A digital self isn’t really a person made out of numbers or fingers. It’s a computerized representation of a person. It can be a “VRS”---a virtual representation of yourself. Or a VRO --- a virtual representation of another person.
So, important distinction: we've got me, the real person. And then there are representations of me: My name in the paper, my image in a mirror, the picture of me on our website, even my idea of myself in my own head, and your idea of me.
Quite apart from the digital revolutions, we all encounter many other kinds of representations of ourselves. I see my name in the phonebook, or in the Stanford catalog. I hear myself talking when I listen to Philosophy Talk on my ipod. I can see myself, or a representation, when I watch a video of my grandchild’s last birthday party. I can see an image of myself in the mirror. And in all those ways, I can also have representations of others. So now what’s special about digital representations?
For one thing, given today’s technology, they can be very lifelike. If you go into Jeremy Bailenson’s virtual reality lab at Stanford, and put on some goggles, you can meet people that look and talk pretty much like real people, although they are actually just digital representations.
Another important categories of digital representations are avatars. An avatar is a representations of a real person that appears in games like “Second Life” or interacts with other avatars.
All these digital representations have something in common. They can be programmed to behave in what seems like an autonomous way, unlike a photo, or a video recording, much less like a piece of language like my name in a book. I can set up my avatar to be less responsible than I am, to live a wilder virtual life than I do in real life.
So what’s philosophical about all of virtual reality and virtual selves?
First, there is what virtual reality can tell us about belief, perception, and emotion. When you enter a virtual world voluntarily, like Bailenson’s lab, you know you’re in a plain old room, without a bottomless pit to fall into, snakes to attack you, or other people to bump into. But when you meet virtual representations, these beliefs about the real world don’t block your emotional and physical reactions to the virtual world. You’re scared of stepping into the bottomless pit in the virtual room. Even though you feel the solid floor beneath your feet.
Second, it seems to hold the promise of making philosophical thought experiments come true. How do I know whether I’m Ken Taylor at the Marsh, or Ken Taylor with goggles --- maybe goggles so small I can’t feel them --- in a virtual Marsh? Descartes would love it. We could prove the existence of a virtual God ---- or at least a beneficent webmaster.
Finally, the nagging question from philosophy and science fiction: How much does reality matter? If all our experiences can be manufactured virtually, is reality that important?
On today’s program, we have the very man whose lab I mentioned, Jeremy Bailenson, Director of the Human Virtual Interaction Lab at Stanford, to help us think through some of these issues.