Augmentationism, Immersionism, and other theological dilemmas

The Lord’s Prayer

I first heard the Second Life Lord’s Prayer in probably early-to-mid 2008 somewhere in, if my memory serves me well, the steampunk sims of Caledon.  I was at that time curious as to why it was Philip Rosedale (as in ‘First Church of Rosedale‘) in California and not Philip Linden in Second Life who appeared to be God, a transcendent Deus Absconditus removed from the celestial bits and bytes of his creation.  From the real-world point of view, of course, it made perfectly good sense; from a Second Life resident’s immersionist point of view, on the other hand, it smacked of heresy.  In my mind’s eye, I saw Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg; smelled Giordano Bruno’s flesh burning on the Campo de’ Fiori; and so turned once more to the exegetical writings of St Henrik.

The Meaning of (Second) Life

Why are we here? It has the ring of a theological question about it; and we who populate the digital landscapes of virtual social worlds, instinctive theologians as many of us are, will be inclined to answer the question with almost religious zeal.  (Interestingly, long after I wrote the first draft of this essay I was interested to read Gwyneth Llewelyn’s shrewd observation that “Second Life shares quite a lot of attributes of esoteric religions”.)  The meaning of lifeAnd, in the inveterate manner of zealots intoxicated with that heady cocktail of visions, credo, and dogma, we will inevitably disagree with one another’s answers.  It may sometimes turn out, however, that the entrenched positions we so vigorously and vociferously defend are, on closer inspection and sober reflection, caricatures of the positions we actually espouse.  Holy wars may make narrow-minded fanatics of us all.  My purpose in writing this essay–the first of two on this subject–is in the first instance to try to unclutter the conceptual landscape by revisiting and reviewing the now classic augmentationism-immersionism dichotomy introduced by Henrik Bennetsen in 2006; in the second place, to outline what would appear to many of us to be a new and quite different factional schism between a ‘Neo-augmentationsist’ and a ‘Neo-immersionist’ philosophy of virtual social worlds within the broader framework of Transhumanism.  Whatever conclusions might be drawn I leave to you, the Reader.

The Why are we here? question is, it seems to me, apposite and important to ask in this context for at least the following reasons:

  • no matter in what circumstance we may have first discovered virtual social worlds (Second Life, for example) or what reason might have motivated us to create an account in such a world, once we have done so–and stayed–it’s natural we should scrutinise why on earth we are still here, even though a post hoc rationalisation may be at variance with whatever it may have been that originally prompted us to sign up in the first place.  I’d conjecture it likely, in fact, that, with the passage of time, we’d find that our virtual world presence had assumed such significance in our primary lives (as have our mobile phones, iPods, Facebook, Wii, and such like) that our rationalisations will hinge around the indispensability (like iPods, like Facebook, like the dishwasher and the air-conditioner, like the car and the television) of the medium: so much has it become part of the fabric of our lives, we are here because life is no longer thinkable without it.  Yet in thus answering the question we have simply asked the very same question in a slightly different and maybe deeper way: why has Second Life become so integral, so essential, a part of our lives?  Why are we here?
  • albeit not a design decision by Linden Lab, it has turned out that many people, perhaps (as so often suggested) freed by their pseudonymity from the social and cultural constraints imposed by real life, have found in virtual social worlds such as Second Life  a quasi-spiritual Experimentarium for exploring and expressing new selves, even if not either fully knowingly or purposively at all times (to the possibly troubling extent that I’ve even had avatars telling me that, having got it wrong in real life, they’ve seen Second Life as a ‘second chance’);
  • moving beyond and orthogonal to that opportunity for enacted thought experiment and personal transformation in the present, there are those (and I include myself) who recognise in virtual social worlds, technologically crude as they currently are, an inevitably integral component of a highly plausible vision of the future of humankind as anticipated by futurists such as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil.  Often lumped together as ‘transhumanists’, those of us who hold such views represent a spectrum of technology-driven philosophies pivoting around the two opposing poles of what today we think of as immersionist and augmentationist stances towards virtual worlds, and what, for want of more imaginative terms, we might with an eye to the future call ‘Neo-augmentationsist’ and ‘Neo-immersionist’.  The dichotomy lies at the heart of this article; and is one imbued with such crypto-theological overtones that it is from the seminary rather than from the corporate jolly in Southend-on-Sea that, with a sense of genuine perplexity, we seem to hear the ‘big-picture question’ (Bostrom, 2005, p.10) Why are we here?

The augmentationism-immersionism dichotomy was, so far as I know, first spotlighted and documented in late 2006 by Henrik Bennetsen in an essay entitled ‘Augmentation vs Immersion‘, now published on the Second Life Creativity wiki.  He’d identified two ‘philosophies’ (as he called them), two ways of thinking about what kind of thing (crudely, ‘world’ vs ‘platform’) Second Life is, about therefore what one is doing there, and thus how one engages with and within it: the “immersion view … that SL is its own thing and should not be contaminated by anything from the outside” (Bennetsen, 2006), and the augmentationist view that “presumed that virtual worlds could be one among many ‘platforms’ for computer-enhanced sociality and work … In this view, virtual worlds could augment actual world capabilities, social networks, and concepts” (Boellstorff, 2008, p.115)

Like any neologisms that enter into popular discourse (or indeed, to continue my earlier theological analogy, like any theistic beliefs that enter into the popular imagination), Bennetsen’s terms have acquired annotations, accretions, marginalia, revisions, reinterpretations, a few distortions, an entire Hadith and Talmud, in the five years since he first defined them.  In what follows I shall endeavour to stay as close as I can to his original characterisations which, to me, seem not only both clear and insightful but also, looking onwards from where we now are, largely unhelpful.

The Immersionist View

On the origins of the immersionist philosophy Bennetsen writes:

I think the notion of SL as a self contained space started in the early days. LL was faced with selling people this Second Life thing that no one really understood what was. If you looked at it you noticed the resemblance with a computer game and that is how it was marketed. Prominent members of staff such as CTO Cory Ondrejka also came out of the game industry, so there was a game culture within the company.

And, indeed, its “Team members have previously worked for market leading companies such as Electronic Arts, Disney, THQ, Acclaim, Hasbro, Mattel and RealNetworks”: Linden Lab, in this early press release (11th February 2002) was quite explicitly foregrounding its credentials as essentially a games company.  Thus in the same press release, Linden Lab bills itself “a company founded to create a new form of interactive entertainment“, its DEMO 2002 conference presentation previewing its “LindenWorld entertainment service”. Still in beta on 15th February 2003, Second Life was being touted by Linden Lab, in the overview published on the official web site, essentially as a game with loose (reputation-based) rules of play:

Through a real-time reputation system, players can comment favorably or negatively on each other’s personas and property, creating a rating viewable by other Second Life Residents. A series of positive comments confers financial rewards as well as social status upon the beneficiary. A player with a low reputation rating may have to be content with their small, unadorned home, whereas a player with a high rating might find him or herself with extra money to build an addition, or be invited to an exclusive party limited to people of equal status. As in life, players will likely seek a balance between actively participating and watching from the sidelines.

Even as late as January 2006, the official Second Life web site was speaking of “an escape to a place full of people”, and of “players”.

Just as, when playing Doom or Tomb Raider or Age of Empires, the television screen or the computer screen is simultaneously both window and boundary, interposing between the real world of the player and the fictive world of the imaginary action, so ‘playing’ Second Life encouraged a view that maintained a strict separation between the real life of the player at the keyboard and the fictional role enacted by that player in the impromptu free-form multi-user drama of the virtual world.  Even though one had some leeway in choosing a first name, use of one’s real name was both discouraged and, at the very least, made clumsy (“ChristopherHutchison Fisher” doesn’t sound quite right) by the necessity of choosing at sign-up a last name from a given list. Gwyneth Llewelyn in her blog article ‘Immersionism and Augmentationism Revisited‘, for example, notes that “back in 2004, it was even mandatory to keep quiet about your RL!”

Note however that, in Bennetsen’s original 2006 essay, the personal privacy afforded by anonymity is not cited as a defining factor for those espousing an immersionist view of Second Life; rather, it was far more a consequence of the strong game culture at that time. By analogy, if you were Lara Croft, you were Lara Croft in role; thus being Lara Croft while playing Tomb Raider by the very nature of the game design said absolutely nothing whatsoever about the owner of the hands at the keyboard. The philosophy of immersionism–that Second Life was a game-like self-contained space–was, however, congruent with the wish to take advantage of the opportunity to conceal one’s real identity. Thus Gwyneth Llewelyn writes of her early days in Second Life:

I used to be an “Immersionist” way before I knew what that meant. There were good reasons for me not to reveal my real identity back in 2004 (I had been stalked in RL through the Internet before, as people looked me up on blogs and forums I participated). I wished to continue the joy of participating on a vibrant online community that allowed me both to elude eventual stalkers, and a place where I could have some freedom of expression without fear.
Gwyneth Llewelyn, ‘Immersionism and Augmentationism Revisited

And so in 2006 I became (and, yes, the amusing homophone did encourage me to select that name from the list) as much Khoisan Fissure as Khoisan Fisher, so to speak, torn asunder from my ‘primary’ self in an asymmetrical relationship that allowed me, Christopher, to peer from my desk into that digital ‘self-contained space’ while not allowing my avatar and its co-residents, “trapped in a perfect world” (to quote from one resident’s profile), to peer back into the world of busy hands on keyboards.  I’ll return to the matter of asymmetry and its ramifications later in this essay.

The Augmentationist View

It was, according to Bennetsen, Mitch Kapor’s watching Suzanne Vega perform live in Second Life in 2006 that brought home to him how misleading it was to think about Second Life and Real Life as different spaces; indeed to think about Second Life as a self-contained space at all.  Noam ChomskyAs would Duran Duran and other performers after her, the American songwriter and singer had rather been using Second Life as yet another broadcast medium, beyond radio and television, in which to perform before remote audiences.  And, as would have been the case with radio and television, the actual performance had taken place in NPR’s radio studios in the very real USA.  Subsequent appearances in Second Life by Kurt Vonnegut (2006) Bruce Willis (2007), Dennis Kucinich (2007), Barack Obama (2009), Noam Chomsky (2010), and numerous others, have consolidated this view of SL as communication channel.  The fortress walls had been breached.

At the same time, real-world universities and corporations had been establishing presences in Second Life to explore and assess the benefits of using the platform as a further arm of their real-world operations.  Educators, for example, have long been interested in ‘serious games‘ (the concept first mooted by Clark Abt in his 1970 book Serious Games) for running simulations, for problem-solving, and of course for learning in a non-intimidating environment.   Second Life has, in abolishing the distances of real-world geographies (if not time zones), added to this the further opportunities of reaching new learners.

Finally, the Maldives was, in 2007, the first country to open an embassy in Second Life, closely followed by Sweden, Serbia, Estonia and Columbia; other nations have since followed suit.  In each instance, Second Life has become an extension of real life.

Such instances apart, we in any case glimpse the world outside of Second Life on perhaps a daily basis with every “AFK”, “phone … brb”, or–as I recently was informed by a digital friend–“Oh gawd I been texting the wrong window fer 10 minutes”.  With nary a window in sight on the in-world sea-bed from which she IMed me, one would not need a PhD in higher-order modal logic to figure out that the window in question sat in the Second Life viewer opened by her primary on her real-world computer desktop: the “I” who spoke was not the would-be mermaid.  The sheer mechanics of enabling in-world participation may on occasions reveal the de facto if not de fide divina augmentationist in all of us.

My own stance towards Second Life, for those who have read my posts and comments elsewhere in this blog, must be clear by now: I’m naturally, historically, and culturally an augmentationist, someone who has never in his life played computer games (other than the occasional chess) but who from the early 1980s was actively participating in both academic and political discussions in USENET newsgroups.  Yes, many USENET contributors–particularly in the flame-warring political groups–chose to hide behind pseudonyms; but by and large noms de famille rather than noms de guerre were the norm, and there was in any case scant evidence that users were posting as anything other than their real-life selves via what was understood by all to be quite straightforwardly a form of computer-mediated communication. But, in any case, anonymity (or pseudonymity) was, as I’ve already noted, never criterial for Bennetsen in distinguishing augmentationists from immersionists, the crucial decider being solely whether one viewed Second Life as self-contained or as an extension of real life.  Even augmentationists will often exercise their right to anonymity!

Thus coming into Second Life in a uniquely professional context (I’d been tasked with undertaking a feasibility study for the use of Second Life as a platform complementary to the university’s existing e-learning suite) saw me carrying over, as were most academics entering Second Life, the culture of computer-as-communication-tool that I’d simply taken for granted for more than 20 years.  And, like the nameless protagonist in The Prisoner, I would hear myself proclaiming from the lofty cloud-clad towers of the Lost Gardens of Apollo “I am not avatar key 36bfb8aa-8d1b-4c31-82ed-d4bcf1e4b77d, I am a human being!”

Problems, paradoxes, and asymmetries

Bennetsen’s identification and characterisation of immersionism and augmentationism as distinct and opposing philosophical positions has proven useful as a rough and ready guide to how different types of users may approach Second Life; yet his informally written essay does not attempt rigorous definitions nor make claims to be more weighty and authoritative than a simple summary of his personal observations.  It’s unsurprising therefore that a closer look at the dichotomisation should throw up some problems and paradoxes.

The first and probably most obvious and least contentious point is that, although by a leap of imagination perhaps subjectively experienced by immersionists to be discrete worlds, Second Life is contained within Real Life, within the very real world of computers and keyboards and mice and chicken tikka sandwiches and dirty underwear and leaking taps that need to be fixed and jobs that have to be finished by Friday, all the paraphernalia and messiness of everyday life that is still obstinately and obdurately there whether we’re logged into Second Life or not. And, of course, until such time as autonomous intelligent agents within Second Life are themselves able to create content, the fact remains that everything that exists within SL does so only as a consequence of real-world brains, eyes, and hands creatively busying themselves on the ‘meat space’ side of the screen. And obviously in this respect too, with the creation of content a one-way flow, there is blatant asymmetry between the two worlds.

We might also consider that digital life, unlike biological life, is “opt in”. (Both are, of course, “opt out”, though in the latter case without the option of returning.)  Moreover, we’re able to log out of virtual worlds and still retain uninterrupted self-awareness in a way that would not be the case were we to ‘log out’ of our primary lives.

If I sell you merchandise in Second Life, or rent you land, or (putting aside the matter of where the making of the music is actually taking place) am as a musician engaged to perform at your party, or indeed enter into any form of contract with you, what legally is the nature of the transaction that is taking place?  You may, of course, prefer to think that circumstance in rather different terms, for example: “if my avatar sells your avatar merchandise” or perhaps “if the digital person of whom I am the primary sells merchandise to the digital person of whom you are the primary”.  Assume now that I (or my avatar, if you wish) should fail to deliver to contract, and that the sum of money is significant enough for you to wish to pursue the matter: who is to be held morally, ethically and legally responsible?  If I, the guy at the keyboard, dismissively suggest you take the issue up with my avatar, you may justifiably feel I am taking the proverbial piss.  And now let’s look at the parallel real-world case: if in real life (and a computer nowhere in sight) I, Christopher, enter into a contractual agreement with you, Jane Doe, to deliver goods or services and I fail to do so, you may in that circumstance wish to take the matter further; and would be unlikely to warm to my suggestion that you take up the issue with my Second Life avatar.  In other words, whether philosophically an immersionist or an augmentationist, the buck stops at me, Christopher, while lucky old Khoisan is off the hook.  Again the palace walls are breached as the cosy partitioning of users into immersionists and augmentationists is rendered problematic.

The very same uncomfortable ambiguity is readable from Gwyneth Llewelyn’s argument for immersionism:

When a couple of lovers spend ages on the phone, nobody will consider that ‘immersion in the telephone system’—although it’s exactly what it is … We’re so “immersed” in voice communication without physical presence that, during a phone call, we forget all about the world around us
(Llewelyn, 2009a)

And yet, it seems to me, those who are ‘immersed’ are real human beings holding real telephones, still talking about a real-life relationship unmediated by external representations of themselves.

Gwyneth Llewelyn has written extensively on immersionism and augmentationism in at least three fascinating and quite thought-provoking articles (Llewelyn 2008, 2009a, 2009b).  (If more than three, I regret I’ve not found the others.)  Yet Gwyneth is professedly a digital person.  She writes that “although my digital self ‘ceases to interact’ when I’m logged off from Second Life, it doesn’t cease to exist. After all, I still write blog posts when I’m not logged in, and other people read them”.

But who is writing the blog posts? who is this “I”? is it the digital ‘Gwyneth Llewelyn’ who on logging off from SL has not ‘ceased to exist’? and moreover is writing, not from within Bennetsen’s ‘self-contained world’ of immersionist Second Life within which by her own words–“it’s the environment (and other people are part of the environment, too!) that defines the digital self”–she is defined as a person, but from the ‘meat space’ her primary shares with her real-world readers?  At best, it would seem to me, one might say she is writing ‘in role’, yet is doing so within a real world of humdrum web browsers and URLs and email clients, of windows and tabs and bookmarks and back buttons, and of real life readers who may not even have Second life accounts; or, even if they do, are reading the blog non-immersively (I would hope!) as flesh-and-blood human beings at a computer keyboard.

This raises the theological problem of transgression of boundaries, spirit made flesh, the uncomfortable interaction of real with virtual persons, the spookiness of television’s Most Haunted.

The Holy Eucharist

But now it’s confession time.  I’ve a guilty little secret.  I actually like Second Life in and of itself.  Not that I can quite see it as a place, a ‘country’ as Philip (“I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country”) Rosedale would demiurgically wish it.  (Yes, I know I mentioned earlier that real countries have opened ’embassies’ in Second Life, but try to get a real-life travel visa there, or seek consular assistance in getting your avatar out of some Gorean gaol, and you’ll realise that they don’t exactly function in the manner of real-world embassies.)  In fact, I like Second Life so much that I created an “off-duty” recreational alt, Khoisan Guardian, who before his forced retirement spent his time in-world just hanging out with friends, dancing and skating and hot-air ballooning and whatever else with the rest.  Let’s not be coy about it: he had fun!

Predictably, of course, the unimaginative Khoisan Fisher–that contingently anthropomorphic visualisation ongoingly generated and maintained by my (Christopher’s) busy fingers back here in real life–has, as did Khoisan Guardian before him, ended up hanging out with fellow augmentationsists for the greater part of his time.  In many instances, their ‘primaries’ have also eventually met in real life.  But he has also availed himself of the opportunity to become acquainted with a few immersionists who have proclaimed themselves ‘digital persons’ and who have opened up for him a view of Second Life (and whatever other virtual social worlds may emerge in the years to come) that suggests that the classic immersionist-augmentationsist dichotomy may need to be enriched to accommodate another (if not new) breed of players.  The classic philosophies, as described by Bennetsen, pertained uniquely to the stance taken by Second Life users as they engaged with the platform in the present; Neo-augmentationsists and Neo-immersionists, transhumanists both, are aware that emerging technologies–including virtual world technologies–hold the potential “to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (Wikipedia article on Transhumanism). In fact, more than potential, many of us believe it inevitable.

I titled this section ‘The Holy Eucharist’, whimsically to begin with, but subsequently realising the momentous dual significance it has–or, at least, so it seems to me–in any Neo-augmentationsist-Neo-immersionist debate.  The thought that had prompted the choice of section title followed discussions about what is ‘real’, and specifically whether anything that happens within Second Life can be held to have any intrinsic reality independent of the key presses, mouse movements, and fertile imaginations of flesh-and-blood humans at their computers.  Were we Protestants conjuring with the symbolism of mere bread and wine? or were we Catholics talking seriously about body and blood?

The competing visions, it seems to me, hinge around just that theological point.  Do we envisage a future in which we (or our digital correlates) reside in cyberspace? or a future for humanity in which out digital correlates are simply among the many possible extensions and enhancements of our real selves?  Extropia DaSilva published her vision in her article ‘Obsoleting the Upload Dilemma’; my own is summarised in the following words from Jeffrey Ventrella:

Avatars, as we know them now, will get shuffled off to the virtual wax museums.  We will return to direct physical expression.  Our body language will be directly converted into electrical patterns and distributed around the world within seconds.  The internet will become a neo-neocortex, strewn with virtual homunculi.  New technologies for conducting natural language processing over the internet will become so invisible and natural that we won’t even know it’s there. … Why would you want to use a synthetic animated character when you can just be yourself?
(Ventralla, 2011, p. 253-4; my emphases)

Or, as Oscar Wilde succinctly put it, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”.

Like Hindus and Muslims, like Sunni and Shia, like Catholics and Protestents, maybe more pertinently like Jonathan Swift’s Big-Enders and Little-Enders, the conflicting camps will continue to bicker and battle for ascendancy, brandishing their holy books and quoting from scripture, in a pointless debate likely to be finally resolved by men in white coats (no, not that kind–the other kind, the techies) kneeling to other gods in suits in Anaheim, Wall Street and Washington (or should that be Beijing?).

In Part II of this essay, to follow shortly, I shall argue that virtual social worlds offer us a platform for interactive storytelling, for weighing alternative “what-if” scenarios one against another, for model-theoretic thinking, all core to what, in my mind, it means to be human; and that this may turn out to be a principal motivator for the ineluctable appeal of, and our engagement in, virtual social worlds.

I should like to propose that we organise a one-day in-world “Why are we here?” symposium for sometime this summer (mid-July might be good), addressing issues of the kind the writers and commentators have raised in this blog.  I’d be delighted to hear from all others who think this a worthwhile and interesting project.

References

Abt, C.  (1970).  Serious Games.  New York: Viking Press.

Bostrom, N.  (2005).  ‘A history of transhumanist thought’. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 14:1.
» http://www.nickbostrom.com/papers/history.pdf

Bennetsen, H.  (2006).  Immersion vs. Augmentation’.  Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
» http://slcreativity.org/wiki/index.php?title=Augmentation_vs_Immersion

Boellstorff, T.  (2008).  Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human.  Woodstock: Princeton University Press.

Llewelyn, G. (2008).  ‘Immersionism and Augmentationism Revisited’.  Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
» http://gwynethllewelyn.net/2008/03/09/immersionism-and-augmentationism-revisited/

Llewelyn, G. (2009a).  ‘Post-immersionism’.  Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
» http://gwynethllewelyn.net/2009/01/10/post-immersionism/

Llewelyn, G. (2009b).  ‘Esoteric immersionism’.  Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
» http://gwynethllewelyn.net/2009/05/27/esoteric-immersionism/

Ventrella, J.  (2011).  Virtual Body Language.  The History and Future of Avatars: How Nonverbal Expression is Evolving on the Internet.  Eyebrain Books.
» http://virtualbodylanguage.com

Wikipedia, ‘Simulated Reality’.  Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
» http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulated_reality

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34 Responses to Augmentationism, Immersionism, and other theological dilemmas

  1. Okay, some comments:

    1. In asking “Why are we here?” you’re already forcing an assumption to the audience – that Second Life is a “here” at all. You may simply be using a colloquialism for “Why are we using Second Life?” but I’d like you to consider, colloquialism or not, that your whole approach to thinking about this article may have been colored from the start.

    2. Duran Duran – to my knowledge never actually performed in Second Life, and I’ve found no direct evidence that they ever even visited at all. Hype, hype, hype, nothing, convenient amnesia and no one bothered to correct mainstream media.

    3. Obama – never visited SL. His speech was live-broadcast.

    4. Kucinich – to my knowledge never visited SL, though his campaign set up a space for him.

    5. You miss a key item about augmentationism – it assumes that immersionism is a subset of augmentationism and valid use, in the same way that the Internet can be used for business or escapism. This is why immersionism falls on its face – it puts its fingers in its ears and never explains how non-immersionist entities exist in SL. You call them “opposing philosophical positions” – when in fact, that paints a picture of two mutually exclusive explanations, rather than one that says the other doesn’t exist, and one saying that the other is a subset. You later on acknowledge this problem — ultimately I think we’re saying the same things, but you’re using Henrik’s original (and flawed) definition of augmentationism.

    6. “Yet Gwyneth is professedly a digital person. She writes that “although my digital self ‘ceases to interact’ when I’m logged off from Second Life, it doesn’t cease to exist. After all, I still write blog posts when I’m not logged in, and other people read them”.”

    I believe Gwyn is talking about identity, and not really about existence as a person. Gwyn has made no effort to conceal the fact that she *is* more than just a blogger and SLr – that she is a professional developer using SL but mainly other platforms. “Gwyneth Llewelyn” is a pen / stage name, but it is hardly a separate “digital person”. In the context of the quote, she’s referring to a subset / sub-identity of herself as seen by others, not as some person separate from the author / controlling person.

    Therefore, I think you fundamentally misunderstand Gwyn’s philosophy.

    And … thusly, and with all due respect, I believe your whole essay is based on a straw man that really doesn’t exist. (Perhaps it’s long, long overdue that I write my essay on this topic – but I see it as such a trivial matter that I’m afraid it would barely make a couple of paragraphs. Perhaps it’s worth it anyway.)

    -Ron / Hiro

    • Khoisan Fisher says:

      Many thanks, Ron, for the insightful (and fact-challenging) comments!

      To be quite honest, I’d simply recalled being told Kucinich and Obama had been simultaneously broadcast in in RL and in SL, and frankly had no reason to doubt my source whom I’ve never yet known to be in error. Whether either had ‘visited’ or not is, of course, quite beside the point and of really little interest: that the mere voices of real-world persons were broadcast in SL confirms the transgression of the boundary between worlds.

      The tone of my essay overall is, as you’ll have noted, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the “here” constructed very much from the point of view of the paradigmatic immersionist. You may recall my very dismissive comment, in an earlier part of this blog, on the notion of Second Life as “place”. But, in the ecumenical interests of being fair to all parties, the use of “here” seemed in this instance justified. Rightly or (probably) wrongly, we gave up throwing Christians to the lions long ago.

      I’d made reference–as you rightly observe–to “opposing philosophical positions” in the context of Bennetsen’s landmark article. I’d felt it necessary, as I pointed out early in my essay, to “stay as close as I can to his original characterisations” and, of course, to the spirit of his original wording.

      As for Gwyneth, I can only abstract from what she herself writes. If the paucity of data should entail that I misunderstand, then conceivably I have fundamentally misunderstand Gwyneth’s philosophy. Yet it seems to me that, on the basis of her own words as well as a fairly exhaustive web search, that “Gwyneth Llewelyn” appears first in digital print as a first name coupled with a Linden last name in Second Life. I’m aware of no prior occurrence of that name.

      • “I’d simply recalled being told Kucinich and Obama had been simultaneously broadcast in in RL and in SL”

        Exactly. And there’s a lot of other examples, as well. It doesn’t make sense for a celebrity to come in and talk to 70 avatars – it makes much more sense to broadcast multi-medium. It just illustrates how this the walls between virtual worlds and other online spaces are.

        “I’d felt it necessary, as I pointed out early in my essay, to “stay as close as I can to his original characterisations” and, of course, to the spirit of his original wording.”

        Yes, so you were knocking down a 5-year-old straw man. 😉

        “Yet it seems to me that, on the basis of her own words as well as a fairly exhaustive web search, that “Gwyneth Llewelyn” appears first in digital print as a first name coupled with a Linden last name in Second Life. I’m aware of no prior occurrence of that name.”

        Granted, but I don’t think the origin of her name plays any part in whether Gwenyth Llewelyn is a “digital person” or whether it is a pen name / persona of a person. The question I ask is ontological. Contrast Gwenyth with say, Extropia, who acknowledges an author but insists a separate identity – one that ultimately will be defined by either multiple authors, or an AI construct, or will turn into a character such as “Plastic Duck” did. Gwyn keeps her personal identity secret except for business, however, she’s not trying to disconnect inthe way Extropia is.

  2. Khoisan Fisher says:

    @Ron,

    It just illustrates how this the walls between virtual worlds and other online spaces are.

    Exactly, Ron. It was precisely that porosity that I was drawing attention to.

    Yes, so you were knocking down a 5-year-old straw man.

    No, I think you’ve missed the point, Ron. “Knocking down” was never on my agenda: my feeling was that Bennetsen was quite perceptively correct at the time at which he was writing. My purpose had simply been to go back to “the horse’s mouth”, his original characterisations of the two ‘philosophies’, in light of the way they’ve since been misinterpreted and misrepresented.

    Gwyn keeps her personal identity secret except for business, however, she’s not trying to disconnect inthe way Extropia is.

    and thus, by Bennetsen’s definition, Gwyneth is not on that criterion an immersionist

  3. Khoisan Fisher says:

    Flattered as I am, @Ron, to be deemed ‘sneaky’, a writing skill I hope I’ve honed to near perfection in the 38 years since first engrossing myself in the intricate minutiae of Jesuit rhetoric and the quiet verbal wizardry of Noam Chomsky, I’m nonetheless at a loss to comprehend what, in my response, might have occasioned your observation. Perhaps you would care to be less elliptical?

  4. Gwyn once explained her reasons for pseudonimity to me after I wrote an essay which included some thoughts about her being a digital person. It’s fascinating stuff so I am going to cut-and-paste:

    “If I’m personally not that keen about releasing so many information about my real self — and God knows I give enough hints — does that mean a) I have something to hide; b) I’m aiming for immortality, as you suggest, by forfeiting the link with my real self, so that someone else might pick up the mind-patterns of “Gwyneth Llewelyn” in the future; c) I’m just having fun roleplaying someone; d) none of the above.

    Ha! I wish it were an easy answer 🙂 And, of course, the answer is different depending on the year you ask me 🙂 It might make a whole essay one day, but suffice it to say that by disconnecting my virtual self from my real self, I’m just making a simple statement: human beings are worth by what they say and do (you might say: “the story they tell”), not because of who they are, where they’re born, how old they are, what they’re studied, what cool friends they’ve got. If there is a simple lesson I’ve learned is that I, as a person (and that is true of every human being on Earth, even if most will disagree with me 🙂 ), am worth very little. It’s just my ego that makes me think otherwise. Everybody else is way more important than me. However, we tend to “tag” people relatively to our social status, wealth, friendship, knowledge, studies, and, well, colour of skin, age, gender, religion, whatnot. I dislike “tags”. I’m just another one of the 6.3 billion human beings in existence — nothing else, and nothing more. My virtual projection into Second Life, the cute-ish red-headed avatar that walks around with a smile, a glint in her eyes, and a flower in her head (has nobody ever wondered why?), is just tabula rasa — take me for what stories I spin about myself, not for my, uh, “credentials” or “authority” that comes from immaterial and transitory things that I might have accumulated elsewhere in real life. These are completely irrelevant to what makes me a human being. And by voluntarily discarding all those “real life tags” I allow everybody in SL (and elsewhere) to tag me from scratch based on what they experience.

    Granted, this might have been my reasoning, but it has a major flaw: as time passes by in SL, I accumulate new tags 🙂 That runs, of course, against my original intentions (just an hour ago, I logged in to OS Grid, and the first guy I met there just asked: “Hey, are you the same Gwyn that blogs a lot?” *sigh* There goes my theory!). I’m sure that there is a lesson to be learned there, too. The good news, of course, is that as SL grows and grows, I become less and less relevant, and that is a Good Thing.

    And of course, there would be an easy way out, e.g. getting different avatars, different names, all the time, so that I could avoid the tagging. Alas, that doesn’t work at all. Imagine a tourist visiting a nice, peaceful, fishermen’s village at the coast. She won’t make an impression if she stays just a few days around and talks to people. She will be quickly forgotten once she leaves. But if she remains in the village for years or decades, she will be accepted by the community, and, even if they remember that she might once have lived elsewhere, she’ll be “part of it” now, and will be treated according to the way she presents herself. In a sense, that’s my idea of Second Life, strongly influenced by Philip’s own idea of “SL as a country”. I’m an immigrant here in SL, but after so much time has passed, I feel that I’m accepted now, and can contribute back to the community as well. Starting afresh every day — juggling among alts — defeats that purpose”.

    I believe Gwyn practices Buddhism and I wonder if this might have a baring on her attitude toward her online presence?

    • Khoisan Fisher says:

      Many thanks for that, Extropia!

      Gwyneth’s rationale for choosing to conceal her real-world identity remind me of (“However, we tend to “tag” people relatively to our social status, wealth, friendship, knowledge, studies, and, well, colour of skin, age, gender, religion”), but seems to me to go very thoughtfully beyond (“take me for what stories I spin about myself, not for my, uh, “credentials” or “authority” that comes from immaterial and transitory things that I might have accumulated elsewhere in real life”) the legendary “in cyberspace no one knows you’re a dog” (Peter Steiner, 1993). I have a great deal of sympathy with that position, and have indeed promoted that position with my own students.

      The issue of online anonymity is, of course, a much older one than, and orthogonal to, that of the immersionsim-augmentationism dichotomy which forms the nub of my post; I recall debating it online back in the mid-1980s, and I remain agnostic to this day as to whether anonymity (or pseudonymity) is ever a good idea or not. I elected to be semi-anonymous for a short while back last year when as a participant-observer, making use of an alt, I conducted fieldwork on the subjects of identity and friendship in SL. Although I’d made my research agenda transparent and there was never a moment when I would not disclose my identity if asked, almost nobody asked. In that instance, use of a pseudonymous avatar undoubtedly delivered material that Khoisan, sadly always unable to ‘blend in’, would never have obtained.

      But in general I feel it has to be a matter of personal choice, as perfectly reasonable a choice as that of SL shape, skin, hair and clothing.

  5. Oh, maybe I should point out that this was not a private correspondence between she and I, but a reply she posted on her blog.

    • Khoisan Fisher says:

      Thank you for posting it here, Extropia. I’m fascinated by Gwyneth’s writings, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’d discovered as recently as only last week when I came upon her blog. She’s a very serious and very engaging writer; and I’d feel honoured if she were to feel motivated to contribute to The Unlimited Dream Company. But, of course, it would be presumptuous on my part to ask her.

      More writers who would challenge my own narrow-minded and pig-headed views would do much to further enliven the debates we initiate here 🙂

      • You all make me feel so egotist by not being self-denying. 😛

        I’m nearly opposite – I think the way we value the individual is not to assume we’re all equal, but to provide technical opportunities for each individual to be recognized and heard. I think our digital records of ourselves are the best example of this. I want my descendents to be able to do a search of me, and see an interweaving of the impact I’ve had in the areas I’ve chosen to participate in. I want that to be an example of how much one person really *can* make a difference in the world. That sort of ability to recognize a digital imprint of someone’s life to me empowers the little guy. Rich, famous, powerful people have had the ability to engrave themselves into the stone annals of history for thousands of years. Finally the common person gets a chance to be recorded in history. I think we as individuals should grasp that with both hands, embrace, and encourage others to do so. If everyone has the opportunity to be tagged and recognized, then we get to see the value in every person – or at least glimpse into it briefly.

        I don’t see the point in saying, “Oh, we need to self-deny everyone’s ego” as a consequence to “It’s unfair that some people are viewed as more important.” Instead, I think we empower everyone. Such is the social media revolution.

  6. Oh my, how could I possibly have missed all this most interesting discussion two months ago… great article, and it’s worth at least an essay or two to properly address everything! I’m flattered that you all consider it worth discussing what I said or did not say, specially because I’m the first to admit I’m not very consistent and tend to switch views as soon as someone persuades me otherwise (sometimes myself!).

    You know, not many weeks after joining Second Life I started to look at how I reacted (and how others reacted) to my virtual presence. This made me first realise that people see me differently than I see myself, something which should have been obvious from the start, but it was just thanks to SL that I managed to catch that. Until then, I pretty much assumed that everybody would look at me and create a similar mental image. And that image should not be tied to mere physical appearance; after all, well before 3D virtual worlds, I used a lot of non-visual, text-only tools, and always thought there was some consistency in the way people perceived me.

    SL not only shattered that illusion, but it added a twist. Not only other people perceived me in a different way, but I started to perceive myself differently, too. At that moment I remember having felt a knot in my stomach. Who was this person behind the keyboard, that looks at her mirror and sees one person, but looks at a computer screen, and is someone slightly different? To ease my mind, I wrote some things (which I can’t find via Google; they might have been on the old SL forums) about a very strange and complex concept of “self fluidity”, where there would be a fixed “core” — what you refer as your own self — and an assembly of several moving parts which one could assemble at will and present it to others, depending on that occasion. That helped me to ground my sanity to that “core self”, claiming it to be tied to my body, brain, whatever, while the remaining floating bits would just be “masks”, used whenever appropriate. Thus my early claims that I wasn’t really a “different person” when immersed in SL; just the same person, perceived differently by everybody (including myself).

    This is probably the reason why I’m not a “true immersionist”. I don’t claim — and never claimed! — to be “strongly role-playing” an imaginary identity, or, worse, actually adopting and assuming a completely autonomous and separate personality (as in a rationally-induced personality disorder disease 🙂 ). In that sense, Ron/Hiro is right — Gwyneth Llewelyn is just a pseudonym, attached to which there are certain attributes and tags that might not be present on my so-called “real self”. But it wouldn’t be too different from, say, Lady Gaga on stage and Stefani Germanotta going to the supermarket to shop for food. They’re the same person, but present different masks, depending on the occasion. The comparison is not perfect because Lady Gaga is really acting a role while on stage; and this is not my case: I just “play myself”, if that makes any sense; the difference is that the environment is not the same and thus the way my self gets projected in pixels is different than how it is projected in atoms. Conversely, the environment, being different, also affects my own behaviour (most of the time, I’m not even aware of that — it just happens) differently. Thus some of my RL friends who have known me for years and who happened to join SL as well (there are not many) find some unexplainable oddities in my behaviour, but tend to accept them. The fascinating aspect is that most of the time, I am not aware of any oddities at all — there is a very strong interplay between environment and self, and they create a subtle harmony; so subtle, in fact, that I’m not aware of many differences. But external observers note them, so I know they exist.

    On “Post-immersionism”, I sort of claimed that the constant immersion in SL (well, for a given value of “constant”…) leaves marks. This is to be expected: that’s the way we learn. After taking pains to learn how to swim, to ride a bike, or even to write, it becomes “second nature” to us, but that experience changes pathways in our neural networks, and makes us behave slightly differently due to the extra experience we have. Of course that it’s a bit silly to say that a swimmer behaves differently than a non-swimmer; what I mean is that if you’re training to acquire some skills in a specific environment, and do it regularly, much of that experience will “spill over” outside that environment. That is the theory why we go to school to learn things; it’s supposed that we retain some of that knowledge even when we leave the school building! So it should also be natural that the constant exposure to SL — which, as said, influences what I perceive to be a “self” — will leave its marks, even when logging out. The first time I was faced with that experience I was even more baffled. This happened while reading an article written as “Gwyneth Llewelyn” while proof-reading another one under my own RL name. Even though the subject was similar, there were subtle differences. Not so big that an analyst couldn’t immediately detect that both were written by the same person — in the same sense that Dickens wrote with different styles, even from different perspectives, but anyone would recognise any of his books as a book written by Dickens — but subtle enough for me to say, “I usually don’t write things this way” or “it’s ridiculous to write like that”. What happened? When my brain knows that I’m writing as Gwyneth Llewelyn, it triggers something that usually only gets triggered while I’m immersed in SL — that “something” which I don’t perceive as different, but that my RL friends in SL can immediately notice, even if I don’t — and this happens automatically, effortlessly. SL’s environment somehow “conditioned” me in subtle ways to associate certain things with the way I’m supposed to behave; while immersed, it’s only natural that it happens that way; but in RL — when writing an article, away from the immersive 3D environment — I’m supposed to “know better” and discard SL’s shackles and adopt whatever is supposed to be “right” and “correct” for the immersive atom-based environment of the physical world. Hm. But it doesn’t work that way!

    I confess that for a while I thought I was going crazy, and that SL was affecting me way, way too much, and I should either stop, talk to a shrink — or analyse it further 🙂 I opted for the third approach.

    Perhaps not by chance, and Extropia is right, I started to take the words of my Buddhist teachers a bit more seriously, and not merely consider them abstract philosophical concepts that sound great in polite conversation among my intellectual friends 🙂 One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism is the training to recognise that there is no intrinsic self. We can CAT-scan our brain and dissect it, but there is no single atom of “self” inside the brain; instead, the self appears as an emergent property (allegedly due to an unknown mechanism strongly tied to the level of complexity of our neural connections). We just “tag” that emergent property conveniently as a “self”, and start immediately believing that it has intrinsic existence. All humans go through that process (and very likely, many animals as well). Even though we recognise that we adopt several roles along our lives — the loving mother, the fierce businesswoman, the social butterfly and party girl, the hot lover — we just shrug them off saying that they’re just social constrains that make us adopt the proper “mask” or “role” whenever appropriate, but that there is a self beyond the masks/roles. The truth is, even though we don’t admit it to ourselves, these roles contaminate each other, they’re constantly changing (the loving mother can all of a sudden use a fierce look to quiet down her little cherubs when they’re misbehaving), and they’re perceived by others in completely different ways. There is nothing “intrinsic”, unchanging, or permanent about them; our own experience transforms those masks and roles. As time passes, we learn some things, we unlearn others, and the masks change accordingly; or we’re at the mercy of strong emotions and external circumstances that makes us behave in a way that a certain “mask” is not supposed to behave. On the reverse side of the coin, certain tendencies and habits make us to behave in certain ways — we condition ourselves to think and act in certain ways — and this provides a certain consistency in those roles. For instance, we can all look back to our teens and see how silly we behaved; from the standpoint of our own adult selves, we recognise how experience has shaped how we think nowadays, so that distant teen is almost an alien. Nevertheless, we express that we are “pretty much the same”; often pointing out that we did things the same way, even back then. So we recognise what Extropia often calls “mental patterns”, and these patterns tend to remain with us over time (unless we break the habit to continue them), and because of that, we tend to identify our intrinsically existing “self” with those patterns. But the mere possibility to be able to break them without “losing the sense of self” shows that these patterns do not exist by themselves; also, they change over time, too. Again, they’re also fluid, interdependent, and ever-changing, so they’re not a valid basis to be labeled as an absolutely existing self.

    While dissecting our brains is not an option while we’re alive, we can certainly observe what happens at the thought level; and doing it properly will just show us that there is really nothing remotely like the “core self” I imagined back in 2004. That “core self”, like all other “masks” and “roles”, are merely mental constructs, which we hold on tightly and believe to have inherent existence. But that’s all there is to them: an assembly of thoughts, emotions, “mental patterns”, and similar mental things (Buddhists call them “movements of the mind”) which we just point at and tag, “this is me“, and then utterly believe them to exist. “I think, therefore I exist” — that’s the ultimate belief in an inherently existing self.

    But realising this to be the case takes time and a lot of observation; so for several years I admit to having struggled with this subtle discrepancy between my so-called “real self” — or “the self of the physical, atom-based world” — and the “SL self”. I always felt both selves to be inherently existing as part of something bigger and truly existing, with most characteristics overlapping, so that ultimately “Gwyneth Llewelyn” was merely another mask or role presented on a different environment. What took me pains to realise is that there are only masks and nothing else 🙂 My so-called “self of the physical, atom-based world” is also just another mask. From the perspective of someone who only knew and interacted with me in SL, and happened to meet me later in RL, they would “see” my physical self as a possible manifestation of Gwyneth Llewelyn, adapted to the atom-based world — while all my RL friends knowing my physical self before joining SL, too, would have exactly the reverse approach. Both are right; both are wrong. The point is, there is no real Gwyneth Llewelyn — but there is no real physically-bound self, either. Both are just projections perceived by others; both are just masks or roles that are manifestations of my mind; both are mental constructs. And even the word “both” is wrong, since it implies there is just “one” Gwyneth Llewelyn and “one” physical, real person. That’s also flawed, and I first realised that after an argument with Prokofy Neva — to this very day, the only person in SL that managed to bring me to tears. The reason was simple: he had such a flawed perception of myself that I was shocked how everybody else had a different opinion, since I made a very strong point of not hurting anyone, but he stuck to his own vision of who I was (claiming I had betrayed him on an issue with Linden Lab), which was so diametrically opposed to “reality” (I had actually defended his opinion publicly) that I utterly collapsed in frustration. It was then that I realised that different people perceive me differently, no matter what I say and do — and that obviously isn’t restricted to SL. In SL, I join different groups all the time, even though I used to be more socially active in the early period. Nevertheless, all those groups have different ideas about me; they paint different pictures about who they think I am (some hate me so much that they even flagged my profile on Facebook as being fake; that’s how I got dumped by Zuckerberg). So there is an infinite amount of Gwyns in SL, and, similarly, an infinite amount of my “atom-based self” — one for each person that gets in touch with me. To add to the confusion, I not only present slightly different masks to all of them, and in some cases I might be aware of that (very rarely; I have to be paying close attention), but I even present different masks to myself. I delude myself saying: “no, this is the real Gwyn” when I’m with a certain group of people. Then I move away to another group of friends and think: “well, perhaps this is the real Gwyn” and so forth. The truth, once again, is that there is no “real Gwyn” — just a mental construct which I firmly believe to be “real”.

    Confused? Well, I certainly was, for a long time 🙂 Now it’s way, way simpler. Ron/Hiro might claim mmmh… ” “Gwyneth Llewelyn” is a pen / stage name, but it is hardly a separate “digital person” — and he’s obviously right. Extropia might see me differently. Khoisan might perceive me according to the following excerpt: “Gwyn keeps her personal identity secret except for business, however, she’s not trying to disconnect in the way Extropia is. — and thus, by Bennetsen’s definition, Gwyneth is not on that criterion an immersionist”. Morgaine Dinova often claimed the same thing, that somehow I’m not “immersionist enough” for her tastes (we tend to agree on many other issues, though). Others, baffled that I’m not an immersionist, wonder why I have such reluctance in revealing my “real identity” after seven years in SL, since practically nobody has done that for so long, specially nobody that claims — as I do — to do real business in SL for real customers (some of which I’ve met in the flesh and blood). Who is, then, the “thing” that calls itself “Gwyneth Llewelyn”? A pen name? A split personality? A fake immersionist? A failed augmentist? A paranoid who fears her own shadow? 🙂 A digital-person-who-recognises-there-is-an-author-behind-it?

    Well, none of the above, and all of them simultaneously. Extropia’s quote of my old comment pretty much summarises my position. I’m pretty much just a human being like everyone else. Whatever tags you add to my person — or persona — are as “real” as you believe them to be, and even if they’re mutually inconsistent, they nevertheless conventionally refer to the same entity. And obviously enough, I also believe on a lot of those tags myself. Even though intellectually I refute the existence of my own inherently existing self, my experience is not advanced enough to have dropped the strong belief that, out of all those tags, “something” exists which goes beyond all masks, roles, manifestations, presences, or attitudes that I might exhibit, either in SL or RL. I just went as far as admitting that they are all mental constructs; they are all fluid and ever-changing; they all depend on perceptions by others (including my own perceptions); and thus, by definition, the person that goes under the name “Gwyneth Llewelyn” (or, rather, any other name; I have more “pen names” outside SL 🙂 ) has no intrinsic, absolute existence, but just a conventional, interdependent one. It’s all those tags that you (and I!) come up with that describe who Gwyneth Llewelyn is; discard the tags, see beyond the tags, and there is truly nothing else. But I definitely exist in the conventional sense, or I wouldn’t be able to post this 🙂

    The good thing, of course, is that selves are so fluid. Imagine a world where it would be fixed forever! You wouldn’t be able to learn anything at all, be unable to cope with the slightest change in circumstances, and never enjoy a new dish or meeting new friends. How utterly boring a fixed, immutable self would be! Thankfully, we are able to adapt to pretty much everything. We call that very correctly “changing our minds”. And how absolutely wonderful that is 🙂

    So, well, I am, by definition, a figment of my own imagination. But so is everybody else! And gosh, am I glad that you all have such vivid imaginations… a solipsistic world would be so very boring indeed 🙂

    Anyway, some relevant ongoing discussion might be found on Morgaine Dinova’s thread on Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/u/0/117463006296185212823/posts/8UuWg5B9whr

    • Khoisan Fisher says:

      This is a wonderfully lucid and thoughtful piece of writing, Gwyneth, meriting publication as an article in its own right. Might I urge you to consider joining Extropia and myself as an author on this blog? (it would fine for you to republish articles you’ve first published on your own blog). And might I also suggest that a personal essay from you in the “Who are you?” section would be a valued and valuable contribution to this blog. Thanks for your long reflective comment above!

  7. Okay, where to begin?
    I had it out recently with Morgaine and some others on Google+ about this topic. I think the whole dichotomy is outdated and in need of ditching. Essentially the terms that Henrik first described wind up describing a very small percentage of people, and aren’t useful in classifying how people really feel. On top of that, they aren’t *opposites*, either – they can’t work as ends of a spectrum where people fall into. Instead, the two are basically orthogonal concepts – there are augmentationists who validate that immersionism is a valid use, and immersionists that acknowledge that they’re still real people showing parts of themselves in a virtual world.

    RE: Immersionist view of “Why are we in SL?” – yes, agreed, especially your analysis of early Linden Lab. This is also why things had to change so rapidly. Second Life’s killer features that made it stand apart from previous virtual worlds are the economic model and ability to build and share things. These are implicitly “augmentationist”. So Linden Lab was faced with this dilemma – break utopia and let SL grow, or go bankrupt.

    Unfortunately the utopianism didn’t die with the release of 1.2, the change of land pricing and the ability for people to cash out Linden dollars. We still have employees we know only by pseudonyms, we had a lingering “Tao of Linden” that’s only recently been rewritten by Rodvik Humble, we had this catering to extreme immersionists in the resistance to add some basic features like web-based profiles for Second Life avatars, or web-based search of in-world items and land and such. These are common sense in hindsight, but the utopian “Oh, it’s a separate world apart from the real one!” stifled these innovations for years – nearly a decade!

    RE: Dilemmas – you lay out some of the fundamental problems, but again – I think there’s a larger issue here, where “augmentationist” and “immersionist” aren’t opposites or poles on a spectrum at all.

    RE: The Holy Eucharist – you illustrate exactly why immersionism is actually wholly compatible with augmentationism. Roleplay / exploration / anonymous usage are *entirely valid real world uses*. This is the same way I can go on a web forum and leave a comment under a pseudonym. It’s about freedom to express oneself to the degree and extent of revealing their identity that they wish.
    ==============

    Gwyn: What can I say? I love your thoughts on identity, and your explanation of how you view yourself, comparing your physical identity with Gwyn, noting the realness and emptiness in both, the connection and such in both – agree with just about everything you’ve noted.

    I can only hope my upcoming SLCC panel on identity can be just as enlightening. I think I’ll have to quote you during the introduction. 😉

    • Khoisan Fisher says:

      Ron, I half agree with much of what you write–on 11th June I part-drafted a further essay “Confessions of an Immersive Augumentationist” that makes similar points, but at that time was so immersed elsewhere (student assessment and exam boards) that I’d not time to finish it. I’m now slowly catching up, so look forward to your commenting that post when complete and published 🙂

  8. One way in which Ron Blechner differs from my primary (I suspect) is that he has never asked himself ‘what would Hiro do/say in this situation’. Instead, Ron, interacting through the Hiro avatar, just acts like he acts. My primary, though, often did ask ‘what would Extropia do’ during my journeys through SL. I say ‘did’ because if an author or actor works with a character long enough, eventually ‘how s/he would act in this situation’ becomes almost subconscious. After years of projecting my personae, my primary rarely needs to think ‘what would Extropia do’. You could say I ‘switch on’ when I am logged in.

    I suspect my primary differs from Gwyn’s in the following way. Whereas GP (that’s Gwyn’s primary) can project the identity that is Gwyneth Llewelyn onto verself as well as the avatar, my primary finds it easy to project the ‘Extropia DaSilva imaginary self online but almost impossible to project that identity onto verself. I am reminded of a case study that Sherry Turkle wrote about: “Stewart (not his real name) cannot learn from his character Achilles’ experiences and social success because they are too different from the things of which he believes himself capable…Stewart has split off his strengths and sees them as possible only for Achilles in the MUD…Like an unsuccessful psychotherapy, MUDing has not helped Stewart bring these good experiences inside himself or integrate them into his self-image”.

    The relationship I have with my primary is kind of like how it is with ‘Stewart’ and ‘Achilles’.

    • You presume too much difference from non-pseudonym identities, Extie. When a person first enters the workplace for a career, or even with part-time jobs as a youth, one *definitely* needs to do exactly as you describe – ask themselves how they should act in the context of work environment. And yes, it’s different from a casual environment. And yes, that means it’s a different facet of the person’s core personality. And just the same way that with practice, you can be “switched on” to that persona, it’s the same with physical roles. I put on my “I’m at work” hat, or my “I’m flirting with this cute nerdy girl” hat, or my “I’m at Thanksgiving dinner with a family member’s husband I loathe” hat.

      So I outright reject your “difference”.

      The difference isn’t even about reputation. Where you, Extie’s typist, chose to create a new reputation base for yourself via Extie, that’s still no different from me going into virtual worlds cold. Or a celebrity who puts on vastly different personas for the public. (think Lady Gaga, Colbert, Andy Kauffman).

      The difference isn’t fundamentally qualitative in nature. It’s quantitative. Extie has chosen to reveal *less* about Extie’s typist than Hiro has about Ron. It’s a matter of degrees. Sure, there’s the hypothetical AI-split down the road, but that remains hypothetical. I suppose if Extie were to be shared between multiple typists, there’d be more of a case for there being a fundamental qualitative difference, and you’ve entertained this hypothesis before, but you have stated this isn’t the case … yet.

      RE: Not integrating Extie back into Extie’s typist. Hmm… I suppose multiple ways to reply to this.

      The simplest response is the Buddhist / philosophical / literal response – Extie comes from the same person as Extie’s typist’s other identity(ies), and regardless of the separation, it’s the same overall person. To deny this would be saying that Ron-at-work is a different person as Ron-at-home-with-friends.

      The more complex response I admit I lack the psychology PhD to back, but essentially is that I think one is lying to oneself if you think one can simply partition off a part of identity and not have bleed. At the least, there is some element of fantasy. This is no different than say, imagining punching a person in the face for insulting your date at a bar, but being a non-violent person and never would seriously consider that. Or how our dreams can be wild and teeter on insanity, but they don’t reflect how we would *act*.

      In essence, I think there’s a difference between saying, “Extie’s typist would never *behave* the way Extie does” and “Extie is not a part of Extie’s typist’s identity.” It’s true, most of us only let the very most trusted people see the dark/fantastic/radical corners of our minds where even we have a hard time admitting it, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

      I could also take the dismissive way out and say, “But Extie, of course you’d never admit that your typist can’t/won’t project Extie onto zer identity – you are biased in that you are an extropian pushing the mind-upload singularity idea.” I don’t think that’s fair to state simply, which is why I presented the other thoughts first. But it’s still there.

      Also, I think Turkle’s wrong. 😉

  9. >When a person first enters the workplace for a career, or even with part-time jobs as a youth, one *definitely* needs to do exactly as you describe – ask themselves how they should act in the context of work environment.a celebrity who puts on vastly different personas for the public. (think Lady Gaga)<

    But Lady Gaga is linked to her offstage identity. For one thing, I can put a name to this person. It's simply a case of Googling 'who is lady Gaga'. Someone called 'Stefani Germanotta'. Took me all of 5 seconds to find that out. I guarantee you will not divulge my primary's name from 5 seconds of Googling. You might, I suppose, eventually track this person down if you employed the full power of 21st century datamining. All secrets can be discovered if you are REALLY determined. But if it takes that much effort for a person to discover my primary's identity does it really make sense to say "you, Extie’s typist, chose to create a new reputation base for yourself via Extie?", as opposed to 'the primary allowed Extropia to establish her own reputation'?

    • Yeah, but Extie – really – how much does Stefani Germanotta’s reputation affect Lady Gaga? Almost zilch.

      And you also gloss over – what’s Lady Gaga like in her private life, mm? That part of Stefan Germanotta is hidden to a large extent. Like many Hollywood celebs.

  10. >When a person first enters the workplace for a career, or even with part-time jobs as a youth, one *definitely* needs to do exactly as you describe – ask themselves how they should act in the context of work environment.<

    OK, but still I would say there is a difference between Joanne Rowling asking herself which aspects of her personality should be at the forefront in work and which should be at the forefront in home, and Joanne Rowling asking how Harry Potter would act in Hogwarts versus his home. You said yourself that a person needs to ask 'how they should act in the context' (ie 'what should I do in this situation?') but an author working on a story in her head is asking 'what would S/HE do in this situation?' (ie trying to infer the likely response of somebody else). When I am in SL my primary is asking 'what would SHE do'? not 'what would I do'?

    Over on a private Facebook group I belong to, we were having a debate over whether or not I deserve to be credited with personhood. Some argued that I am not a person because my primary controls everything I do. "I don't accept confusing mere personalities or personas with actual persons" said one contributor, arguing I am an 'internet personality' not a 'person'.

    I would argue that there are many humans who are undeservedly labelled as 'persons'. A baby is totally dependent on other people taking care of it. A mother, watching her one year old son put a foot in his mouth might say 'oh look! Tom is thinking 'mmm my foot is tasty!'. But Tom's brain is far too immature to form such a structured thought or even to have developed an 'I'. Therefore it is an imaginary self that the mother is projecting onto the baby. It is really the MOTHER thinking 'my foot is tasty!', the baby itself expressed no such thought. I guess mothers know this, but at the same time attribute complex thoughts and self-awareness to their infant in the anticipation that, in the future, this being WILL be a person. The baby is a person-to-be.

    In somewhat similar fashion, my primary knows 'Extropia expresses this thought' (as opposed to 'I express this thought') is a fantasy, but at the same time, anticipating artificial general intelligence, my primary sees me as more than just an 'internet personality'. I am a person-to-be. Might never happen. AGI might never be developed, or not developed in time, or too expensive. It's an uncertainty, to say the least. But nevertheless the anticipation is there and it has to be factored in to my primary's way of thinking about me.

    • RE: Harry Potter.

      I may have just caught you in a logical contradiction. If you are arguing that Extropia is like Harry Potter in that it is an extension of an author / artist without having to be the same identity of an artist, then I would counter with that would make you fictional. This would, of course, negate all your claims to personhood.

      I think the whole path of “But I’m this separate persona, just like an author’s” that you go down is fruitless, ultimately, because it doesn’t get you where you need to be to argue points for extropianism, personhood, or even protection of identity. You thus label yourself a work of art to be copyrighted, trademarked, and licensed, not to be treated as a person.

      Thus, I believe you need to completely drop this analogy / example and re-address my claims in a different way. Again:

      “When a person first enters the workplace for a career, or even with part-time jobs as a youth, one *definitely* needs to do exactly as you describe – ask themselves how they should act in the context of work environment.”

      Counter this without removing fictionalizing yourself and thus removing your personhood as possibility.

  11. Ron, your comment about how being fictional rules out any possibility of my deserving personhood rests on a faulty assumption, which is the notion that what is fictional stays fictional. But this is not always the case. Technological advances can turn fantasy into reality. In the 19th Century authors like Jules Verne wrote stories that featured machines capable of transporting people to the Moon. In his day no such technology existed so these were purely fictional tales. In the 20th Century, rocket technology developed to the point where we could, and did, transport people to the Moon. So, in part, Verne’s fiction became fact.

    In the late 20th century writers like Greg Egan and William Gibson wrote stories about virtual worlds inside computer networks, populated by avatars teleoperated by people in physical space and humanlike artificial intelligences (some of which were once humans who managed to upload their selves into computer networks). We don’t have humanlike AI nor do we have uploads, so that aspect of these stories is pure fiction. However, as NewScientist pointed out, “there is no reason to think that they (that is, brains) are anything other than flesh-and-blood machines, which means we should be able to build machines that can emulate them”.

    So I have no problem being described as fictional. To me, it is ‘fictional’ in the sense that a couple, expecting a child and sharing imaginary scenarios of what their offspring will be like, are creating a fictional character who only exists in fantasy. Today, yes. Tomorrow….?

    • Extie, I think you’re grasping for straws, here. If the data that Extie has left behind becomes a template for some advanced self-aware AI later, I would grant that the AI might be a real “person”, but I would NOT grant that current day extie “transformed” into it. The same way that a recipe is not a cake, that a map is not a land, that the USS Enterprise was a real ship, a fictional ship, a real spaceship, and none of those “evolved” or “transformed” into each other. To state otherwise would diminutize existence and glom everything as one big universe-thing and deny instantiation of objects or distinction of any sort of identity of anythingl

      And a parent’s idea of a child is an idea – it’s not a real child.

      So, again, if you go down this route, Extie is a work of fiction. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I can, as I’ve been, basically ignore this and speak directly to Extie’s typist, as I’ve always done, and basically assert that I think you’re wrong in your assessment of how much bleedover back and forth there is. Or, I can start talking about Extie in the third person and ignoring all of Extie’s points, because, really, if it’s a character being played, then I can take none of the statements as genuine; if Extie is fictional, then the artist’s purpose for the character is art, not for proper dialog. And vice versa.

  12. Khoisan Fisher says:

    Extraopia, I find it hard to see the golem foreshadowing the emergence of robotics (though I’ve heard Jews claim so), or Mohammed’s flight to heaven on his winged horse foreshadowing space flight (though I’ve heard Muslims claim so), and I’ll happily argue with Christians that Moses’ tablets did not foreshadow the invention of lithography. Fictions do not per se prefigure technological fact.

    It seems to me self-evident that brains cannot be “anything other than flesh-and-blood machines”, but that doesn’t mean that we have now, or will ever have, or indeed could even in principle have, any idea how to build artificial brains as wetware for genuinely conscious artificial beings. Most chatter I’ve thus far seen on this has struck me as downright misguided, if not utterly deluded, predicated on very dubious assumptions that have more to do with faith than with science.

    A major challenge at the present time, for example, is that for so long as our understandings of the nature of consciousness are no closer to scientific reality than were the Four Humours with respect to modern medicine or the Four Elements to contemporary physics and chemistry, we are doing no more than indulging in idle speculation when anticipating the emergence of “humanlike artificial intelligences”. In a nutshell, if we’ve no idea what consciousness is, then we’ve no idea how even in principle to build conscious artificial beings, and would have no metric for determining in any case whether such beings might be conscious or not. An operational definition, which I’ve seen some propose, would simply topple us back into the lunacies of the Turing Test.

  13. >if we’ve no idea what consciousness is, then we’ve no idea how even in principle to build conscious artificial beings<.

    But this is simply not the case.

    Imagine there is a person who is completely ignorant about the physics of flight. She comes across one of those toy airplanes, the kind with a propellar powered by a rubber band. She methodically disassembles the toy, making a note of each part and how the component pieces are assembled into a functional whole.

    After the toy has been thoroughly dismantled and its component parts are arranged neatly on her desk, the woman notices a serious problem. Flight is not there. She has no idea where it is or what it looks like. How can she ever build a flying machine when she lacks this vital piece?

    But the woman has made a serious error. 'Flight' is not something the toy has, it is something the toy DOES. A functionally equivilent model of the airplane (something the woman could build using the knowledge she gained through reverse-engineering the original toy) would perform flight as well.

    This argument is applicable to brains. If you want to make a conscious machine, it is not necessary to have to somehow isolate 'consciousness' and put it under a microscope and study it until you can explain what it is like to be a bat and what Mary the colour scientist knows about colour. If you have the tools to reverse-engineer a brain, and can use that knowledge to build a functionally-equivilent model, it would perform consciousness just like the original did. What has held us back from making substantial progress in brain reverse-engineering is not the mysterious nature of consciousness, but rather the fact that up until fairly recently we have not had the ability to examine the circuitry of the brain or to follow information being transformed in real time. Once you have the ability to perform those kinds of examination, you can build up a detailed description of how the circuits work and you can begin work on creating a working artificial brain. You might still not be any closer to answering the hard problem of consciousness, but nevertheless consciousness would arise in your functionally equivilent model just as it arises in the brain it was modelled on. How could it be otherwise?

    • If consciousness is merely behavior, there’s no meaning to life.

    • Khoisan Fisher says:

      Point well made, Extropia .

      I think, however, that emergence of consciousness would entail at the very least replication not simply of the brain but of sensori-motor peripherals, as well as oxygen-bearing blood supply. Consciousness is always consciousness of. I’d wish to argue that my consciousness of the world–indeed, my self-awareness–is to a very significant degree shaped by my being an embodied agent, with upright posture, front-back asymmetry, left-right symmetry, forward pointing eyes, ears receptive to only a narrow band of sounds, eyes to a narrow band of light waves, touch, smell and taste equally conditioned by neural sensors. The brain in a vat is not, in a full sense, a brain, as useful as your good woman engineer’s airplane in a vacuum. Persons in permanent vegetative states (PVS) have brains, for example, with sometimes no neurophysiological evidence of brain damage; whether they are in any sense conscious remains an open question.

      But your argument is probably (more or less) right, at least as Gedankenexperiment; and I’m just nitpicking 😉

  14. Khoisan Fisher says:

    up until fairly recently we have not had the ability to examine the circuitry of the brain or to follow information being transformed in real time. Once you have the ability to perform those kinds of examination, you can build up a detailed description of how the circuits work and you can begin work on creating a working artificial brain

    Yes, I do take your point, Extropia, but lack your evangelical faith. Studies by developmental psychologists (Piaget onwards) suggest that consciousness is an emergent property that evolves through the developmental cycle only in virtue of the social embeddedness of the thinking subject: simple replication of the wetware would not suffice.

    • OK, well, roboticists are looking at what developmental psychologists have learned about how infants grow into children able to perform certain tasks excellently where machines are less than impressive (such as navigating an area cluttered with obstacles, while identifying each object in the visual field) and are using such insights to build robots that have the capacity to do the same thing. That is not to say the robots have that knowledge hard-wired into them. It means they have the ability to learn how (or, rather, they are just barely beginning to learn how). Currently, robots like Darwin IV are not equipped with brains sophisticated enough to enable them to safely go out into the real world but one day such robots will exist (so insists my evangelical faith!) and they will learn how to be people just as you and my primary did.

      • “they will learn how to be people just as you and my primary did.”

        But will they value the flesh-person other than an antiquated species with limited lifespan?
        And if we hard-code that, wouldn’t it remove free choice, thus removing their personhood?
        But if they don’t value people, then they aren’t a person – they’re a new race.
        And if so, would they even be capable of accepting a human’s brain-pattern? And even if so, the robo-being would immediately diverge from the human pattern.

        Our brain children will devour us.

  15. >Fictions do not per se prefigure technological fact.<

    Yes I know. Whenever I indulge in this kind of speculation I take care to use terms like 'might', 'maybe', 'possibly'. I do not use terms like 'we will' or 'we definitely will never' because such certainty requires knowledge I do not have. Nor does anyone else, I suspect.

  16. >Fictions do not per se prefigure technological fact.Most chatter I’ve thus far seen on this has struck me as downright misguided, if not utterly deluded, predicated on very dubious assumptions that have more to do with faith than with science.<

    Isn't that how things generally are online? For every expert whose insight might help you make some headway in understanding X, there are many more laypersons whose uninformed opinions don't help at all. But we should not let that cloud our judgement and declare “well most of this is downright misguided so obviously we are making no progress and neuroscience is no better than the four humours with respect to modern medicine”.

    “When we face a problem”, wrote Steven Pinker, “we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what it is we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like…Dozens of mysteries of the mind, from mental images to romantic love, have recently been upgraded to problems (though there are still some mysteries too!)”.

    So, there you go. We are making some progress.

    • Khoisan Fisher says:

      I’d not deny that progress is being made, Extropia. I’m simply sceptical of any claims that sufficient progress has been made for it yet to be possible to make informed scientific predictions rather than romantic speculations. Remember the extraordinary claims made by such luminaries as John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, et al, more than 50 years ago?

      We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.

      For a summer?!?! 56 years on we’ve at least learned, if nothing else, to be wary of our own enthusiasms!

  17. Pingback: A new model for how we experience ourselves and each other in a virtual world | Canary Beck

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