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, some people are really into celebrities and some even go online to find pictures of them, for example Rita kills it with these naked pics you can see online. 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.
During a series of discussions about roleplaying and related topics, Gwyn referred to her “model of self that is based on ‘shards’ that we can fit together and present to others. These are not fixed but can be moved; we all go through our teens shuffling them around, and certainly when using drugs and alcohol a few of those shards become more apparent than others (we exhibit different sides of our personality)”. She went on to give the example of one person at two very different social events (at a beach party with friends; at a formal ball) pointing out that “they’re one and the same person — different environments affect our behaviours differently, but these are only social constructs”.
This clearly adheres to the ‘many sides’ theory of self which (you will recall from part one) insists that people can only change on the surface, while deep down there is a solid, unchanging ‘core self’. But, we saw in part two how this assumption ran into difficulty when philosophers tried to find that essential core. It turned out to be illusive. Postmodern theory insist that ‘the self’ just is a social construct, which raises the question of why Gwyn’s hypothetical person should be considered ‘the same’ when behaving appropriately in two very different social settings.
When it comes to testing someone’s personality, the most widely used test is the ‘Myers-Briggs Type Indicator’ or MBTI. It identifies a person as being one of sixteen psychological types. In a review of eleven studies of MBTI tests, it was found that only 24% of respondents were put in the same type when they retook the test. Rita Carter compared MBTI types to star signs, “loose enough to slip into one, then another, and believe both are tailor-made”. Another widely used personality test is commonly known as the ‘Big Five’, because it describes people by where they lie on five dimensions, each one a personality trait: ‘Openness to experience’, ‘conscientiousness’, ‘extroversion’, ‘agreeableness’ and finally ‘neuroticism’. When people repeatedly took the Big Five test while adopting several roles (‘friend’, ‘student’, ‘employee’, ‘lover’, and ‘child’) they were rated differently for every role. In fact, various experiments have shown that people will adopt whatever personality best suits the situation, while at the same time believing they are giving an honest and neutral description of their ‘real’ personality.
HOW TO CONSTRUCT A PERSONALITY.
So, should we conclude that Gwyn is wrong? Actually, no, not necessarily. The reason why is because there is more than one way in which ‘personality’ can manifest itself in the brain. No human is born with personality and self-identity pre-installed (so to speak) but neither is the mind a ‘blank slate’. Rita Carter compared the newborn mind to a “building site with a unique form that influence and constrain — but do not dictate — what is erected on it”. Here, she is referring to the individual genetic leanings and built-in drives each and every newborn comes equipped with.
One thing that manifests early on (by four months) is a fascination for goal-orientated action. Babies would much rather watch moving spots of light that form a moving figure, than spots of light moving in a random way. The human brain is highly sensitive to complex motion. This was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Gumar Johansson in 1973. He attached small lights to the major joints of a person, then filmed his subject moving around in complete darkness. When other people watch the recording, they are unable to tell there is a person present if the lights are motionless. But when they are moving, not only can people see that it is a person, they can also determine the gender and even if she is happy or sad.
Humans do much more than passively watch complex movement, they also experience it as though they themselves were physically performing the action. In doing so, they tend to imitate the action of others. When someone is asked to move their arm up and down while watching someone else move their arm from side to side, careful measurements show the movement is much more variable than would be the case if they performed the movement without observing the other. This is because the brain has an automatic tendency to imitate the actions of others. This, however, is not the case when observing a mechanical arm moving in a stereotypically robotic way. We come to acquire an understanding that not everything moves of its own accord to obtain a goal. The robot arm is not perceived as an agent performing goal-orientated action, so the mind does not bother to imitate it.
By observing the actions of others and being prolific imitators, infants pick up what Rita Carter calls ‘micros’. These are the building blocks of personality — the individual quirks, habits, responses, mannerisms etc that we pick up from other people, imitate, and incorporate into our own repertoire. Some micros are compatible with others, and they get attached to one another to form ‘minors’, which are personality traits which tend to come out only in certain situations. In turn, compatible minors can coalesce to form ‘majors’- a fully fleshed-out character with thoughts, desires, intentions, emotions and beliefs.
According to Rita Carter, “personalities cohere as a result of experiences connecting up in the brain, forming a ‘web’ that holds our memories”. What is a memory? It is commonly thought of as being a replay of past events, but from the perspective of the brain a memory is a pattern of neural firing that it can easily reproduce. In doing so, it partially reconstitutes the experience of a previous episode in our lives. ‘Memory’, then, is not an event but an experience.
Memories that partially reconstitute a previous experience are called ‘episodic’. Sometimes, the ‘I’ component fades away and we remember only factual bits. You may recall the year in which the Battle of Hastings took place, but not where you were and what you were doing when you first learned this. We call such memories ‘semantic’. Or, the factual bits can be lost, leaving only emotional or ‘I-memories’.
Whatever the memory type, it is encoded in the brain in a web-like way, with some memories more strongly connected than others. Jog one memory, and the effect is felt by all the others, although how strongly it is felt depends on the strength of the ties. However, it is rarely the case that the mind forms a single, densely integrated web. The reason why not is because, yes, we each have only one brain, but that brain has many different processes, and they are not all compatible with each other. Some personalities must remain separate and distinct from each other, because the brain-states that generate them are just too different.
THE SPECTRUM OF DISASSOCIATION.
It is useful to think of those optical illusions that appear to flip back and forth between two images, such as two faces in silouette, or a white vase. Such illusions show how the brain has an occasional inability to see things in two ways simultaneously. That is not to say that while you see the two faces you are ignorant of the vase’s existence. You understand that this is, in a way, two images in one. But your brain does not allow you to see both images at the same time, instead one image is present, then the other, in an endless cycle. Similarly, while we can certainly be aware of conflicting thoughts and mixed emotions, we cannot be more than one personality at a time. At the level of behaviour, we have to switch from one to another, because the brain’s inability to see things in two ways at the same time exists at all levels, including areas concerned with thought and emotion.
The separation of various mental processes is known as ‘disassociation’. This is what ensures dissimilar experiences are only loosely connected, if at all. There are all kinds of states associated with the term, so it is best to think of disassociation as a spectrum. Earlier, we saw how the parts of the brain responsible for visual perception are unable to process all the bits gathered by the retina each second. Editing out most of the information coming from ‘out there’ is actually an essential trait. If such editing did not occur, the barrage of information would leave you overwhelmed and unable to cope.
This kind of everyday neglect of background distraction is one kind of disassociation. It happens when you concentrate on one conversation among many at a social gathering, when your RL environment fades into the subconscious background leaving the online world as the primary reality, or when you become absorbed in a good story. Moving over to the opposite extreme of the spectrum, we find what are known as ‘disassociative disorders’. They can be organized into two categories: Chronic Detachment, and Compartmentalization. The former can either mean the feeling of being somehow disconnected from the rest of the world (this is known as ‘derealisation’) or it can mean feeling detached from yourself (‘depersonalization’). For instance, there is a condition known as ‘Cotard’s Syndrome’ — a neurological decoupling of feelings and thoughts. One sufferer believed that all that was left of her was her voice “and, if it goes, I won’t be anything”.
Compartmentalization refers to any state in which memories are completely cut off. One might find it impossible to recall past events- the classic ‘who am I?’ amnesia. Or, one might find themselves subjectively stuck in the past, as happens in ‘flashbacks’ often associated with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Then there are the complete separation of personalities aka multiple personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder. What all these disorders share in common, is that they are brain states completely cut off and separate so that when something triggers them, they are experienced in isolation.
A COMMON DEPERSONALIZATION.
At this point, some mistaken assumptions need to be addressed. It is not the case (though many I speak to seem to think it is) that your mind is either unified or you have MPD. Disassociation, remember, is a spectrum and there are many states existing between the two extremes of being strongly unified and strongly fragmented. Also, the distinguishing feature of MPD is the fact that the personalities do not share a common memory. It has nothing to do with the nature or behaviour of their ‘alters’. Some people seem to think that if you claim to be roleplaying a character whose personality may differ from your RL personality, you must have MPD. This is obviously not the case, because while actors are aware of the existence of both personalities, the complete compartmentalization of memories responsible for MPD leaves its sufferers unaware of the existence of ‘alter’ personalities.
While not everyone experiences a compartmentalization type disorder, we have all experienced a kind of depersonalization. Very young children do not have the ability to think in symbolic terms, and because of this they are unable to imagine things existing in the past or future. From the subjective point-of-view of the infant, the ‘I’ of now is all there is, quite unconnected to the ‘me’s’ of yesterday or tomorrow. You will recall from part two that what enables the infant to tie the ‘me’s’ of the moment into a single, continuous thread is the ability to see itself from the outside. But, because the infant obviously lacks the wealth of memories older children have, the network of self is generally far patchier. Sometimes they fail to recognize their personality as their own. Such personalities are seen by the child as external, autonomous entities. Or, to give them their more common name: Imaginary companions.
You might think that it is only small children who have imaginary companions. However, a study conducted by a team lead by Marjorie Taylor shows this is not the case. In a study of fifty fiction writers, it was found that forty six had invented characters who subsequently resisted their creator’s attempts to control the narrative. They even came to inhabit the writer’s home. The authors who described more frequent and detailed accounts of their creations seeming to ‘break free’ had more success in getting their work published.
Douglas Hoffstadter once asked, “what was the nature of the ‘Holden Caulfield’ symbol in J. D. Salinger’s brain… that structure was all there ever was to Holden Caulfield… but Holden Caulfield seems like so much of a person, with a true core, a true soul, a true personal gemma… You couldn’t ask for a richer representation, a richer mirroring of one person inside another person, than whatever constituted the Holden Caulfield symbol inside Salinger’s brain”.
THE CIRCLE OF MULTIPLICITY.
The way to approach Hoffstadter’s question is to consider the opposing forces of coalescing micros and minors on one hand, and the varying forms and varying strengths of disassociation on the other. Recall that people are natural-born mimics, their brains copy the actions and mirror the emotions of other people. In doing so, ‘micros’ — basic building blocks of personality — cluster together and form ‘minors’. The more they have in common, the more micros and minors cluster together and the stronger the ties in the ‘web’ will be. Conversely, the less they have in common, the more likely disassociation is to weaken the ties and compartmentalize the underlying mental processes. This results in what I shall call the ‘circle of multiplicity’.
Before going on to describe various webs, it is worth mentioning some things they all share in common. Firstly, no web is intrinsically good or bad. They are each useful adaptations to a particular environment. Secondly, it is by no means the case that once one web is built up that is it and it remains in place for life. Instead, if your environment should change and your lifestyle suits another web more than the one currently built up, it is likely that a different and more appropriate state-of-mind will replace the old one.
Now, imagine a person who lives a fairly stable and unchanging life. The sort, perhaps, who has spent decades in the same job, and who’s social activities follow regular patterns. The micros and minors this person acquires will have much in common with those already in place, and as such their ‘mind web’ will be highly integrated, with every bit closely connected to every other bit. This is called a ‘Single Major’. A mind that develops into a single major could justifiably be said to be a single self. What you see is what you get with such people. They have one way of looking at the world. There are no hidden sides to their personality. On the plus side, this can make them very reliable and dependable. On the downside, it also makes them rather inflexible and inadaptable.
In the popular imagination, we are all supposed to have a whole, unified and integrated personality. But in this day and age, a person rarely lives a life stable enough to suit the emergence of a single major. What happens, then, if you lead the kind of life where there are stable periods that follow predictable routines, but occasionally you like to (or have to) break free from those regular patterns and have irregular experiences? The fairly stable aspects of this lifestyle will result in the development of a ‘Major’ — a well-recognized personality. But the irregular experiences leaves the ‘major’ ill-suited to cope (since they do not fit the responses it is equipped with) and so this encourages a partial fragmentation. Micros more suited to the irregular experiences will clump together in their own cluster, only weakly connected to the ‘major’. This is known as a ‘major-minor’. Such minds have the stability needed to sustain longterm goals, but also the flexibility to adapt to change. Of all the various mind webs, this one is the most common.
In the ‘major-minor’ example, we considered a person whose life occasionally breaks free from routine. But what about the sort of person whose life is equally invested between two very different experiences? Someone, perhaps, whose working life requires an entirely different set of responses and personalities to their domestic life? The equal time invested in both circumstances will result in a ‘Double Major’ —two well-developed, but often entirely opposing, personalities. Because one set only comes out in the particular situation it is called for, a work colleague who has never spent time with a ‘double-major’ outside of work might be hard-pressed to recognize their colleague when in ‘domestic’ mode.
Finally, there are people for whom change and chaos, not stability and routine, are the norm. No habitual set of responses has a chance of developing into a major, because their life changes too often for any such stable structure to form. This encourages the formation of a ‘multiple minor’. If the ‘single major’ can be compared to a landscape that is smooth and continuous made by the best lawn mowing service, multiple minor should be thought of as an archipelago of many small islands. Multiple minors offer a diversity and flexibility that can bless a person with amazing powers of creativity, but only if they can learn to control when the ‘right’ minor will come out. The downside is that they often abandon one task in favour of a different one, and for reasons that are not clear even to themselves.
So, why call these various states the circle of multiplicity? Recall that single major is like one single landmass. Now imagine parts of that landmass have become semi-detached, and the landscape that develops on that semi-detached part is something like the rest of the mainland, but nevertheless different in character. This is the character-scape of the major-minor. Now think of parts of the landscape breaking free, so that there is more than one island, each one distinct from the other. Finally, imagine each island drifting away from its neighbours, until the distance between them is so large you could inhabit any one and not see the others. Each personality believes it is the only one inhabiting that brain. It seems, in other words, to be a single landmass. Hence we appear to be back where we started, hence ‘circle of multiplicity’.
So, now it should become clear why Gwyn is not necessarily wrong. For sure, some states of mind (such as Single Major) can justifiably be called ‘one and the same person’ and the most common form (Major-Minor) should be thought of as a well-defined character which also has certain kinds of personality traits that tend not to be apparent unless appropriate circumstances require them to be active. Her example of a person at a very sociable, relaxing event and later a highly formal occasion are good examples of the sort of things that bring out our minors. However, there are also characterscapes which arguably do not sit well with Gwyn’s definitions.
Remember my point about the spectrum of disassociation having states lying between ‘everyday’ forms like daydreaming and extreme forms like MPD? The same is true with the ‘characterscapes’. Instead of islands so remote they are unaware of each other’s existence, imagine several islands with very different characteristics that are all in sight of one another. Therefore, they are aware of the existence of others, can communicate with those ‘others’ and come to think of themselves as part of a community.
This is a visual metaphore of a state-of-mind called ‘co-consciousness’. As the name suggests, people with such a mindscape have a strong sense of being many personalities. Each personality has a vivid sense of identity, sometimes one so strong that each prefers to dress differently, has different interests and habits, even insists on having their own name. Unlike MPD, co-consciousness is not a total compartmentalization of selves. It is more like a co-habitation. The following transcript gives some insight into this extraordinary state of mind:
“First thing we have to do each week is check the stock lists on the computer, and that is really painstaking, detailed stuff. Personally, I would be hopeless at it, but Immy is great at it… People who know us well can always tell which of us has done a particular display… because we have very different styles… we can get locked into a tussle, with me arranging them one way, then P sneaking back and rearranging them… we came to this arrangement: I do it for a couple of weeks, then P does it”.
Of course, in reality ‘I’, ‘P’ and ‘Immy’ all share the same body and the same brain. But they are the products of different brain processes. It used to be the case that we could not tell if this was just an act. Maybe this person only pretends to ‘be’ Immy and P for whatever reason? While this seems like an obvious conclusion, experiments using fMRI and other brain-imaging techniques suggests something else is going on.
There was, for instance, a woman who could switch from one personality to another. During the switch (as Rita Carter explained) “the part of the brain that processes memories temporarily closed down, as though it was shutting off one ‘bag’ of memories while switching on another”. There was also a study that involved women who had two distinct personalities. One claimed to have experienced a childhood trauma. The other denied any such trauma happened. While the latter personality was active, each woman listened to an actor reading from a transcript that they themselves had recorded while in the former state. Measurement of brain activity showed no activity in the parts of the brain that normally respond to a personal anecdote. This strongly suggests that the women reacted to the story as though it was something somebody else had experienced. On the other hand, listening to the actor’s recording while in the alter state did cause a lot of activity in areas thought to be associated with the sense of self and personal identity.
In yet another study of personality-switchers, it was found that their brainwave coherence (which is a measure of which neurons have synchronized their firing) was completely different for each personality, which strongly suggests these people really do think and feel differently in each state. Crucially, when actors are asked to mimic personality-switching (or when real personality-switchers are asked to act out the condition) no such change in brainwave coherence is apparent. Studies like these, when taken together, make it very hard to believe it is all just an act.
FICTIONAL REAL PEOPLE.
There is an assumption in SL that ‘active’ alts are A) easy to tie to the ‘main’ avatar and B) pretty short-lived. According to the former assumption, once you know both avatars fairly well you know they are controlled by the same person in RL, even if you are not explicitly told this is the case. The latter assumption basically argues that maintaining an identity unlike your RL one requires too much effort, so in time we all just drift back to being ‘who we really are’. Generally-speaking, there is probably a lot of truth in both assumptions. But, like all rules, these ones have exceptions.
Imagine if P and Immy each had accounts in SL. Each developed their avatar in ways best suited to their personality. If you befriended P and were later introduced to his friend Immy, would you ever be able to tell the same RL person controlled both? And which is the alt and which is the main?
One might object that neither Immy or P can be ‘main’, since they are both imaginary friends invented by the person identified as ‘I’ (let’s call that person ‘the narrator’). The problem with this assumption, is that if either P or Immy had been active when the interview was conducted, they surely would have identified themselves in the first-person, while talking about ‘the narrator’ from the third-person perspective. Perhaps, in the mind of the RL person, ‘narrator’, ‘P’ and ‘Immy’ are all equally real? Or equally imaginary?
If we consider Holden Caulfield and ask where such characters come from, we find the line between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ personalities is a lot less well-defined than you might think. How are such characters created? I believe they form in the same way any self does — through micros picked up from everyday life experience, coalescing into minors and majors. The story of Caulfield’s creation might go something like this:
“There was once an infant, and its mind internalized many micros through mimicking the behaviour of significant others. Those micros clicked together to form minors, which eventually grew into a major that identified itself as ‘J.D Ballard’. Later on in life, Ballard’s mind encountered micros that did not easily fit into his major web, so instead they became free-floating, coalescing into minors only weakly tied to the main web. Ballard became adept at activating these minors, and he used writing tools to extend aspects of his cognition. In the abstract and extended space that existed between his mind and his writing tools, he developed a ‘double-major’ and the person known as Holden Caulfield gradually came into being”.
The protagonist of Catcher In the Rye is of course just one among countless other fictional characters that are a part of our culture. And that is an important point, for we do not just acquire micros from real people we have actually met. We can just as easily be influenced by characters we can never really meet, such as historical figures, literary characters, movie icons. We saw in part one how tribal cultures treat deceased ancestors as part of their community, seeking their wisdom on all manner of subjects. The information and communication technologies that saturate our world fill our daily lives with the voices of the dead, allow ancestors to pass their wisdom onto future generations, even allow virtual characters to co-inhabit our space long enough for our mind to develop a very rich and detailed representation of ‘who they are’.
According to Kenneth Graham, “we live in each other’s brains, as voices, images, words on screen. We are multiple and we include each other”. He says communications technology has enabled our ‘selves’ to be partially copied into the minds of others, and bits of their mind become integrated with our own. He calls this the ‘saturated self’. In some ways, this is nothing new. Recall from part two the concept of ‘symbolic interactionism’, in which the self is not something that is innate within us, but rather something that develops through interactions with others. I see ‘me’ reflected in the reactions you have of my behaviour.
Perhaps both symbolic interactionism and the saturated self could be seen as a third way between ‘brainbound’ (the mind is literally, physically in the brain and nowhere else) and dualism (the mind exists apart and distinct from the brain). Symbolic interactionism and saturated self both seem to suggest that ‘self’ is a pattern that exists and develops in the abstract space between minds. In order to be able to speak sensibly to anyone, you have to be able to model their mind within your own. They must do likewise with respect to your mind. Although it may seem otherwise, from the brain’s perspective contact with the mental world (that of others as well as your own) is no more or less direct than contact with the physical world. The brain learns to navigate both worlds in the same way, by building models that are used to predict the moment-to-moment behaviour of something ‘out there’. Prejudice is often seen as a bad thing, when in fact it is mostly an essential tool for social interactions. Prejudice enables us to make initial guesses about the intentions and behaviour of others (‘the boy is interested in the object he is looking at; he will achieve the goal of grasping that object with a minimum of effort’). But our initial models of people are inevitably crude, so errors in our predictions are bound to happen. These errors (should) cause the brain to refine its models, enabling them to work in a wider range of circumstances than was previously the case. In time, your mental model of another person becomes good enough to anticipate their responses in most situations.
I AM THE MULTIPLE ALTS OF OTHERS.
But what does that MEAN? Imagine it is true (it is not, but never mind) that I have known Gwyn long enough to be able to successfully predict her response to any given situation. I seem to know just what she thinks, just what she feels. I do not mean I can anticipate the precise choice of words and gestures she will use to express herself, instead I mean I can accurately predict the gist of what she will say or do next. OK, does that mean there is no difference whatsoever between ‘my beliefs regarding who Gwyn is’ and ‘who Gwyn really is’? If that really were the case, my mental model of Gwyn is not just good enough, it is ‘true’. However, I seriously doubt any person can come to know another quite as well as that. In that case, who IS my friend Gwyneth Llewelyn? Who IS my sister Jamie Marlin? Or, perhaps I should ask, WHAT are they? They are majors and minors — active symbols within my mind; as I am symbols within theirs.
Since the only Gwyn that I know is the one modelled in my mind, and since that Gwyn surely differs in some respects from ‘real Gwyn’, it is arguably an alt. ‘Real Gwyn’, meanwhile, does not really know THE Extropia DaSilva. She only knows an active symbol within her own mind that is a reasonable approximation of ‘me’. She knows an alt of Extie. So any person — me for example — is probably best thought of as a meta-pattern that emerges from the fluid concepts and shifting patterns of all those ‘alts’ that exist in the minds of friends, enemies, acquaintances and passing strangers that comprise one‘s social network. I see myself reflected in the reactions of others.
Once our mental model of another reaches a certain level of depth and complexity, we may as well call that person ‘real’. This is true, even if we acquire the symbols and concepts and micros and minors from a long sequence of printed letters, words and sentences (as is the case with Holden Caulfield), or if it is a fairly consistent pattern comprised of personal blogs, websites, text chat, IMs, textures, anims, prims and polygons, as is the case with Gwyn.
IS THIS NATURAL?
“They just want to talk online”, someone once said of their friends. “It used to be that things weren’t so artificial. We phoned each other every afternoon”. Sherry Turkle, who originally interviewed that person (she was a high-school junior) observed how we use daily objects in order to “build our ideas about what is real and what is natural”. From this perspective, the computer and the World Wide Web are far more than mere tools that facilitate communications between people, thereby building saturated selves distributed among people’s brains. The computer and the Web themselves arguably provide a bridge between modern and postmodern modes of thinking, and can act as a kind of mirror in which we see new ways of thinking about ourselves. We will look at such ideas in the next essay.