Avatars: Going the Distance

by Justin

Who doesn’t want to recreate themselves? To build something consciously and meticulously, assemble the pieces and craft a persona?

Part of the appeal of Facebook and Twitter and all the social networking giants is that users get a chance to curate the information received. Upload select photos, un-tag the embarrassing ones posted by friends, post status updates that illustrate your assets and interests. This style of self-defining is something new and invites user to decide who they are. We’re all wrapped up in this to differing extents, even if you’re just the voyeur consuming these web personalities. Interestingly, the same reckless abandon that most people practice in ‘real life’ can be exercised online. The more fluid the medium becomes the less curated the material, the less thoughtful the updates, etc. And for networking addicts the sheer volume of interaction (comments, re-tweets, whatever) makes it effectively impossible to control the entire construct.

Some journalists, aware of the interactivity and immediate exposure of writings, have adopted multiple blogs under multiple pseudonyms in the interest of fracturing their online identity. I get that. Professionally, you may only want the thoughtful and researched material attached to your given name. But then you want to be a little outrageous, favor scathing condemnation over considered evaluation, and so you create a separate thread to anonymously give rein to your provocative side. I don’t think this creates any sort of fracturing of the consciousness – the kind of activity is contained enough that it strikes me as difficult for it to bleed into a real sense of identity. But who knows? I wonder about the reversal of influence, how much the digital personalities inform and influence the corporeal one(s).

I read something recently, I believe by James Fallows, about the legacy of letters and the way permanence inspired clarity and depth. Permanence and the inability for frequency of interaction to qualify or elaborate on a given point. I’m a firm believer in the reality of impermanence, and I think that with a little pause for consideration the ever-evolving data stream might serve to illustrate that truth. The question, as I mentioned briefly in that post about The Singularity, is whether our minds evolve and open or become endlessly distracted and shallow. Multi-tasking and endless stimuli suggest the latter.

There’s a longer piece in the works about Buddhism and digital identity, a hopeful collaboration with a friend and rising star in the Buddhist journalism community (there is one, really). But what I’m hoping is that at the very least, since we’re going down the road of personal reinvention and creation, that we go the distance.

Look, Facebook is lame and really just an extension of our real lives. Things like Second Life are more interesting, but still imminently boring and restricted to the realm of gaming. Within gaming, the concept of creating an avatar really took off. From the innocent character building on the Wii to the life-destroying World of Warcraft – many of us lost friends to that behemoth. But when does it get really real and break from simple templates? When do we cross the threshold and have digital worldscape as rich and legitimate as this alternative consensual land of illusion? Let me clarify. When do we meet one another not by friend request, handshake, YouTube video, or blog comment, but as giant digital constructs crafted by unhinged, uninhibited imagination. Or just get beyond the beyond:

When the Kuang program met the first of the defenders, scattering the leaves of light, he felt the shark thing lose a degree of substantiality, the fabric of information loosening. And then – old alchemy of the brain and its vast pharmacy – his hate flowed into his hands. In the instant before he drove Kuang’s sting through the base of the first tower, he attained a level of proficiency exceeding anything he’d known or imagined. Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.

I’m ready for ‘avatar’ to get back in touch with its Sanskrit roots:

avatarana “descent” (of a deity to the earth in incarnate form), from ava– “down” + base of tarati “(he) crosses over.”

Let’s go full-blown divinity,  shattering our mental and physical limitations. Let’s be the next incarnation of Vishnu and reinvent everything.

I wonder about the dawn of the atomic age, how it felt to have power and energy redefined in an instant, to have the age-old identity of war crumble and irrational fears get nuclear fuel. But the changes in that era, as I imagine it, didn’t demand transformation in lifestyle and identity the way people anticipated. Not like these days.

We have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.