Reoccurring Dreams

There was a lively debate amongst the commenters at Botgirl’s blog over the last week or so, concerning that perennial preoccupation of the SL intellectual elite, the question of identity in virtual environments.

I must have listened (and occasionally contributed) to this discussion dozens of times in the last three years, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything that was a significant advance on what Sherry Turkle was writing about fifteen years ago.

The particular facet of the issue that we (for of course I couldn’t resist chipping in with my two cents’ worth) focussed on this time around was the significance of choosing to represent oneself in Second Life with an avatar that differs substantially from one’s corporeal incarnation, especially with regard to gender.

How dishonest is this? Moral relativist that I am, my answer to that question is “it depends”; upon a lot of things, but mainly the expectations of the parties to the interaction. In the discussion parallels were drawn with other media, such as written fiction or cinema, with the point being made that no one feels deceived when they discover that, say, Robert De Niro isn’t really a taxi driver. This is true to a degree; for books, plays and movies there are commonly accepted cultural norms that define when it’s OK to make stuff up and when it’s not, and people do feel cheated when the rules are broken.

There is much less consensus regarding online interaction though, and, crucially, in a space like Second Life there is no easy way to communicate the extent to which one is using the platform as a vehicle for personal reinvention, as opposed to expressing one’s everyday self (which of course opens up the question of where one’s “true” identity really lies, or if such a thing even exists).

I’ve noted before that the research evidence suggests that it’s harder than one might think to create a new personality in a virtual world (certainly my avatar is boringly similar to my mortal form, in appearance and character), so in theory it should be possible to get to “know” someone just by interacting with their SL alter-ego. I suspect that there are not many people who could be bothered to put in the work required for this though, and there is always the (mostly unconscious) drive to project one’s internal object-relations on to the virtual relationships, which further muddies the waters.

With all this going on it’s hardly surprising that miscommunication and unhappiness can occur from time to time. I don’t think that there’s much to be done about it; it’s the price we pay for access to the creative possibilities of the medium,  like Cézanne being poisoned by Emerald Green.

Like I said though, none of this is new, or particularly profound, except insofar as it sheds some light on that other topic that has launched a thousand SL blog posts; “Why blog about Second Life?” Why make the same points about the same issues over and over, when we could be turning our minds to something more productive? I can only answer for myself of course, but I think (as, unsurprisingly, I’ve said before) that SL blogging is essentially just another form of role-play, a chance to imagine oneself as a heavyweight intellectual commentator, without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.

It keeps me amused anyhow. And I get to link to some cool music.

8 Responses to Reoccurring Dreams

  1. Mera Kranfel says:

    Yes why blog? We have different reasons of course. I blog because I like to write and i feel i evolve when i write in a different language than my own. I also learn a lot about people in these worlds. Without our irl bodies we are only our minds and its a new way to communicate. So it gives me a lot really. I spend time in a virtual world rather than watch television because im interested in people and TV bores me. I like to interract with people regardless of world, irl or VW.
    Ty for a great posting! =)

  2. Although once in a blue moon I am delighted by an idea that is truly new (to me), the value of identity discussion to me is mostly in deconstructing and unravelling existing beliefs. And because it’s usually fun.

    Why blog about Second Life?

    My RL counterpart has a couple of blogs and creates and shares images, music and videos fairly consistently, so I have a pretty good appreciation for the unique value of Second Life as a blogging topic and creative/artistic platform. For me, digital life is a powerful tool to hack into questions about atomic life. The situations we encounter in virtual form activate the same psychological processes experienced in human activity, but since the activating narratives are not as hard to disassociate from, it’s easier to wake up and appreciate their largely fictional content.

    I haven’t been lucky enough to figure out how to blog “without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.” I personally think that one’s understanding of an idea is greatly tested by the challenge of communicating its essence clearly in a few hundred words.

    • johnny says:

      “I personally think that one’s understanding of an idea is greatly tested by the challenge of communicating its essence clearly in a few hundred words”

      Perhaps, but what tends to go on is exactly the opposite – we take an idea that can be more or less summed up in one sentence (“Virtual communication allows one to present facets of one’s personality appropriate to the situation with a degree of control not possible in face-to-face interaction”) and spin it out across multiple posts.

      “For me, digital life is a powerful tool to hack into questions about atomic life.”

      I’m not at all sure that this is true. Certainly it’s interesting to think about how someone chooses, consciously and unconsciously, to present themselves in a virtual environment, but it’s just one piece of information, and impossible to meaningfully interpret without the context that you can only get from an in-depth knowledge of the subject’s psychological make-up. The idea that “avatar analysis” is some special way of reaching into the mind is superficially attractive, but doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. For example, you choose to have a female avatar. What does that mean? I don’t know, and there’s no way I could know without being more familiar with the whole picture of your life (though if I did have all the other jigsaw pieces I’m sure I could come up with an answer.)

      “The situations we encounter in virtual form activate the same psychological processes experienced in human activity, but since the activating narratives are not as hard to disassociate from, it’s easier to wake up and appreciate their largely fictional content.”

      I’ll admit that I’m struggling to extract meaning from this sentence, but I think you’re saying that in virtual life people are more conscious that they are acting out a role, and are thus able to understand their motivations more clearly. I guess so, but all that tells us is what they already consciously understand about what is driving them in that particular situation, which doesn’t really take us much further down the road to self-awareness.

      Also, I think you’re conflating “narrative” with “fiction” here. People build stories to make sense of their experiences, but “constructed” isn’t the same as “made up”. The narrative may be an artificial projection of the mind, but the building blocks are real experience.

      Understanding how one characteristically arranges experience into a narrative flow is interesting, especially if that narrative tends to be dysfunctional, but therapists have been doing that since long before there were virtual worlds, and, like I said, I don’t see how such worlds, though potentially useful, are any more special, or powerful than all the other tools we have for making sense of our inner lives.

      Anyway, to get back to the blogging – of course it’s fun, because, as I’ve demonstrated, it’s easy to quickly knock off something that sounds like it might be meaningful.

  3. I chuckled at this exchange . . .

    I wrote: For me, digital life is a powerful tool to hack into questions about atomic life.”

    You wrote: I’m not at all sure that this is true.

    I’m assuming you didn’t presume to contest whether I personally found digital life to be a powerful tool for my own use, but rather whether it is an inherently enlightening modality. I think that one reason we may be disagreeing about the value of virtual experience is that you are evaluating it as a tool for therapists to use with clients, while I’m looking it as a means for personal reflection and heightened self-awareness.

    On the narrative/fiction question, for me, the most problematic conflation is less between narrative and fiction than between data and meaning. Although facts we string together may be objectively accurate, the way we combine them to create meaning is “true” only in a subjective and conditional sense. This also ties into the value of blogging. What inspires me may leave you cold. And vice versa.

    • johnny says:

      “… you are evaluating it as a tool for therapists to use with clients, while I’m looking it as a means for personal reflection and heightened self-awareness.”

      Well, these are two sides of the same coin. Therapy is guided self-exploration; it’s not like we have any magic mind-reading machines.

      I appreciate that you believe the proposition “digital life is a powerful tool to hack into questions about atomic life” to be true, however this does not constitute objective proof that it is in fact the case. Indeed, the published evidence, such as it is, tends to suggest the opposite; that people use their online lives as a way of avoiding self-reflection. See, for example, Bessière’s “Ideal Elf” paper, or much of the literature on internet addiction (though in the latter case the subjects are, by definition, people with problematic internet use, so one could argue that it was not generalisable.)

      Internal narrative is obviously subjective, but not all narratives are equally valid; different stories will have more or less of a correspondence to external reality. Now I’m a materialist, so I believe in concepts like “objective reality”, but even if one doesn’t, one would still have to accept that some narratives are more functional, in a social sense, than others, and those are the ones that stick closest to a commonly accepted notion of what is real and what is not.

      To give a pathological example, in paranoia sensory data is woven into a narrative that differs significantly from what is generally considered normal. One might say that the non-paranoid interpretation of events is just as subjective as the paranoid take, which is true, but functionally the paranoid narrative is much less useful.

      On the general “Why blog?” point, we all have an inherent bias towards believing that the stuff that we personally are interested in is Important and Profound, which protects us from the uncomfortable realisation that our preoccupations (and by extension we ourselves) are essentially inconsequential. This is perfectly healthy, as if we were too honest with ourselves about the significance of our writing, painting, music or whatever we would just sit around all day in existential gloom, and never get anything done. It does no harm to step back from time to time though, and try to put things in some sort of perspective.

  4. Are you generally a glass half empty kind of guy? 😉

  5. Here’s a video I just saw that I think illustrates that virtual worlds offer a unique framework for both communication and transformation: http://www.theimaginationage.net/2010/11/rita-king-virtual-world-muse-of-new.html

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