Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Uni Essays (1997-2000): "Virtual Identities"

I found the old essays I wrote for my Arts Degree at Melbourne University (1997 - 2000), and decided to upload some for historical interest and general self-reflective purposes! 

Virtual Identities

Subject: Cybersociety

by Murray Lorden  (1999)

Virtual identities are identities that exist in "cyberspace".  Where is cyberspace?  Well, nowhere, I guess.  But if it had to be somewhere, I suppose it is all the space between the separate devices employed by those who use cyberspace.  I guess this space is never really inhabited.  In the end, we cannot be in cyberspace, but only see into it from one point of view (from our own screen, etc).  Things are just deposited there and move through it, to be seen through a window elsewhere.

Virtual identities began in the 70's with Bulletinboards (BBS) but this form of maintaining an identity through a narrow bandwidth is not new - or particular to - the electronic medium.  Pen friends have existed for hundred of years in a similar way.  These people only know each other through a window (the page) and can only learn about the other person by the limited forms of communication that can be shared through this medium, such as text and graphical representations (portraits or perhaps later photos).  The bandwidth through which to express your identity in today's electronic media is ever growing, and soon video links will be the norm of virtual communication, and later, forms of more "physical" interaction by means of hardware mediation will be available such as sex-gear and other less raunchy counterparts.  Eventually, I assume, the bandwidth available will be so large that there'll only be a thin line between virtual communication and that which could be achieved with an actual teleporter.

The name "virtual" identity suggests that it is only "nearly" an identity.  Not a "real" or "full" one.  In this essay I will discuss what the difference could be said to be between identities and relationships online and in the meat world.  Overall, I don't think that there can be a better/worse distinction made between the two.  Virtual identities presently depend on our understanding of "traditional" identities and are just an extension of them.  The real difficulties will come when a person's identity is permanently situated in the virtual world.

Modem-to-modem vs. Meat-on-meat

In cyberspace, identities, communities, commerce, and relationships all exist in ways quite similar to how they exist in the meat world.  Yet virtual identities are just information flows.  They are real at the same time as not being real in the usual sense.

In the meat world, identity is defined and ruled by the body.  It is consider to be bounded, rational, singular, and stable.  The body links our different personas that we may swap between in day to day life.

Whereas, in the bit world, it is said by some that identity is constructed without the body through the bit flow and is therefore unbounded, multiple, unstable, not rational, highly individuated/hyper-individual and fragmented.  Each identity is not unified by the body.

Now, I would argue that I personally do not feel that my identity is more unstable, fragmented or multiple when I communicate virtually.  It is true that if I am playing a computer game over the internet against or with other people, I will take on a different attitude and persona than if I am emailing a friend.  And the examples go on.  Therefore, I suppose that my identity is fragmented and multiple in that I am acting in different ways in different circumstances depending on the rules of my surroundings.  But the exact same can be said for my actions in the meat world.  If I play a game with others, I will change my attitude and actions accordingly.

I think the above theory of virtual identities is getting carried away with the fact that because of the technology involved, many opportunities to change attitude present themselves.  People have experienced this multipleness and fragmentation of personality for hundreds of years - if not forever - simply due to the nature of human interaction.  People behave differently around different people because they are expected to.  Every different combination of people will offer a different context. It's just that in this new electronic medium there are more people than ever before in a very fluid environment in which people from all over the world can come together and interact in a way they have never been able to before.

Virtual experiences are as real as any other so what's the difference?  Two people or more sharing a virtual experience can describe what happened just like in a physical meeting but I guess the difference is in what the people know of each other and how they know it.

The problem of "knowing" other virtual identities

In the meat world, cultural capital usually qualifies much of how our identity is made up and how people interact with one another.  What happens to these qualifications of treatment in the bit-world and our relationships/interaction there?

Our attitude towards another person is strongly influenced by things like the person's age, sex/gender, appearance/looks (good looking/sexy/ugly/plain, etc), race, class, and perhaps their education/qualifications.  Usually these types of things are the first things we learn or notice if we meet someone in the meat world.  However, most of these things are not things you can discern when you interact with virtual identities in, for example, a chat-room.  And even if you do learn some of these things about a person, you can never be sure of the truth of the matter.  Much is made of this by theorists concerned with virtual identities and that is understandable as we are used to these things being very important and also obvious.

By what means are these aspects of a person expressed online?  How does it come across in text alone?  Most of the time, getting to "know" people online is based much more on the content of what they "say".  If you participate in a discussion group, you will make friends and decide what you think of people based largely on what they say alone which removes all of these cultural aspects.  Much the same people, in the end, will appeal to you as those in the meat world.  You may be able to meet more people who you may, for some reason, overlook or not get the chance to meet in the meat world.  However, a relationship of this sort will probably have few differences to that of its physical counterpart.

While cyberspace is often spoken of as not being REAL in the same sense that things are real in the meat world, much of the records pertaining to the meat world and the status of things in it can only be located virtually.  It is a place where many things are kept, such as much of our money, records of our ownership of possessions, academic records, criminal/migration & health records, our communications, records of our identity and our work.  Much of this information, if lost, would show us just how intangible and merely "virtual" something we considered very real is, such as our bank balance.  We must realise that much of what we take for granted as real is actually virtual, yet we are not wrong for our mistake because in the end, the virtual is as real in our world as the chair I'm sitting on.

Avatars: "Life is a game"

In computer games, we often take on the role of a given character and try to understand what is expected of us as that person.  The character is our avatar in the virtual world.  The better we understand the role of the character and what is expected of them, the further we will get and the more successful we will be in achieving the goal of the game.

In this respect, computer game avatars are not so dissimilar to our real lives.  We are born and grow to understand that things are expected of us.  We are pushed to develop certain skills and achieve certain goals.  And in both cases, we may try to go with or against what is expected.  Understanding what is expected of us and playing a productive role in accordance with that is a large aspect of what shapes our identities.  Role playing is explicitly linked with life in that we play roles according to the situation we are in.

Now, as computer games become more complex and the options you have in them become more diverse, there is a growing emphasis on freedom and customizability or your avatar.  Almost every game that comes out nowadays is ready for "Multiplaying" over the internet or over a LAN (Local Area Network).  The most popular of these multiplayer games are First Person Shooters (FPS's).  In these games, you usually compete against the other players, often referred to as "deathmatches", but can often also play a co-operative game against AI enemies.  You can choose from a selection of avatars, usually of men and women and often also alien creatures of some kind.  In many cases, you can customise your appearance by editing the computer files, often changing your "skin" which is the detailed texture which is "wrapped" around the model of your character.  Some people even make their own models.  Future games are going so far as to include built in editors with which even complete novices can create their own customized avatars.  

An example of this is Quake 3, a FPS made by Id Software, the pioneers of FPS's.  Their game is the first to cut out all single player gameplay to allow for optimal concentration on the development of the multiplayer aspects.  One of the main emphases of this game is customizability of your avatar, with a push towards people being able to reproduce something close to their real physical self if they so wish.  This is a trend that I think we will see a lot more in the future.  

The number of people getting into these multiplayer games is increasing daily and many of these people consider this escape into an alternative reality an integral part of their lives.

In games such as Quake 2, avatars are often maintained permanently over a person's gaming life.  They keep the same appearance and name so that they can be recognised in the gaming arena.  They want to gain status and notoriety.  People wish for their avatars what they want in real life.  To be someone who stands apart from and above their peers.  In fact, some players have international notoriety such as a certain player whose avatar is named Thresh.  He is the winner of international Quake 2 championships who now influences the making of the games from the design of the levels to the physics of the worlds and the dynamics of the game.  He is perhaps more famous and respected as Thresh than he will ever be for anything else, and many will perhaps never know his real name.  His virtual identity is more widely known than his physical identity.  Is either more "real"?

Some say that virtuality is a manifestation of infantile fantasy, and I guess it is.  People love the fantasy of being able to shape the world around them and do what they wish in it with no negative repercussions upon their selves.  Multiplayer gaming is an example of this, such as the above mentioned games or MUDS and MOOS and other Multiple User This'n'Thats.

A good example of VR allowing us to participate in our own infantile fantasies is Ultima Online, a computer game played by thousands at a time in a virtual world created by a software company which runs on an internet server night and day; a persistent, alternative world.  It is based on the rules and concepts of Dungeons and Dragons, the role playing game, and the Ultima Online world, known as Britannia, is some thousands of screens in both height and width.  In this world, players want to play roles.  They may want to be heroes.  Most want to collect gold and accrue experience, developing their skills and exploring the land.  Some people set up stores and lead a reasonably settled life while other travel around killing monsters or other players.  It is a typical infantile fantasy for anyone to enjoy!  And it is enjoyed by the old and the young, males and females.

It is interesting to observe that, in lew of Ultima Online's relative lack of restrictions or a set linear narrative, communities have been set up and developed "organically" which strongly resemble their "true" counterparts in the meat world.  There were initial doubts about the validity of setting up such a "lawless" game world as that which Ultima Online is and just setting people loose in it.  People doubted that players would play their roles authentically and doubted they would not abuse the freedom they were given.  Players killed other players for no reason even when the other player was at a much lower skill level than themselves and were acting passively.  However, it is this very freedom that lead to the setting up of "guilds" and groups which worked specifically to rid the land of "pkillers" (characters who killed other players lawlessly and for no reason).  This is just one example of how - in an environment which is left as open as possible to the desires of its users - the identities interact in close accordance with the nature of people in the meat world.

Wearing masks

In Turkle's article entitled "Identity Crisis", he brings up a cartoon by Robert Crumb.  The cartoon reads, "Which is the real R. Crumb?"  There are then four pages of incarnations from successful businessman to street beggar, to media celebrity, to gut gnawing recluse, etc.  Then at the end, it gives the answer, "It all depends on what mood I'm in!"

Online, you are likely to come across a person while they are only in one of these moods and that is the person you will meet, not all at once.  Due to the narrow bandwidth of communication when expressing yourself through a virtual identity, it is likely that you will only see one surface of a person at each moment depending on how they feel.  They will be partly defined at the time by what is "left out" or what parts of themselves at the time are not there.  Turkle says, "In these virtual community environments, people either explicitly play roles [as in MUDS] or more subtly shape their online selves."  One person he talked to about virtual identities said, "It's a chance for all of us who aren't actors to play with masks.  And think about the masks we wear every day."

And although many people are very skeptical about the "truth" of the masks shown to them by people they meet virtually, I don't think the mask anyone wears could be called truly deceptive.  To be truly deceptive would have to be to pretend to be something totally uninteresting to yourself; something totally irrelevant to your true identity, because anything that someone does will reflect something about them.  People never do anything that is totally irrelevant to them.  The masks that people wear, both virtually and in the meat world, reflect something about their true self.  They wear it to get a reaction to a part of themselves, and perhaps it is only virtually that they feel they can afford to explore this part of themselves or that it is possible for them to do so at all.

Circumstantial variance of identity

Online, because you are not unified into one somewhat static personality (which most people are offline), it is easier to alter your behaviour more dynamically online to suit the company you are in.

Depending on how the other person(s) may be acting (irrelevant of whether you truly believe the person to BE that or not), you will usually take on characteristics which work well in accordance with them.

Certain people will be drawn to certain virtual personas because of what they are representing themselves as.  You may see in someone's behaviour, room for yourself to gain pleasure through entering into a discourse with them.  Therefore, how/what you interact AS will depend largely on what you can find to interact WITH, and then vary your character based on who's attention you are trying to capture.  You will vary your behaviour and even your appearance depending on the occasion, what company you are in, and what "pleasures" you are trying to gain from the situation. Everything about behaviour is circumstantial.

Personal web pages: Trying to control your being-for-others

There is often an assumption that virtual identities give you some sort of infinite freedom over how others perceive you but the truth in this is limited.

On a personal web page, for example, you can - in as great a detail as you wish - present anything you want which can be transmitted electronically and suggest that that is who you are and what you're about.  You can leave out whatever you want, whether because you consider it irrelevant or to purposely hide certain facts for some strategic reason.  You could use real photos of yourself, touched up photos, bogus photos, drawings/paintings of yourself, video footage of yourself, or no direct representation of yourself.  You could just have a sound-clip of your voice.  Through a personal web page, you can create a virtual identity that shows only a selected part of yourself in a light that you have created.

Yet still, we can never make others think of us as a specific thing.  As always, we can only try to shape it as much as we can from our end - the end of presentation.  Interpretation, as always, will be up to the 'other'.  So, as Sartre, says, hell is still (and always will be) other people, even if everyone lived in a persistent and constant virtual reality.

Virtual reality

Robins says, "There is no alternative and more perfect future world of cyberspace and virtual reality.  We are living in a real world and we must recognise that it is indeed the case that we cannot make of it whatever we wish."

This seems like a strange comment, because it would appear apparent that, in many ways, we are making of this world what we wish and that we can make of virtual realities whatever we wish.  Perhaps we shouldn't, but it seems that we can and are.

But perhaps Robins is right in the fact that in the end, the real world will always be the most perfect but only in that it must be because IT is the original against which all virtual worlds are compared.  This does not mean, however, that people will not prefer a virtual reality (or an endless choice of them).

Many people want to escape the mundanity and banality of the real world.  People do it now by playing computer games, watching TV, etc.  But what if it becomes possible to escape the real world forever, leaving behind all the banality which currently helps define us as human; things such as the need for cleaning, excreting, sleeping and all the rest?!  Presently it is our embodiment that unifies us as a specific physical form; a centre from which we operate and can be recognised by.  How will the nature of relationships change?  How will the definitions of beauty/aesthetics alter?  Will mundanity and banality just re-manifest itself in another form specific to virtual life?  Will the meat world become irrelevant?  If so, what will we live for?

If everyone wanted to move there, who or what would maintain the system?  What of those who can't afford to "move" into virtual reality?  Or would these be the people put there?  Perhaps the real world will be saved for the rich…?

Ultimately, virtual identities are just another form of interaction within this world of ours.  We learned to write to one another, the letters slowly traversing the globe.  We learned to use the telephone to speak to people immediately.  And now we use computers to send even more stuff down these same phone lines and between the satellites in space so that we can reach out further and further, now to many people we don't know yet...  Each medium requires different skills and has different nuances to its application but in the end are just different forms of the same thing: communication between humans.  And when the next thing comes along, we'll most probably get along with that just fine, too.  After all, we are the makers!


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