Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation

Katharine Reeve on an intriguing exploration of how our physical and virtual identities are merging

January 5, 2012

In the 1999 film The Matrix, Morpheus welcomes Neo, a bemused computer hacker, to the "desert of the real". He explains that what you see and experience is not necessarily real, and then reveals that the ruins of the "real" world are obscured by a simulated reality: a sequence of streaming green code and data hidden behind a graphical interface and existing only on a server. The film's reference point, Jean Baudrillard's 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation, has a cameo role in the film. This amused the theorist, who noted that The Matrix was a rather crude interpretation of his ideas around the "representation" of something real being usurped by a "simulation" made up of untethered signs and symbols.

More than a decade later, we inhabit a world of pervasive media and ubiquitous computing (think about the miniature computer in your pocket). We now accept as normal our engagement with virtual reality, including gaming, email, Skype and social media, and we feel more comfortable living in this world of simulation than previous generations did. Just as those living in the Matrix existed in an unreal world, we too can escape into our own fantasy worlds for as little or as long as we like. The continuing development of graphical interfaces in computing are creating ever more believable worlds; places where human features, gestures and language are being simulated successfully. "Virtual worlds" such as Second Life and Habbo Hotel or, for schoolchildren, Club Penguin captured our attention, becoming obsessions for some; places we visited when we fancied an alternative to a less-exciting reality, with personas and communities we built up over a period of time.

But for Beth Coleman, this is not the story. She sees us as having moved on, almost imperceptibly, into a period where, rather than existing in a separate space, the real and the unreal have merged through our use of them. We now move seamlessly and almost unconsciously between them. Coleman frames her research around the notion of the colliding worlds of the real and the unreal: "X-reality". This represents movement between and across the real, physical world we inhabit and the unreal (virtual, augmented, alternative) worlds in which we create a new space for ourselves and our identity. As technologies and platforms develop, we see changes in the way we behave within our networks, a major shift being towards a newly collaborative communication and the experience of "co-presence". These could have a real impact, owing to the scale of participation globally, and Coleman takes us through some of the possibilities. We are sold an appealing new world where X-reality offers us "god-like powers" and "we can touch remote objects...appear with different faces...command time and space". But she also warns us that with power and reach comes responsibility.

Coleman calls the next cycle of media technologies to enter our culture "pervasive media" and thinks that an emergent practice of X-reality will develop out of "everyday experience of augmented reality and extended sites [of] agency". This will help us to see ourselves not as passive consumers but as agents, with a capacity to change the world around us. Our agency will be represented by our avatars - our online personas. Their earliest digital interpretation was as a single static icon, but Coleman sees today's avatar as combining a multiplicity of our online identities (text, images, multimedia), and serving as "a point of connection not only across technological networks but also connections of self to others and to the world".

In this lively and intriguing book, Coleman argues for a perception shift, an "understanding of networked media as augmentation of self and world as opposed to fragmentation". Her research into current media platforms, such as social media, shows that as networked individuals "we exist in a realm of augmented reality, where our avatars (our online faces) represent us in a persistent manner to a recognized community". Social media use has grown to such an extent that we sometimes forget it has been widely used for a matter of years, and has led to fundamental changes in our behaviour and communication techniques. The likes of Facebook (founded in 2004, with 800 million users in 2011) and Twitter (founded in 2006, with 300 million users in 2011) offer the user an extension of real-life identities and become an integral part of their daily lives. Tweetups, the "real-life" social meetings of online "followers", reinforce those connections made virtually and enhance subsequent virtual engagement. As Coleman says, "The trend we see is that one's lived identity and one's life online move closer to each other as social network affiliations become more robust across media platforms and are paired with face-to-face gatherings."

Sherry Turkle, writing in 1995, saw multiple identities as fundamental to our sense of self, and the internet as a separate space where we could experiment with different ideas of self-image. Coleman argues that in this, the second decade of social networks, the binary divide between real and unreal is over; we have entered an age of pervasive media, and we now exist, work and play across a variety of sites of engagement.

This is tricky, complex stuff involving things we're familiar with, such as the international rise of personal computing, and things we'd rather not know about - virtual flesh-eating sexually transgressive cannibals, anyone? To help us along the way, we are treated to a series of interviews with the movers and shakers of the digital world: Clay Shirky on digital's ubiquity; Jaron Lanier, a key figure in the emergence of virtual reality (VR) in the 1980s and someone who sees the positive benefits of an "expanded idea of what literacy means" and expanded access to communication; Zarf Vantongerloo, aka Mark Lentczner, a veteran avatar of virtual worlds; and writer Cory Doctorow, who discusses his use of new media and outsourcing of his game-playing to his wife, Alice.

Coleman takes us through a fascinating variety of experiments in X-reality platform design, 3D networked and immersive worlds: "We find everyday engagement of an augmented reality across a spectrum of media platforms and sites of agency...people are making their networked worlds inhabitable. In other words, the makers are making themselves at home by way of their avatars." For Coleman, X-reality platforms have a meaningful and discernible effect upon the world. From monkey suits for avatars to portly Second Life execs remaking themselves as fit, cool alter egos in a virtual world, and from the aforementioned cannibals to World of Warcraft, there's plenty to get your teeth into here.

There are also warnings about the consequences of the growing range of data collectors in our lives, from now-ordinary devices such as supermarket loyalty cards to "smart" devices around the home, and mobile phone data to social media. According to Coleman, "We must be cognizant of when technologically 'smart' might mean socially or culturally stupid."

The message Coleman really wants to get across is the current shift from early internet adoption and niche users of early virtual worlds to pervasive media and the broad adoption of real-time platforms, and the resultant expansion of possibilities for human agency to effect change beyond physical boundaries. We will do this, she argues, through our avatars, and through our customisation of our online, networked life. Digital technology is just that, a technology, but its effects through the things we make and do with it have far-reaching consequences (both good and bad) for society and culture. And if the stories in this new book are anything to go by, we're going to see an awful lot more "geeking out" going on in cafes and bars.

The Author

Beth Coleman received a bachelor's degree in literature from Yale University in 1991 and pursued a PhD in comparative literature at New York University. While undertaking her doctoral research, Coleman founded SoundLab Cultural Alchemy, an experimental music and large-scale installation platform, with artist Howard Goldkrand.

"I was going to class by day and staying up all night making music and designing what we now call 'experiments for the electrotechtural'," she recalls. On completing her PhD in 2004, she moved to Amsterdam to become artist-in-residence at the Waag Society for Old and New Media.

It was here that the generative sound piece and architectural installation Music Box was completed, and she enjoyed nine months of cycling through the city and leisurely dinners with friends. The location, and Coleman's collaborators at the Waag, gave her the opportunity to learn Dutch history and culture and influenced her project, City as Platform, which begins in Amsterdam. When she is not working or travelling, she enjoys spending time with her toddler and with friends.

Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation

By B. Coleman

MIT Press, 320pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780262015714

Published 18 December 2011

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