Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Evolution of Identity

Here's my February column for AVENUE magazine.  Photography this month is by Annough Lykin.



Recently on my blog I published a short extract from the new novel I’ve been working on, ‘AFK, Again’. In the extract, Second Life® private investigator Definitely Thursday reflects on the various categories of avatar profile she’s encountered over the years, these including the Empty Profile (EP), the Aggressive Profile (AP), the Somebody Else’s Quotations Profile (SEQP), the In Love Profile (ILP), the Promotional Profile (PP) and still more. For example:

“The Poetry Profile (PoP) attempts to map out the personality of the resident in picks via a selection of poems; subsets of this category are the Rhyming Poetry Profile (RPoP) and the Own Poetry Profile (OPoP).”


My own profile’s a mixture of promotional picks (please visit my website, please buy my books; that sort of thing) and references to a few significant SL friendships. It’s pretty static – I rarely update it – and it contains, I have to admit, a quotation from somebody else – Stephen Fry, who once wrote, "You have no idea where I am as I do this, and I have no idea who, where or what you are as you continue to read. We are connected by a filament of language that stretches from somewhere inside my brain to somewhere inside yours." He was referring to the relationship he had as a writer to his readers, which is why I personally have selected it, but I also think it’s a beautiful summary for the way we conduct our textual interactions in the metaverse.

Perhaps it seems like stating the bleeding obvious to say that our lives are becoming increasingly digital, but I don’t think society as a whole has yet grasped the larger ramifications of this. As the media gets itself all tied up in debates over privacy and the real life social cost of excessive amounts of time spent online, the issue of digital identity seems to have gone largely unexamined. The elderly throw their arms up in despair at the sheer ridiculousness of it all; the middle aged embrace it, but at the ‘bolt-on’ level where online interaction is an occasional additional social layer; the young, meanwhile, are living it: to them, the online world is increasingly interwoven with the offline world and where the one meets the other is becoming more and more blurred. I’m generalising, of course. And I’m certainly not suggesting that the young have got it right. I belong to the middle category and, whilst I’m undeniably just a little bit in love with some of the possibilities that online interaction offers, I’m also mindful that human beings have evolved to be with other human beings physically: it’s in our nature; it’s primal; it’s how we’re meant to be. The thing is, social trends are entities in their own right and pay little attention to such socio-biological truths. And, barring some big, unforeseen event that sends everyone fleeing from their computers in terror, we are now a long way past the point of no return to a non-digital way of existence. One could, of course, argue that our mission must be to escape the limitations imposed on us by evolution and biology, and that digital identity is one such escape route.

Evolution is fickle beast, full of apparent contradiction. It’s left us with predispositions and mechanisms that are both helpful and unhelpful in our modern age. On the one hand, we’ve evolved to live in groups and therefore survival of the fittest group has perhaps been a more important shaping factor to our genes than survival of the fittest individual over recent millennia. We know, for example, that hostility is a trait that leads to an increased risk of heart attack and it’s been suggested by means of an explanation for this that hostile people would have had a corrosive effect on hunter-gatherer tribe strength such that their death would ultimately be beneficial. We know that women tend to live longer than men, perhaps because their ability to care for the young in a tribe – ie, to continue to contribute – outlasted a man’s ability to hunt. There is also an emerging school of thought that a having different types of thinkers in your tribe would have been advantageous. The people we today diagnose as having ADHD could back then have been thought of as the fast hunter learners who acquired new skills simply through doing them. The people we today diagnose as having Asperger Syndrome could back then have been thought of as the thinkers who found new solutions to problems. As Temple Grandin once said, “Who do you think made the first stone spear? That wasn't the yakkity yaks sitting around the campfire. It was some Asperger sitting in the back of a cave figuring out how to chip rocks into spearheads.” Strength through diversity isn’t just a political correctness banner, it’s evolutionary fact.

On the other hand, tribal life meant competition and aggression from other tribes. This has left us with a strong fear of the unfamiliar, a desire to protect our status quo and a desperate need to strengthen our position within a group for fear it will reject us and leave us at the mercy of others. It’s possible that virtually all forms of prejudice and discrimination arise from this biological predisposition programmed into us by evolution. We make racist jokes because we have no connection with the targeted ethnicity – their ‘not-us-ness’ scare us – and because we hope we’ll get a laugh from the people we tell them too, making them better friends and less likely to exclude us.

It could be argued that the greatest contradiction of the evolved brain, however, is that it’s infinitely more complicated than perhaps it really needs to be, at least so far as survival within a tribe is concerned. Perhaps the original advantage brought about by its key distinguishing property – consciousness; awareness of self – is that it enabled us to step outside of our bodies mentally and, through this, gain a better understanding of the wider world around us: crucial for solving problems that require more than just instinctive knowledge. Out of this ability, however, came a whole set of other skills and properties, such as that of empathy, aesthetic appreciation and sense of identity. The more we’ve become conscious of social variation around us, the more we’ve sought to determine our own place within it.

In SL, the two places where we can give a first glance, ‘snapshot’ sense of our identity to others is through our avatar appearance and our profile. As I indicated earlier, the degree to which we use our profile as an identity tool varies from person to person and our individual usage also varies over time. The same could pretty much be said of avatar appearance. Huck has worn the same black shirt and jeans for the best part of a year, I’m afraid, but you shouldn’t infer from this that my avatar appearance is unimportant to me. In fact, I do have a range of outfits and when I’m inworld for more than a few days in a row I do attempt to rotate them. But all of my outfits still say pretty much the same thing about me: that I’m a quiet, unassuming guy. My shape says the same thing. Way back when the default male shape in SL seemed to be a cross between a Greek God of War and an American Football player, I basically wanted a skinnier, frankly weedier looking avatar. Years spent in real life not able or wanting to fit in with any sort of stereotypical alpha male behaviour has left me enthusiastic to express a more gentle, more intellectual maleness. I’ve had a few AOs over the years too, but I’ve always eschewed anything with any sort of threatening stand. My current AO is something of a fidget, always stretching and moving from foot to foot. It makes me look a little uneasy when I’m amongst a crowd of solid or graceful standers, which is fine by me because that’s exactly how I do feel amongst gatherings of people.

This said, however, it would be untrue to claim that these aspects of my identity are my sole identity. As I wrote in my very first column for AVENUE, the whole beauty of SL and its anonymity is that it allows us to explore aspects of ourselves which we might not have had the courage to explore in real life. There is nothing preventing us from exploring more than one of these. We can do these in our existing avatars to a certain extent, however the same anonymity which facilitates the first online identity can also facilitate the second and the third and the fourth. I might decide to adopt a whole new writing style and persona, for example, spend time exaggerating my more eccentric qualities or live life as a female. For a while in 2011, I contemplated living as a pine cube with a gender-neutral name, just to see how people responded to someone where they had no cues whatsoever as to RL gender or lifestyle. One of the first things you discover in a new identity, after all, is that people respond to you completely differently. Identity is a socially constructed phenomenon.  It’s a two-way thing.

There are plenty of dark sides to this fragmentation of identity, such as exploring the freedom to express hate views, deliberate deception or anonymous bullying – all topics I have written about in various ways over the years. This is by no means by default a peaceful human voyage that lies ahead of us. Like it or not, however, digital identity is going to be the big issue of the decades to come and it’s going to be a lot more complicated than sorting profiles into arbitrary categories. We need to start getting our heads around this issue and soon.



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