Botgirl Questi has a post on her blog called “For Those Who Say Avatar Identity Isn’t Real”. What could possibly be meant by a statement like ‘Botgirl isn’t real’?
If we equate reality with existence, then the statement seems to be saying ‘Botgirl does not exist’, but is this statement expressing a truth? If Botgirl is a sort of fiction we can ask if fictional characters exist. In some sense, yes they do. Take Harry Potter, for example. He definitely exists as part of our collective consciousness. He is as much a part of our culture as Paris, or the Brandenburg Concerto, or the Statue Of Liberty, or the Bible. All of these exist only because humans created them. If, when people say ‘Botgirl is not real’ they mean she was dreamed up by some human, then hardly anything in our real lives is, well, ‘real’. Ours is a world of the artificial; the imagination made physical.
Sticking with this concept of something or someone existing in the collective consciousness, you could argue that Harry Potter’s existence is more definite than that of my fellow blogger over at The Unlimited Dream Company, Christopher Hutchinson. The reason why has to do with the remarkable success of the Potter franchise, which has familiarised Harry to millions of people. You could ask people “Is the name Harry Potter familiar to you? Can you tell me what he is like?”. Many more people would say ‘yes’ to your first question and provide a psychological profile that was consistent with other people’s description of him, compared to the number of people who can honestly say they have heard of Christopher and know what he is like. In fact, as far as most of the world is concerned, Christopher does not exist at all.
But there is another way of looking at this, one which emphasises Christopher’s existence over Harry and, I would argue, Botgirl. Everything artificial requires humans to exist, but not everything artificial requires humans to persist, once created. Take Stonehenge, for example. The society that built this monument has long since disappeared from the Earth, but the stones still stand. If the entire human race were to just disappear, this megalith would still exist. But, at the same time, there are some aspects of Stonehenge that do not persist to this day, not least of which is the reason why this monument was built at all. What was it for? What rituals, what customs, what myths and legends did its original creators build up around it? We can guess, but we will probably never know for sure. Such intangible aspects of the monument are lost, along with the people who built it.
If the human race were to vanish from the Earth, some of what they created would disappear with them. Not gradually, as the pyramids will gradually succumb to erosion, but immediately. Churches would persist, but Christianity would not. Books would exist; stories would not. Cds, MP3s, Vinyl records, sheets of music would exist; music would not. In short, anything existing exclusively in our minds would necessarily vanish along with the human race. I suppose you could argue it all still exists in principle, only awaiting the reappearance of minds capable of interpreting the information locked away in physical media. But, barring that eventuality, our virtual cultural artifacts cannot persist for even an instant without minds being aware of them.
Imagine the entire human race- except Christopher- were to disappear. Does he still exist? Of course! Maybe not for long because, after all, a human being is a highly social animal. Being the last person left alive may be a fate nobody would wish to endure for long. But Christopher could persist for a while, all by himself.
Could Botgirl Questi be the last female left alive? No, because she is one of those virtual parts of our culture. She cannot persist for any length of time after human imagination ceases to be. Neither, for that matter, could I.
When thinking about the question “is avatar identity real”? many people answer “yes, because I am real”. No! It is not entirely correct to attribute Botgirl’s continued existence to one specific human being. One specific human being should be given credit for having created her in the first place (assuming she is not the product of some team effort) but, in principle at least, why should she need to rely on just this individual to persist? Stories can be ghost-written so why can’t there be ghost bloggers? Characters can persist through a succession of actors, so why can’t an avatar persist through a succession of users? If we assume Botgirl is a kind of fiction, why differentiate between her primary pretending to be her and anyone else pretending to be her? So long as Botgirl’s social network evolves in a way which is roughly consistent with our mental model of ‘what she is like; what she is likely to do’ there is scope for her existence to persist through a succession of primaries.
This is where Botgirl exists; this is the source of her reality: She is a pattern existing in the abstract space between the social networks and the minds connected via the Internet. She can, in principle at least, outlive any individual. It’s just a matter of her patterns being interesting enough to be worth maintaining by anyone capable of evolving them in a consistent manner. But without the collective imagination, her existence is nothing. She is dependent on us believing she exists in a way that Christopher is not. Dependent, that is, until artificial intelligence is creative and imaginative enough to run her patterns in a convincing manner. Until that day,