In the previous essay, we saw how philosophy embarked on a failed quest to find the core self. Something else that has occupied philosophers’ minds through the ages is the nature of reality. What is it, in and of itself? Are we in a position to know? In concepts and thought experiments like ‘the veil of Maya’, ‘Plato’s Cave’, ‘Descartes’ evil deceiver’ and ‘Nozik’s Experience Machine’, we are invited to consider the possibility that reality as perceived by the mind is an illusion, or if not an illusion then a mere shadow of a far larger reality.
KANT SEE REAL LIFE?
Immanuel Kant gave much credence to the latter possibility. He was convinced that there had to be something ‘out there’ which ultimately caused conscious experiences and sense impressions, but he argued that we knew little of what this ultimate reality was like. This was because we did not perceive a pre-given world; the structures of the mind brought forth phenomena created as much by the mind as by whatever it is that is ‘out there’.
Scientific investigations into the human body and brain seem to validate Kant’s conclusion. Consider the structure of the retina. Neurons that are sensitive to colour are found only in the middle of the retina. Beyond the middle there are neurons that can only detect light and shade. What we see, then, is a world where everything on the periphery of vision is blurry and devoid of colour, with only those objects in the centre of vision showing full colour and sharp detail. But if you study your surroundings, you will notice that this is not how you perceive the world. So, the brain must perform ‘post-processing’ in order for you to see the world as it aught to look, rather than how it does look when captured by the retina.
Another fascinating discovery is just how little information from our sense organs actually reaches the brain’s internal processing areas. Something like ten billion bits of information is picked up by the retina every second. But, there are only about a million output connections in the optic nerve, which restricts the number of bits that can leave the retina to six million. Furthermore, by the time the information is fed into the visual cortex, various bottlenecks will have reduced the number to 1000 bits, and there is still more processing to be done before the visual information gets fed into the brain regions responsible for conscious perception. How much information from the outside world constitutes conscious perception? Less than 100 bits per second.
That is far too thin a stream of data to account for the richness of conscious perception. Early brain imaging technology like PET and fMRI gave us a picture of the brain in which most neurons lay quiet until needed for some activity. Recent advances in neuroimaging, however, show that the brain is always highly active. Some 60 to 80% of all energy used by the brain occurs in circuits unrelated to any external event. This discovery, plus the fact that in the visual cortex only 10% of synapses present are devoted to incoming visual information, leads to the conclusion that there is more than a grain of truth to what Kant believed: The mind creates the world as much as it simply perceives a pre-given reality.
The view from cognitive sciences suggests that what we perceive is a fantasy that coincides with reality — at least most of the time. However, the mind can be tricked into generating perceptions of ‘impossible’ realities, and some of these illusions seem to be useful to the world of avatars and alts.
WHERE DOES THE BODY END?
It is natural to assume that there is a clear-cut distinction between your body and the rest of the world. After all, you have no trouble in identifying which objects in your visual field are a part of you and which are not, right? But, a simple experiment known as the ‘rubber hand illusion’ reveals a flaw in this assumption. In this experiment, you lay your left hand on a flat surface like a table, where it is hidden behind a screen. A fake hand is placed where you can see it. Another person then strokes both the fake hand and your hidden hand with brushes, taking care to match the movement of the strokes for both hands. After a few minutes, you will have the impression that it is the rubber hand (not your own left hand) that is being touched.
Psychologists have long maintained that the self can expand to arbitrary boundaries in physical or conceptual space. They point to the way a fan attaches his ego to a favourite team, so that its loss becomes his agony. They invite us to wonder why we exclaim ‘you hit me’ rather than ‘you hit the car I am driving’. The best explanation seems to be that the body (from the mind’s perspective) is a fairly malleable concept, capable of expanding, contracting, and being incorporated into external objects.
Of course, most of the time, the mind’s map of the body can be said to be consistent with reality. And it is only recently, with the advent of shared consensual hallucinations like online worlds, that we can invite other people to share our altered perceptions of body image. In one study, the RL gender distribution for World Of Warcraft and Second Life was approximately 70/30 and 50/50. But those numbers did not coincide with the gender distribution of avatars (there was a bias toward females in both worlds) which indicates a fair amount of gender-swapping going on.
MOST-USED IDENTITY EXPLORATION.
When it comes to identity exploration, roleplayers typically focus on ‘the idealized self’, ‘standing out’, or ‘following a trend’. Creating an idealized self can either mean creating an avatar that looks like an improved version of the RL you, or it can mean an avatar that has features you wish you had. Following a trend can mean following a trend in general, or it can mean copying the appearance of a celebrity you admire. While there appear to be no gender preferences for ‘following a trend’, females tend to create ‘idealized selves’ more than males, while males are more likely to want an avatar that ‘stands out’.
When it comes to avatar customization, SL residents spend far more time on appearance: 93 minutes on average compared to 10 minutes for WOW. In both worlds, hair style is deemed to be the most important feature, with skin tone the least important. In RL, of all the body parts, the hair on our head is most easily sculpted into new shapes, and hairstyles have long been considered a part of fashion. So it is perhaps not surprising that people should concentrate most heavily on getting their avatar’s hair ‘right’. Furthermore, most people navigate the world using a zoomed-out 3rd-person perspective and from such a viewpoint hair (which offers a large surface area easily seen from a 3rd-person perspective) is the best candidate for establishing a signature look.
If WOW looses out in terms of time spent inworld customizing the avatar, it gains in terms of average number of alts. In SL, the average is three accounts per person, whereas in WOW it is 12. Bare in mind, though, that SL allows far more flexibility when it comes to changing appearance. In WOW, comprehensive change can only be achieved by creating another character altogether. SL residents may have fewer alts on average, but they have many more costumes (46 on average), and ‘costumes’ can include whole bodies that they can swap in and out of without changing accounts.
THE ALT OF WHO, EXACTLY?
In both worlds, the majority of people focus their attention on one avatar, which becomes known as the ‘main avatar’. In SL, 98% of residents can identify which is their main avatar (87% in WOW) and across both worlds, users typically spend 76% of their time on their main avatar, 18% on their favourite alt and 6% on all other alts. The custom of assigning special significance to one account in particular is followed by the community at large, leading to what is arguably a mistake. If I say ‘Artcrash Exonar is the alt of Scarp Godenot’ that cannot, strictly speaking, be true. Why not? Well, both Scarp and Exonar are avatars, characters in an online world. As such, ‘Scarp Godenot’ is just not capable of autonomous, creative acts (unless, that is, AI has advanced much further than any news I have read suggests). The proper way to say it would be ?Artcrash Exonar is the alternative account of the person or group who also own the ‘Scarp Godenot’ account”.
You will notice that that is a rather cumbersome way of putting it, even if it is more accurate. So, maybe something akin to the ‘Julia Effect’ is going on here? The ‘Julia Effect’ is when we use language that assigns far more powers to chatbots than they are due. Say a chatbot like ‘Julia’ tells you she knows who Scarp’s alt is. What that really means is, ‘she’ has a database that includes that information, and ‘she’ follows rules that tell her when it is appropriate to return information of that kind. But she neither understands what is being said to her, nor what she says in response. But, it soon becomes tedious to qualify ‘Julia knows’ with such a long statement, and it even becomes tedious to keep putting quotation marks around words like ‘knows’. So we just say ‘Julia knows that Scarp Godenot’s alt is Artcrash Exonar’ and all the inaccuracies in that sentence are forgotten.
As to why we assign dreams, ambitions, hopes and fears to screen images at all, we should remember that the human brain evolved in a world quite different from that which we currently inhabit. For most of our species’ history, only humans did humanlike things. In ‘The Media Equation’, Bryon Reeves and Clifford Nass argued that, deep down, our minds treat patterns of light on the screen that appear as people as…well, real people, because evolution never required our ancestors to do otherwise.