Living with a Prosthetic Avatar
Around six months ago I enrolled in a theology class known as “The Problem of God”. Although my professor was a Pastor and my college a Catholic institution, the issues we tackled were bravely secular and refreshingly open-minded. My professor in fact had studied biology before Finding Jesus and thus was well-equipped to argue any point that fostered healthy debate. One such debate has lingered in my mind for some time now: what is the “self”?
At first glance, this question may sound pointless or obtuse; I’m me, myself. My self. I have a physical manifestation on this earth that I simply am. Things become interesting when I hear someone say “I presented myself at the office,” because this implies that I and myself are interfacing and thus are not a single entity. In this case, the presenter and the presented are separate and the former controls the latter. This is not unlike the way we interact with video game avatars.
When my classmates and I quickly responded that “of course our bodies are our selves,” my professor changed the rules; he asked us what I will ask you now: how much of your body is your self? (Would Adam Jensen have the same answer as you? Commander Shepard?) If you were to have your arms amputated and replaced with prosthetic limbs, would you then be a fraction of your self? One is reminded of the preserved celebrities of Futurama — disembodied heads encased in jars with labels at their bases. Leonard Nimoy. Barbra Streisand. Richard Nixon. The labels don’t read “Leonard Nimoy’s Head”, etc., just as the corpse on display in Moscow doesn’t read “Vladimir Lenin’s Body”.
What we see when we look in the mirror is a humanoid form (hopefully), the same form that we most often ascribe to fantastical alien races and video game avatars. In the Mass Effect universe, nearly every non-human race is bipedal with two arms and a set of eyes above a nose and mouth. In order for us as players to be able to sympathize with any one of them, certain commonalities must be established. Think of non-humanoid races like the Hanar, Keepers, and Rachni. They are too far-removed to play anything but auxiliary roles because they are not compatible with the player’s projections of self.
Perhaps video game avatars are prosthetic selves — an extra existence that provides a freedom of thought and movement inside a world where we cannot physically go. During a wild Second Life spree I had several years ago, I stumbled into a restaurant lounge packed with avatars of all shapes and sizes. They hadn’t come for the food or music, but rather for a simple poetry reading on the patio. Everyone pulled up (or spawned) a chair in front of the speaker and waited for the bartender to shut off the music. As the each poet read their piece, I watched the listeners emote with both flourish and restrain; they were being affected by virtual verse. Patrons shed cyber-tears behind rapturous applause, but what of their First Life counterparts?
My theology professor confronted us with the idea that the self is not a physical manifestation at all, but rather a psychic collation of one’s personality, intellect, and experience. These are attributes that can be communicated largely without the help of flesh and blood — that is to say, you can get a pretty good picture of your guildmate’s self via text chat and the actions of his or her avatar. Lifelong relationships have been built and torn down based solely upon the presentation of pixels.
There is no arguing with the fact that we are shaped by our experiences, and experiences are processed through the body’s five senses; these senses act as a filter through which the world, with its many sights and sounds, enters our consciousness and translates into electrical signals. This is the core of the argument against self as non-physical. When we explain the way something smelled or sounded, our references are our noses and ears, respectively. It follows that our concept of self would be inexorably tied to our body through its capacity as an interface. Deja Vu is often triggered through a familiar sensation — the odor of freshly laid asphalt, the chirping of grandma’s tea kettle. The question is, can we identify the point of intersection between sensing and thinking? Can we circumvent the former?
We learned recently that neuroscientist Adrian Owen was able to send and receive messages with a coma patient through the use of — wait for it — a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine. This experience was entirely fleshless and bloodless for the coma patient; it was a neurological experience. Owen asked her to imagine playing tennis, and the correct region of her brain lit up in activity as she obliged. In a sense, this affirms the relative uselessness of the physical body in communication with another mind. If I were allowed just one minute of idealist abandon, I would imagine coma patients moving words and shapes around a screen via a two-way channel built off of Owen’s technology. Hell, why not humanoid avatars?
So when Case jacks into Cyberspace and Hiro Protagonist takes a walk in the Metaverse, the implication is that their bodies remain idle while their minds shift into overdrive. The sights and sounds they describe are reverse sensations being fed from the brain to the perceived eye and ear, producing an experience where the effects of sensation are gained sans sensors.
Though the term cyberspace was coined during the 1980s when WWW commercialization was still some 10-15 years off, it is all but ubiquitous today. It isn’t hard to imagine hooking up a set of virtual reality goggles to a wireless router and booting up Azeroth 2.0 to go meet some friends. In 1999, everyone saw The Matrix. We gaped at the special effects and lusted after the unorthodox band of action heroes, but 10+ years later, what really resonates is the use of technology to look inward. To question the outward. Vast acres of the mind lay bare and unseeded because we haven’t encountered a scenario or environment that calls for more.
The Second Life poetry reading: was that a whole-package experience? In the case of a physically disabled player, perhaps it was even more than that. You hear the stories about fanatic MMO players who spend more time in front of the computer than anywhere else; these people are not fundamentally insane, they are addicted. They are addicted to extensions of themselves that exist only when logged in. This prosthetic self can be and do more than any living human ever could, and the intoxicating completeness of the digital world that surrounds them is more than enough to supplant IRL.