(This essay was originally published as part of Bees And Flowers, available at Gwyneth Lewellyn’s blog. Some extra details have been added- Extropia DaSilva, July 15 2011)
In his book, ‘The Beginning Of Reality’, David Deutsch explained how we use mathematics but, equally, mathematics can be said to use us:
“I mean it literally when I say it was the system of numerals that performed arithmetic. The human users of the system did of course physically enact those transformations. But to do that, they first had to encode the system somewhere in their brains, and then they had to execute them as a computer program. And it is the program that instructs its computer what to do, not vice versa. Hence the process that we call ‘using Roman numerals to do arithmetic’ also consists of the Roman-numeral system using us to do arithmetic”.
With this in mind I ask: Do you control your avatar, or does your avatar control you?
I HAVE THE BRAIN. BUT DO I HAVE CONTROL?
Unless you have given your avvie some measure of artificial intelligence, it cannot do anything until you cause it to happen. Without you, it is a lifeless, mindless object. How can something without a mind control something blessed with one? That is what makes answering my question a bit of a no-brainer.
But, let’s consider another relationship that exists between something that has a brain and something else that does not. A bee has a brain. It is capable of making decisions and carrying out actions. All things are relative, of course. Compared to the human brain, a bee’s can only be described as a disappointment. But compare a bee to a plant and the insect clearly comes out on top in terms of cognition. Plants do not have a brain or nervous system; they are mindless organisms that bees exploit as a source of food.
While they don’t have a brain, some plants do have flowers. Flowers are more than merely beautiful displays, they are advertisements crafted by tens of millions of years of natural selection. The purpose of advertising is persuasion, and that is achieved by understanding the psychology of your target — their hopes and fears; their secret motives. A good advertisement is effective at manipulating behaviour. Thanks to evolution, flowers are superb at manipulating the behaviour of certain other life forms, one of which is the bee.
In ‘The Extended Phenotype’, Richard Dawkins portrayed flowering plants as controllers of bees, writing “plants, lacking muscles of their own, [use] insect muscles as effector organs to transport their pollen… fueling those muscles with nectar… Eyes and ears are entry points to the nervous system, and there may be patterns… which, if properly deployed, could be as effective as direct electrical stimulation”.
So, a flower’s shape, color and scent are patterns ‘designed’ to enter a bee’s head through its sense organs, trigger nerve impulses that activate muscles and drives like hunger, so that the bee is drawn irresistibly to land on the flower and deposit or carry away a package of pollen. What does this teach us? It shows that your avatar does not necessarily need a brain or a mind of its own in order to exert control over you. What it needs, are patterns that will influence your behaviour in ways that are beneficial to it.
GWYN’S ALTERNATIVE FUTURES.
What might Gwyn’s primary (let’s shorten that to GP) do tomorrow? One possibility is that GP will cancel all accounts for online worlds and social networking sites that ‘Gwyn’ is signed up for. So long, Second Life®, farewell Flickr, bye-bye blogs. GP may have alternative accounts that s/he continues to access, but Gwyneth Llewelyn is not seen or heard from again. What would be the consequence of such action? It would mean Gwyn had died. OK, I admit nobody (probably including myself) would actually think of it in those terms. Gwyn is not dead; she is simply doing something other than participating in online worlds and social networking sites. But if, like me, your only contact with her is through those web-based communication chanels, GP’s act of cancelling them would completely cut you off from any further contact with Gwyn. So, regardless of the health of her primary, Gwyneth Llewelyn would have ceased to exist by any practical definition.
Alternatively, GP might login to one or more of Gwyn’s accounts. Maybe Gwyn spends some time in SL, taking care of business or meeting friends. Perhaps she sees sights that catch her eye, capturing them in snapshots that she duly uploads to her flickr account. Perhaps a conversation among friends or a point raised during a discussion piques Gwyn’s interest enough to warrant an essay, or maybe she leaves a comment on some other person’s blog. Whatever, it let’s us know that Gwyn is alive and well and active as ever.
People who know Gwyn will agree that, while both scenarios are possible, they are in no way equally probable. She is my friend and I would be sad indeed if, tomorrow, I were to discover Gwyn had gone offline and would never return. But, if I were to discover her status was offline tomorrow, it would not concern me in the slightest. The very idea that she might remain offline permanently is, assuming nothing terrible befalls the primary or the Internet itself, flat-out absurd.
But should I really be so sure? It has been noted by the likes of Sherry Turkle and Tom Boellstorff that time resists virtualization. In other words, while you can open up many IM windows and maybe run several online worlds at once, your attention can only focus on one or two windows at a time. You may be able to have an embodiment simultaneously in every online world running on your PC, but you are almost certainly AFK in all but one of them at any given moment. Sherry Turkle reasoned, “doing something precludes others”. Arguably, Gwyn is in permanent competition with those ‘others’, the alternative activities that vie for the primary’s time. Life has plenty to offer away from SL, blogs and all that. And the Web itself offers near endless opportunity for developing alternate personaes. There is always a chance that GP’s interests will no longer be focused on Gwyn’s ‘digital self’, or the digital self of anyone else, for that matter. For Gwyn, though, it is essential that these distractions do not have a permanent hold on GP. S/he MUST be drawn back time and time again, not just to the Web but to Gwyneth Llewelyn’s accounts in particular.
What is it that is actually doing the job of drawing GP irresistibly back to the Login screen? Is it Gwyn herself, or is it merely the online friends, groups and other facets of the social networks that GP built up through, and accesses via, the ‘Gwyn’ avatar? Well, what IS Gwyn, anyway? The standard answer is that Gwyn is GP, but Gwyn herself recognised that this is, at best, only a partial answer. In her essay on ‘post-immersionism’, she wrote, “the method in which a digital self actually becomes more real than the physical self, in the sense that it accrues from an ever-expanding narrative that encompasses an increasing number of digital interactions with other humans — is what I call post-immersionism: the point when a digital self is at the focus and “spills over” to the physical self, in the sense that the physical self is merely defined as the background for the digital self to thrive”.
Gwyn, then, exists not in the mind of the primary alone, but as a pattern distributed, maintained and developed via interactions with the other people who make up her ‘Ubuntu Web’, my term for the ‘ever expanding narrative’ of ‘digital interactions’. Notice, also, that Gwyn alludes to *her* existence as becoming more solid as interactions focus on her more than the person behind the scenes; her puppeteer, GP.
The following quote, from Wagner James Au’s ‘The Making of SL’, seems to be an example of post-immersionism in action: “Google searches for my real name first turned up my avatar, or sites associated with my avatar”. He goes on to comment that this is “a sobering realization, since a writer on high-tech issues survives inasmuch as Google recognises his existence; in that sense, my success was now dependent on my avatar, Hamlet Au”. This is hardly unprecedented, of course. ‘Elton John’ is a household name but ‘Reg Dwight’ is not. If a stage name or a pen-name can become more recognisable, why not the name a person is known by in cyberspace?
For some people, the relationship between the person and the avatar is not so much akin to ‘Mary Anne Evans and George Elliot’ (the latter being the pseudonym of the first), but more like ‘George Elliot’ and ‘Silas Marner’ (the latter being a character invented by the former). The author Tim Guest once attended a conference held by the famous Anshe Chung, noting that she made repeated references to “my creator, and in fact she requested those present focus their attention on Anshe, the virtual self… rather than the real person“. I happen to know the name of Anshe’s primary, as would anyone who has Googled ‘Anshe Chung’. The same goes for ‘Prokofy Neva’ and ‘Aimee Weber’. Running searches for those names will bring up sites that tell you what the primary of each person is called, if you care to know. Gwyn, though, has taken post-immersionism to a whole other level. Googling her name fails to bring up sites that also reference her primary. Seemingly, as far as the Web is concerned, Gwyn just IS Gwyn. Her ‘digital self’, the blog posts and replies she submits, the groups she belongs to, the business negotiations and online friendships she develops, her Flickr snapshots, tweets and the avatar we identify as her, are not just content created BY Gwyn. Collectively, it IS Gwyn. A grand pattern made up of many parts, ensuring she exists in the mind of others; persists in the mind of the primary, as compelling an influence on that mind as the pattern of a flower’s shape, color and scent is to the mind of a bee.
Just as flowers need pollinating insects if they are to persist, and have evolved patterns that manipulate the behaviour of some organisms into serving their needs, so this applies to digital people. Of course, a flower’s success is not entirely due to the mind-controlling effect of its patterns. Rewards and personal gain for the insects must be taken into account as well. It is equally plausible to say a bee lands on a flower because it knows it will find nectar there. Similarly, GP, the primary of Gwyn, is not just lured back to the login screen by the tractor-beam effect of digital self’s patterns, but also because it is rewarding.
Since I first published these thoughts, Dusan Writer (who was not influenced in any way by this essay, so far as I know) published the article The Place Of Alts In Online Worlds, which features quotes from IBM’s Eben Moglen:
“I see again and again the ways in which people now find themselves unable to make certain life choices easily because their digital self has acquired an inflexibility that constrains their non-digital self”. Moglen then illustrated this point by describing a woman who ‘wanted to take down her MySpace page, but was pressured by friends and family not to do so, because they depended on her for the archiving of photos and some other information”.
So, here we see an example of how the ‘Ubuntu Web’ (which, recall, refers to networks of varying degrees of relationships that a person builds up as a consequence of online social interactions) evolved in such a way as to almost bring free will into question. If constraints on choice can happen here, I see no reason why further constraints could not manifest themselves. In an episode of The X-Files, a character called Clyde Brockman makes the following observation about a woman who collected dolls:
“Why did this woman collect dolls? Was it one specific moment where she suddenly said, ‘I know: dolls’? Or was it a whole series of things, starting from when her parents first met that somehow combined in such a way that, in the end, she had no choice but to be a doll collector”?
So, when you next feel that urge to login, especially when it is an account set up for an online presence perceived as being other than your RL self, maybe you should ponder the question of who is the puppet, and who is the puppeteer?