Monday, June 30, 2008

Exploring the (un)reality of virtual life: Part 1

SL is an empathy box. It sorts those who can treat others as real, as feeling beings, as autonomous people, from those who can only treat others as tools...[Second Life] does separate the few who stay from the many who don't. And one boundary between them, I believe, is empathy - is the ability to see this place and these people as real, at least as real as the physical world. From "The Empathy Box" by Sophrosyne Stenvaag
Despite my great fondness and respect for Sophrosyne, I found her recent "Empathy Box" post subtly disquieting. "What's up with that," I wondered for the better part of last week. Try as I might, I couldn't pin down what bothered me. By the weekend, I finally realized that I hadn't been reacting to any specific ideas she proposed, but rather to my own lack of understanding of what words like "reality" and "empathy" mean when they're used in reference to virtual life.

You'd have thought I'd learned my lesson about announcing a series of posts with no idea where they'll end up, but that's what I've decided to do again. Instead of taking a week in the privacy of my own server to journey through dead-ends, wrong turns and unexpected detours, I'm offering you the dubious honor and uncertain pleasure of traveling along with me as I attempt to gain some clarity on the (un)reality of virtual life.

For now, I'll leave us with an initial axiom to consider:

An avatar's personhood exists solely in the underlying sentient being.

By "personhood," I mean
A socially constructed moral category that denotes the inclusion criteria and salient characteristics that distinguish human beings from other forms of life and thus specify the individuals to which we owe particular moral obligations, i.e., those obligations we have to others due to their status as persons. (from Healthcare Ethics)
Let's see where this takes us.


Dale Innis said...

"Personhood" is a tough one, but then so is "exist in". :)

I can certainly imagine having a moral obligation to a SL person without having a corresponding moral obligation to the most-closely-associated RL person. I'm not sure if it's actually possible, but I can imagine it. :) And that would suggest that it's at least imaginable that the personhood of the SL person doesn't exist entirely in that of the RL one...

Botgirl Questi said...

dale: It seems to me that there is only one human involved. For instance, if the SL identity committed a crime, wouldn't the RL person be the responsible party?

Dale Innis said...

The courts would certainly hold that way. I would probably agree, too. Would be interesting if *some* of our usual tests for personhood said that the RL an' SL people are the same people, and some other of our usual tests came out the other way...

Sophrosyne Stenvaag said...

I'm interested to see where you go with this.

If you mean that there's necessarily a 1-1 correspondence between body and person, I'd have to disagree.

I don't think it's accurate, and I don't think most cultures at most times in history would agree.

I've been starting to look into this just a bit, and it seems that the notion of the "individual" is a particularly modern European concept, in part the product of national governments, as a means of locating, restricting and taxing people.

"I am large; I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman said. I really see no *descriptive* reason to claim that every atomic body gets one and only one personality, and every personality has to be assigned to a specific atomic body.

Most of the arguments I hear are *prescriptive,* and amount to, we want to be able to register, verify, control and tax you. Those wishes aren't important to *me*...

Botgirl Questi said...

sophrosyne: I'm interested to see where I go with this too! :) I don't think the axiom implied a 1-1 correspondence between avatar and human, but rather a one-to-many correspondence between a human and multiple identities. The consciousness of an avatar identity does not exist outside of the atomic human. I think this view is compatible with the Whitman quote you mentioned.

Sophrosyne Stenvaag said...

OK, I agree with that. It's one of the major flaws of the current configuration - we're not networked or backed up. Take down the wetware, and you take down both me and OP, no question.

That's one flaw with the corporation analogy for digital persons: a lot of corporations are incorporated in Delaware, but if you nuked Delaware, you wouldn't destroy the corporations: they have autonomous, networked existence. We don't...

Princess Ivory said...

I too am very interested to see where we all go with this discussion.

I am me. There is only one physical RL person. My brain and my body are one. But I may choose to act differently around different people, or in various social situations. Some people would then identify me as a stripper; a wild party girl, because that is the only aspect of my personality I would choose to let them see. Another person might see me as an introverted scholar, because of the context in which they know me. Both selves are still me.

The same is true in SL. The only difference is that we can display ourselves and our personalities visually with different avatars. Avatars that might not even look human. That is not possible to do in RL. The most we can do is change our makeup, hair and our clothing.

But in RL as well as in SL, there IS only ONE human consciousness behind all of those different incarnations of self (setting aside the issue of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc - and even those are physically still only ONE human body and brain).

I have found that when appearing as different that I have created avatars, I begin to take on the characteristics of their personalities unconsciously. They have become my real self, when I am appearing in their form. This has been a very interesting and somewhat disquieting realization!

Princess Ivory

Botgirl Questi said...

princess: Thanks for bringing in some interesting dimensions that will certainly be explored here, such as:

- Self-perceived vs. other-perceived identity

- Avatar as disguise

- How memory fits into to the question of independent identity

- If there can be more than one "real" self, then what the heck is an "unreal" self?


Dale Innis said...

Certainly there's only one human body and brain (although as Soph says that's a design flaw more than an essential fact). How many *consciousnesses* there are is something I would never pronounce upon for anyone but myself.

We know so little about consciousness and how it works and how it's tied (bizarrely) to matter.

I'm aware of only one consciousness, and Dale Innis an' my RL identity are both aspects of that consciousness.

But if someone were to tell me that they have two distinct consciousnesses hosted in the same brain and body, more or less aware of each other, interacting or not interacting in various ways, I would have no grounds to doubt them or correct them (I would probably pester them with lots of questions!). And it's only an "illness" if it interferes negatively with getting along in the world...

Botgirl Questi said...

dale: I guess in the case of someone experiencing what's labeled as a "multiple personality disorder", it could be argued that there are multiple beings inhabiting a single body. As interesting as that concept is, I don't think it directly impacts the axiom.

That said, it certainly begs the question of whether embodiment in avatar form can create (or uncover)that condition within some people.

Lunette said...

I disagree that our inability to be networked or backed up is a design flaw. For one thing, I don't believe we were "designed." But it is also this aspect of our being that makes us value our lives more and gives us our unique perspectives on the universe.