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…

Hallmarks

Celebrities are often famous for some specially distinguishing feature they might have. These might just be things they always wear; the colour of their hair; some words they’re associated with (“I have a bad feeling about this” and “I’ll be back”, for instance 🙂 ). The distinguishing feature can be material (i.e. things), related to their appearance, or immaterial, like words they say, attitudes they have, or even states of mind they possess (like always smiling!). Celebrities might age, change with fashion, become more mature in the type of things they do, but it’s not unusual for them to stick to their hallmarks.

But you can go beyond that and see the same thing in common people as well! You might always remember an old aunt by the perfume she wore when you were a baby; a certain hairstyle that you associate to a friend; a colour that someone will always wear on their outfits, a special tattoo… something usually small that creates a distinguishing feature of that person. Very often the person is not even aware of that; in most cases, however, they tie their personality to that “small thing”, and they make sure that they exhibit it where appropriately. Now we shouldn’t read too much into this. Some psychologists might try to elaborate on how our drive to “stand out of the crowd” makes us adopt a certain behaviour — which, as said, can be a thing or something more immaterial that we cling to — and, in a sense, it reinforces our “sense of self” that way. It might be something subconscious that we simply adopt to “feel” unique.

Now this might have either a very shallow or a very, very deep explanation. On the “shallow” side of things, it might just be a materialistic trend (buying something nice that you show off to friends to impress them). It might just be peer pressure (wearing something just because everyone else does). You can also imagine reasons like social constraints (say, an accessory that is gender-specific and that you’re supposed to use no matter what; but you can personalise it to your satisfaction) or showing your membership in a group (like wearing the colour of your favourite soccer club). But on a deeper level we start to enter the realm of grasping one’s identity: you feel, deep down there, that there is little (or even nothing, if you go deep enough 🙂 ) that truly makes you an individual person.

While on a daily base this might not be so apparent, it’s on Second Life that this aspect can truly shine. Some residents are known for the uniqueness of their avatars. This can be shown in several ways that are not possible in real life: from robot to animal avatars, to unnatural skin colours (blue being a favourite one!), specific accessories, and, of course, fantasy styles of clothing. Yours truly always uses a flower in her hair 😉 These aspects of uniqueness are not surprising: avatars, except when viewed very closely, are smallish and have little resolution. Big distinguishing features are good for immediately identifying yourself to your friends and acquaintances — more so than in real life.

For some, however, having an avatar that looks as closely as possible to your real self, is the ultimate hallmark. This has some interesting implications, and some of you might feel slightly offended by my considerations. Bear with me for a moment.

Body switchers

There is a certain class of residents that totally question the above statements. They switch avatar bodies as we change underwear iRL. One day they might be a dragon; the next day, a gorgeous, elegant diva; after that, a robot; and in the following week, just a shapeless blob of radioactive plasma. Second Life allows an immense variety of shapes and avatar types, so why should we be limited to merely a change of clothes? Our self-expression can be manifested through much more than simply a new pair of shoes.

On the opposite scale, of course, are the residents that not only try to recreate their own selves as closely as possible, but that don’t change their avatars ever. They even pick few changes of clothes — and only wear what they would wear in real life. Put into other words, they project their real identity as much as possible to the virtual world, and take pains to reproduce their selves as faithfully as possible.

How do these extremes fit into the model? In the first case, I would claim that these people are beyond the notion of “self” as merely an image (physical, digital, or otherwise), but much more as a process, or a sequence of actions and words. Thus, the avatar-that-is-never-the-same-in-subsequent-days will very likely have a unique way of expressing themselves textually (or verbally). Strangely, this group includes two radically different types. The type I encounter more often usually has a very strong personality, a high degree of self-esteem, lots of confidence, and a strong will. This is consistent with the notion that they care little about how they look, but much more in the way they interact with others. The “look” can be merely a reflection of the current mood; or it’s pure self-expression without any second thoughts about the philosophical implications. In a sense, they don’t truly care about their looks because they have little or no attachment to their physical or virtual image. They don’t see the “self” as truly a property of the body, but of the interaction between minds — even though they might never express it that way, but only feel it on a subconscious level.

The other group is a bit more shy. They are on the opposite extreme: they have little self-confidence and believe in the concept that the visual image (physical or virtual) somehow impresses others to act in a specific way towards them. Now we all know that, as much as we publicly deny it (even to ourselves!), the appearance is important for a first impression. Residents in this group will thus try to adopt an image that is pleasing — or revolting — to the group they wish to fit in (or wish to alienate). Griefers, for instance, often use shockingly distorted avatars when engaging in their activities (the purpose is to deliberately cause aversion), but create very beautifully crafted avatars when sitting among their peers. Others in this group have different avatars to interact with different groups. They might be furries to deal with furry groups; create a Victorian character to run around Caledon; become a sexy party girl to show off in clubs; adopt a business man in a pinstripe suit to deal with “serious” issues (which might be related to their real work or not; it might just be the avatar they use to attend Linden Office Hours). They will also very likely have several alts with completely different types and styles of avatars, and they will easily adopt the fashion, the norms, and the conduct of the group they’re currently in. In real life, they’re the sort of people that change their appearance depending on the group they’re currently in, and will work hard to “fit in” by adopting hairstyles and dressing styles depending on the group they hang out with. These are people that have a problem with their self-image; in their quest for succeeding to fit in a group, they “empty” their own selves and just become a reflection of the group they desire to be a part of.

Finally, the type that proclaim their “real selves in a virtual world” has an undue attachment to their physical bodies. They totally and absolutely identify their (real) selves with their physical bodies; they will very likely be materialists (not in the sense of only thinking about money and property; but rather that they have absolutely no doubts that the universe has an intrinsic, physical reality). In a sense, they’re scared that the world might be anything else but intrinsically materialist. Second Life scares them, because it forces them to challenge their own beliefs: is there really a person behind every avatar in Second Life, and if so, how do you know? They believe that if everybody looked like their real selves this question would not require an answer…

While of course not everybody with a “real me” avatar is in this group (some have several avatars, one of which just happening to resemble themselves, often for the simple reason that their corporate rules require to attend meetings looking as closely as possible as their own physical selves), this group and the preceding one are the most interesting to study, because they will give us a glimpse about the true nature of our own selves, by closely examining what those two groups have in common — and where they so strongly disagree.

But we’ll take a small sidewalk before reaching out ultimate destination…

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 🙂

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.

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