What is the self? Part 2

Two excellent comments on yesterday’s post! The reason this all came up is that I gave a talk this week about possible directions for socially shared virtual reality, and a student asked whether replacing reality with virtual reality will change who we are.

I responded that we are already living in virtual reality. We just don’t know it because we are subject to Alan Kay’s dictum that “Technology is anything invented after you were born.” I told the student that we generally go through our day sincerely believing that we are living in some sort of natural state, whereas in truth our perception of the world and of each other is highly mediated.

To put this in context, if you and I talk on the phone, or over Skype, you don’t think “Oh, that’s not really Ken, that’s just a technological reconstruction of Ken.” And the same goes for email or handwritten letters, both of which are technologically mediated artifacts. You don’t think “I received an avatar of Ken in the form of his handwriting.” Although, in a sense, you have. Rather, you think “I got a letter from Ken.”

The important thing is that the thoughts between my mind and your mind are connecting. Any medium that achieves this, for people who are used to that medium, is simply labeled as part of reality.

So yes, the self may be a complex, multifaceted and ever changing thing, but reality (if you are a human) is quite simple: It is whatever medium of communication allows my self and your self to effectively connect with each other.

5 thoughts on “What is the self? Part 2”

  1. We saw a decrease in social responsibility on the Internet. Think YouTube comments. People use the veil of apparent anonymity to say things one would not to someone in person.

    Will virtual reality foster more responsible behavior just because you can see Ken (or avatar thereof)?

    And inversely, people allow themselves to be someone else MMORPG games. Someone that is radically different from themselves, but is a fantasy version of them (no pun intended). Will VR help people expose such sides of themselves when the safety of a false facade helps hide their insecurities? Can’t be done on Skype, that’s for sure.

  2. I agree with all of the points you make. I also think they are not about technology. People have been going anonymous for centuries, for various reasons. From political protest to frequenting brothels and opium dens, humans have a long history of using anonymity to free themselves from the bounds of societal expectation.

  3. Dax, the type of social interactions you see on the internet vary dramatically based on the community you’re looking at. YouTube, Reddit, Google+, Tumblr, Wikipedia, Ken’s Blog, 4chan, and Facebook are all (but one 😉 ) huge communities, but vastly different. I think a ton of factors contribute to how people interact with each other on the internet. There’s what degree of anonymity they have, how closely moderated they are, what the stated rules are, to what extent the community can self-moderate, what the (if any) focal topics are, the visibility of contributions, the size of the community, if/how the community quantifies reputation… I should stop listing; I think a comprehensive list is at least 2-3 times as long.

    My point is, that I think the flavor of social interactions in a VR setting will be way more dependent on other community factors than whether there’s a “physical” avatar presence.

    I agree that people are less inhibited in their expression in online communities than in real life, largely (but not entirely) because of their anonymity. I think this is just as good as it is bad. There’s definitely a ton of toxic interactions on the internet, but there are also legitimate discussions that some people would never want to participate in if it was public knowledge that /they/ said those things.

    I think your analogy to MMOs is apt, too. In MMOs where character customization is allowed, people do express themselves in different ways. Some want to accurately project themselves into the videogame world. Some create a character who is the type of person they wish they were. Some use their character as a more artistic expression. Again, a list like this can explode in length. We see people create characters for themselves in games like Runescape, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Second Life, and Club Penguin.

    The apparent presence of people in these games /definitely/ adds dimension to interactions. Some games provide pre-scripted animations people can use to non-verbally communicate, while in others, players may be limited to jumping, crouching, and head movement. It seems that VR will expand that dimension so much more if it’s combined with motion capture.

    However, I see VR as more of a power upgrade for communication than a new way to inject self into interactions. I think “self” is, as Weston C.B. briefly touched on yesterday, always present in any interaction. Even when I make this post, the box containing my username and these paragraphs of text is “me” in the context of this community. If I were able to appear in 3D form and share my thoughts, it’d certainly be a more effective communication and richer interaction than what we have right now, but I don’t think that sense of self would be altered at all.

    I think that’s part of what Ken’s post is about, and it’s why I think VR is a wonderful tool — more and clearer communication is always better. But I don’t think it’ll really change the types of interactions people will have; it’ll allow them to have those interactions more effectively.

  4. No, I hadn’t heard of Permutation City. What a fascinating concept! I look forward to reading it. Thanks!!

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