Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Avatars and Immortality

Anyone who has read or heard even a little history knows that the dream of immortality has existed among humans for a very long time. Most of these dreams (though not all, as the Christian fundamentalist notions of the “rapture,” and Islamic fundamentalist notions of a heaven full of virgins awaiting the martyrs who blow themselves and others up, prove) have been debunked in recent years, when even the Roman Catholic Church has pretty much abandoned its notion of an afterlife in fire for those who’ve been ‘bad’ (whether Catholics still believe in a blissful Heaven for those who’ve been ‘good’ remains unclear to me).

What’s astonishing is that this dream of living forever now exists in the most unlikely of places—among computer geeks and nerds who mostly profess atheism. It exists, that is, in two places: virtual reality, and the transformation of humans into cyborgs (though cyborgs don’t specifically promise immortality, they do promise to transform humans into machines, which is a kind of immortality—see Pagan Kennedy, “The Cyborg in Us All,” NY Times, 9.14.11). If you can create an avatar—a virtual computerized model—of yourself (as has been done for Orville Redenbacher, so that, though dead, he still appears in his popcorn commercials), you can in some sense exist forever. The title of the avatar game on the internet, “Second Life,” reveals this implicitly. So does the reaction of volunteers whom Jeremy Bailenson studied for a Stanford experiment purporting to create avatars that could be preserved forever. When the subjects found out that the science to create immortal avatars of themselves didn’t yet exist, many screamed their outrage. They had invested infinite hope in being among the first avatar-based immortals.

Before dismissing this as foolish dreamery, consider how far this movement has already gone. Right now, the video games that most kids engage in (my grandson has a Wii version of Star Wars in which he ‘becomes’ Lego-warrior avatars who destroy everything in sight) “consume more hours per day than movies and print media combined” (Jeremy Bailenson and Jim Blascovich, Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution, Morrow: 2011, p. 2) The key point about this, moreover, is that countless neuroscience experiments have proved that “the brain doesn’t much care if an experience is real or virtual.” Read that again. The brain doesn’t care whether an experience is “only virtual.” It reacts in much the same way as it does to “reality.”

Frankly, until I read Infinite Reality, all of this had pretty much passed me by. I had read about virtual-reality helmets such as the kind used to train pilots, but I had no idea that things had gone so far. I had no idea that millions of people sign up for the online site called “Second Life” (I tried; it seemed impossibly complex and stupid to me), and invest incredible amounts of time and emotional energy setting up an alternate personality (avatar) that can enter the website’s virtual world and interact in any way imaginable with other people’s avatars. Needless to say, most people equip their avatars with qualities they would like to have, or have wondered about having. Then they go looking for people (avatars) with whom to experiment in a wished-for interaction. The most common interaction, not surprisingly, seems to be sex with another avatar, or several others; but there’s also a lot of wheeling and dealing to gain wealth and prestige. Talk about “be all that you can be!”

Still, the really interesting stuff happens when you get into a virtual laboratory. Whereas “Second Life” takes place on a flat computer screen, virtual reality really comes into its own when you don a headset that can simulate real scenes in 3D fidelity so real that when people approach a simulated pit in front them, they invariably recoil (even though they’re “really” walking on a level floor). While virtual reality of this kind is expensive today, there can be little question that it soon will have become commonplace. Rather than spending tons of money traveling to China, say, one will be able to go there “virtually,” without having to endure the travails of travel, including bothersome other people. What makes this eerie is that video games are already working with this kind of VR, and creating avatars. In games like Pong, Wii, Move, and Kinect the game computer can already “track” a user’s physical movements and then “render” a world incorporating those movements into a virtual tennis scene that is authentic in all necessary details. So,
In a repetitive cycle, the user moves, the tracker detects that movement, and the rendering engine produces a digital representation of the world to reflect that movement…when a Wii tennis player swings her hand, the track wand detects the movement and the rendering engine draws a tennis swing. (p. 44)

As Bailenson notes, “in a state of the art system, this process (of tracking and rendering the appropriate scene from the point of view of the subject) repeats itself approximately 100 times a second.” Everything in the virtual scene appears smooth and natural, including, in the game “Grand Theft Auto,” an episode where players can “employ a prostitute and then kill her to get their money back.” And remember, the brain reacts to all this in the same way it does when it is “really” happening.

The implications to a psychologist like Bailenson are profound. Short people, for example, who adopt a tall avatar for themselves, show definite improvements in their self-image, even after they’ve left the avatar behind. They also show improvements in competition: in real games held afterwards, the person whose avatar was taller became a more successful negotiator. Those who fashion a trim, beautiful avatar, show the same rise in self-esteem. Bailenson also notes the importance of people’s attributions of “mind” or reality to inanimate objects like computers, and this includes avatars. In one experiment, subjects were shown a real person named Sally, and then her avatar disfigured with a birthmark (neurophysiological studies show that interacting with a “stigmatized other,” even someone with a birthmark, causes a threat response). After four or five minutes interacting with Sally’s disfigured avatar, subjects displayed the heart-rate response indicating threat—even though they knew the real Sally had no birthmark. And the games sold to consumers keep getting more sophisticated in this regard. In the Sony PlayStation game, THUG 2 (over 1 million sold in U.S.) players can upload their photos onto the face of a character, and then have their “clones” perform amazing feats of skateboarding, etc. They can also watch them performing actions not under their control. This brings up the question of the effect of watching one’s “doppelganger” (a character with one’s appearance) do something in virtual reality. It appears to be profound: the more similar a virtual character is to the person observing, the more likely the observer is to mimic that character. This can be positive: watching a healthy person who seems similar can lead a person to adopt healthy behavior. But other possibilities are legion. Baileson mentions the commercial ones:

…if a participant sees his avatar wearing a certain brand of clothing, he is more likely to recall and prefer that brand. In other words, if one observes his avatar as a product endorser (the ultimate form of targeted advertising), he is more likely to embrace the product. (119)

In short, we prefer what appears like us. Experiments showed that even subjects who knew their faces had been placed in a commercial, still expressed preference for the brand after the study ended. Can anyone imagine most corporations aren’t already planning for what could be a bonanza in narcissistic advertising?

More bizarre possibilities for avatars, according to Bailenson and Blascovich, seem endless. In the brave new world to come, “wearing an avatar will be like wearing contact lenses.” And these avatars will be capable of not only ‘seeing’ virtual objects and ‘feeling’ them (using ‘haptic’ devices), but of appearing to walk among us. More ominously, imposters can “perfectly re-create and control other people’s avatars” as has already happened with poor old Orville Redenbacher. Tracking devices—which can see and record every physical movement you make—make this not only possible, but inevitable. Everyone, with all physical essentials, will be archived.

All of this makes the idea of “the real world” rather problematic. Of course, neuroscience has already told us that the ‘world’ we see and believe in is really a model constructed by our brains, but still, this takes things several steps beyond that. For if, in virtual reality, “anybody can interact with anybody else in the world, positively or negatively,” then what does it mean to talk about “real” experience? If “everything everybody does will be archived,” what does privacy mean?

At the least, one can say this: a brave new world is already upon us (think of all those kids with video games; think of how much time you already spend staring at your computer screen), and you can bet that those with an eye to profiting from it are already busy, busy, busy. One can also say, take a walk in the real outdoors with real dirt, grass, trees, worms, bugs, and the sweet smell of horseshit; it may soon be only a distant memory.

Lawrence DiStasi

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