Friday, September 18, 2009

Lette n'est pas un pipe.

The following piece is a response to Lou Netizen's post about the use of alts in Second Life. I strongly recommend you read hers first.

I can't be angry at your post any more than I can be angry at my evangelical Christian cousins who were raised to believe that my lovestyle is wrong and sinful and who, at age 13, thought the idea of me roller skating hand-in-hand with a boy of another race was unthinkably ludicrous. Anger in that case is simply waste of energy, since my relatives' perspective is based on a set of beliefs they take as "true" that I see as mythology.

Your outlook is clearly based on a set of beliefs about what SL is or should be that is at odds with mine and, to be frank, with the Lindens', which wouldn't ordinarily be something I'd make a case of except that you spend much of your post assuming that the Linden position on alts is neutral and that they must simply be lazy for not having adopted all of the technological tweaks that you identify for preventing the use of alts.

Do you really suppose there are very many Lindens who don't have an alt account of their own for when they want to circulate in-world without being pigeon-holed by their last name? Most probably also have alts for technical purposes, like testing new developments. Talk about trust... there is already a serious lack of trust toward the Lindens. If they could have alts and we couldn't, there would be a serious fracture there. Alts are not simply a necessary evil of Second Life, and they're not even controversial in the eyes of the world's creators; they are part of what SL is.

Here is the first paragraph from SL's Alt Account FAQ: "Alternate accounts... multiple identities... We all have them in some way or another. Perhaps in real life you're an entrepreneur in the morning, soccer mom in the afternoon, and vegetarian chef in the evening. In Second Life, you get to externalize these roles in customized, uniquely identifiable personas -- otherwise known as alt accounts. How cool is that?"

If you search the SL Wiki, you can also find instances in which residents are instructed to create alt accounts in order to accomplish certain technical or administrative tasks. For instance: "When ordering a Teen Grid estate, you should create an alt account and place order with that account. This account will be the estate owner and will be transformed when background check is in."

Alts are not only part of SL's culture but also part of SL's ecosystem. They aren't the result of some people trying to gain an advantage in the system, even though some people use alts that way. If LL eradicated alts, as you seem to think they should (the basis of your argument being that it is technologically possible to do so), major aspects of the world's infrastructure would need to be completely rebuilt.

As you freely admit, your view on this topic is related to your tendency to want to duplicate RL within SL. And when I went to Japan at age 14, I was most comfortable eating at Pizza Hut and Carl's Jr. We cling to what is most familiar to us, especially when the alternatives seem strange and unusual. If I went back to Japan now, 19 years later, however, I would be branching out and being a bit more adventurous (and stuffing my face with sushi).

You point out accurately that "the vast majority of in-world building and content emulates real life." This is a psychological inevitability. It's about frame of reference. It is not possible to imagine or create things without them being somehow in reference to what one already knows, believes, or understands. Even something that seems to have no direct relation to RL is thought up because of its lack of relationship to RL and thus still exists in relation to it.

Frame of reference, however, is merely a basis; it's not a limitation. There's no way for SL not to resemble RL, but there's also no way for SL to duplicate RL, either. Strict adherence to an RL frame of reference within SL can be just as ridiculous and arbitrary as its opposite can be daunting: why do toilets and ovens exist in SL? There's no reason outside of whatever symbolic value their creators and owners apply to them.

Despite the virtual world being based on multiple RL frames of reference, everyone in SL embraces at least some of the elements that are NPIRL (not possible in RL, for the unfamiliar). This is a technological inevitability. I'm not even talking about obvious things like flying and teleporting, I'm talking about the basic makeup of the avatar. We aren't snails in RL, carrying our entire homes on our backs (and those who do certainly don't have 30,000 items in their knapsack), but in SL, all of our material and immaterial possessions are available at the click of a mouse. Changing our SL hair length or color is as easy as changing the part in our RL hair. Those like yourself who choose to replicate themselves in-world actually put more effort into doing so than those who seek out a new virtual self (or selves) because it is an unnatural use of the ecosystem's resources. It can be fun or interesting as a project, but when it begins to resemble a moral crusade, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of virtuality.

Or to quote my favorite artist, "Ceci n'est pas un pipe."

by Rene Magritte

This is not a pipe. It is a representation of a pipe. No matter how accurately drawn it is (which isn't the same as being well drawn), it will not be a pipe. Even if it were a photograph, it would still not be a pipe. In fact, if you laid a dozen representations of pipes side by side -- a surrealist drawing, a realist drawing, a photograph, a film of a person smoking the pipe -- no representation would be a "better" representation of the pipe than any other. Anyone who understands the referential symbol of "pipe" will recognize that it is being depicted in all of the representations. For that reason, it is unnecessary to bend over backward to make the most "real" looking pipe you can, when the mode of representation ends up communicating more information about the intent of the representation than does its subject.

Regardless of whether you recreate the scar behind your head, your nose ring, your bodily dimensions, and your hair at the precise length it happens to be in RL on a daily basis, Lou Netizen will never be RL Lou. It is a representation of RL Lou. Furthermore, the fact that you do attempt to attain a factual physical representation of yourself communicates far more about you than the finished aesthetic product.

I know you understand that on one level, but it's unclear whether you understand it on the terms provided by the virtual world. SL is a composite of referents from numerous real and imagined sources. The hybridity made up from the psychological and technological inevitabilities I've already mentioned is not incidental; it's specifically what constitutes the virtual.

And to bring it back to the central point of discussion, alts, I contend that your anger about alts is based on a misconception of what virtual identity means.

The baseline point of interaction within SL is not the user but the avatar. They are obviously connected, not dichotomous, but the degree of relevance to the connection between a user and his or her avatar varies and shifts and evolves. This dynamic is uncomfortable for some because it requires much more mental and social flexibility than we usually need to practice in RL.

The topic of trust is interesting to me because my approach is very different from yours. As long as I'm only dealing with a particular person/avatar on a superficial level, I take them at face value and base my trust on how I interact with them within the avatar-to-avatar context. An avatar is who he or she depicts him or herself to be. If I were to find out that the (completely hypothetical) scrawny male neko I stood next to at Sharon's in the morning were the same person as the flighty female rabbit I traded barbs with at Shiraz in the evening, it would matter to me not a smidge. If I were to learn he was actually the alt of a good friend of mine, it would matter, but not on the level of trust; it would matter on the level of, "Oh man, I can't believe I didn't recognize you."

When you start to know someone beyond the avatar level, trust becomes more of an issue. If that scrawny neko boy and I started conversing on a more personal level and he didn't eventually tell me that he was someone I knew quite well already, then it could become a problem. But the problem is not the alt; the problem is the use of the alt.

SL is a surveillance society as it is. We are endowed with cameras we can use to see as far as 512 meters away, through walls and landscaping. We can turn off rendering on volume and view the naked, squishy bodies of people who forgot to wear system clothing under their tiny avatars (or glitch pants under their kilts). We can set our voice chat preferences to pick up voice from our camera position so that we can listen in on conversations being held in public voice from much further away than we can "hear" text in local chat. We can highlight transparent and see if a male (or occasionally female) avatar is wearing an invisible cock. And none of this is in violation of the Terms of Service. It's built into the system, and we adapt to it, by both adjusting our habits to secure our privacy and adjusting our attitudes toward it (e.g., "Meh, I don't care who sees me getting groiny with my honey if they're going so far as to cam 200m to do it.") to preserve our sanity.

The awareness that at any time we might be conversing with someone we know by a different name is part of this adjustment. Failing to do so might cause social rifts, and it might get you banned from Marine Park for "putting down the park," but it's not a whole lot different from gossiping about someone who can hear you from inside a restroom stall. Trust, therefore, is really not that important when it comes to superficial interactions: all you need to do is Not Say Anything Stupid.

Virtual identity, therefore, is not constructed the same way that RL identity is constructed. The way we relate to one another in RL and the value that we place on social concepts like "trust" developed within a context dictated by a particular set of biological and environmental circumstances. Virtual technology is not designed for it to be the same. To try to extend the rules that confine us through our biology and physical environment into a domain where neither are identical and can't possibly be identical is only going to frustrate you.

Consider: Why do you need to trust people in the same way you do in RL? In what way does that affect your ability to have amiable conversations with them, to play and host trivia, to create builds, and even to talk in a limited way about your personal life? Unless you plan to meet any of us (and I get the sense that you don't), an equivalent level of trust is irrelevant.

The conclusion that using multiple avatars is a practice in "manipulating" identity is yet another instance of failing to see that this is what virtual identity is. You don't need to take advantage of it in order to live a virtual life, but becoming huffy about those who do is like being upset that a Canadian 16-year-old visiting Spain goes out drinking. Just because she has to (legally) wait until she's 19 at home doesn't mean she can't take advantage of the more lenient restrictions elsewhere. Your view is similarly based on a cultural fallacy.

To wind this up, I need to reiterate that I'm not angry that you believe alts suck, since your reasons make it apparent that you haven't accepted some of the fundamental elements of what Second Life is. Not what it's meant to be or what it can be -- I'm not talking about fulfilling your creative potential by becoming a vampire or building a tower to nowhere -- but what it actually is and what it was when you signed up for your adamantly single, solitary account. This doesn't mean you don't belong here; everyone uses this space differently, and you've gotten by perfectly fine (as do the many other people who have reservations about alts), even with those of us who have alts, and you have friends and we like you. But just realize that by reading the real not just as a frame of reference but as a frame of proper conduct -- and, moreover, building an ethical argument out of it -- you're only going to create more aggravation for yourself.

Lette n'est pas un pipe.