Monday, December 28, 2009

Thoughts on How The Avatar Film Relates to Avatars in Virtual Worlds

Avatar to Avatar
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 McLuhan
We 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?
Anyway, these are some of the ideas that have been echoing through my mind since viewing the movie a couple of times. How about you?


Sinnyo said...

While mine's a much more mundane insight than your own, I was nevertheless rather struck by the subtle plot at play in Avatar - that of a paraplegic man getting his legs back as part of a whole new form. That felt very reflective of the path I'm on in my own avatar journey. 'course, it was rather underplayed when shown alongside the spectacular explosions. :)

Ruina Kessel said...

I'd volunteer for the induced amnesia & 24/7 immersion experiment, provided I could come out of it and regain my old self. UNLESS I had no one in real life relying on me being me. Then I'd jump in with both feet.

I have not seen Avatar yet, but I look forward to it, and will come reread this post when I have ^^

Gracie Kendal said...

A friend of mine , Azdel Slade, did a performance piece that may interest you guys... check it out

"For the performance, I lived for 365 hours immersed in the online 3D environment of Second Life with a head mounted display, only seeing the physical world through a video feed, and used a motion capture system to map my movements into Second Life. The installation included a stereoscopic projection for the audience. A Puredata patch was used to process my voice to create a virtual dragon's voice, which can be heard in the video."

Botgirl Questi said...

Sinnyo: For sure! I've met a few people who are disabled in the physical world, but enjoy a sense of free movement in digital form. Although this also points to the limitation of virtual experience versus the flesh and blood depiction in the movie.

Ruina: The Botgirl backstory is about awakening in a virtual world with complete amnesia. It has been a very interesting idea to explore.

Gracie: What an amazing project! Thanks for sharing the link.

Tateru Nino said...

Heresiarch said...

I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it's an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio

Botgirl Questi said...

Heresiarch: Thanks for the link! I actually found that many months ago when searching for McLuhan audio. Small world to see you comment here. :)

avatara said...

I absolutely cannot agree with Tateru Nino's sentiments.

‘Avatar’ echoes a prime mythology - man's need to understand himself and his place in the greater scheme of things - by referencing an ancient Sanskrit word meaning, "to cross over". That is, to deliberately descend the soul - assumed to be a self-aware conscious energy - into a life-form in a different dimension to experience that life-form’s reality.

The simple act of 'consciousness reaching into' another dimension defines the concept.

And we're replicating the myth not just in new versions of the story, but also in virtual worlds like SL.

The Social Networking phenomenon is a clear indicator that there are not only people looking for answers in the heavens to understand the human place; but that souls are looking toward each other to understand their spiritual place. In the end, we're not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.

The film’s box office ultimately confirms the audience’s need to immerse in this kind of mythology. After all, it is the story of who we are.

Gwyneth Llewelyn said...

My apologies for the long comment... first, I'm not a transhumanist, because transcendence, for me, can only come from within ourselves, and no amount of technology will "help" us to transcend our minds. We'll just get superpowers — enhanced memory/knowledge/skills/reflexes, longer physical life, and so on. But we will still be subject to the old emotions of anger, love, jealousy, etc.; we will still suffer from expectations, fears, and attachments to things we like, and reject things we dislike. We won't be able to transcend those if we don't find the ability to do so in our own minds; and we really don't need to transcend our physical body to achieve that. All we need is to use our current minds properly, with adequate training provided by a teacher.

So once we're willing to transcend our minds — which is within reach of most human beings with a lot of effort and hard work — then we see how little the body matters after all. A transhumanist enhancement of the body — more skills, more longevity — can then be employed to benefit more people, but, besides that, it has little relevance to a transcended mind.

Now I personally believe that immersion in virtual worlds can actually help this process. Many people who join SL start to understand how little importance our physical body has, when we communicate our thoughts and feelings with others through our lovely pixellated avatars. While die-hard augmentationists continue to insist that "avatars are not real", immersionists, on the other hand, start questioning how "real", after all, our physical body is, even though it's very hard — we shrug away quantum physics very easily: we can learn the maths, and even "believe" the quantum reality of the universe, but we're really not "aware" that our body is mostly empty space, and that atoms get exchanged between our body and the surroundings every day, to the point of making it pointless to say, "this is my body; this is the carpet I'm standing on". We can "believe" this to be intellectually correct — in the sense that we see the maths and trust them — but since we don't experience it at the macrocosmic level, we might not really understand it.

When we're immersed in SL, however, we experience the "emptyness" of our avatar's bodies directly. They're just pixels, dots of RGB on a LCD screen. The same dots can represent alternatively a prim building, other avatars, your avatar, or a screensaver. When you turn the power off, your pixellated avatar disappears. Nevertheless, you know that "pixels on the screen" is not the reality of the richness of the experience inside SL. Even without an atom-based body, you interact with an environment (granted, not an atom-based environment) and with other minds like your own. Communicating with other self-aware, sentient beings is possible even if the environment where this communication happens is not "real" — in the sense of being physical, atom-based. But you know other minds are there behind the pixel-based avatars. We communicate and express a full range of emotions towards them: we get angry with griefers. We laugh at avatars playing funny animations. We fall in love with shapely avatars. So all these happen outside the atom-based world. When we start to realise that these are exactly the same emotions we feel and experience in the atom-based world, we start to ask ourselves some very deep, serious questions.

The first, of course, is — why is my atom-based body so important? And the second will be: where are my emotions/reactions really stored, if I can transfer them from an atom-based body to a pixel-based body? And finally, we ask ourselves about the nature of "self".

The answer doesn't come in a day, or a year; but it will ultimately lead to a transcendent mind that is not conditioned by an undue attachment to a mostly empty, atom-based body.

Botgirl Questi said...

Gwyneth: I love long comments!

I agree with you that widespread transcendence is not likely to spring from some sort of techno-fueled transhumanism. But as you described, noticing the projection of Self onto a digital body can help reveal the usually invisible processes behind identification with the physical body.

Unfortunately, I think it's relatively uncommon for the experience of embodiment as an avatar to be used as "skillful means." At least that's my take based on the content of the vast majority of VW-related blogs and social network conversations.

That said, as Tateru Nino, Dale Inis and others have noted from time to time, the lack of transcendence-oriented practice in virtual worlds is just a reflection of how most people live their lives in the physical world. I guess it doesn't make sense to create some sort of higher standard for virtual worlds.

Hiro Pendragon said...


Interesting observations!

1: "The moment-to-moment flow of facial expression was the key effect that brought Pandorans to life in the film"

Bingo! Why is it that few people seem to acknowledge the value of facial expressions on avatars in general?

2: "Virtual environments provide only an infinitesimal shadow of the deeply connected complexity of a physical ecosystem."

Yes, the interactions in virtual worlds seems to be more discrete. Do you think that's a product of the technology still being in its infancy, or an inherent trait of the medium? What sort of limitations does that place on us? Or, perhaps, it has some advantages?

3: "No matter how immersed one is in a virtual identity it cannot be unwound from a lifetime of inculturation and psychological conditioning."

I think this is a key. Our brains are designed to wire themselves to its experiences. It's a product of the flesh. I asked the question on Hamlet's blog the other day, when he reported that Rosedale's working on sentience in SL, whether we as humans would even recognize sentient AI if we met it? Maybe our concept of sentience is so bound to our human condition that any post-human idea is simply impossible for us to imagine? And from a more practical perspective, would non-human sentience even care about humanity at all? Somehow I doubt this.

I think that there are many who claim to be transhumanists but view transhumanism as "being human living on a computer". The transcendence is merely physical, and not into some new kind of being. I don't think we can escape our humanity, and I don't know if we could ever give birth to a sentience that has any capability to truly relating to us. (Perhaps pretending.)