Monday, October 13, 2008

Illusion or Awakening? Reflections on Virtual Life

Over the course of the Botgirl Thought Experiment, I've gone back and forth between seeing virtual life as a path into illusion or a means of awakening. Although I haven't given up on a digital yoga, it's clear to me that spending a significant portion of our time in virtual worlds without sustained conscious attention leads many of us deeper into ignorance and suffering.

The primary value of virtual identity for me has been its power to shed light on the fictional nature of normative identity and the constructed narrative quality of all conception. For the first couple of months as Botgirl, my interactions were in strict role play from the imagined perspective of an AI embodied as an avatar. Inhabiting this carefully designed character afforded me great equanimity. It often felt as if I was channeling an enlightened being. Looking back now over the first months of blog posts, it's easy for me to see when I was streaming directly from her consciousness and when I was writing as an interpreter of her insights.

Over time, it became harder to maintain the purity of the character because the wall between my physical and virtual lives began to feel uncomfortable. As I developed online friendships, more and more of my "atomic" perspective and personality began to bleed into virtual communication. This was primarily because I couldn't come up with a way to establish what felt like authentic relationships from the limited ground of an intentionally fragmented part of myself.

So I'm dedicating the rest of Lazy Month to contemplating and reevaluating the value of the Botgirl Thought Experiment. I'll keep you posted.

in contemplation
blinding lights fade revealing
stars in a vast sky


Dale Innis said...

I will profoundly note that every path to illusion is a means to awakening. :)

Botgirl Questi said...

Ah, Dale! Do you that direction is working well for most of us?

Anonymous said...


I think you've found a core of truth here, and the thing that unites the blogged disquiet some people felt from the Identity Circus with my own unblogged (because still inchoate) responses.

For me, the core message of the Circus - and sometimes of your blog as well - was an assertion of inauthenticity.

I think my responses to you - or more accurately, the distance I found myself keeping - stemmed from not knowing where, if at all, the irony quotes ended and the self began.

For the Circus, manifesting a randomly chosen avatar is by definition inauthentic - it's an express negation of authenticity.

Public sexual contact with a bot is the same, a statement against the whole prospect of authentic emotional and sexual expression.

This sort of negation is, I think, inherent in performance art and in the ironic, postmodern perspective it incorporates.

But postmodern irony can be its own undoing: by its own terms it offers no reason why the effort of its own creation should be sustained.

Digital authenticity is post-postmodern: while doing away with a material basis for existence or meaning, it nonetheless (or all the more) asserts nuclear (if not constant or hard-boundaried) identity, of authenticity as the inescapable basis of self and social (and economic and political) relations, and ultimately, the only true value in digital worlds.

I hope you find value by your own terms, whatever they may be, and choose to return: yours is an important voice.

Botgirl Questi said...

Soph: I intended to create disquiet, so I'll take that as a compliment. :)

I guess my philosophical perspective is that there is no independently real self in virtual or atomic life. So the two exhibits you noted were meant as Zen-ish swats on the head, rather than postmodern critiques. It seems to me that the disquiet some experienced in taking on a random avatar or cuddling with a bot was from identification and attachment to a virtual identity.

So authenticity in that context is a hard one for me to figure out. If I am delusional, then what is the value of the authentic expression of my delusion?

So my intention isn't to express some "real" self, but to free my consciousness from grasping at the reification of that very idea.

Interesting stuff! Thanks for your thoughtful post. I always value your thoughts, even when we don't see eye-to-eye.

Anonymous said...

Botgirl - Thank you for taking my comments in the positive and engaged spirit they were intended. I was afraid my tone was harsher than my intentions.

So my intention isn't to express some "real" self, but to free my consciousness from grasping at the reification of that very idea.

Nono, I entirely agree - but I think that the logical conclusion of that view is silence: if there is no self, then self-expression can only be a delusional act. However, if there is, encouraging the view that there isn't is wrong, in both the factual and moral sense.

It's an interesting dilemma.

I'm sufficiently convinced of the reality of my own existence that I escape it, but I'd be curious to get some "objective" evidence - whether I can be brought into physical expression through hypnosis of the Other Personality, or whether an fMRI would map cognitive differences between my and OP's use of our shared brain.

I'm really not sure how I'd respond if something like that *failed* to validate my distinct existence!

I'm curious, though - if they did, if there were some evidence of my distinct existence - would that have an effect on your views, or would that just be evidence of double the delusion? :P

Again, thank you for engaging with my sharp but genuinely sympathetic criticisms!

Botgirl Questi said...

Hi Soph,

I don't think that Sophrosyne is any less "real" than the human self that shares your physical brain. I think it is quite possible that psychological tests or even brain scans would show a difference between the two. (I think I was the first to suggest people take a personality test from the perspective of each identity.)

I wasn't clear on what I meant by "real" self. Here's a quote from Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism that does a much better job of explaining the idea of self I was refuting:

"A coiled rope's speckled color and coiling are similar to those of a snake, and when the rope is perceived in a dim area, the thought arises, “This is a snake.” As for the rope, at that time when it is seen to be a snake, the collection and parts of the rope are not even in the slightest way a snake. Therefore, that snake is merely set up by conceptuality.

In the same way, when the thought “I” arises in dependence upon mind and body, nothing within mind and body—neither the collection which is a continuum of earlier and later moments, nor the collection of the parts at one time, nor the separate parts, nor the continuum of any of the separate parts—is in even the slightest way the “I.” Also there is not even the slightest something that is a different entity from mind and body that is apprehendable as the “I.” Consequently, the “I” is merely set up by conceptuality in dependence upon mind and body; it is not established by way of its own entity.

Dale Innis said...

"Ah, Dale! Do you that direction is working well for most of us?"

Well, as we are all enlightened Buddhas, it's hard to imagine how anything could be working any better! :)

But that is mostly just me being silly up at the meta-level. You an' Soph are having a much more practical an' compassionate discussion.

Botgirl Questi said...

Just read an article that hits right on these questions. Here's a quote:

Regardless of the cause of the spike, considerable evidence, including recent brain-imaging studies, suggests that some people really do shift from one self to another, and that the selves have different memories and personalities. In one study, women who had been diagnosed with dissociative-identity disorder and claimed to be capable of shifting at will from one self to another listened to recordings while in a PET scanner. When the recordings told of a woman’s own traumatic experience, the parts of the brain corresponding to autobiographic memory became active—but only when she had shifted to the self who had endured that traumatic experience. If she was in another self, different parts of the brain became active and showed a pattern of neural activity corresponding to hearing about the experience of a stranger.

Anonymous said...

Botgirl, thank you for that link! That was a terrific article, and a good source to draw from.

You might find this article on religion from the current Nature interesting: I think it's got some implications for digital identity.