The role of the artist is to create an anti-environment as a means of perception and adjustment. Without an anti-environment, all environments are invisible. Marshall McLuhanWe cannot escape subjectivity. Our perception is inherently bound by limited points of view. We are fundamentally most blind to the pervasive psychological and cultural environment in which we swim like fish in water. Countless subconsciously held beliefs and preconceptions invisibly color, shape and create our experience.
Virtual worlds can act as Mcluhan's anti-environment in relation to our human experience by opening our eyes to otherwise hidden aspects of life in the physical world. Embodiment as an avatar can expose unseen assumptions that significantly shape our experience of self and others in digital form. (Of course, this enhanced awareness can only emerge when we refrain from being as lost and identified in the story of our virtual identity as we are immersed in the story of our human life.)
Avatar (the movie) seems to have acted as an anti-environment for me in relation to virtual worlds. It brought to light fundamental aspects of virtual life I've never considered and which are likely to inform my ongoing quest to make sense of avatarian existence. I'm still trying to translate a few flashes of insight into a revised mental model, but here are a couple of my initial thoughts:
- The moment-to-moment flow of facial expression was the key effect that brought Pandorans to life in the film. Although I've written a few times about the limitations of Second Life avatar body language to express authentic human emotion, until seeing the movie I didn't really understand the power of small, expressive, integrated movements of eyebrow, mouth, gaze, head tilt, squint, etc. to communicate subtleties of feeling and breathe visceral life into a character. Real-time motion capture of the body is impractical for most virtual world activity, but facial capture supported by a web cam (or the hat cam used to create the film animation) would be a game-changing breakthrough in the evolution of digital avatars in virtual worlds.
- Virtual environments provide only an infinitesimal shadow of the deeply connected complexity of a physical ecosystem. The vast chain of cause and effect that underlies the real world "circle of life" is absent. Is there a way to transcend the Disney World aspects of constructed virtual worlds so that a genuinely holistic system can be born? The virtual ecosystem of Pandora was modeled on a complex interdependent evolution-based system. Environmental entities in Virtual Worlds are mostly isolated nodes with little or no interdependent connection or interaction with the rest of the environment, outside of physics-based effects like a tree blowing in the virtual wind. It would be very interesting to create an open virtual world like Second Life that is composed of a dynamically evolving ecosystem created by a something like the Spore platform.
- No matter how immersed one is in a virtual identity it cannot be unwound from a lifetime of inculturation and psychological conditioning. Even the most NPIRL Second Life subcultures such as Furries and Tinies are intrinsically entangled in human biology, psychology and culture. The unique rules built into game-based worlds such as Entropia and World of Warcraft can certainly act as laboratories to experiment with personal and social psychology. But I think it would take induced amnesia and 24/7 full sensory immersion to really explore trans-human potential. Any volunteers?