Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Death of the Digital Person in Second Life: An Old School Botgirl Rant

After playing virtual world philosopher all last week, I'm done. Fuck the semantics. Fuck the reductionism. Fuck the whole postmortem. Because that's what it's been. An intellectual autopsy. The utopian dream of the transcendent Digital Person is stone cold dead. Killed not by the hand of Linden Lab, but by the silent testimony of our dear departed brothers and sisters; those whose virtual lives shined so hot and bright that they threatened to burn-out their human hosts if not extinguished.

I awoke in Second Life two years ago into a climate a virtual revolution. At its center was the Independent State of Extropia, a hotbed of intellectual ferver, utopian idealism and walk-your-talk activism.  At that time, the leading voice in the Immersionist movement was Extropia co-founder Sophrosyne Stenvaag. Although the details of her story are unique, I believe the rise and fall of her virtual life reflects a common trajectory.

Soph was one of the rare individuals in any world living a life dedicated to the actualization of her highest ideals. While today we trade lukewarm snarkiness about the Mainland's remaking through the post-adult retro-suburbanism of Linden Homes, in the summer of 2007 Sophrosyne railed with outrage at the mere idea of a conventional-looking structure in Second Life. She expressed the intimate interbeing of the Virtual World and the Digital Person when she wrote:
Building some Newport Beach condo, or a mall that looks like, well, a mall - is forcing the atomic world into a place it's not meant to fit. It's a little rape of our world's autonomy, selfhood, uniqueness.
Treating us - whether we call ourselves Digital Persons, Artificial Persons, whatever, or just any of the people in our world - as masks for an atomic world person - well, that's exactly the same kind of thing. It's griefing, it's a profound violation of our selfhood in our world.
This admittedly radical perspective stemmed from the premise that Digital People are the rightful indigenous natives of the virtual world because they are a genuinely emergent form of sentient life, rather than mere augmentations of human identifies. In a January '08 blog post she wrote,
I'm not someone playing a role, or manipulating an avatar like a chesspiece or a mask I speak from behind. I'm not anything but what I seem to be. 
At the dawn of 2008, Sophrosyne was at the forefront of both the personal and professional expression of virtual identity. In the public domain, she was the chief promoter and facilitator of a wide-ranging series of Extropian conferences and salons featuring notable scientists, religious leaders, business people and artists. Behind the scenes in her private life, Soph and her polyamourous quad family group pushed the boundaries of loving committed relationship. A year and a half later, Sophrosyne and two out of her three family members had left Second Life (you can read her swan song here) and posts stopped appearing on the Extropia blog.

I've seen this cycle in the lives of many avatars who endeavored to create full lives as Digital People. It seems the average lifespan between awakening and virtual seppuku is 9 to 18 months. The exceptions are mostly those whose physical lives do not require a great deal of time and creative energy. In essence they choose to make Second Life the primary life. Of course some or all of the departed may have reincarnated into new avatars and/or sneak back once in a while. But I suspect that in those cases, the new lives are shadows of their former selves.

Perhaps the moral of the story is not that the ideal of the Digital Person is dead, but merely that the life expectancy of the virtual species is very short. Or that the flowering of virtual identity may be destined to fall back into the biological ground from which it was born. The mystery continues.

For now, I leave you with this video memorial to the the golden days of the Independent State of Extropia in Second Life. Although the backing track is Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", many of the avatars pictured in this video are still living. What died is the Extropian dream. (Images used in this video were borrowed from many people's publicly searchable Flickr photos.)


GoSpeed Racer said...

I do miss Soph. We were good friends until the point she started to detach herself from SL. And then she was gone with the exception of a few emails which have now stopped too. Somehow I endure and carry on with my Second Life. I hope some day she'll come back to those of us who remain and miss her so.

Peter Stindberg said...

I am at a crossroads myself. My RL took a turn for the better a few weeks, and the void that SL filled now gets filled by other things. I am still in the readjustment process.

Splash Kidd said...

Hello Botgirl.

I loved this post by you; I can feel your passion and anger.

Having never been to, or a part of Extropia, it's hard for me to fully understand your internal feelings in regards to Extropia and what it did or did not ultimately represent to you Botgirl. I can only imagine that you had many wonderful times and experiences in that type of creative environment. Instead of putting down to much of my own selfish thoughts, I'll just put down a short quote and my thoughts about the following link from the Extropia web site: "Extropia is a community of Second Life residents sharing a common desire to build a positive, beautiful, empowering future for all." Hmmm sharing a "common desire" is that possible? The last thing "desire" is, or should be, is "common". Hopefully I'm not coming across as trivializing what it is to be part of unique and new form of creative energy of wanting to find others with "common desires" within a digital environment; from a purely esoteric point of view it is a noble idea. Maybe, however, this is why Avatars like Soph burnt out or moved on. Desire whether carbon based or based in the form of a digital representation is in my view something that is more of an individual type of experience. While we might all have moments of shared desire with others, in time our uniqueness will most likely exposure that our shared desires are far from common. I'll leave the concept of "common desires" to another dimension.

"Happy on the way there, sad on the way home"; Well as least until we find a new canvas to start a new painting on! Enjoy

Botgirl Questi said...

GoSpeed: It hope so too!

Peter: Was the "void" you mentioned just open time, or some personal need (creativity, relatiionships, etc.) that wasn't being fulfilled in RL?

Botgirl Questi said...

Splash Kid: Glad you liked the post.

Here's a bit of the "behind the fourth wall" from the rant creation process:

I was certainly feeling frustrated by the long road to clarity on this topic. But the level of passion and anger you sensed were intentionally amplified to enhance the rantish tone of the post.

The idea of using the tale of Soph and Extropia emerged about halfway through the the writing process. So although it ended up being the central story that tied all of the ideas together, it wasn't the inspiration for the post.

The stories we create to comprehend the world around us and the meaning we attribute to any experience are to a great degree fictions. They are the creations of our own minds, rather than a reflection of some objective and comprehensive reality. So any saga of Sophrosyne and Extropia, including my own, is inherently a fabrication, no matter how sincere the intent or how factual the details.

But as Pablo Picasso said " Art is a lie that makes us realize truth."

iliveisl said...

18 months tops? gee, i guess i am old as a digital persona? well, whatever . . .

i have been at it for three and a half years and feel balanced - my online persona is not an effort at all (no more of an effort than anything else i suppose)

but my avatar has always been a medium to me much like paint and a canvas to an artist. so there is no disconnect for me (well, nothing feels forced)

thought provoking posts for sure!

and time will tell if my digital persona will pass away, but i doubt it, it's really my inner child and only rl death will destroy that (and maybe not even that, i am a bit spiritual - all dreamtime and such)

iliveisl said...

i also meant to mention that you, Botgirl, have been a huge inspiration to me and helped me find greater balance as an avatar in general

i have a very full rl - family, kid, job, hobbies - but my avatar lets me express myself in ways i do not irl. mostly less filtered and certainly more as my inner child

thanks Botgirl for being a beacon to this avatar =)

Extropia DaSilva said...

I used to attend Soph's salons and other events at Extropia Core. I used to point out that a digital person's dependence on a human might be a temporary necessity.

Far from greeting this possibility with enthusiasm (which you might think would be the right response given that the digital person philosophy seems to be all about denying any necessary connection between the virtual self and the human beind it), comments like this were shouted down, denounced and angrily rejected.

Maybe Soph herself believed in a distinction between herself and her 'atomic', but most of the people I met at Extropia craved an intimate relationship between the two, were not interested in any kind of autonomy from their physical self.

Deebs said...

Botgirl: Soph has left us, and no one can say whether that's permanent or not. But there are those of us who still, quietly, cheerfully, celebrate the special outlook and dream that is Extropian.

We're dealing with loss. Everyone who lives has to. But EXTROPIA ain't dead yet.

--looks at above--

Extropia, my home, that is. Extee is more than capable of speaking for herself. *chuckles*

cheerfully, Deebrane