The best I can do is to point to a direction of study, which starts from self-observation, and the easiest way to observe your own self in action is to have a “laboratory” where you can experiment. We can pick out a few features that this lab has to have. First, it should be able to isolate your self from the hubbub of daily life, which interrupts our experiments all the time. We should be able to play and replay our actions at leisure, and do that at a relatively slow speed, so we can observe what we’re doing and examine why we’re doing that. We ought to be able to separate, as much as possible, each particular behaviour from all others, so we can isolate them for further analysis.
I found out that Second Life in text-chat mode is particularly useful as a lab. Of course you can still be interrupted when you’re logged in — say, by a phone call, or by your cat who wants to be fed, or by your partner who needs you to pick up something from the kitchen… but, in general, you’re focusing your attention in the interaction with others on a computer screen. If you’re chatting, you’re conveying your thoughts in near-real time, but at a much slower pace than usually: as I’ve explained before, most of us write four times as slower as we speak, but read ten times faster than we listen — this is an advantage, since we can react to something (like feeling an emotion towards something someone else has just said) and have some time to look at our thoughts before we actually write something. And once written, we can quickly scroll back on the chat window and analyse what our reaction was (of course, some reactions also involve avatar movement, and the “history” might be incompletely recorded because you lose the richness of the 3D environment where the interaction occurred, but it’s better than nothing). Finally, SL is a “narrower medium” than, say, processing information with our five senses. The environment is simpler (there is no smell, no taste, no touch — just visual and audio feedback). The degrees with which we can interact with others is limited to gestures and text chat, thus, only a small range of interactions are possible. Nevertheless, even those “restrictions” allow for an impressive array of possibilities — but since they’re far less than what we actually can do in RL, they allow us to analyse them more easily.
If you spend enough time in SL interacting with others, a lot of things will be apparent. One, for instance, is what Extropia describes: you will identify patterns of behaviour on others quite quickly, and “tag” them as belonging to a specific person (or class of persons). Anyone long enough in SL, for instance, will immediately identify the modus operandi of the common griefer, just to pick on an extreme case. But you will also almost instantly know if someone else is using an avatar you recognise as belonging to a specific person: they will behave differently or have some distinguishing features which you’ve learned to recognise. In some extreme cases, just by analysing patterns of behaviour, you can get a glimpse on the type of person behind the keyboard: you’ll learn to see how a shy person interacts with others, or how a particularly charismatic speaker captures an audience. Cultural differences will show up in the way people intrude in your personal space; researchers have shown how avatars, depending on how they are represented (by size and attractiveness), move around the virtual world differently, and interact with others more or less aggressively. All these become apparent quite quickly.
But of course the most interesting subject to be analysed is your own self. Why do you react in some ways? What triggers an emotion that makes you YELL IN CAPS to someone else? In real life, this might happen so quickly that you completely miss the point. In SL, however, there is a delay between the time a stressful event triggers a response — just because you take a bit more time to type than to shout.
A lot thus becomes apparent. First, you’ll notice that you react in similar ways when in the presence of similar triggers. However, this doesn’t happen always — it depends on what I would loosely classify as your “mood”. Let’s take a typical example: you hate a particularly nasty person and their ugly avatar. But one day you’re in a very good mood — you just got a promotion at work and bought a new dress! — and that person has just bought a nicer shape and all of a sudden is dressing their avatar much more smartly. Strangely, your interaction on that day is different: you still hate that person, but you don’t feel compelled to attack them and yell at them IN CAPS. You might just tell them to go away and leave you in peace. Or even say “hi” followed by “sorry, I don’t want to talk to you” in a polite way.
When looked at things this way, the notion that you have “fixed” patterns of behaviour suddenly evaporates. After all, you can, in similar situations, behave differently, even though the trigger might be the same. Well, in the above scenario, one thing changed: your mood. So whatever this magic “mood” might be, it is quite powerful: it has the ability to make a certain trigger switch from one typical behaviour (yelling at a person you hate) to a new, not usual behaviour (politely asking them to go away). If you go on this further, you suddenly realise that there are quite a lot of possible behaviours to pick from when encountering that person (or a situation) again. Which one is “your self”?
Others who know you might identify you with the pattern that says, “yell at X when X is present”. But on that special day, you didn’t yell at X. Will others still recognise you, if you’re stepping outside the typical behaviour that others expect? This is an interesting case, because you can make it more complex by saying: “I yell at X when X is present and I’m not in a good mood; if I’m in a good mood, then I just ask X to go away”. But of course this is an oversimplification — you might be able to decompose all possible cases of how you react depending on an infinite amount of “triggers”. You might be in a good mood, but if your friend Y comes in and says: “oh no, it’s that pesky X again!” even your good mood might not be sufficient to avoid your standard behaviour.
The interesting thing is thus to recognise that all these patterns of behaviour — which can be infinite in scope — are differently applied, but they really don’t depend on what happens externally to your self, but they’re rather tied to your “mood”. To be more precise, they depend on your perception of the environment. Since this changes all the time (one day, X might be using their old avatar; the other day, Y might be in a good mood too — or completely distracted! — and refrain from doing annoying comments about X, and so forth), your perception also changes, and your reactions are different.
What you’ll find out is that we constantly adapt our reactions to the environment, and it’s not the “environment” that conditions our reactions, but just our perception of that environment. The environment, at most, provides triggers. You don’t really “hate” the person because the person has intrinsic hateful qualities; it’s just the way you perceive them that makes you hate them. This perception is based in the way they act and behave, of course; but when their behaviour changes, your own perception changes as well (even if ever so slightly), and this might lead to a different reaction instead.
This, by the way, is where I find that transhumanists will have a very hard time in finding something to “upload” to an artificial brain. I can very well imagine that patterns of behaviour and memories of patterns of behaviour (yours and from others) are stored in the brain (since if you remove the brain, they will go away — a very simple reductio ad absurdum 🙂 ). However, whatever triggers those patterns of behaviour is way more fuzzy and unpredictable. It depends on moods and perceptions, and these change constantly. One might assume that they’re stored in the brain as well (since where else should they be?), but we’re talking about a much more subtle mechanism: one that, in essence, observes what the brain is doing with all those memories and patterns, and makes a selection on what to do which does not logically follow from pre-conditioned behaviours. In a sense, we’re constantly reprogramming ourselves, and this happens all the time. How this “meta-mind” — the mind that observes what the mind is doing — is encoded in the brain will be a much harder thing to figure out than to locate the regions of the brain where memories and patterns of behaviour are stored.
But it’s more than that. We cannot really say that our brain is “isolated”, in the sense that we can experience all these moods and perceptions independently of what happens in the “outside world” — virtual or otherwise. In fact, what happens is that your reactions are dependent on that external environment (external to your brain, that is). Things might “just happen”, but they definitely trigger your reactions differently; if “nothing happens”, you might not trigger anything at all. But of course the notion that “nothing happens” is a very abstract one: in reality, some things are always happening, all the time, and they sometimes happen spontaneously, sometimes they happen as a consequence of someone’s behaviour. You just react to all those changes, but your reactions are affected by perceptions… thus, even the most evil griefer, if seen through your perceptions during a day when you’re in a particularly good mood, might just be seen as an annoyance, or even as someone with a wicked sense of humour. The most endearing loved one might be seen as the Devil from the deepest pit of Hell on a bad day (and lead to divorce!).
The whole point here is that all of this happens independently of any intrinsic qualities that someone else might have (even your own self!). Thus, it’s not really the avatar’s shape that makes a difference. 🙂 We all know intellectually that one shouldn’t judge others by their appearance only; but we often don’t really “believe” that and do, indeed, judge them. We also judge them by their behaviour, according to our own set of standards, morals, and ethical conduct — our perceptions on how the universe should be. And all the groups described above, with their different relations to their own avatars in Second Life, are simply a reflection on how strongly they’re bound to the concept that things — people and objects — have intrinsic qualities.
Thus, someone who believes that “all griefers have ugly avatars” will pick an avatar that is not ugly 🙂 because they will tie the notion of “ugly avatar” to someone who is a griefer. People who are absolutely convinced that an avatar’s shape says little about the person behind the keyboard will very likely have different avatars, and wear different shapes every day — for them, the shape has no intrinsic qualities at all. Eventually, they might believe that even though the shape might say little about the person, their behaviour is the key to someone else’s mind, and focus on reacting only to someone’s words and actions, and not the way they look like. By contrast, someone absolutely convinced that there are intrinsic qualities attached to a specific flesh-and-blood body, and utterly rejecting the notion that people react based on moods and perceptions — but that they have an intrinsic quality of selfness — will very likely pick a “real me” avatar and try, as much as possible, to interact only with other “real me” avatars. They require their world to have a certain physical solidness (i.e. intrinsic qualities tied to material aspects of the universe), and are too scared of thinking that it might be anything else than that. Thus, the more “physical solidness” they bring to SL, the safer they feel — and a fixed, “realistic” avatar shape is just one way of expressing that level of required safety.
In a sense, I expect that the more people join SL, the more we will see this latter group to grow, just because the vast majority of people in the world actually believe on intrinsic qualities tied to the material universe. Red is red, tables are solid, and people are intrinsically good or evil — that’s how they perceive the world. People are described by what they think (they’re conditioned by their thoughts) and what they feel (their emotions are a part of themselves). Quantum physics and Relativity are two weirdo theories that shatter this self-delusion, but most people don’t really follow the implications — these are just highly abstract philosophical/mathematical descriptions of a world that cannot be directly observed. Ironically, I would have thought that Second Life is the best practical evidence that we can have that there aren’t any “intrinsic” qualities anywhere. Some would claim that just watching a play on stage should show us the very same thing; then again, when watching a play, we’re usually just observers and don’t interact with the play itself (except on the more post-modernistic plays!). Second Life, by contrast, puts us all in the same stage, and makes actors out of all of us. It’s when we realise that others have no way of knowing if we’re “acting” or “being ourselves”, no matter how “real” our avatar looks like — because we don’t have visual clues like a curtain going up to announce that everything that will follow is just pretence, not reality — that our vision of the world begins to be questioned. When we understand that there is no difference between projecting our patterns of behaviour upon the virtual shape of an avatar, or doing the same upon a physical flesh-and-blood physical body, we arrive at the most astonishing discovery we can make in our lives: that what we call “our physical self” has little or no relationship to the bunch of atoms we push through the material world (although it definitely is conditioned by it), and that we are all acting in a role-playing game called Life, pretending that our selves have intrinsic existence and acting accordingly.
It’s a most frightening thought. However, it’s also a very liberating one: it means that by just changing our perceptions, we change the way we are. And from that hopefully emerges a better, more functional way of interacting with others — when we understand that others are still bound to this self-delusion of intrinsic existence, and feel sorry for them, forgiving them their conditioned behaviour, we cannot be angry or frustrated with what they do to us (or to others). At the very least, the sense that we are in control of our own behaviour — and not hopelessly bound to react to external stimuli — is a very liberating experience. And it’s also a degree of maturity. Children, as we know, until a certain age, usually behave conditioned by their emotions and thoughts, and cannot “step out” and change their perceptions and behave accordingly. Mature adults are supposed to be able to do that. Sadly, however, the vast majority of all adults are still at their “child” stage of development, at least most of their time; most adults keep reacting in the same way they did when they were children, and firmly believe it cannot be otherwise… and that is actually very sad.
But to be very honest, it’s not something easy to realise… most will say that it’s “impossible”. To those, I can only say that they aren’t trying hard enough — or not trying at all 🙂 At least we Second Life residents have a wonderful tool — a lab — to help us out figuring this on our own. Non-residents will have to find a different tool.