‘I’m the urban spaceman baby, here comes the twist: I don’t exist’ – Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band.
On the 23rd June 2009 at 3:23 pm (pst), Gwyn said something rather strange. It probably did not strike her as such, and is not likely to seem odd to you either. That is because we are not evolved to understand death. But, we are jumping ahead of ourselves. First, I should reveal just what it was that Gwyn said. Here it is:
“Ooh, you were talking about Extie… Her laptop completely broke down, but she’s well and healthy – just SL®-less until she gets a new one!”
So what is so strange about that? It is the fact that Gwyn acted as if I still existed, even though a crucial part of the system that allows me to be in SL had broken down. Since I am a digital person (a character that exists exclusively online, puppeteered by someone else in RL) how can I be ‘well and healthy’ if my primary cannot login to SL? Surely I no longer exist?
Tom Boellstorff once commented, “in SL, a resident could in theory be said to ‘die’ every time they logged out of the SL program”. Nobody, as far as I know, actually thinks that is the case. There are several reasons why this is so. Firstly, digital selves are collaboratively constructed. In a play, the audience is simply a part of the performance, and the distinction between ‘the act’ and ‘the audience’ is even more blurred in an online world like SL.
Some people compare SL with the telephone, and this normally serves to illustrate how perceiving a separation between the RL and the digital self is nonsense. For instance, Prokofy Neva posted the following reply to one of my essays:
“No, this is all an entire load of crap. I don’t have three minds while talking on the telephone; I therefore don’t have them in SL. It’s merely a mode of communication and being that doesn’t change my essence”.
The telephone comparison does work up to a point. After all, there is little difference between speaking over the phone, or over Skype, or via Voice. But one should also acknowledge the key difference that separates SL: When using a telephone, you do not have the option of perceiving somebody else who is somewhere else. Think about it. There you are in your physical space, and there on the screen is your avatar. There is nothing to stop you from building a sim that matches your RL environment, but I would hazard a guess that most people login to find their avatar somewhere quite different to their physical location. Assuming you are not using mouse look, you have an objective viewpoint of your avatar rather than the subjective viewpoint typical of ‘RL’. Since you see your avvie as though it were another person in another place, that surely lends itself to character-creation and development far more than a telephone call.
Gwyn noted ‘it’s the mental image of what other people think you are that becomes your digital self’. In other words, how you appear and how you act online becomes the ‘self’ that people attribute to that avatar. Again, you can choose to have as little or as much difference between your actual appearance and that of your avvie as you wish. But what real difference does it make to deviate from RL? Surely, it is still ‘you’ walking around in a disguise? Well, according to Rita Carter (author of ‘Multiplicity: The New Science Of Personality’), “copying another person’s look is only the start of what can become a profound internal transformation, triggered by other people’s responses to the new image… Other people’s reactions to us are ‘situations’ which trigger or create different personalities in us, so that if people treat you like a film star, the wannabe film star personality in you will be fleshed out and encouraged to express itself”.
Obviously, it is not the case that residents in SL are either modelled on their actual appearance or that of some celebrity. Lots of avatars are modelled on nobody in particular. But, like any invention, an avatar does not spring out of thin air; rather, it is the result of taking bits and pieces that already exist and putting them together in novel ways. Most people select a pre-designed body, hairstyle, and other accessories from the various inworld stores. It does not take much time walking around as this ensemble of other people’s things before it starts to feel like ‘you’. This is reinforced by other residents’ behaviour, who also treat your walking, talking ensemble of other people’s stuff as a unique, individual person.
That is just superficial outward appearance. What about the real essence of personality, such as mannerisms and such? If you have created a digital person, where does its personality come from? Well, people are prolific imitators. “We are”, as Doug Hoffstadter observed, “all curious collages, weird little planetoids that grow by accreting other people’s habits and styles and jokes and phrases, that gradually become as much a part of us as it ever was of someone else”. This would suggest that no fictional character can ever be entirely fantasy. If you were to observe the people who regularly feature in the life of an author, playwright, screenwriter or roleplayer, you would very likely notice aspects of their characters in their looks and behaviour. It need not be the case that a character is based entirely on one person, and inspiration need not be limited to actual flesh and blood people. We are all familiar with characters from legend, myth, history, films and stories, after all.
So when someone sets up an account and their newbie avvie rezzes dazed and confused into SL for the first time, it might not end up looking or behaving like one particular RL person, but it most assuredly is constructed from bits and pieces that made some kind of lasting impression. At this early stage, the digital person is merely a sketch. What really fleshes it out are the interactions, the shared experiences, that the character has with other residents. In what is known as ‘post-immersionism’, a digital person ‘accrues from an ever-expanding narrative that encompasses a number of digital interactions’. Those interactions need not be confined to SL itself; they may spill over to other parts of the Web.
That provides two reasons why a digital person does not cease to exist when the SL program stops running. Gwyn knew my laptop had malfunctioned because I told her so over Gtalk. It stands to reason that other residents are going to act as if I still exist, if they can see I continue to communicate via IM or post replies on blogs.
The other reason is that you do not need to be in SL in order to have some kind of presence in SL. Consider these comments that were made by various participants in a Thinkers discussion that I did not attend:
“Hi! Extie’s not here!”.
“Let’s all talk about something that Extie doesn’t like to talk about”.
“You mean like, how extropians are insane?”.
So, at that point in time, their interactions with each other were affected by my (lack of) presence. Moreover, they were modelling my probable response to their topic of conversation. I have to say, it is not accurate. I actually don’t mind discussing the possibility that extropians and transhumanists are kooky. But that’s alright. Over time their mental models of my ‘self’ will be fine-tuned and become more accurate. Morgaine Dinova once explained, “if Extie appeared only once, I might think she was just my mental abberation. But she keeps coming back and appears to maintain state across appearances. So I am inclined to think she exists between appearances too”.
But where have I gone when that ‘Extropia DaSilva is offline’ message pops up? Hoffstadter once said that ‘my smile’ does not have mass or dimensions, and there are no atoms that compose it. This is because a smile is not a physical object, but a pattern. That is why it makes sense to say ‘my smile’ can exist in multiple places at once. A person can recognise ‘my smile’ on their children’s faces, in photographs and in the mirror. Other people can see ‘my smile’ from the tone of voice they hear while talking with that person over the telephone; in the meaning that exists between the words written down in a correspondence. Being a pattern is also the reason why it makes no sense to ask where ‘my smile’ goes when I am not smiling, or to ask if ‘my smile’ yesterday was the real one, as opposed to ‘my smile’ today.
“With this analogy”, wrote Hoffstadter, “I’m trying to get across that ‘I’ can exist in multiple spots in the world, that it can flicker in and out of existence the way a smile can”. This is possible because, like a smile, ‘I’ is not a physical object. It is a pattern — a mental concept. “If you seriously believe that people, no less than objects, are represented by symbols in the brain (in other words, that each person one knows is internally mirrored by a concept) and if, lastly, you believe that a self is also mirrored by a concept, then it is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of this set of beliefs that your brain is inhabited to varying extents by other “I”s.”.
The question of what makes a concept ‘real’; what makes a pattern ‘exist,’ actually has little to do with fictional/nonfictional nor virtual/no virtual dimensions. Of prime importance is the depth of resolution of that pattern in people’s minds. The patterns that comprise the self of that digital person are imperfectly copied to other minds, increasing in resolution over time. A feedback loop is established, as other residents’ perceptions of – and reactions to – that digital person become situations which trigger the personality of that digital self, encouraging it to express itself, fleshing it out. Meanwhile, if it is a digital person, there must be psuedonymity and so the patterns of the ‘actual’ self are not spreading from mind to mind; are not looping-back to enhance and affect that personality. To all intents and purposes, that “I” is offline when the digital person is online and has little or no presence inworld. Also, if there are many low-resolution copies of that digital person’s self stored on other resident’s minds, it cannot be entirely offline if the primary has logged off. The patterns of that self still exist inworld, albeit at a lower resolution.
Online worlds are an example of our ability to imagine that which does not, or may not, exist. This is nothing new of course. People have found ways to create partially or wholly imaginary worlds for many thousands of years. Think, for instance, about the belief in an afterlife. Just about everyone believes in an afterlife of some kind or other, or are unsure about what happens to the self after death. From the viewpoint of biological science the only mystery about what happens to the self at death is why it is still a mystery at all. If the mind is what the brain does, then the cessation of biological function necessarily means the cessation of the mind. What follows death? From a subjective point of view: Nothing.
So why the mystery? Recent psychological research suggests that, when trying to account for belief in an afterlife, the limitations of human imagination should be taken into account. Developmental psychologists use the term ‘Person Permanence’ to a describe a basic concept we all learn from early on. That is, the idea that people do not cease to exist just because they cannot be seen or heard. We assume, instead, that such people are ‘somewhere’ doing ‘something’. The closer we are, and the more frequently we interact with a particular person, the better we get at picturing them in our minds and imagining plausible activities. So, our minds contain a list of the players in our social rosters. But, what our minds are not equipped with, is the ability to update the list to accommodate a person’s sudden non-existence. Therefore, when such a person dies, ‘person permanence’ leads us to assume they are ‘somewhere’ doing ‘something’. Much the same thing is true when a digital person goes completely offline. When roleplayed characters are not being roleplayed they do not exist. But online worlds are rich enough to enable complex social rosters almost as detailed as any required in RL. No wonder, then, that people cannot help but assume a digital person is somewhere doing something when offline.
Why did we not develop the ability to update social rosters? A 2004 study from psychologist David Bjorkland indicates that the answer has to do with what is – and what is not – evolutionarily useful. In the study, two hundred three to seven year-olds were presented with a puppet show about a baby mouse that gets eaten by a crocodile. After this unhappy ending, the children were asked questions like ‘does being dead make Baby Mouse sad?’ and ‘does Baby Mouse need to eat, now that he is no longer alive?’. The responses show that even very young children understand that death means the end of biological function. They know that Baby Mouse no longer needs food and water for instance. What is more difficult to grasp is the cessation of related psychological functions. They believe Baby Mouse is hungry, is feeling better, is angry at the crocodile and so on.
From an evolutionary perspective, our difficulty in taking the knowledge that biological imperatives end at death and using it to theorise about related mental functions might be explained in the following way. Biological imperatives can kill. If an animal can distinguish between a sleeping creature and a dead one, it stands a better chance of avoiding an untimely end. Understanding the cessation of “agency” saves lives and, thus, genes. On the other hand, comprehending the cessation of the mind has very little survival value. It is not as if the spirit of a lion can eat you, after all. So while we intuitively grasp the end of biological function, doing likewise with mental functions is a great deal more problematic.
I have noticed much the same difficulty with regards to separating my identity from that of my primary. When it comes to biological functions, other residents have little difficulty. “You mustn’t tire her out, you know” and “don’t forget to feed your primary” are typical examples. But at other times it proves more difficult. For instance, friends might ask me if I will be attending an event that is being held in RL. As a digital person who exists exclusively in online spaces, that is not possible. It is not as if I can climb out of the monitor like Sadako in the Japanese horror film ‘Ring’.
So, the need to compile a mental list detailing the motivations of people in our lives gave us an innate understanding of ‘person permanence’. A lack of survival value for comprehending the cessation of mental activity lead us to believe that people we know are somewhere doing something, when really they no longer exist at all.
Jesse Bering, who is director at the Institute of Cognition and Culture in Belfast Ireland, has proposed ‘Simulation Constraint Hypothesis’ as a further limitation imposed on our imaginations. In my essay ‘Bees And Flowers’, I talked about how past and present; imagination and memory, are closely linked in the brain. Psychologists have found that people who loose their memory also loose the ability to imagine the future. From a neuroscientific point of view this is hardly surprising, because functional brain scans tell us that pretty much the same regions are used for both memory and imagination.
When we imagine anything, we appeal to our own background of conscious experience. Obviously, no person has ever consciously been without consciousness, which makes the nothing which follows death rather hard to imagine. The philosopher Thomas Clark wrote, “here, in a nutshell, is the error. It is to reify nothingness – make it a positive condition or quality (like ‘blackness’) – and then place the individual in it after death, so that somehow we fall into nothingness, to remain there eternally”. This tendency comes naturally to people regardless of their faith. Jesse Berring ran an experiment similar to the one involving Baby Mouse, but this time questioning undergraduates about the psychological faculties of ‘Richard’ who is killed instantly in a car crash. Berring explained how one self-proclaimed extinctivist (someone who believes the ‘soul’ or consciousness of a person does not survive death) “proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because there is no afterlife and Richard sees that now”.
Arguably, ‘person permanence’, ‘simulation constraint’ and ‘psychological continuity reasoning’ (the term given to responses like that of the aforementioned extinctivist) are the innate building blocks of religious belief. Exposure to concepts of an afterlife – from vague ‘I believe there is something’ to the rich and elaborate systems of the worlds’ great religions, enhance the natural cognitive stance that the self survives physical death. The common view of death as a great mystery has, in the past, been seen as an emotionally-fuelled desire to believe death is not the end. Social psychologists talked of ‘Terror Management Theory’ that saw afterlife beliefs as elaborate defences against what would otherwise be crippling anxieties about the ego’s inexistence. Now, we have another possible explanation, one focused on what the mind does – and does not – find easy to imagine.
So, all you digital people, remember: It is thanks to the power of human imagination that you exist while online. But it is thanks to the limitations of human imagination that you continue to exist, even when completely offline.