ALT! Who Goes There? Part Three by Extropia DaSilva


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.


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.


“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.

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