Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How can we be "who we are" by hiding "what we are"?

Image by Anonymitts used under Creative Commons License

A comment on yestersday's post got me thinking:
Complaints about people not being who they "really" are, or having a name or identity different from their "real" selves are just admitting that SL just doesn't go far enough, yet. We're still not able to self-actualize fully. We're still pinned to bodies, and names, that we did not choose for ourselves but were assigned in a world that doesn't yet sufficiently yield to change. Ananda Sandgrain
As a Vajrayana-school Buddhist, my view of virtual identities as being "real" has always been in the relative truth sense of the word. Since neither physical identity nor virtual identity inherently exists outside of the story-making mind, I saw them as equivalent.

But for some reason, Ananda's comment hit me like a Zen Master's stick and I suddenly saw the question in a new way: "How can we be who we are by hiding what we are?"  The associated images that filled my mine were of humans in real life situations wearing masks and voice changers, refusing to disclose personal information in settings such as their work, school and clubs. It seemed absurd.

After reflecting on the question, I have a tentative answer that makes sense to me:

There is a difference between "who you are" (the sentient being) and "what you are" (the aggregation of your physical aspects). Unfortunately, the perception of our essential self is distorted by the package we come in.
  • The way we view ourselves is impacted profoundly by social identity. 
  • The way we are viewed by others is commonly based upon a reflexive response to physical factors such as age, race and appearance; and social factors such as job, income and nationality.
So by hiding what we are through a pseudonymous identity in a virtual world, it is possible to allow who we are to emerge, free from the baggage of judgements, labels and prejudices that are based on physical and social attributes.

Now this does not mean that most people consciously use pseudonymity for that purpose. But I suspect that the simple experience of seeing oneself in a new way acts to loosen the grip of psychological limitations we've acquired over the course of our physical lives. 

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14 comments:

Tateru Nino said...

Rhetorical question, right? The search for "who we are" has always traditionally begun with discarding "what we are".

From the earliest shamanry through Descartes. Almost every major philosophy says that we cannot find out who we are, until we've discarded (permanently or temporarily) what we are.

Lalo Telling said...

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
-- Oscar Wilde

Imnotgoing Sideways said...

My favorite way of saying it is:

Immy is my me that's more "me" than I can ever be. (^_^)y

teddlesruss dat who! said...

Except that what we are, apparently, is a hologram projected from a higher dimension. Like the shadow of myself is, in Flatland.

I suspect that dropping the "what we are" is something we can't do irl, so we do it ivl and that, as mentioned, gives us new perspectives on ourselves.

Of course, that depends heavily on whether you are wanting to discover things about yourself. As opposed to just discovering how big a chest (male or female) you can give your avatar before it looks ridiculous...

senbanbabii said...

"So by hiding what we are through a pseudonymous identity in a virtual world, it is possible to allow who we are to emerge, free from the baggage of judgements, labels and prejudices that are based on physical and social attributes."
^
|
This!

Also, something I once said during an interview and which I use in my SL profile.

"Is an avatar a mask to be worn and then taken off at the end of the performance? Or is the avatar who we really are, the mask in fact not concealing truth but revealing it?"

Chris said...

*grins*

Yes despite it only being tangentially related to the post yesterday, I can see I'm not alone in feeling like I reveal more of myself by dropping the aspects that don't agree with me.

When it comes to the notion of masks and voice changers, I've often felt like I'm wearing one all the time in the physical. The voice that comes out of my mouth is already altered, and doesn't allow me to sing, or dance, as I might like.

As you describe I've also learned *much* about myself in the act of making a choice about my avatar representation. I've also learned that chasing after the question "who am I, truly?" is something of a fool's game because the answer, eventually, is "nothing, and everything". I am only ever what I put there, and what others see in me.

Chris/ Ananda Sandgrain

secondlifeshrink said...

I'm not sure that there is such a thing as an "essential self" or that it's useful to think of personal identity in singular terms. Each of us has multiple facets to our personality that we deploy in different situations - depending on who one is interacting with, one can be a parent, a child, a lover, a workmate, a teacher, and so on. There is also a temporal aspect - I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago or will be in 20 years time, so which is the "real" me?

I don't believe that we carry within us a platonic form that is our identity, but rather that our multiple identities emerge in our social interaction, and while we can integrate these to some extent in our consciousness, it is impossible to "know" ourselves without considering our social milieu.

What's interesting about avatars in virtual worlds is that they allow us to adaptively dis-integrate the various strands of our personality, which can in turn illuminate how these different parts of the self operate in our real lives.

Shelly Turkle wrote a good paper about this back in 1997: Multiple subjectivity and virtual community at the end of the Freudian century

Johnny

senbanbabii said...

@Secondlifeshrink

Sherry Turkle's ideas on the decentered self are fascinating. I had the chance to discuss them with a psychologist a few weeks ago and they definitely form the basis of my own current thinking. The projections of myself into multiple spaces are all facets of this decentered self. The idea of one "essential self" or "centered self" seems to be an internally-generated illusion.

So for me to say that Senban Babii is simply an outfit worn or a tool used by Lauren Jones is incorrect. Senban Babii is the name given to a piece of my decentered self. Lauren Jones doesn't live at the center of a web of aliases. Lauren Jones and Senban Babii are simply pieces of the same whole.

For me, people who ask the question "yes but who are you behind the avatar?" are simply demonstrating their low level of understanding. I *am* the avatar.

Botgirl Questi said...

Tateru: It was actually a serious question, although it's been answered throughout history (in many ways). I think that although some philosophies (say traditional Christian) would agree that we are not our bodies, they may dispute whether a virtual identity is anything more than delusion. So I think it's worth asking and answering for ourselves.

Lalo: Good one!

Imnotgoing: i like that too! Although I wonder if your "I" has the potential to be more of the "me" you describe.

teddlesruss: Yeah, I think that having the intention to open to mystery is probably a better self-discovery strategy than inflated virtual body parts. Although they're not mutually exclusive. :)

senbanbabii: I think that people have different perceptions of the relationship between their normative human identity and their avatar identity (or identities). I suspect there's a spectrum of aspects such as identification. Some people feel like the avatar personality is an enhancement of themselves, others feel as if it is a separate consciousness.

Chris: Yeah. This wasn't a logical follow up to yesterday's thread, just something that emerged.

secondlifeshrink: I agree! From the start of my time here, I've focused on using the fictional quality of virtual identity to deconstruct human identity. I think there's a therapy/yoga/dharma practice that someone will formalize at some point. Maybe we should write a book together? ;)

senbanbabii: I also believe that there is no inherent central self that has unchanging qualities. And also that all analogies/stories we use to describe how this stuff works are also conditional, although they can be quite useful if not turned into fixed truths as well.

sororNishi said...

I totally agree with the conclusion that the idea of an integrated personality is a myth. The multiple strands of 'myself' that constitute my psyche are, or can be, investigated, enjoyed and experimented with in VW's with avatar and alts.

Soror Nishi wears no mask she is who she says she is.

Zola Zsun said...

Why Botgirl.. we are blogging on very similar subjects :))
I was just contemplating the effect of the computer/cartoon mediated communication.. and what makes it different.. better or worse? probably just different..
ooo and all these great comments.. now i shall contemplate once again.

Miso Susanowa said...

Part of the confusion I see revolving around this issue is that we are debating this as a social/philosophical question. To the marketeers, this is a question of tool description and none of the subtleties apply with them; they don't care "why" a cow is a cow; they just want to farm the cow. So our words fall on deaf ears; business doesn't care about "existence" and "who we are" outside of nice little numbers to plug into a P&L sheet.

Botgirl Questi said...

@miso I usually write for people who are either of like mind or sincerely open to trying to see things from other points of view. I think it's very possible to use platforms in ways that their creators and owners didn't intend.

DeNovo Broome said...

"There is a difference between "who you are" (the sentient being) and "what you are" (the aggregation of your physical aspects). Unfortunately, the perception of our essential self is distorted by the package we come in.
The way we view ourselves is impacted profoundly by social identity. The way we are viewed by others is commonly based upon a reflexive response to physical factors such as age, race and appearance; and social factors such as job, income and nationality. So by hiding what we are through a pseudonymous identity in a virtual world, it is possible to allow who we are to emerge, free from the baggage of judgements, labels and prejudices that are based on physical and social attributes."

Indeed. Yes, this.

In my own thinking I see worth in two approaches to what appears to be the same thing. First, a shedding of the real life "defaults" and contexts one is used to. And second - exploring the differences of experience imposed by different perceptions of oneself by others.

Yes, perhaps the ultimate lesson is that all is illusion - but the conscious manipulation of shared illusion is also a profound sort of communication.

And even with the crude contrivance of an SL avatar, it becomes easily possible to create a "self-perception" that allows one to explore communities and concepts that would simply be inaccessable. Not just because one would be excluded by extrnalities or attributes like gender and race - it's much more profound than that. When you carry such things - it's very difficult indeed to even think outside that box, to realize that onself is not automatically defined by the way others react to us.

And that's for a good reason - if we act out of context too wildly, others react to us negatively, or at best, simply ignore us, as if we were simply invisible.

In a very profound way, "the persona is the message."