is little discernable difference between the personas…Characters often outlive their original player by many years, as successions of players retire from the role and new players take up the role in their place”.

We may assume that it would be the well-known, influential characters of SL that would stand the best chance of attracting wannabe roleplayers. That would mean somebody will have first developed that digital self for a sustained period, probably amounting to years. Such a person is clearly central to the role. Who better to provide background information about that character; to interview and audition potential replacements? If such a person can be replaced, and whatever differences this causes are too slight to be noticed by anyone else interacting with the digital self, that original person cannot have been ESSENTIAL, in the way implied by ‘PrimaryBound’.

Ironically, while it may be the most well-known and influential characters of online worlds that attract the most wannabe roleplayers, it might be the relative nobodies who stand the best chance of finding successful replacements. Take me, for example. What do I do? I write essays, take part in discussions, write silly poems on-the-fly and chat with friends. That is pretty much all there is to me. Replacing my current primary calls for someone else who has done research similar to what, typically, goes into my essays and discussion topics. Such a person should also be able to express opinions similar to my own, and be able to project a temperament that is not too dissimilar. The match does not have to be perfect, just good enough to convince everybody else that I am the same digital person I was before, taking into account the fact that we all change to some extent over time. It would be wrong to say any old person could succeed my current primary. But, really, it cannot be all that hard to find a replacement, particularly given the technological developments I outlined briefly at the end of my ‘Virals’ essay. But, then, who else but my current primary would want to roleplay me? Again, it is not as if I am famous or anything.


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.

Getting back, finally, to the bee/flower analogy, just as flowers need pollinating insects if they are to persist, and have evolved patterns that manipulate the behaviour of some organisms into serving their needs, so this applies to digital people. Of course, a flower’s success is not entirely due to the mind-controlling effect of its patterns. Rewards and personal gain for the insects must be taken into account as well. It is equally plausible to say a bee lands on a flower because it knows it will find nectar there. Similarly, GP, the primary of Gwyn, is not just lured back to the login screen by the tractor-beam effect of digital self’s patterns, but also because it is rewarding.


Some people find it all rather disturbing. One reply posted on my ‘Virals’ essay commented, “I don’t doubt that we’ll end up with digital personalities floating about which will endlessly confuse people in this way. I don’t think that’s a good thing”. And when I attended an event promoting the book ‘Coming of Age in SL’ by Tom Boellstorff, someone asked “how can we say this (SL) is “real” when people are role-playing? For instance, I can say I am Native American, even the member of a tribe such as Cherokee. Does this mean I have become authentically Cherokee? Is it real?”.

Replying to the latter question, another participant said, “I do not think one could be a real Cherokee here because it has a counterpart in RL that would have to match. But one could be a real ethnotype that exists only on the grid, like a real Caledonian”.

Comments and questions like these lead to no end of speculation and thought experiments. Someone creates and develops a character in SL, an “outrageously brash, vaguely tipsy ballerina with blue butterfly wings” (Wagner James Au’s description, not mine). Is that a good thing?

The RL person behind the character can no longer manage the work required to maintain that character’s personae and reputation as a premier designer in SL. S/he logs off and that digital person is never seen or heard from again. Is that a good thing?

She’s back. Friends ask where she has been all this time, and smile at her reply. It’s just so *her*. She has lots of new ideas and invites journalists and bloggers alike to report on work-in-progress. Reports enthuse about the new direction her work is taking, but note that there still the unmistakable signature of her style manifest in the projects. Is at that good thing? Would the answer be positive or negative depending on whether or not the original RL person was still behind the personae, or if the account had been handed over to someone else? Would that digital person still exist, or would it be merely be an imitation and what difference would it make if nobody could tell? Would the Mickey Mouse we see in cartoons today be denounced as a fake if it were discovered that the original team behind the character had all been replaced with different animators, editors, sound crews… or would people treat the cartoon mouse as the same character?

Is being a member of the Cherokee tribe less, as, or more real than being an ethnotype that exists purely on the grid? If there are indeed actual ethnotypes in SL, is there an actual human roleplaying a furry in RL, or an actual furry in SL who roleplays a human in-between logging-on?

A person imagines that, tomorrow, he will roleplay a Gorean in SL. Something triggers a forgotten memory and he recalls an early childhood spent among the Cherokee. Which is ‘real’, the child he remembers, or the Gorean he imagines?

Well, you could go on all day. I will leave questions such as these hanging in the air and point out that, by describing such hypothetical scenarios, I assume my readers (whoever they may be) are roleplayers. They are all people capable of building fantasy worlds in their minds and populating them with imaginary folk whose actions lead to consequences. There would not be much point in setting up hypothetical situations and asking my readers to imagine the outcome if they did not possess any roleplaying ability. But wait. Not everyone in SL indulges in roleplaying. If you are not a roleplayer, does it therefore follow that you cannot play these scenarios in your mind?

Really, I do not need to worry about that, because SL is not divided up into people who can roleplay and those who cannot. Ok, I guess that comes as no surprise. But, equally, it is not divided up into people who DO roleplay and those who do not. Nor, for that matter, is the act of creating and developing imaginary characters, places and situations something that is limited to cyberspace. Roleplaying goes on in RL too, in all sorts of ways- not all of them recognisable as fantasy. But then, the question must be asked: ‘how can we say RL is “real” if people are roleplaying?’ Well, what is ‘real’, anyway?


Anthropologists have long saught to classify humans, coming up with terms like ‘the thinking animal’ or ‘Man the toolmaker’. But, perhaps the most apt description would be ‘the storytelling animal’. Creating imaginary places and people is a truly universal human skill. From the oral-storytellers of hunter-gatherer tribes, to the folktales written in ancient Sanskrit, Sumerian or Latin, and up to modern times with millions of books, TV shows and movies, storytelling is evident across all culture and throughout all human history.

One consequence of this tendency to weave fictional tales is a blurring of reality and fantasy in everyday life. We do not just live in the objective world of physical objects; we also share each other’s imaginary landscapes. Consider the following list of names. Ayn Rand, Bart Simpson, Charles Dogson, Dagny Taggart, Ella Fitzgerald, George Elliot, Hauldon Caullfield, Indiana Jones, Jesus Christ, King Arthur, Lewis Carrol, Mickey Mouse, Napolean Bonaparte, Oliver Twist, Plato, Ronald McDonald, Socrates, Tom Bombadil, Ulysses, Walt Disney. There is a good chance that you recognise quite a few of the names in that list, but can you say which are names of actual people, and which are only imaginary? I will tell you the answer later on, but for now we need to explain this most curious habit of weaving fictional tales.

It may not seem odd, but it is if you think about it. Why would evolution not select against minds that wasted time creating imaginary situations, rather than dealing exclusively with the real world? A branch of study known as ‘Literary Darwinism’ seeks to answer that question by comparing the themes of the tales themselves. Far from being specific to each culture, similar themes and character types appear consistently in narratives from all cultures. Anyone who has spent some time ‘people watching’ in SL will have discovered that women there tend to be slim, young and beautiful. It is tempting to blame this stereotype on the fashion industry or Hollywood — endless images of impossibly beautiful people fill our streets and homes via billboard posters, magazine covers and TV shows. But, precisely the same gender description is encountered wherever you move across the landscape of folktales. No matter what continent, or what century, and regardless of whether it is a hunter-gatherer or an industrial society, women are much less likely to be the main characters and more likely to have emphasis placed on their beauty. Meanwhile, male characters are typically portrayed as more active and physically courageous. What these gender stereotypes reflect, it is suggested, are classic signs of reproductive health: youth and beauty for females (signifying the ability to bear children), and the ability to provide for a family (signalled by power and success) in males.

As for the themes, Patrick Hogan (a professor of English and Comparative Literature) has found that as many as two-thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions appear to be based on three narrative prototypes. ‘Romantic’ and ‘Heroric’ scenarios make up the two more common prototypes, with the former focusing on the trials and travails of love and the latter focusing on power struggles. Professor Hogan dubbed the third prototype ‘Sacrificial’. These kind of tales focus on agrarian plenty versus famine, as well as on societal redemption. These basic prototypes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.

The latter need is almost certainly the reason why we have stories in the first place. In order to follow a story, you need an ability to read another entity’s motivations and intentions. Understanding a story, in other words, is a skill that is equivilent to understanding the human mind. Gwyneth Llewelyn habitually counters accusations of escapism by referring to forms of escapism that exist outside of computer-mediated VRs. Crying at a film, laughing out loud while reading a book, and things like that. Her point is, just about everyone indulges in some form of escapism. Psychologists have a name for the kind of immersionism typified by a weepy movie. They call it ‘Narrative Transport’. Whenever your emotions become inextricably tied to a story’s characters, you are displaying the ability to attribute mental states, such as awareness and intent, to another entity. This ability is known as ‘Theory of Mind’ and it is crucial to social interaction and communal living.

Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. It requires interacting with others and learning the rules and customs of society. Storytelling persists because there is no better way to promote social cohesion among groups, or for passing on knowledge to future generations. Stories’ roles in establishing the rules of society are demonstrated in a web-based survey of more than five hundred readers. The respondants answered questions about the motivations and personalities of one hundred and forty-four principle characters from a wide selection of Victorian novels. One thing this survey revealed is an evolved psychological tendency to envision human social relations as morally polarized between “us” and “them”. Another, was a tendency to view antagonists as a malign force motivated by social dominance as an end in itself, something that threatens the very principle of community. We see the former tendency in action in SL. For instance, an individual could use either voice or text to communicate, not exclusively preferring one or the other but rather adopting whichever best suits the current situation. But what debates tend to focus on is ‘voice’ versus ‘text’, as if residents in SL can be divided neatly into two groups that always oppose each other.

Theory of Mind is vital to social living, and it develops in children around age four or five. Once we possess it, we tend to make stories out of everything. This tendency was demonstrated in a 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel. They created an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square. Although the shapes had no minds, people nevertheless described the scene as if the triangles and circle had intentions and motivations. They would make comments like ‘the triangles are chasing the circle’. We have a predilection for making characters and stories out of whatever we see in the world around us.


What is going on in the brain as we create and understand narratives? Imaging studies have identified areas of the brain that appear crucial to this ability. The medial and lateral prefrontal cortex are responsible for working memory, something that helps sequence information and represent story events. The cingulate cortex is evolved in visuospatial imagery and may be connecting personal experience with the story to add understanding. Identification of characters’ mental states seems to be the responsibility of regions such as the prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and temporal lobes. Patterns for story processing differ from those of other related mental tasks, such as paying attention or stringing together sentences for language comprehension.

Sometimes, the brain shows very little difference in patterns of activity, even when one would think it would. Apart from people with certain forms of dementia, we all have the ability to recall the past and imagine the future. We also have the ability to tell one from the other. If I imagine a birthday party, for instance, I do not confuse this fantasy with an actual party I attended. Conversely, if I recall a party that I did attend in the past, I know that what I see in my mind’s eye really happened and is not just imaginary.

The fact that we can so easily distinguish memory of the past from imagining the future might lead one to expect different patterns of activity associated with the past and the future. Indeed, that is what a team lead by Kathleen McDermot expected to see when they recorded the brain activity of subjects as they recalled or imagined a common experience. But, what they found was that both tasks produced very similar brain activity. McDermot remarked, “we really thought we were going to see a region that was more active in memory than in future thought. We didn’t find that”. This evidence suggests that our personal past and future are closely linked in the brain.

Why is that? Well, in and of itself, the ability to recall the past is not evolutionarily useful. It only becomes so once you can also plan for the future. Remembering how hungry you were last winter is advantageous only if it convinces you to store away food you find in a current season of abundance in preparation for the coming winter. Our capacity to remember the past evolved to help us imagine and plan for the future. One of the main functions of memory, therefore, is to shuffle scraps of the past around in novel ways to project possible futures.

This constructive nature of memory is believed to be the reason why we are prone to false memories. Professor Elizabeth Loftus wrote, “I’ve spent three decades learning how to alter people’s memories. I’ve even gone as far as planting entirely false memories into the minds of ordinary people — memories such as being lost in a shopping mall… all planted through the power of suggestion”. A simple way to demonstrate false memories is to show a person a list of words such as ‘pillow’, ‘doze’, and ‘sleep’. S/he can be easily tricked into remembering that the word ‘dream’ appeared on the list as well. However, people do not make the same mistake with unrelated words.

What this type of fallibility shows is that your memory is not a flawless action replay of an event that really happened. Instead, we only have the ability to remember bits and pieces of our past; to recall the outline of things rather than exhaustive details. We may feel as though we remember certain events fully, but what the mind actually does is imaginatively fill in missing details to construct plausible — but not necessarily accurate — accounts of what happened. Earlier, I asked whether the child a person remembered was ‘real’, or whether it was the character that person anticipated roleplaying tomorrow. We can see now that both are a blend of fact and fiction. A memory is not a flawless action replay, but merely something that captures the gist of what happened. The future, meanwhile, is created in the mind by shuffling scraps of the past around in novel ways.


Shuffling bits and pieces around in novel ways is the essence of invention. It is not often portrayed that way. Think of the cartoon image of a man with a light bulb floating in the air above his head, turning on to signify a great idea coming from nowhere. But, as James Burke explained in the documentary, ‘Connections’, “at no time did an invention come out of thin air, into somebody’s head. You just had to put a number of bits and pieces that were already there together in the right way”. This essay is an example of what he meant. In order to write it, I gathered research material from other books, pod casts, blogs, videos etc. From these I extracted relevant facts, analogies, visualizations and so on that helped clarify my thoughts regarding the themes of the essay. These bits and pieces were then shuffled around, put together in new ways and sometimes changed slightly in order to make them more relevant to whatever point I was trying to get across. Each of the authors whose work was used by me as research material, in turn, did pretty much the same thing. Each one took bits and pieces that already existed in other sources and recombined them in the right way to represent his or her own ideas.

You can imagine taking this essay and surrounding it with the reference material used in its development, with whatever was most influential placed nearest and the least relevant placed furthest away. Imagine, also, that the same thing applied to each source of reference: it too was surrounded by whatever was used to research its ideas. As you traced the ideas I explored in this essay to their sources, you would find that what I call ‘my’ ideas are really a bundle of fragments of other people’s ideas put together in a new way. You would see that this essay is a consequence of the shape of neighbouring research material, just as any one piece of research material is, in turn, a consequence of the shape of its neighbours. As you follow one fragment from my essay at the centre to works far out on the periphery, ‘my’ ideas would become more and more different as it is altered slightly by each individual author tweaking it in order to better suit the point he or she wants to get across.

Later on, we will encounter this image again, albeit in a slightly different form and attributed to another author. Before we get to that, though, we need to consider that ‘selves’ come into existence much like inventions or essays do. That is, by collecting bits and pieces that already exist and putting them together in the right way.

The notion of constructing a self feels more literal in an online world like SL. After all, pretty much the first thing anyone does after logging-on for the first time is to start editing their avatar’s appearance so it looks less like ‘Ruth’ and more like whatever they had in mind. For the majority of people, it becomes apparent that sculpting your avatar into the ideal representation is no easy task. And what do people do when a task turns out to be too hard or time consuming? They pay someone else to do it for them.

So you hit the stores and you grab a pre-designed body, prim hair, maybe a new pair of eyes, walk and posture animations and whatever else takes your fancy. This collection of other people’s designs is then put together in whatever way seems best to you, maybe tweaked a bit if the ‘modify’ option permits. And there you are, a walking, talking, posturing ensemble of other people’s bits and pieces. But after only a short while, it all stops feeling like a collection of other people’s prims, textures, and scripts and starts to feel like ‘you’. This is re-inforced by the people you meet, who also identify your avatar as ‘you’ regardless of whether you designed it all yourself from scratch, or just pieced together bits and pieces that already existed.

In RL you don’t exactly get to fiddle with options to change your body, so what sense does it make to say your self is constructed from pre-existing bits and pieces? We can get an idea of how such a thing might come about by looking at an experiment used in developmental psychology, known as the ‘visual cliff’. A child aged about 12 months is placed at the edge of what looks like a sheer drop, but is in fact traversable thanks to a glass bridge. Whether or not the infant crawls over the glass depends on its mother. Whenever small children encounter a situation they are unsure of, they look to a trusted individual’s face. If that face looks fearful (actually, during the visual cliff experiment the baby is in no real danger) the child will not cross. On the other hand, if Mother looks encouraging, the child is much more likely to traverse the glass.

But, whose fear or confidence is it? The child looks to a trusted individual and adopts the action that mirrors whatever emotion was evident on that face: the child’s actions copy the mother’s emotions. Developmental psychologists call this sort of thing ‘Social Referencing’. AI researcher and philosopher Doug Hoffstadter describes the human brain as ‘a universal machine’, saying, “our neural hardware can copy arbitrary patterns… beings have the capacity to model inside themselves other beings they run into, to slap together quick-and-dirty models of beings they encounter only briefly, to refine such course models over time”. People are prolific imitators. We observe each other’s styles, habits and postures. We absorb each other’s jokes, accents, catchphrases, analogies, metaphores, tales, memories and sometimes we incorporate such things into our own lives. We retell jokes, we adopt a style or a walk or a catchphrase and use it as part of our own repertoire until, after a while, it feels as much like a part of ourselves as our own limbs do. As Hoffstadter said, “we are all curious collages… each of us is a bundle of fragments of other peoples’ souls, simply put together in a new way”.

This notion of a self as ‘a bundle of other people’s souls’ was turned into an abstract painting called ‘I At the Centre’ by David Oleson. Hoffstadter’s description of it may sound familiar: “‘I’ is a consequence of the shape of all its neighbours. Their shapes, likewise, are consequences of the shapes of their neighbours and so on. As one drifts out towards the periphery, the shapes gradually become more and more different from each other”.

The fragments from which ‘I’ is made need not come from people someone has actually met. Humans, after all, are the storytelling animal. People are influenced by folktales, myths, legends, biographies of people they never met and historical accounts of events they did not witness. When photos and movies came along we no longer needed to embellish in our heads those people and places we only read or heard about in stories. We can see them directly, or rather we seem to. What a TV, cinema screen and computer monitor really show are ever-changing 2-D arrays of pixels, but the mind interprets it as coding for 3-D situations evolving over time. Such images could be of people, places and events that do exist and are currently happening; that did exist but no longer; that did not exist but might do in the future; that could never exist at all.


Earlier, I wrote out a list of names and asked, ‘which are names of actual people, and which are only imaginary?’. Well done if you correctly answered, ‘they are all imaginary’. On the other hand, if, say, you thought ‘Ayn Rand’, ‘Lewis Carrol’, ‘Napolean Bonaparte’ ‘Socrates’ and ‘Walt Disney’ are names of actual people, I would point out that none of those people exist: they are all dead. That being the case, you cannot have directly met them. You know about them only through ‘digital person technologies’, which are technologies capable of providing patterns that suitably sophisticated minds perceive as coding for beings, places and events that may not actually exist.

When Anthony Gottlieb wrote an essay about Socrates for the book ‘The Great Philosophers’ (edited by Ray Monk and Frederick Rapheal), he credited Plato with providing much of the reference material, pointing out that “there is no alternative. The Socrates of Plato’s ‘Apology’ is the only Socrates there is, or has been for nearly all of the history of philosophy”. Of course, he did not mean that the only biographies of the philosopher available are Plato’s and his own. He meant that there are no surviving works by Socrates himself (a problem caused in no small part by the fact that Socrates never wrote anything down). That being the case, what is the true nature of the person we know as Socrates? Is that an actual person, or just a character in Plato’s books?

Now consider this quote from a chapter about Ayn Rand in Micheal Shermer’s book ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’. “A twenty-four-year-old housewife (her own label)… said, ‘Dagny Taggart was an inspiration to me; she is a great feminist role model’”. Note that she gives as much credit to ‘Dagny Taggart’ as she does to Ayn Rand, even though one might think the latter deserves all the credit. Why? Because Dagny Taggart is the principle heroine of Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’. She never really spoke or did anything to inspire anyone; only Ayn Rand ever really thought anything. But then, we could say the same for Socrates. Why credit him with anything if it is only Plato’s Socrates that we know?

An obvious answer is that Socrates did exist and his life and teachings inspired Plato to write ‘The Apology’ and other works. Dagny, however, never existed independently of Ayn Rand’s imagination (at least, not until other people read the story she is part of). Remember, though, that inventions come — not from nowhere — but by putting together bits and pieces that already exist. I think that when people ask an author ‘where do you get your ideas from?’, they are recognising the fact that, in some sense, the characters, events and places that comprise a story are discovered as much as created; discovered in the physical world in which the author lives. When Hoffstadter described beings as ‘having the capacity to… slap together quick and dirty models of beings… [refining] such models over time’, this referred to ‘people’ like Dagny Taggart as much as it does to ‘you’ and ‘me’. Dagny was a bundle of fragments of other people’s souls, as was Socrates and anyone else.

When Hoffstadter refers to souls, he does not mean some mysterious energy or spirit forever separating people from ‘lower’ animals and machines. He is referring to the outward behaviours that you or I use to infer what someone else is thinking and feeling; to suppose they have minds in the first place, and what level of consciousness we should attribute to that mind. The ‘bundle of fragments’ are our memories of conversations, observations of other people and the objects that surround us. We observe all kinds of patterns in daily life, not only when we fully participate in the society we live in, but also whenever we watch a film, read a book, listen to the radio or music or surf the Web. A character in a novel or roleplayed in an online world does not pop into existence when pen is put to paper or an account is set up. Both are merely part of an ongoing process. The likes of Dagny Taggart and Argent Bury emerge gradually as someone makes the right connections between all kinds of patterns. The act of writing the story or roleplaying serves to ‘flesh out’ that character; to refine conceptions of how that person looks, acts, thinks and feels. But all such things were already formed in the mind — albeit ghostlty and incomplete — before writing or roleplaying began. People like Dagny Taggart and Argent Bury already existed as fragments of patterns embedded within the larger patterns produced and maintained by cultural memory systems. Creators of such people are more properly called Perceivers. Ayn Rand’s achievment was in perceiving the patterns that were Dagny, scattered and disordered among the greater patterns of life. The act of writing or roleplaying serves to bring order to those patterns, to make it easier for others to perceive them. As each fragment is copied into the neural hardware and as connections and correlations are made, does a tipping point occurr whereby an idea becomes so bright that the mind has no choice but to express it? To paraphrase Clyde Bruckman, “why did Ayn create Dagny and why did someone or some group decide to roleplay Argent Bury? Was it one specific moment when each said, ‘I know: Dagny’ (or ‘Argent’) or was it a whole series of things, starting from when the parents first met that combined in such a way that, in the end, there was no choice but to develop that character?”.


So, what is ‘real’? In order to answer that question sensibly, we must take into consideration the limits of our experience. We are not in direct contact with the world. What we perceive as reality is a simulation created by the mind that usefully predicts at least some part of the actual reality which (I assume) exists outside of the mind. Every person, place and event that you can remember exists only as complex patterns stored in and processed by your brain. I should clarify that. I do not mean nothing exists outside of your mind. I mean that how you perceive those things is unique to you, shaped as it is by the bundle of fragments, the intricate pattern of experiences, that comprise your life so far. Evolution has surely shaped our minds so that your perception of certain things matches that of other people, but nevertheless you live in a simulated world of your own.

In this simulated world, what really matters is not the actual/fantastical and virtual/physical dimension of a person, place or event. It is the resolution of the model that counts; how ‘fine-grained’ it is. Strange though it may seem, this would suggest that a ‘digital person’ you know very well, having developed a rich model from the patterns provided by the relevant human/technological source, is more of a person to you than the hordes of people you pass in the street every day, but from whome you never take the time to build an elaborate representation. I think it is a mistake to equate fiction with untruth. Stories are only convincing if they are built from bits and pieces that were observed in daily life. That does not mean to say we can only write about something that actually happened, but the stories that persist generation after generation are the ones that tell us something useful and practical about people and society. A Science Fiction tale, for example, is best thought of as an extended thought experiment, the purpose of which is to clarify our thinking about certain issues. It has sometimes been said that Sci-Fi is never really about the future, but an alternative way of looking at the society in which the author lived. In holding up a contrast to that society, we may better understand its true nature.

And what about the future? We have long used external devices as augmentations of our cognitive processes. By integrating elements from existing programs in neuroscience (such as brain modelling and neurophysiology), cognitive sciences (physiology, reasoning), computer sciences (AI, simulation and modelling), control theory (mechanisms and control) game theory (decision making and cost/benefit analysis), robotics (perception, world modelling and behaviour) and visualization (computer graphics, videogames), we could one day see the emergence of machines who think creatively. Increasingly, an avatar will become not just a tool for communication and roleplay, but an intelligent partner collaborating with humans and capable of acting autonomously in increasingly diverse situations. I believe it is no coincidence that a storytelling species became technologically capable. The art of storytelling lies in imagining something that may not actually exist, and to plausibly describe its affect on the world if, in fact, it did. That, too, is the art of inventing technologies.

A recurrant debate in transhumane circles concerns the 1st/third person perspective of uploads. Such debates are argued as if uploads were to suddenly appear, fully developed, in today’s unprepared world. I think it is much more likely to emerge as a result of tens of thousands of conservative steps taken by a variety of technologies. Among these will be ways and means of communicating with computers, better interactions with software agents and robots, and improvements in videogame and simulation software. Among other things, I expect we will use this emerging suite of technologies to advance our storytelling capabilities.

If you think about it, ‘I’ has never been purely a 1st person. We are all a blend of 1st and third person perspectives. As the poet Robbie Burns said, “what a gift of God to give us/to see ourselves as others see us”. Novelists, scriptwriters and roleplayers are just people who have developed everyone’s innate ability to model selves — their own as well as others — from bits and pieces that already exist. We keep records of our thoughts in external media; notepads, tape recorders and, increasingly, the myriad devices communicating with the Cloud and the forthcoming Digital Gaia. As these devices grow in sophistication, not just storing information but also processing it and collaborating with us in creating and editing it, there will be an economic advantage in ensuring machine intelligence communicates usefully with the biological intelligences that helped spawn it. Our thoughts will not just migrate to unthinking substrates, but to external cognitive devices that will become increasingly capable of introspecting on thoughts, concepts, ideas, etc, uploaded from the mind of a person to the Mind of Digital Gaia. More obviously than it is now, cognition will be extended or, as David Chalmers and Andy Clark put it, “if, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head we would have no hesitation in recognising as part of the cognitive process, than that part of the world IS part of the cognitive process”.

If mind uploading and full brain emulation ever actually happens, it will emerge in a society in which people are used to thought processes extending out from the mind to interface with computers, robots, and other bio-technological minds. A world in which ideas replicate as they copy into many semi or fully autonomous artificial life forms living in virtual worlds, several possible sequences of cause-and-effect tried out in simulation. A place in which the virtual blends with the actual or replaces it entirely, in accordance with a person’s moment-by-moment needs; seeing yourself from many angles at once as your perception jacks in to remote eyes and ears in physical space, or as Digital Gaia dreams up alternative personal histories for your mind to explore.

In such a reality, which will emerge (if at all) from many conservative steps leading down to current technologies, will uploading really mess with your identity as some have suggested? Or will our innate ability to create selves out of the bits and pieces of everyday experience keep up with technology as it, too, aquires minds capable of such things? In order to answer such questions, we cannot rely only on fact, reality and the actual as guides. We must also tap into our fictional, fantastical and virtual sources. The latter is not the poor relation of the former, but its equal. It is by creating and sharing stories that we clarify our thinking about a reality we never know directly.

Perhaps the final words are best left to Sherry Turkle. “As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundry between the born and the created and between human and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories”.

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