Being in Shape

No, this is truly not about how to take your avatar out to a gym and work it out 🙂 Fortunately, in Second Life, getting a trim and fit shape is just… one click away.

It is also not a resource to help you out among the millions of shapes out there to find the one that looks the nicest.

However, it’s related to both — and to three other things which are apparently unrelated. Firstly, it’s about one thing that both my good friend Extropia DaSilva and myself have been thinking for quite a long while (and writing about it), which could, in a sense, be resumed to a single concept: finding the true nature of our selves, and how, strangely, Second Life®, helps us with some hints (we have reached different conclusions after travelling different paths). Secondly, it springs forth from a conversation with another dear female friend who received a strange gift from a male friend: he generously bought her a new shape, vaguely alluding to the fact that she would look “much nicer” with her new shape. And thirdly, it arises from this strange relationship (or even a bond!) that we create with our Second Life avatars, which is so strange to explain to anyone that hasn’t been around for long enough, and the way that is ties ino the nature of self — and no, it’s not about augmentism vs. immersionism again, although it might show us some clues on one of the reasons for the different approaches to something quite subtle – the way we ultimately view ourselves and what a “self” is.

I’m not going to promise to be very rational, or even organised in my thoughts. I hope that by providing a few examples I might encourage you to think and reflect about the very same issues, and reach your own conclusions.

Signatures

It is the 21st century, and we have immense power at out fingertips — the power of the printed word. We usually don’t think twice about what it means. Some historians believe that the big schisms in religion and modern thought happened shortly after the printed press was (re)invented in Europe, and all of a sudden words became cheap and widespread, in print. The printed word — in the form of cheap newspapers — later gave rise to odd notions (which we all find commonplace today) like freedom of expression, and, in a sense, even to democracy, by providing a pillar upon which human rights can be founded. I might just have compressed 650 or so years of history into a single paragraph, and these conclusions are far from consensual, but they tend to point to the overall idea that if you can set ideas to print, and do so very cheaply, these ideas become powerful, and enable revolution of thought. At least, to a degree.

But in this century we have gone a step further. We have eliminated editors, distributors, copy-writers. Anyone with a computer can create the printed word very easily and disseminate it to millions. The power, as Bill Gates would have said, is truly in our fingertips. But… we lost something in the process: a word is just like any other word. A typeface used by someone looks just like the very same typeface used by someone else. Thus, when writing an article (or an essay, or a book — or even an email), we lost, to a sense, a certain degree of individuality. All emails look the same inside Gmail (or your favourite e-mail application). Of course, you can change font types and colours. You can even write in a different way than most people; assemble words differently; after all, a talented author doesn’t write like a 4-year-old.

But seen from afar, a piece of paper just printed out looks like any other.

In the business and bureaucratic world, we have recognised the big advantage of the printed word in a standard format. Contracts can be easily copied and pasted, and just a handful of words changed, to reflect the nature of the partners engaging in the transaction. All IRS forms look ultimately the same, just the names, addresses, and values are different. So how do we “prove” that a particular piece of paper is our own?

The simple answer is, we sign it.

Note that a signature is not merely putting your name and address, and eventually your citizen ID number (or social security number in the USA). Addresses and the format of the ID card change over time; sometimes even your name changes (like when you get married and get divorced; or when you legally change your name, which is easier to do in Anglo-Saxon world than elsewhere, but nevertheless possible). Even a string of digital numbers with the purpose of identification and non-repudiation, called a digital signature, is little more than, well, a string of alphanumeric characters (and it also changes from document to document).

No, a signature is slightly more than that. It’s a personal touch. Not so long ago, we felt it to be quite rude to typewrite a personal letter. You wouldn’t send a postcard to your granny for Christmas printing it out on a computer — it would be impersonal, cold, distant. Even not so long ago, bureaucratic institutions would refuse to accept a typewritten contract — I remember, not much longer than a decade ago, when we had to patiently copy in neat handwriting a lot of legal documents, or they wouldn’t be accepted as being legally valid (even if we usually attached the printed document to it, for ease of reading). This attitude, however, didn’t last long. Nowadays we send emails to our grannies and submit legal documents on PDF every day. The days of the “personal touch” in a hand-written letter — be it personal, business, or legal — has given away to the far more efficient typewritten document in digital format, which can be easily, cheaply, and safely archived for decades or centuries. We’re not going back to the days of hand-written documents, and I even predict that in the very near future, children will be taught to read and write using a computer from scratch. Hard-writing is just an oddity of the past and has no real value any longer — it’s too unpractical. It might just be relegated to an art form, like Japanese calligraphy.

Nevertheless, perhaps the signature will endure longer, but for a slightly different reason. It’s the personal touch placed on a document. It’s something that you affix to a piece of paper and say, “these might just be words and sentences using a standard typeface, but I can show they’re my words, my sentences, because I’ve signed it”.

And over time, depending on the fashions of typographical design, you might use different typefaces, different ways of combining words together (just look at the vast variety of blog templates!), but your signature will remain. In 2040, you might look at a document written in 2010 and laugh at the use of bold, italic, underline, and the Verdana typeface. We might be using completely different characters and a RIVAISD VURSSION OF INGLIX which might have better spelling (or not!!), but we will still correctly identify that old document, because it bears our personalised signature.

So in a sense words might be impersonal, but the added touch of the signature binds all those documents together in an unifying whole. You might have written a lot of things in your past — from letters to lovers or postcards to parents and friends, from contracts and IRS forms, to blog posts and articles. These are just expressions of your self, manifestations of your self using the printed word, if you wish. But there is something that binds them all together: your signature. It doesn’t really mean much — it doesn’t convey much information! After all, few will recognise your signature… while all the rest of the words you have typed will be immediately recognisable and readable by the vast audience of speakers of your language. So, in a sense, the signature is just something that you (and some close acquaintances — even your lawyer and accountant!) can point at and say: “this is mine, this was something I have written”.

However… when you look at the signature closely… what is it? Just a bit of ink, just a pattern scrawled in a certain way. We cannot truly say that this pattern is the person. We can see the person signing a document, but we cannot say that the signature is an intrinsic aspect of that person. It definitely shows something of their self — in the way the letters are assembled together, in the aggressiveness of the writing style, in the flourishing details — but we cannot say that it is the self. It’s merely a projection of the self, in the sense that the whole bunch of qualities that we assign to a certain “self” will, somehow, be manifest in that bit of writing.

Nevertheless, we accept a signature as proof of identity…

This seems to have little to do with Second Life, right? 🙂 Bear with me a moment…

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...