Thursday, June 17, 2010

BBBC #5: Davinci, McLuhan, Jesus and Me

Davinci, McLuhan, Jesus & Me: The avatar as transcendent extension

A little over a year ago, I explored the message of the Second Life medium at it relates to Marshall McLuhan's well known probe, "The medium is the message". A couple of days ago while contemplating Second Life's uncertain future, I realized that the medium I should have considered is the 3D Virtual World paradigm, rather than any particular instance. The future of avatarian existence is not in the hands of Linden Lab, or any other company or platform.

From the time an early human figured out she could use a stick to dig up insects to eat, people have been extending their biology through technology. From the phonetic alphabet to the digital computer, each new medium radically transformed human psychology and culture. I believe that the experience of avatar embodiment in 3D virtual worlds will eventually become as common and pervasive as today's use of cell phones and social networks.

Recent experiments have shown that the brain does not differentiate between virtual and physical experience. When avatar experience becomes as common as surfing the web, humans will be able to free themselves from fixed notions of identity that have fostered sexism, racism and other biologically-related oppression. Although I'm not sure of the path, I have a strong sense that it will also provide a means of spiritual transcendence. The quote in the image above from the gnostic "Gospel of Thomas" seems quite prophetic:
Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]."
(Today's Big Bad Blogger Challenge topic was "Blogger's Choice".)


LaPiscean Liberty said...

I trust in what you have written, more then know what all it actually means. It does force me to ask other questions though.
Was Jesus the Avatar of the Pisces Age?
Are we, like our creator, responsible for the sins of our creations?
Is the diversity between us and our Avatars, only an inability to understand ourselves? hence keeping us from being all things as one?

At any rate, you keep me thinking and i admire the way you see forest in the face of projected trees. :)

Extropia DaSilva said...

>When avatar experience becomes as common as surfing the web, humans will be able to free themselves from fixed notions of identity that have fostered sexism, racism and other biologically-related oppression.<

Identity is composed of a 'social exterior' and a 'psychological interior'. The former refers pretty much to outward appearance. According to some research, people do like to have avatars that differ from how they look in real life (quite often reflecting the ideals of physical beauty we see every day on magazine covers and billboard posters).

However, very few people are content with changing their psychological enterior. In fact, whereas it is generally the case that the more different (in an idealized way) your avatar's outward appearance is, the more content you are, the opposite is true for the psychological enterior: Greater difference between the psychological interior of the digital person and its primary makes for greater disassatisfaction.

That might explain why digital people do not seem to survive very long. (Like any rule, I dare say there are some exceptions).

Extropia DaSilva said...

...So I have to wonder how successful avatars can be at ridding the world of racism and sexism. If A) people are hardly changing at all on the inside and B) their change on the outside is (in all but a few cases) leaning towards the Westernized ideal of the perfect body, we are not really gaining much perspective on how it feels to be somebody outside of this conformity.

sororNishi said...

Great post.....(sorry Extropia, people do change on the inside)....yes...the avatar experience will change everything eventually no matter what a mess LL make of SL.

Botgirl Questi said...

Thanks for the comments. My speculation was about the far future. I tend to take the McLuhanish view that content (which would include any particular form we take, including idealized bodies) doesn't matter as much as the ability to take forms that aren't our own bodies.

I'm not aware of any research on the impact of long-term avatar identity on human psychology. I've seen some short term studies that indicate change. Can't look them up right now, but will post some links over the weekend.

Extropia DaSilva said...

>Great post.....(sorry Extropia, people do change on the inside<.

There is some change, yes. People tend to be more extroverted and less neurotic when socialising via their avatar. We do not remain exactly the same. But, on average, it is those with the smallest psychological difference between their RL and digital personae who are most satisfied with, and most attached to, their avatar.

The idea of the Web as a kind of laboratory for experimenting with identity has also been questioned. Yes, it is true that the Web makes available an almost infinitely wide range of alternative belief systems and cultures, but it is too much info for the brain to process. So we filter out most of the information. The individual filters out that which they do not want to be exposed to, while actively seeking out whatever they are interested in. This self-selection process is not limited to clicking on some hyperlinks but not others, it also occurs whenever somebody builds up a friends-list of people they would like to associate with, or when one allows only authorized comments on a blog. This can lead to a 'balkanization of the Web' with like-minded individuals seeking each other out, confirming each other’s attitudes and behaviours and ensuring conformity, while also shutting out those perceived to be part of the larger ‘out-group’.

Botgirl Questi said...

Extropia: Can you please pass pass on links to the research related to the question of whether one's happiness and attachment with an avatar is related to psychological congruence?

I've chatted with many people about human/avatar relationships over the last couple of years. My impression is that the happiest are those who feel their avatar experience actualizes positive qualities in a way that transcends pre-avatar life.

I agree with you about the balkanization of the web. The change I was referring to wasn't exposure to any particular viewpoint, but rather the long-term psychological impact of inhabiting different virtual bodies and of meeting and interacting with others without knowing RL characteristics such as gender, race, nationality, etc.

Extropia DaSilva said...

Sure. One is 'The Digital Self: Through The Looking Glass Of Telecopresent Others'

And 'Body And Mind: A Study Of Avatar Personalization In Three Virtual Worlds'.

Extropia DaSilva said...

Oops, forgot the link for that last paper:,%20Wen,%20Yee,%20Wadley%20-%20CHI%202009.pdf

Botgirl Questi said...

Thanks for the links. I did a little survey using the same Big Five instrument Yee used, back in 2008. My instructions to the test takers was a bit different. To asses avatar personality vs. Human, I asked people to:

"Take the short psychological test at the other end of this link two times, once in your human persona and once as your avatar."

Yee asked the human the survey questions about their avatars (third person, rather than first person). I don't know what difference that would make in the results, but it's an interesting question.

I wonder whether the narrowing in human/avatar personality difference over time is due to the avatar becoming closer to the human, or the human benefiting from the less neurotic, more outgoing state of the avatar.

On the variance in satisfaction and attachment, I wonder if there is a difference between those who strain to put on a false front vs. those who feel a unique avatar persona naturally emerges.

Fascinating topic, for sure!

Extropia DaSilva said...

In one of my essays, I explained the many ways in which personalities form in the brain. I think some of these forms lend themselves to the formation of digital personae. In rare cases, I would even go as far to say some people naturally fall into personalities so different, their avatar might as well be called a person in its own right.

Like most of my essays, it is rather long, but you might find it interesting.