Digital Selves

09 October 2010

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.



Comments (5)

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Saturday, October 9, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Inasmuch as I am not certain of your exact point i

Inasmuch as I am not certain of your exact point in discussing digital selves, or even in coining the phrase, I guess I'll have to wing it here. I do not think virtual reality tells us anything about belief, perception or emotion. Contrariwise, it seems more likely to alter those states, or to at best give us a skewed understanding of what they are (or once were.)
I am not anti-science, technology, or progress. In fact, as a proponent of those elements of human advancement, I welcome and support the betterment of the human condition. (See the comments of VanPelt and Neuman on Bodies for Sale) What irks me a little are tinkerers whose exploits may be self-serving---and I mean that in its most favorable light. I'll elaborate in a moment.
Avatar (the movie)was enormously entertaining and,to be sure, a visual and aural adventure. It was pure cinematic magic and a classic rendition (though that has become a dirty word in political context)of the old good versus evil drama. But it did not tell me anything about belief, perception or emotion that I did not already know. When I left the theater, I felt bad for the good guys who had expired, and good for those who survived. And the oppressors? Well, we seldom feel good for them unless we are they. The film makers were estimably self-serving in this production. Certainly, they wanted to please the viewers of the film---but they also expected to make money. And did, by all accounts.
And this is what tinkering does. Science wants to improve the lot of humanity. Scientists want to win that Nobel; make some money and prestige for their respective sponsors and earn some acclaim and tenure track credentials for themselves. Pretty much.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

My, my. Heisenberg's Eyes see a lot---don't they?

My, my. Heisenberg's Eyes see a lot---don't they? He lives in a more pragmatic world and believes that change ought to have some kind of significance, over and above personal or corporate gain (both words take in a wealth (chuckle) of meaning, don't they?) Of course they do. Historionically, we are gaining momentum and losing ground---we are all self-serving, on some level or another. The problem is, we just don't get the self-serving aspect of it, because it is what we have been taught: the golden rule---he who has the gold, makes the rules. As Wilber has said. "and just so"
Now, I have stopped reading Wilber. He ran out of ideas and became repetitious. Perhaps Mr. Chalmers will have something more to say about consciousness in his upcoming book. Or not. We shall see---I am in no hurry. No Nobel prizes to pursue, you see. But,you just never know.

Guest's picture


Monday, October 11, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I see me everywhere, everything, the infinite univ

I see me everywhere, everything, the infinite universe,
and call myself simply the truth.

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 14, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I caught the tail end of last night's show, I gott

I caught the tail end of last night's show, I gotta admit, the trolls do it for the lols!!!!!

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

The brief comments shown above are, certainly, bri

The brief comments shown above are, certainly, brief. Brevity, with intent, is certainly well-received and appreciated. Brevity without apparent meaning, is enigmatic, if not laughable. I am not the truth. I know little of trolls, other than their fictional existence. The two-word statement, show truth, in response to all which was written before, is somehow,unresponsive to anything. So, If I was not there, it didn't happen? The tree in the forest never made a sound when it fell? Oh, come now. Who do we think we are?
More-or-lessover, does anyone monitor or 'moderate' this blog? Just asking...