Being in Shape

Projection of self

At the beginning of this article, I told you about my friend who was not overly excited for having been given a new avatar shape as a gift. I should say that I fully understand her; in my mind (and in hers), this gift, even if given with good intentions and generosity, is almost rude and offensive, but in a very subtle way. Both my friend and myself have an attachment to our avatar shapes. In her case, her avatar does indeed look relatively like her physical self; in mine, as I often said, except perhaps for my height (adapted to SL’s strange measurements), my bottom, the eye colour, and a few other marks, there are almost no similarities. Nevertheless, I still like my avatar’s shape. It was the very first thing I created in SL — on July 31, 2004 — and remains the only creation that I still use every day and haven’t changed at all. In a sense, my avatar’s shape is the intrinsic nature of Gwyn the Avatar — skins might be replaced as new details are added by the talented Namssor Daguerre; the hair changes as more innovative hair stylists in SL develop more realistic styles; I’m constantly adding more animations and gestures; and, of course, clothes change all the time 🙂 Even my “hallmark” flower is not the same I used in mid-2004 — I favoured roses back then, now I’m sticking to gardenias, but I might change that when I’m tired of them!

But the shape remains. In a sense, anyone I’ve met in 2004 would be able to look at my 2010 avatar and recognise me immediately. It’s not that my shape is unusual in any way; in fact, it came out quite differently from what I had in mind. It has, for me, a very important characteristic. Fashion in SL is designed for perfect shapes — and in a sense, this is what happens in RL too. But I deliberatedly refused to have a “perfect shape” (I just made a concession to feet, since it’s pretty much impossible to find any shoes not made for size 0 feet). It’s simply because perfect shapes are not challenging. They become boring in their lack of individuality; and this is what also bothered my friend. She doesn’t want to look like “everybody else”. Sure, neither of our shapes are “perfect” (my avatar even has some extra weight!). But the challenge of “not being perfect” means that we have to make an effort — just like in RL! — to do the best we can with the outfits we wear. Perfect shapes will be able to wear anything in SL; we who don’t have those perfect shapes will, well, have to fit clothes, and look for the ones that look best (before the dawn of flexiprim skirts, for instance, we were at the mercy of the horrible Linden skirts, which make all bottoms look even bigger than they are!). If you wish, that’s also a “game” in itself, or at least, a different way of entertainment.

When I take pictures from my avatar next to all those supermodel shapes, I always feel I’m looking like a poor cartoon. Nobody seems to be ugly in SL, so the “imperfections” stand out, and are quite more visible in SL than iRL (where almost nobody has a perfect shape). On the other hand, and this actually baffled me the first time I heard it, I often get surprising remarks on “how real my avatar looks”. There is some irony about a virtual shape that looks somehow “more real” than others… because it has flaws.

Silly poses at Mont St. MichelThe truth is that I have watched quite a few thousands of avatars in SL. The ones that I can recall immediately are, strangely, the ones that do not have perfect shapes. Often these are tied to “real me” avatars, but not always. These are sometimes intriguing features that don’t look exactly right but make an avatar stand out of the crowd. In fact, some reality shows on TV (which I just watch occasionally at some friends’ homes, since I don’t have TV at home) seem to imply that the current batch of “model hunters” will not look for “perfect shapes” but instead for distinguishing features. Sometimes those models look very strange indeed, when they’re not wearing makeup or elaborate hair styling — they might even look bizarre. But once a professional photographer captures their exquisite uniqueness on a frame, you’ll see what makes that particular model so outstanding.

And when a certain shape captures a degree of uniqueness, you’re reluctant to let it go. In fact, I would claim that many residents who are constantly changing shapes and looks are searching for this ultimate uniqueness, but… never finding it. Because the notion of perfection implies, to a degree, that there is no possible change to make it better. If it’s perfect, you cannot make it better — all changes will make it worse. While this is philosophically true and follows from the very definition of “perfect“, they’re still striving to make a perfect thing “even more perfect”, which is an impossibility.

Now this is obviously not a criticism, just an observation. Yes, I also have an alt with a perfect shape which I have bought somewhere. That avatar looks gorgeous on pictures. But even though the human being behind the avatar is pretty much the same one, when interacting with others, I look cold and distant. In fact, I don’t even like to look at that avatar when chatting — it confuses me, because, well, it’s not my “projection” of self. It somehow lacks human warmth. And although I pretty much know that conveying human expressions on top of an avatar — at least in SL! — is quite hard (if not even delusional… it might be impossible), the point here is that I cannot “project” my self on top of any other avatar except, well, Gwyn’s. Why not? Well, it’s my own limitation — I just happen to be in the group that creates some strange bonds and projections upon a very specific avatar, which I cannot easily transfer to other avatars.

Ironically, I even have a “real me” avatar — or as close as a “real me” avatar as I managed to create — which I always find ridiculous: that avatar, strangely enough, always seems to behave in a “phony” way. In the attempt to behave and sound as closely as possible as my real self, I find out that it looks like I’m acting — pretending to be myself — which is so strange! That “real me” avatar always looks like an impostor. Even more surprisingly: I have once read transcripts of some chats done by my “real me” avatar and other things that I’ve written on chatrooms, and there is no question that they’re the same person 🙂 (and no, I have no mental disabilities 🙂 ). Nevertheless, when chatting with my “real me” avatar, it always feels like I’m acting a strange role, which, however, doesn’t happen with my Gwyn avatar. I cannot explain it except for the notion on how I project myself upon Gwyn’s avatar, which I cannot project upon any other avatar — not even my own “real me” avatar!

Now I can hardly claim this to be universal. I have little experience in interacting with people who have more than one avatar. In the case of the group that changes avatars every time I see them, I see that they have absolutely no problem with projecting their selves upon any avatar. The mental image I have of that person is not visually tied to any of the avatars at all — but directly with the way they chat, the kind of ideas they defend. Their personality is so strong that it shines through all avatars, and is not affected by their visual appearance. For a small group of people that I know who have more than one avatar, but who are so different from each other, I usually can get a glimpse of their true selves, no matter what avatar they’re using — and which might convey quite different impressions on residents that have no clue they’re the same person. Other cases are even more interesting: some people I know iRL have avatars completely unlike their physical selves. However, they also have “distinguishing features” which are immediately recognisable. Sometimes they’re very simple things like just a particular choice of clothes or hair colour. Sometimes it’s something way more subtle, like a certain manner of speaking, a kind of attitude they have, or how close they sit their avatars to other residents. You can pick those up as clues to the identity behind the avatar. But, of course, for the vast majority of residents, I have absolutely no clue about the identity behind their avatar; my mental image of them is just what I make of them, based on how they interact.

Shaping the self or the shapeless self?

If you’re a keen reader of Extropia’s essays (like I am 🙂 ) you’ll see that she’s engaged in the quest for defining what the self is, and, more important for her as a transhumanist, where this self is physically located in the brain, so that ultimately it might be preserved in an immortal state using some sort of technology.

Extie has been given us several clues on the direction we should follow. What stands out in her essays is that the nature of the self are merely patterns in the brain. But interestingly, as she has long argued, “having a brain” is not quite the determining factor for us to perceive a self. After all, avatars have no brains — it’s just the person behind the keyboard that has one. Still, we attribute “selfness” and “identity” to avatars, too, because we recognise a set of patterns of behaviour as uniquely identifying an individual. However, Extropia extrapolates something much more interesting: when we identify those patterns, we actually store them in our own brains, too. What this means is that the notion of someone else’s self, to be recognised as such, will require that our brains — and not only the other ones’ brains — also store and identify a rather large number of patterns of behaviour, so that we can match them, and say: “hey, that’s a person I know”! Extropia claims that what we define as a person with an unique self is the human being that actually runs the largest number of patterns pertaining to an individual identity.

The implication of this thought is quite tremendous. If Extie is right, we all carry each other’s patterns of “selfness”, with more or less completeness, depending on the degree of interaction we have with others. Thus, for our beloved ones, with whom we spend a lot of time, we might carry a lot of information about them; in fact, in terms of the sheer number of unique patterns that defines an individual, our Significant Other (or a parent, or a child, or someone very close in our family or circle of friends) might just be the second person in the whole world running as many patterns of our own selves. That this is not enough to “act” or “pretend” to be our own Significant Others is quite clear — we might not even have enough behavioural patterns of them to be able to, say, forge a document they might have written (as so many crime books and movies have repeatedly shown). However, the intriguing thought is that we can’t really say that we’re the only ones having an exclusive deal on those behaviour patterns.

In fact, this happens every day. When we join a group and identify with it, we adopt behaviour patterns from that group, or from the group’s leader. We still don’t “lose” our identity though; unless we’re mentally very disturbed, we — and everybody around us! — will know quite clearly which behaviour patterns are uniquely ours, and which are “imported” from other members of the group. But if we broaden our mind, we can clearly see that a lot of our behaviour patterns, which we call “our self”, actually are “imported” from elsewhere. In some cases, they’re social constrains (e.g. the way we interact with others follow some formal social norms). Others come from education (when learning science in the classroom, we learn how to speak and act like a scientist). A lot come from people that have impressed us, who have qualities which we recognise as valuable and imitate them. So we cannot really say that everything we have in our brains has been made up by us, and this is actually a quite profound thought.

At the very least, even if we wish to claim that we are outside all influences, and have not adopted anything from anyone in our lifetime, we will still agree that the ability to recognise others as unique individuals relies on this trick we have to “read” and “memorise” their behaviour patterns, and store them in the brain with a tag saying “this is how X behaves; every time I see someone behaving like X, I will be able to match patterns with what I already have in memory, and thus recognise X by their behaviour”. So even if we find X’s behaviour abhorrent, or simply not worth emulating, we will still store it — subconsciously, most of the time, but nevertheless it’ll go somewhere in our brains.

At this point we should really then start asking ourselves the most profound question: who or what creates those patterns of behaviour? Where do they come from? How are they stored and archived? What makes us “trigger” a specific behaviour in a certain circumstance?

Well, I have answers for all that, but I cannot presume to be the best person to answer them for you. In fact, there is just one person that can answer those questions for you: it’s yourself 🙂

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