Worlds apart

After Manooh suggested looking at http://www.papermint.com, I spent some time on the site. It’s a fascinating experiment, and I think it brings into focus a number of the questions I was raising the other day.

You can create characters there, go shopping, meet other people, play various games. Very impressive. And its very impressiveness raises questions about the limitations of such experiences, and whether those limitations are intrinsic.

We as individuals are not the movies we see, the books we read, or the sum total of the entertainment we consume. Each of us – each individual – contains a complex assortment of competing values and desires, and our own particular kind of yearning for transcendence. As Walt Whitman said: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

When we get together in person we have heated discussions about things we care about. Not just aesthetic questions and discussions of books and movies, but also social issues – income disparity, prejudice in all its dizzying array of forms, reproductive issues, the relationship between a society and its recent immigrants.

We try to work through, in our discussions, why we like or have faith in certain people or collective movements, while distrusting others.

An on-line world like Papermint is, by design, a place to get away from such discussions, and therefore to get away from ourselves in all of our messy completeness.

There are text forums that touch on the hard issues, but existing embodied on-line experiences seem to go for the opposite – for fun and fantasy, for the “magic circle” of play, where actions do not require consequences.

Is this simply the way it has to be? Is quasi-physical on-line embodiment necessarily limited to ways of escaping from the difficult issues of real life?

2 Responses to “Worlds apart”

  1. David says:

    There’s certainly truth to that, using abstract aliases and avatars definitely keeps it in the sphere of fantasy, but I think some people value anonymous online communication more that others. To some it seems to be vital.

    I think most people over twenty is still a little freaked out by the privacy issues in putting your life out there, but that isn’t so present in people who grew up with it.

    It all makes me feel a bit old : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoP6HkxjS38

  2. Dagmar says:

    While trying to clean up my desk in the office yesterday, I stumbled about a paper from Jeff Malpas, in which he says that, the starting point of any discussion about the virtual must be recognition of the non-autonomy of the virtual, that the virtual is merely another part or aspect of the everyday world, the virtual world is embedded in the everyday world.

    I like to agree with him, since virtual worlds are done by humans and even if we can play roles in those worlds, they always display and hide parts of us.

    As you said Ken, just as we like it, and without consequences. At least it seems so.
    I learnt that for second life e.g., kids in China (I don’t want to be explicit about the labour conditions) are pressed in doing graphics that later will be sold to the well-off player in other countries. So we have a huge amount of the ‘real’ in our virtual worlds. And only in not wanting to know and close our eyes we can escape from the difficult issues of real life.
    I don’t want to argue against second life here, I just want to make clear that even those virtual worlds are just a mirror or extension of who and what we (as humans) are.
    At least in parts.

    But getting back to your question, if it is possible to become ‘real’ in a virtual world? Discuss difficult questions and trust?
    Asked for my own humble opinion I would say – no, we can’t.
    Because I just can’t see the face (mirroring emotions), the body language (mirroring emotion too), I can’t touch – in many ways I just don’t get feedback. All I can do is painting a picture of someone and that might be totally wrong.

    An interesting aspect in this discussion is the feeling of presence in VR-worlds. Actually my emotions/ feelings can be fooled quite a lot in a VR-world, even if the graphics are, if you compare them with games are poor. These VR-worlds can make someone feel scared, relaxed or can cool someone down, even reduce pain perception.
    And all this, while my intellect knows that it is only VR.

    So what would happen, if all those online-worlds would be VR-worlds?

    Just imagine, what it would mean, if we instead of writing here, could meet in Ken’s VR-world.
    I am just putting on my gloves and a head-mounted display and wonder how that would be? More ‘real’ or just another role we play in our lives.

    Peter Turrini once wrote a poem that I will try to translate:

    every human
    is a human
    or two humans
    or three humans
    in my case
    I am too many humans

    and right now on top to all the roles we play, the humans we are, we can add the facebook, second life, the writing on Ken’s blog… :-)

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