People who make a living out of creating imaginary worlds- authors, playwrites and scriptwriters- can sometimes achieve an extraordinary thing. That thing, is the creation of a character whose longevity far outlasts that of its creator. Charles Dickens may be long dead, but the likes of Oliver Twist or Scrooge live on in countless reprints, stage productions and movie adaptations.
Of course, characters such as these are fictional and therefore not real. And yet, a popular character can sometimes feel more real than the person who invented it. Take Homer Simpson for example. I know what he looks like, and where he lives. I know the names of his wife and children, and what animals he keeps as pets (and what he calls them). I know what his interests are (drinking beer, television) and what he would rather not do (work). I know he screws his face up and yells ‘d’oh’ whenever a bad situation caused by his own stupidity arises.
But what about Mat Groenig? What could I tell you about the creator of the Simpsons? Apart from the fact that Mat Groenig created the Simpsons, nothing. To me, ‘Mat Groenig’ is nothing more than a signature found on Simpson’s merchandise.
I think that on-screen characters who stand the test of time come in two forms, which I shall call ‘Virals’ and ‘Definitives’. A ‘definitive’ is a character that is almost exclusively associated with one particular actor or actress. For instance, L Frank Baum’s series of books about the Wizard of Oz have spawned many stage plays, films and TV adaptations and many actresses have played ‘Dorothy’, including Stephanie Mills, Violet MacMillan and Diana Ross. But, if I were to ask a thousand people to picture Dorothy in their mind, I can be pretty sure each person would think of a young Judy Garland.
A ‘Viral’, on the other hand, is a character that has been played by many different actors/actresses, but no one performance is universally agreed to be the definitive one. A good example would be Ian Flemming’s James Bond. While most people who enjoy Bond films probably have a personal favourite, the big difference between them is this: If I asked a thousand people to visualise Bond, I cannot be nearly as certain with regards to what actor they are imagining. It sometimes seems to be the case that an actor becomes so closely associated with a role, that nobody else could be cast to play that part. Somehow, seeing any face other than Harrison Ford’s beneath Indiana Jones’ battered fedora would not ring true. Other characters, though, become independent of any one actor (although that obviously does not mean any person could convincingly portray the character).
Second Life also has its share of popular characters, such as Prokofy Neva or Anshe Chung. When I say ‘popular’, I do not necessarily mean they are universally adored, I mean those are names people may well have heard of. Also, I am not suggesting that their fame is comparable to an icon like ‘Donald Duck’ or ‘Indiana Jones’. In fact, I would be surprised if anybody uninterested in SL has ever heard of even the most famous resident of all (whoever that is). But, within the SL community some residents could justifiably be called famous. Just maybe, in the future one or more residents will indeed achieve recognition comparable to the likes of ‘Spiderman’, ‘Luke Skywalker’ or ‘Jane Eyre’. But, could an SL resident ever achieve the ultimate, and actually outlive its own creator?
When I say, ‘outlive’, I mean it in literal terms. I do not mean ‘leave behind a legacy’, although of course that could happen too. Perhaps Scope Cleaver’s fantastic architectural work will make his name as long-lasting as Christopher Wren’s. But, could Scope himself actually continue working and socialising in SL, even when the person who created him had long since died?
THE ICONIC SL REPORTER.
As far as I know, Mat Groenig is alive and well. But, if he were to die, the following obituary would make very little sense:
‘Homer Simpson died today. Simpson (who was Mat Groenig in real life)…’
The error, of course, was to mistake Groenig’s role in creating that character for being that character. This kind of thing happens all the time in SL. Sometimes, sadly, the RL creator of a resident dies and when they do, it is just taken as self-evident that the person people knew in SL has been lost forever.
For many people, SL’s ancestry is most strongly linked with technologies like the telegraph, telephone, and email. In other words, anything facilitating communication between two or more people. Since you do not invent a character when speaking on the phone, you should also ‘be yourself’ (as far as that is possible) in a virtual world like SL. If a resident adhering to such a mixed-reality principle were to achieve iconic status, almost certainly they would become a ‘definitive’ in a much deeper sense than the association between, say, Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones. I am sure most people appreciate that Ford is not Indiana Jones in RL, however hard it may be to imagine any other actor playing that part. But a resident like Hamlet Au, who makes no distinction between his SL self/occupation and his RL self/occupation (his RL name is Wagner James Au btw ), is very much one person. If Harrison Ford had died and a fifth Indiana Jones movie was commissioned, just maybe some other actor could prove me wrong and play that part as well or better than Ford did. How would residents feel, though, if Wagner James Au’s death was announced, and Hamlet Au turned up at at a funeral held inworld in remembrance of Wagner James Au? I do not mean some other resident wearing a copybot clone of his avvie, I mean ‘the’ Hamlet Au — or, at least, he claims to be ‘the’ Hamlet Au. I cannot imagine anyone accepting such a claim.
Some residents see SL’s ancestry as most strongly linked with novels, theatre and movies. Those are all technologies that can create ‘digital people’. By that, I mean they are technologies that can organise patterns of information in such a way as to make you or I believe in the existence of somebody or something that does not necessarily exist in real life. Those who choose to see SL in this light call their avatars ‘digital people’ and try (as far as it is possible) to make them distinct individuals in their own right. Not that it does much to change people’s assumptions, since everybody insists there is just as much a one-to-one correlation between a digital person and one specific RL person, as there is between a person who uses their avvie for ‘mixed-reality’ purposes.
But, I have often wondered if such a resident could be played by several different people over the years in RL, and yet always be accepted as the same unique individual in SL. A digital person would have one possible advantage over a ‘viral’ movie character, which is the fact that, regardless of who logs into that particular account, the appearance of the avatar need not change. Anybody can immediately see that Daniel Craig is not Pierce Brosnan (even if both can be equally accepted as ‘James Bond’), but if ‘James Bond’ had been a resident in SL, roleplayed by Brosnan who never revealed any information about his RL identity, how could we know if ‘Bond’ was subsequently played by Craig?
THE IMMORTAL CEO.
There is a rule, that if any resident of SL gets offered a job at Linden Lab®, they must change their last name to ‘Linden’. Now, imagine if it were also a rule that, whoever gets the job of CEO, the account they will use to log in and work/socialise within SL would always be ‘Philip Linden’. Philip Rosedale would be free to log in under any other name, but once he quit SL the ‘Philip Linden’ avatar would no longer be his. Well, of course, the idea sounds stupid. Philip Rosedale is so closely associated with that avatar, knowing Mark Kingdon would be behind it would make ‘Philip Linden’ something like watching an Elvis Presley impersonator. Yes, you look like the King but buddy, you ain’t. So let us imagine that it is also a rule that the RL identity of Linden Lab’s CEO is to be kept secret. Imagine that Philip Rosedale had been some kind of true believer in the principles of immersionism and digital people. Everybody identified ’Philip Linden’ as the creator of SL and nobody knew who was behind that personae.
Now imagine that Philip Linden is addressing an inworld crowd:
‘I think we have made some progress there in the last couple of quarters. One of the interesting challenges we face is that, as SL becomes more international…’
Sounds like the kind of thing you would expect to hear from Philip Linden. Indeed, he really did say that during his SL5B keynote address. Well, he said part of it. The first sentence in my quotation comes from Rosedale’s address, but the second part was taken from Mark Kingdon’s address. In my hypothetical scenario, a crowd is listening to Philip Linden (some, perhaps, wondering about the enigmatic person behind the avatar). Totally unknown to the audience, in RL Rosedale went AFK, Mark took over, and Philip Linden’s speech carried on with barely a pause.
In a way, it is a shame that Rosedale never arranged things so that my hypothetical scenario actually happened. Maybe then, he would have laid on his deathbed, knowing that Philip Linden would live forever, or at least as long as SL existed and LL required a CEO. But, getting back to reality, it would have been way too impractical for the CEO of LL to maintain such a strict seperation between RL and SL. Philip Linden, M Linden, have no choice other than to become ‘definitives’ and I think it is the fate of any resident who becomes a ‘definitive’ to achieve longevity only through a legacy.
THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE?
But, what about the so-called ‘digital people’, those immersionists who do keep a strict seperation between their RL and their SL? Well, firstly let us get our definitions right. These are people who have created a character and chose to bring it to life in a virtual world, rather than a book or screenplay or something like that. You should not expect to meet a digital person and have it answer A/S/L questions. That would be like ‘Indiana Jones’ turning to the camera and saying ‘look, call me Harrison, it is my RL name’.
It is all too easy to assume there is one and only one person behind every avatar, probably because everybody believes so strongly that there is only one true self per body. Of course, there is no such rule. I can never really know whether or not two or more people I meet in SL are alts of a single person in RL. Nor, for that matter, can I be certain that an individual I meet in SL is not many people in RL. Take Gwyneth Llewelyn, for example. How does she do it? How does she manage to perform all of her jobs and roles? She must be superwoman! Or, just maybe, the reason why she can do the work of ten, is because there really are that many people in RL, all working towards a common goal of bringing Gwyn to life.
Supposing that were true, would it mean Gwyn should not be considered an individual? Earlier, I said Mat Groenig created Homer Simpson, but he was only partly responsible for bringing the character to life. It takes teams of animators, the vocal talent of Dan Castellenata, the best writers money can buy and many other people performing a variety of tasks in order for Homer to exist. Nevertheless, because the team work to make Homer an individual, that is exactly how it is perceived by you and I. Similarly, if many people worked together to create a character that was then rezzed into SL, that character would be just as much an individual as Homer is.
In this example, we are imagining many people working together, but now let us imagine one person creating a character, and that character being passed on to somebody else. If another person were to log into Gwyn’s account and role-play as her, would I or anybody else be able to tell the difference? I seriously doubt if any old person could pull this off, but out of all the billions of people that exist, are there at least some who have what it takes to convincingly portray Gwyneth Llewelyn?
This raises questions about the ‘right stuff’. One of the most frequently-asked questions that an author or other creator of a popular character gets asked is, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. I have no idea what motivated Gwyn’s primary to rez her into SL, but my own creation seems to have been a result of my primary reading certain books, articles and essays. It involved watching certain films. Within these kinds of media there were phrases, concepts, imagery, ideas expressed and recorded for prosperity, and some of these made an impression on my primary’s mind. Connections and correlations wove these concepts together to form the basic sketch of my character.
On one level, it would seem quite likely that there are other people who could role play the Extropia DaSilva character. Surely, there must be other people who have read the same books, seen the same films, encountered the same kinds of concepts and ideas that inspired the creation of that character? In fact, I know there are others whose mind contains ideas that resonate with my own, because I have encountered other people who share my views. So, imagine that somebody who happened to have done the same kinds of research that went into my creation, somebody who shares views that are like mine, logs in as ‘Extropia’. Would other residents be convinced?
Before going on, we must first recognise that there would be at least one person who could never be taken in. That person is my current primary. What makes a person a ‘primary’ is simple, really. It is a person who, at any one time, has the most fine-tuned mental model of a digital person’s mind and personality. In the future we may be able to create two or more minds, each with an equally fine-tuned model, but that is a distant possibility. For the foreseeable future, if a digital person already exists in SL, it has a primary and no other person could roleplay that digital person convincingly in the presence of a primary. This is a very important point to bear in mind: It is not my intention to argue that any resident (whether they see themselves as digital people or not) could be role-played by other people and seem like the same person to the primary. A primary has a far too finely-developed mental model of that digital person, to be convinced.
But the primary is just one person, and whoever it is, he or she is not going to live for many more decades. Question, how many of my hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, beliefs and skepticism etc etc would have to be incorporated into another mind in order to render it suitable as something that could run the set of patterns that other minds perceive as ‘being’ Extropia DaSilva?
A QUESTION OF PATTERNS.
The patterns that make up a person’s mind, some of them will have been encountered by others. It is a fair bet that a scene from a blockbuster film or a passage from a bestselling novel that is memorable for one person, is memorable for other people as well. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins came up with the term ‘memes’ to describe aspects of culture that are particularly good at passing from mind to mind. Fashion trends, catchphrases, famous last words, catchy tunes, all these are examples of ‘memes’. But not everything is destined to become a meme. Indeed, some things that catch a person’s attention and form an impression on his or her mind, such as a simulacra caused by a chance combination of texture, light, shadow, and position of subject, may exist only for a moment and never happen again.
How many never to be repeated patterns made an impression on the minds of people like J. K. Rowling, sitting in the unconscious parts of the mind, later to be incorporated into emerging concepts whose origins are uncertain even to the mind in which they form? We all ask ourselves, ‘why didn’t I think of that,’ whenever a person creates a character as successful as a Harry Potter. Perhaps the reason why it was Rowling and not anybody else, was because the characters etc. emerged from a very personal web of patterns that nobody else experienced. This obviously raises the possibility that ‘there can be only one’. Maybe a digital person can exist in one mind and one mind only. Loose the primary that happened to create a digital person, and the patterns that embodied and personified the digital person are lost forever.
Or, are they? Although there is no evidence to suggest that anybody other than J. K. Rowling wrote each one of the Harry Potter books, we can imagine that an unknown ghost writer penned some of the stories. Somebody who knew the plotlines, the relationships between characters, enough information to be able to write a story that the world would accept as a real, genuine, Harry Potter adventure. Maybe it is true that only J. K. Rowling could have created Hogwarts and all that stuff in the first place. But, once it was created and the story spread from mind to mind, doesn’t it seem likely that some of those readers could write highly convincing ‘further adventures’?
So, why not ‘Extropia?’ Maybe it is true that I could have originated in one mind only, and if that person had never been born, I would never have existed. But, now that I have been created, could others be bothered to learn enough about me to be able to role play the further adventures of ‘Extropia’? Well, let’s add a note of humility here. The topic we are discussing is iconic characters whose fame and popularity ensures they stand the test of time. I myself am certainly not famous, not even within the SL community itself. A famous SL resident would probably get hundreds of thousands of hits if you put their name into a Google search, and an iconic character like ‘Harry Potter’ would get many millions of hits. The most my name returns is a few thousand. So, realistically speaking, I am headed for obscurity. But, in principle…
How rare is a person like myself? Am I the only person with my personality, my skills, my memories? Out of the many billions of brains that exist, do such patterns as those that form a core being exist in sufficient quantity and clarity in one brain only? If so, surely that would make any digital person who becomes an icon a ‘definitive’? Or, could it be the case that I am not a role that can be performed by only one person? Could a digital person ever become a ‘viral’, a character performed by more than one person over the years?
All this talk of ‘performance’ and ‘role-play’, it all sounds like ‘pretend’, right? But, remember, digital people always are a result of performance and role-play. As I said before, it is common practice to make a one-to-one correlation between an SL resident and the person at the computer in RL who controls that character. That is why you read things like ‘Wagner James Au is Hamlet Au’, rather than ‘Wagner James Au created Hamlet Au’. In many cases, saying person A in RL is person A in SL is quite legitimate, but not when it comes to a digital person. You cannot argue that somebody else roleplaying ‘Extropia DaSilva’ would mean that particular SL resident would never be perceived to be ‘me’, because I have been perceived as myself for the past 3 or so years, even though I am role-played by somebody else. Ok, maybe that person is exactly like me. But, then again, maybe not.
Some folks might argue that digital people are not ‘real’, if they are simply the result of performance and role-play. But, remember the lesson that Homer Simpson taught us, of how fictional characters can come to have a greater sense of realism than the people who created them. This is just as true with some people in SL. Gwyneth Llewelyn is one, at least to me. In my mind, that name is completely associated with the red-haired avatar. Her in-world presence is the only aspect of Gwyn by which I can identify her. Her primary is even less of a person to me than ‘Mat Groenig’ is. At least that is a name I could Google and get more information, should I want it. But, Gwyneth Llewelyn is absolutely and literally the person I know in SL. As far as I am concerned, many people could be logging in as Gwyn and I would not care. I would not care because I would not know, provided that each person ensures Gwyn behaves in a manner that I would recognise as being consistent, given what I know about her personality.
WHAT ABOUT THE UBUNTU WEB?
There is, however, a crucial factor that we have so far overlooked. Let us suppose there are other people with knowledge identical (or similar) to any particular SL resident. Let us further suppose that, among such people, some possess (or have the ability to portray) a personality that is identical (or similar to) that particular SL resident. For the sake of argument, suppose there are ten people in the world today who could roleplay Gwyneth Llewelyn. The problem is, out of those ten people, only one person HAS been logging in as Gwyn.
Why does this matter? It is all to do with ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. It is recognised that the development of a person involves more than just what genes a person inherits. It also involves the society that person is brought up in. I have sometimes made references to an African concept known as ‘Ubuntu’, which essentially means, ‘a person is a person through other persons’. Desmond Tutu explained, ‘this is the idea that you cannot be a human being in isolation. A solitary being is a contradiction in terms. You are a human being precisely because of relationships; you are a relational being or you are nothing’.
Does this apply to digital people as well? I think it does. What we have been discussing so far can be seen as the equivilent of a genome — the ‘nature’ side of things. We may as well call it the ‘i-genome’ (the ‘i’ stands for ‘influence’ or ‘inspiration’). Every digital person has an ‘i-genome’, made up of i-genes or i-alleles (an allele is an alternative version of a gene, so eye colour includes a brown allele and a blue allele). As a trivial example, my hair could be any color but it is always black. Why? Because nearly all strong female characters in science fiction films have dark hair: Trinity from ‘The Matrix’, Ripley from ‘Alien’, Racheal from ‘Blade Runner’, Motoko Kusanagi from ‘Ghost In The Shell’ (the movie, that is. In the TV series her hair is purple). So when my primary was creating a digital person partly inspired by a love of sci-fi, of course my hair was going to be black. I would venture to say that every aspect of my design (and that of any other resident) resulted from some kind of cultural influence or inspiration.
But, I also mentioned earlier how I was only a rough sketch of a person when I rezzed into SL. What truly forms the personality, individuality and realism of a digital person is the web of social interactions each resident develops over a period of time. The environment of SL famously results from the collaborative activity of its residents, but I would argue that this also holds true for the development of each and every individual. The groups you join, the friends you make, all influence the way you develop in SL, whether you think of your avatar as a ‘digital person’ or not. I might introduce myself by saying ‘I am Extropia. I have a sister called Jamie and I am a Thinkers Prefect’. Such a statement implies collaboration between at least two other people. Jamie obviously has to exist and form a relationship with me before I can claim sisterhood with her, and Jinny Fonzarelli had to create the Thinkers group before I could be a member. In fact, a lot more people were involved in the development of these aspects of my character. How many situations between how many people, not just in terms of my own journey through SL but in terms of everybody elses, happened in such a way as to enable me to say ‘my sister is Jamie and I am a Thinkers Prefect?’ I will not bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that all the myriad encounters a resident has, even those brief interactions where you meet a passing stranger who is soon gone and subsequently forgotten, all contribute to an ever-growing web — a ‘Ubuntu-web’, of social interactions that both evolve and define the person a resident becomes.
Within a Ubuntu-web, some links are stronger than others. At the very centre lies the Primary. That, remember, is whoever or whatever has the most-fine tuned model of a digital person stored in their mind. Put another way, the Primary’s mind is where the ‘i-genome’ for that character is kept. Next most important would be other residents who have become close friends, those people you spend most of your time with while logged into SL. People like Jamie Marlin know me very well, but if such people carry a model of me around in their minds, it cannot be as detailed as the one possessed by the Primary. Equally obviously, the less time I spend interacting with a resident, the less detailed my model of that person will be, and the less detailed will be their model of me. So, the Ubuntu-Web can be seen as a network of interactions between a person and everybody else in SL, with those we spend most time with forming the strongest links and the most easily-defined influences on our day-to-day activities.
Being a ‘Primary’ involves more than merely possessing the highest number of i-genes that make up a digital person’s ‘i-genome’. What also matters is that the primary understands better than anyone, the Ubuntu-web and what past events resulted in it being the way it is. And that is exactly what those other 9 hypothetical potential Gwyneth Llewelyn role-players lack: Knowledge of who Gwyn is friends with, who her casual acquaintances are, and all the past day-to-day interactions between herself and others since rezzing into SL.
It is one thing to write a ‘new adventure’ of some literary character, someone whose friends and family and enemies and all interactions between such people were recorded for prosperity in books that have been duplicated millions of times. It is quite another thing to suppose somebody else could convincingly role-play a digital person, having never really experienced the past events that shaped how he or she should behave now. Where are they written down? In all likelihood, they are not archived anywhere, except in the mind of the person who logged in as Gwyn, and in the minds of her friends. Could another person replace Gwyn’s primary and roleplay that character well enough to convince her friends it is the same resident they have always known?
In ‘A Tale Of Two Avatars’, Wagner James Au reports on the discovery that there are two ‘Hamlet Aus’ on the social networking site ‘Avatars United’. Like many things to do with life on the screen, a superficial consideration of this discovery leads to a clear-cut and simple conclusion: There is the real Hamlet Au, and then there is a fake Hamlet Au. However, again like so many things to do with life on the screen, this clear-cut and simple conclusion may not hold true in all cases.
Why not? Well, it all centres on what is meant by ‘Fake Avatar’. The purpose of Hamlet Au is simply to provide one more means of getting in touch with Wagner James Au. It is like his telephone number or his email address. Just as a person hopes and expects to speak to Wagner when they ring his number, they also expect to talk to Wagner when they encounter his avatar in SL or any other social networking situation. In fact, it is probably fair to say that hardly anyone communicates TO Hamlet Au, anymore than a person speaks to their mobile phone. No, you speak to the person on the other end of the line THROUGH the phone. Similarly, Wagner James Au is spoken to THROUGH the Hamlet avatar.
Clearly, then, there is a big difference between speaking to Wagner James Au and speaking to some person pretending to be Hamlet Au. That is why it makes sense to talk about ‘real’ and ‘fake’ Hamlet Aus.
But in what circumstances might this not be the case? The answer is when an avatar is not used just as a means of communication with a specific RL person whose identity is generally known, but when the avatar is a roleplayed character. If you define a fake avatar as ‘some person pretending to be [insert name of avatar here]’ you immediately run into trouble when talking about roleplayed characters, for they are, by definition, some RL person pretending to be [insert name of avatar here]. What is the difference between some person pretending to be a character, and some other person pretending to be that character?
At this point, I want to introduce a relatively new phrase: ‘PrimaryBound’. This refers to the belief that every avatar is tied to one specific human. ‘PrimaryBound’ was assumed by Wallace Linden in the blog post ‘Will The Real You Please Stand Up’, when he talked about all the diverse online worlds and social networking sites an avatar might belong to, adding:
“[Here is] what all these online “identities” have in common. At the center of them all, the hub that ties all these personae together, is the very real, non-virtual, analog and offline “you.” Whether the connections are public or not, your Second Life avatar, your World of Warcraft toon, your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn employment history — all of these and more are just different aspects of a single entity: the person reading these words. They are all already connected to each other, via you”.
But we have already seen in the case of Hamlet Au that an avatar with a familiar name may not necessarily always have the same RL individual behind it. For ‘PrimaryBound’ to hold in all cases, the following statement would have to be true:
‘Avatar X is authentic only when that account is owned and/or accessed by one particular RL person’.
But, why should that be the case for a roleplayed character? The assumption here is that, of all the people alive today, there is only one that can convincingly roleplay, say, Extropia DaSilva (by ‘convincingly’ I mean the rest of the online community believes they are interacting with the person the avatar claims to be). Surely, though, the billions of people alive today should be broken down into more catagories than just ‘the one who can convincingly act the part of Extropia’, and ‘everybody else who never could pass as Extropia’.
A more realistic way of putting it would be to say, ‘of all the people alive today’:
Some would be excellent at roleplaying Extropia DaSilva.
Some would be very good at roleplaying Extropia DaSilva.
… and so on down a sliding scale towards ’some would be hopeless at roleplaying Extropia DaSilva.
Suppose some person from the ‘very good-excellent’ end of the scale were to login to my account or set up an account under my name in another online world or social networking site, and then they pretend to be me. Would the rest of the online community know this is a fake Extropia? Well, why would they? Here is an avatar called Extropia DaSilva that acts just as Extropia DaSilva is expected to behave. So what conclusion could anyone draw, other than ‘this is Extropia’? Also, remember that ‘somebody logging in to my account and pretending to be me’ is the default situation for a roleplayed character. That is always what is happening. Unlike an avatar used as a tool for communication, where you speak to the RL person THROUGH the avatar, when communicating with a digital person you speak to the digital person aka the character that exists in online spaces. While a person may believe they are speaking to the person behind the character, that is not the case in any meaningful sense because psuedonimity does not allow you to model that person in your mind. Think of Hamlet Au, and you visualize Wagner James Au. But think of Extropia DaSilva and you will visualize… Extropia DaSilva, because that is the only identity you get to know.
But if it is true that more than one person can convincingly roleplay a specific digital person, PrimaryBound cannot be true in all cases. But there are still some hurdles to clear out of the way. For one thing, it is no doubt the case that ‘those who are very good-excellent at roleplaying avatar X’ are in a minority compared to ‘those hopeless at roleplaying avatar X’. If you were to grab some random stranger and ask them to log in and pretend to be me, it is a lot more probable that the person you chose would not be able to roleplay that part convincingly. Even if you were lucky enough to have picked someone excellent at roleplaying that part, the fact that hitherto they have not is another problem. They would have little to no memory of that character’s past interactions. Friends would realise something is amiss when ‘I’ do not seem to remember important events from a shared history.
So while in principle ‘PrimaryBound’ is wrong when applied to digital people, in practice it is not, simply because it is so unlikely that you could find a suitable replacement roleplayer. However, certain technological developments might converge on a solution.
The first trend is the growing proliferation of sensors. We already have the technology to record where we have been, what we have seen, what we have heard, what we have said, what we have read/written. There are also plans for future sensors that will be able to infer a person’s emotions, allowing a person to track their changing emotional states as they go through life, compiling extensive psychological profiles.
The second trend is increasing storage capacity and the move to cloud-based applications. We are nearing the point where the storage capacity exceeds one’s ability to fill it. This will make the prospect of having to delete old stuff in order to make room for new obsolete. You could save everything a person sees, hears, reads and says over their whole lifetime.
The third trend is the increasing capability of search software. If this trend should continue, we will reach a point where a person can easily recall anything specific that has been uploaded to the Cloud, be it in text form, or audio, or video.
What these three trends are converging on, are ‘digital memories’ providing total recall. That is, the augmented ability to recall, in vivid detail, every event that happened in our past. How, though, does this help the PrimaryBound problem?
For one thing, it would enable the search for a suitable replacement to be carried out in a systematic way. Here’s how. Take the digital memories of a particular digital person. Everything s/he has seen, heard, written, said, and all emotional reactions to every event. All those digital memories are then compared to the digital memories of every RL person, searching for those that are the closest match. You can think of it as a kind of automatic casting agent that is searching for people who would be excellent at playing that role.
OK, so let’s assume a person who would be excellent at roleplaying that part is found. What do we do about the fact that he or she has little to no knowledge of personal details about that digital person’s past interactions with others? I guess you know the answer. Not only does the replacement roleplayer gain access to that character’s online accounts, they also get access to its digital memories.
The great thing about this idea is that it divides the task of roleplaying a digital person between the strengths of human and machine intelligence. Humans are likely to remain far better at creative and emotive thinking for the foreseeable future, so a digital person is much more convincing when a human is the pupeteer, rather than a bot. Computers, on the other hand, are much better at accurate, repetitive thinking, and this will be especially true in the era of digital memories and total recall.
So, a human roleplayer provides the necessary qualities a digital person needs in order for other people to think they are ‘real’, and the Total Recall system would work in the background, supplying the right information at the right time so that, no matter what anybody else asks, the roleplayer is able to make that character respond in a manner that is consistent with what others expect.
WHO WOULD WANT TO?
One more question remains, and it has to do with motivation. Why would any person want to pretend to be a pre-existing avatar? Surely everybody would want their own avatar or to invent their own digital person? You would think so, but recently some bloggers have reported that their screen names have been adopted by other people. I talked about Hamlet Au already, but there is also Prokofy Neva, who said in his blog entry ‘Fake Avatars’:
‘The Prokofy Neva on Facebook isn’t me, but Tizzers Foxchase of the Woodbury goon squad’.
If Prok had not told me that the Facebook Prokofy is a fake and I tried to communicate with Prokofy Neva on Facebook, would I know it was not really Prok? Imagine that this Tizzers Foxchase says something like ‘Extropia you are a lunatic, fuck off and die, asshat!’ after I say something like ‘Hello, are you really Prokofy?’. In that case, I would assume it really was Prokofy. If I think an avatar is Prokofy, then from my subjective point of view it IS Prokofy, and it remains Prokofy unless I am reliably informed that this is a fake. That would happen either because this Prokofy consistently fails to act like I expect, or if somebody whose word I can trust tells me ‘that is not Prok’. Someone like the person who writes under the name ‘Prokofy Neva’ on the ‘Second Thoughts’ blog, for instance.
Whether a person would expose somebody else pretending to be their online personae or not is probably down to the level of seperation between the 1st and 2nd life self. In his book ‘The Making Of Second Life’, Wagner James Au occasionally talked about Hamlet in the third person as if he were a person in his own right. But I think it is fair to say that there is very little distinction between Wagner/Hamlet. As for Prokofy, there is one obvious difference between ‘him’ and the person who owns ‘his’ account. I will not spell it out here, but instead leave it up to the individual to do a brief bit of investigation via a Google search along the lines of ‘who is Prokofy’ if they do not know what I am talking about already, and care. Does this difference mean Prokofy is not just another means of getting in touch with a specific RL person, but is instead a character whose beliefs and behaviour may not be shared by the person roleplaying him? Personally, I do not know what the case may be but since Prokofy has never declared himself to be a digital person or roleplayed character, perhaps we should take that as proof that the RL person sees little to no distinction between the 1st and 2nd life selves.
But what about a person like my primary, who insists (not that everyone believes it) that ‘Extropia DaSilva and I are not one and the same person. She has her identity, I have mine, and the two are kept largely separate’. What would my primary do if somebody else was pretending to be ‘me’? Probably, ve would not say anything, and instead let others decide for themselves if this really is Extropia DaSilva or not. After all, since that is a roleplayed character ve cannot claim ‘Extropia DaSilva is a fake if somebody is only pretending to be that person’, because there is ALWAYS somebody pretending to be Extropia. Does that mean I am always fake? No. It all comes down to authenticity of performance. I am real so long as other people believe they are interacting with ‘the’ Extropia DaSilva. It does not matter who is doing the roleplaying. It only matters that they do a convincing job.
One last thing before the end.
What if a human being was not a necessary part of the system that enables a digital person to ‘live’? One futuristic possibility is ‘whole brain emulation’ or ‘mind uploading’. This is the idea that we will one day be able to scan a living brain in sufficient detail to capture the processes that give rise to memories, personal identity, self, consciousness. Those processes are then reverse engineered into a mathematical model running on a suitable neural computer. In simplistic terms, a person’s mind is copied. But what identity should we attribute to the copy?
Traditionally there are two schools of thought. One insists that the copy is a continuation of the same self. ‘I’ have been transferred from one brain/body to another. The other school of thought insists ‘the copy is not you’. In other words, mind uploading creates a different person. Both schools of thought have published long tracts defending their point of view, but I will not go into details here.
Instead, I will suggest a third way that exists between these two extremes. Imagine we copy the mind of Wagner James Au. Is the copy really him? Or really somebody else? Or, is it an identity that is sort of Wagner James Au and sort of somebody else at the same time? It so happens that such an identity already exists: ‘Hamlet Au’. Recall, for instance, his occasional reference to Hamlet Au in the third person, as though he were a person in his own right. If you were to non-destructively scan Wagner’s mind and then the software emulation ‘woke up’ and said ‘I am Hamlet Au’, everyone, including Wagner, would probably be convinced that this was the truth. But if the upload said ‘I am Wagner James Au’, the original would probably be faced with all kinds of existential ‘he cannot be me because I am me’ kinds of questions.
Perhaps, then, the identities people project out onto online spaces, which are always ‘kind of me but at the same time kind of not me’ (even if the person claims to be 100% the same in RL or 100% different), will turn out to provide a comfortable solution to the ‘duplicates paradox’. Perhaps the promise of mind uploading is not immortality, but rather the creation of ‘mind children’, an ‘other’ that shares your personal history, skills, and everything that makes you ‘you’, and who will take your life experiences and develop them further, diverging from your ’self’ and becoming more of a person in their own right as time goes by.
In ‘The Singularity Is Near’, Ray Kurzweil wrote, “my body and brain is temporary. Its particles turn over completely every month. Only the pattern of my body and brain have continuity… Information lasts only so long as somebody cares about it… translating our currently hardwired thoughts into software will not necessarily provide us with immortality. It will simply place the means to determine how long we want our lives and thoughts to last in our collective hands”.
Kurzweil is talking about human beings, not digital people. In his view, yet-to-be invented technologies will arrive that could upgrade a flesh-and-bone person into a super-supple robot, or even upload their consciousness to a neural computer. Not everybody, you may not be surprised to learn, agrees with him on these points.
But, digital people… In principle, why should avatars designed around the DP philosophy, such as Argent Bury or Khannea Suntzu, not be regarded as patterns of information that persist for as long as they are cared for and looked after? Khannea herself wrote, ‘I came into existence as an idea…largely a series of sketches, a number of several MB files, a pile of algorithms and some conceptual references’. She is talking about the i-genome and the i-genes that comprise it. Can those patterns that make up Khannea persist beyond the life of any one meatbag? Surely, it is not a near-term possibility. But it does seem as if indefinite lifespans for digital people will be technically possible before the same can be said of human beings.
Tom Sawyer, Lady McBeth, James Bond. Characters who have survived long after their creators had passed away. Given the possibility of the 5 trends, and the adoption of the digital person/immersionist philosophy, maybe one day residents like Botgirl Questi or Galatea Gynoid will live forever too.