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Faking It

September 16, 2009
by Hubert L. Dreyfus
still showing characters from Second Life

Second Life—a 3-D virtual environment—offers its “residents” a chance to invent a whole new life for themselves. Can it deliver on that promise?

Of the more than 11 million people signed up as “residents” of Second Life, roughly half a million spent at least an hour a day in that world in December. Through avatars they create to represent themselves, residents visit art galleries, shop for virtual goods, go to concerts, have cybersex, worship, attend classes, have conversations, and buy and sell real estate. Residents also design clothing and buildings, write poems and books, compose music, and make paintings and movies. Others enjoy the way Second Life allows them to meet and converse with people all over the world. It’s left to the participants to work out how realistically they present themselves. The Vatican has taken on the task of saving souls there, and Sweden has opened a virtual embassy to sign up residents to become real-life tourists in Sweden.

Second Life isn’t a game. There is no overall goal and no way of ranking your success. “You are the one who determines what Second Life means to you,” writes Philip Rosedale, the founder and CEO of Linden Lab, which created Second Life. “Do you enjoy meeting people online, talking to them, and doing things together in real time? Welcome to Second Life. Do you enjoy creating stuff and making it come alive? Welcome to Second Life. Do you enjoy running a business and making money—real money? Welcome to Second Life.” Entrepreneurs can earn Linden dollars—the currency of Second Life—and, indeed, convert them into U.S. dollars at an exchange rate of around 260 Linden dollars to the U.S. dollar. Established enterprises such as Coca-Cola, Sears, IBM, and Toyota are open for business in Second Life, and other businesses are rushing to follow.

Second Life offers the possibility of a virtual world that is more exciting than the real one. But at what cost? In Star Trek: Generations, Captain Picard tries to enlist the aid of Captain Kirk, who has recently retired to a holodeck-like virtual world. Picard finds Kirk jumping challenging chasms on a handsome horse. He reminds Kirk, however, that although the horse and scenery are magnificent and the chasms daunting, the whole set-up is virtual so there is no real risk. Thus, no courage is required and no thrill and satisfaction can result. After thinking it over, Kirk returns with Picard to the risky real world.

A few philosophers have sought to describe better possible lives than those offered by our current world. Martin Heidegger tried to capture what life at its best was, and might again be, by studying the enchanted world of the Homeric Greeks and their relation to their gods. Friedrich Nietzsche imagined a world after the death of God in which higher human beings whom he calls “free spirits” would engage in constant creativity, enjoying transformation for its own sake. Now, for the first time, philosophers have access to a “real” virtual world in which one can take up residence, investigate other styles of life, and compare their satisfactions and disappointments.

The drawbacks of our own world are obvious. We are bounded by fallible individual and group perspectives, experience physical and mental suffering, and sense the vulnerability of all we care about. We can try heroically to confront the world we are thrown into, face up to our situation, and struggle to live in a way that accepts and incorporates our vulnerability without despair. But as the 17th-century existential philosopher Blaise Pascal pointed out: “Men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, [so] they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.” Pascal calls this escapist approach “diversion” and gives as examples of diversions billiards, tennis, gambling, and hunting.

The Internet’s virtual worlds offer us diversions on a much grander scale. Indeed, thanks to virtual worlds like Second Life, we can lose ourselves in a rich, safe metaverse. We now face a clear choice between a captivating life of diversion, which existential philosophers like Pascal consider inauthentic, and the authentic life they favor in which one faces up to one’s wretchedness.

But how much misery should one confront? In contrast with Picard’s rescue of Kirk in Generations, consider the 1966 Star Trek episode “The Menagerie.” Spock “delivers” Captain Pike, whose body has been terribly deformed in an accident, to a dream world created by the Talosians, who are masters of illusion. Pike decides to remain in his virtual world, young and handsome, dallying with the beautiful image of a fellow deformed crash victim.

In this extreme case, illusion may well be a wise choice. Diversion only looks obviously wrong if one holds that facing the truth is our highest duty, or, more specifically, believes like Pascal that we are all called by God (or, as Martin Heidegger would say, our ontological conscience) to take on the hard work, risk, and sacrifice required in answering our calling. After all, we do admire those, like Franklin Roosevelt, Itzhak Perlman, or Stephen Hawking, who, instead of identifying with an invulnerable avatar and diverting themselves by enjoying virtual successes, have struggled with their disabilities in order to respond to the call of something that matters crucially to them and gives their life meaning.

To existentialists like Pascal, indulging in a virtual life is the ultimate form of diversion to avoid facing the vulnerability of a real-world life and the joy that can come from doing so. When your second life is not going well, you can simply abandon the troublesome situation—your fickle friend, your lost love, even your avatar body and your identity. What you do has few consequences, so you are free to make commitments with fewer risks. After the failure of a virtual marriage you do not have to go through a real divorce. When your business fails in the virtual world you don’t have to face bankruptcy. In short, you don’t have to clean up the mess you leave. You can always just walk away. But as usual there is a trade-off. Nietzsche would presumably say that Second Life is like a masquerade. It offers cautious experimentation but misses the rewards of the bold experimentation only possible in the real world. Risk-free experimentation does not give one serious satisfaction. What, then, might be missing?

According to Søren Kierkegaard, lasting meaning comes from a hard-earned skill for which one has made a life of sacrifices, or a love that defines what matters in one’s world, or an enterprise to which one has dedicated oneself. At the same time, such commitments make one vulnerable to accidents, humiliation, and, grief. In answering a calling you must be ready to risk everything for what defines who you are. Only then are you aligned with and blessed by an authority greater than any merely human authority, be it a god, history, a tradition, a lover, or something else that our practices show us is worth our total devotion.

Starting with Nietzsche, many post-modern thinkers have claimed that such an unconditionally committed life is rigid and restrictive and therefore less and less appealing, while a life open to experimentation and change has come to be seen as more and more attractive. The rapid growth of Second Life itself confirms this observation. But an experimental life lacks seriousness and focus. So the question arises whether our culture, or any culture, has practices that support a rewarding way of life that avoids the narrow focus and immutability of traditional unconditional commitments as well the hyper-flexibility and dispersion characteristic of life in our post-modern world.

In answer, Martin Heidegger has pointed to a familiar but now endangered species of practice that is more flexible than unconditional commitment but which, nonetheless, can provide focus, enchantment, and a minimal sort of meaning that can combat rather than conceal emptiness. Heidegger has in mind practices that encourage local gatherings around things or events that, as he puts it, set up local worlds. According to Heidegger, such local worlds bring out the best in those involved. He gives as an example drinking the local wine with friends, where a celebratory occasion, friendship, and a sense of being blessed can come together radiantly and forcefully. Likewise, the family meal requires the culinary and social skills of family members and draws fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and children to come to the fore at their best. Such focal practices make family gatherings matter. But such practices tend to remain in the background during the meal, and in fact during most of the family’s life. Indeed, to do their work they must remain in the background.

One reason we cannot program them is that we are so immersed in them that we cannot stand back from them and make them explicit.

Take distance standing. We are not aware that, when interacting with friends, colleagues, and loved ones, we stand at what we feel to be the appropriate distances from them. If we thought about the appropriate distance, we wouldn’t know how to do it. Our parents and peers passed it on to us. They felt uneasy and backed away when we stood too close and moved closer when we were too far away, and now we do the same. Like many social skills, we master distance standing by our body conforming to other people’s bodies.

Anthropologists try to measure and codify the distance-standing practices in various cultures. But our distance-standing skill, like any skill, is endlessly flexible. We feel comfortable standing farther away if the person we are interacting with has a cold, closer if there is a lot of noise in the background. In a library reading room or a church we speak more softly and stand closer. All these subtle discriminations and responses are further inflected by our relationship with the people involved.

So just how could such practices be introduced into the virtual world? The answer is surprising and important: The bodies of the users controlling the avatars smuggle them in. Without thinking about it, users tend to position their avatars in relation to each other at what would count as the appropriate distance in the real world. This has important implications when we think of moods.

Heidegger would point out that a minimally meaningful life requires sensitivity to the power of shared moods that give mattering to our world and unity and meaning to events. Indeed, focal occasions require a shared mood, as well as the sense of all who are present that they are sharing and contributing to that mood. This sharing creates a sense of a self-contained world. Consider the dinner in the film Babette’s Feast. At the beginning of the dinner, bickering among the guests over issues brought in from the past almost spoils the occasion by preventing it from becoming self-contained. But then, with the wine and good food, a mood of openness and care for others specific to the occasion descends and, when everyone senses that these feelings are shared, the feast works as a self-contained world.

The same phenomenon occurs when there is a brilliant play at a baseball game and the crowd rises as one. What is so moving is not just that all are swept up in the same excitement, but that each one senses that they are all swept away by it together. On such occasions, one feels extraordinarily in tune with all that is happening, a special graceful ease takes over, and events seem to unfold on their own—making the moment an unforgettable gift. Such practices can bring us in touch with a power that we cannot control and that calls forth and rewards our efforts—a power that we, therefore, recognize as sacred.

Much that gives life meaning is organized around such focal occasions. There are not only dinners and sporting events, but also celebrations such as weddings, graduations, and reunions, solemn commemorations such as memorials and funerals, as well as religious rituals such as Seder or the Eucharist. All these focal events depend for their success on the gift of a shared mood and the appreciation that it is shared. But to what extent can moods be experienced, communicated, and shared in Second Life?

Until recently, if philosophers thought about moods or feelings at all, they thought of them as inner mental states. On this view, often called “Cartesian” after the French philosopher René Descartes, people are not really in a mood but moods are in people. A person’s private feelings are expressed (made outer) by bodily movements, which can then be observed, interpreted, and responded to by another person through his or her movements.

Feelings in Second Life are currently communicated in the way Cartesians envisage the transmission of feelings in the real world. A resident sitting at her computer commands her avatar to signal a private feeling by means of a preprogrammed public gesture. The viewer then must interpret the gesture. If he succeeds in figuring out the feelings of the sender from her avatar’s gesture, he can then command his avatar to respond with an appropriate gesture. But this is highly unsatisfactory. Iris Ophelia, one of the residents of Second Life, while praising its attractions, complains: “This whole world has been created, with so much to see and do and experience, and yet there’s so little genuine emotion. The crying gesture is used as a joke 90% of the time. If you were really crying, how could you convey it in Second Life?”

In Second Life, you couldn’t. You must select an appropriate gesture and then command your avatar body to make that movement. But such stepping back and choosing a gesture would take us out of our immediate feelings and transform them into self-conscious activities—as if we were performing like an actor deciding which bodily expressions to use. In the real world our bodies spontaneously communicate our feelings.

Until recently, the direct pick-up of feelings and intentions was mysterious, but neuroscience has now cast light on the subject. Researchers have found brain cells that they appropriately call mirror-neurons. These neurons fire both when you make a meaningful movement and when you see another person make that movement. That suggests that whenever we see an action we are directly put into the brain state that causes such an action. So, if not inhibited, you would imitate an action upon seeing it. Yawning is a case where the inhibition seems to be missing: Seeing someone yawn directly makes you yawn. Moods, like yawning, are contagious, and such direct body-to-body sensitivity is impossible for an isolated computer user deliberately controlling his public avatar.

The current Cartesian model for expressing emotion in Second Life thus poses an insurmountable barrier to genuine communication. But Rosedale tells me that the programmers at Linden Lab are now working on just the sort of direct communication I would have thought impossible in Second Life. His programmers, he says, are developing software that, if you train a webcam on yourself, will enable the computer to pick up and use your head and upper-body movements to control the movements of your avatar directly. In this way, your avatar could directly manifest your spontaneous feelings.

Still, even if the camera captured your posture, style, speed, energy, and facial expression, it is an open question how much of that information could be manifested by your avatar. The avatar’s body, especially its face, would have to be sufficiently human-like to reproduce your subtle body movements. If that were possible, people at their computers, already in a mood although they didn’t know it, would smuggle their moods into their avatars’ reactions without realizing they were doing so, just as they now smuggle in distance-standing practices from real life. Like an atmosphere, such a mood would be beyond the control of any one person and would draw in each new participant’s avatar like a raindrop into a hurricane.

Given the current Cartesian model, however, the best one can do is direct one’s avatar to go through the motions of a wedding, a funeral, a sporting event, or a family dinner, but there is no possibility of a global atmosphere. Moods can be experienced only as private inner feelings communicated between isolated individuals by controlled body movements, just as Cartesian philosophers have held. There can be no contagion, no excitement of being swept up into a shared atmosphere, no self-contained world, and no sense that something important and gratifying is happening. So, as long as Second Life avatars operate within the Cartesian framework, a valuable, cross-cultural, ancient and modern way of making life worth living will inevitably be unattainable. If we want to live life at its best, we will have to embrace our embodied involvement in the risky, moody, real world.

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