How does the internet and the use of virtual avatars as vectors of selfhood affect how others see us and how we see the world?

A necessary prior to any meaningful discussion of arcane concepts is their precise definition. A polysemous handle such as “identity” means different things to different people, and major problems can arise if a reader interprets the essay to defend one conception when it intends to defend another. Because the author of this essay remains deeply confused about the nature of the self, he will define “identity” in two complementary ways which seem representative of folk beliefs about the self.

The first view of identity is called psychological continuity (Parfit 1986). This is a belief about the subjective experience of consciousness moments, henceforth called “qualia”. Something is a qualitatively unique person if it has direct access to only its qualia, and its personhood endures over time if there is an identifiable connection between past and present qualia. Thus, two people looking at the same object experience perceptions that are unique to them—I see it, and you do, too, but my perception is unique from yours. Also, one body remains the same person over time if and only if it maintains a strong psychological connection to its past qualia, to its memories. Thus, an amnesiac who remembers nothing of their past is in some meaningful not the same person they were before the amnesia-inducing event. This is how one defines one’s own self.

The second view of identity is called the looking-glass or dramaturgical self (Goffman 1984). This is a sociological concept which refers to the way other people see us and how we model ourselves in response to others’ perceptions. Though I am one single person in the psychological sense described above, the looking-glass self is one self to one person, and another self to another person, depending on how they see us. To the members of a philosophy club, Benjamin is a metaphysician and a sceptic; to his family at home he is a comedian. One numerically identical person having qualitatively enduring experiences is viewed by other people to be the same person numerically (for there is only one body that is Benjamin) but a different person qualitatively (because he is alternately experienced now as the sceptic now as the comic). This is how we define another’s self.

In discussing the impact of technology on identity, then, we will ask the following questions:

How has our qualitative experience of the world changed? For example, does time move faster when we use technology? Is technology a psychological burden?

  1. How has our experience of the temporal nature of our self changed? For example, do we value the future less than the present? Do we feel that our self changes faster or slower than it did before our relationship with tech?
  2. How has our experience of the temporal nature of the self changed? For example, do we value the future less than the present? Do we feel that our self changes faster or slower than it did before our relationship with tech?
  3. How has others’ experience of ourselves changed? For example, do people think we behave differently online and offline?

These questions will be answered sequentially.

Our mental experience of time is subjective and can be mediated by context and by our interaction with various media. Time perception is prone to distortion and illusion. Our own experience tells us that pleasant experiences can make time pass fast, negative experiences to make it pass real slowly. A state of total absorption in an activity, known as “flow”, can make time seem non-existent (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). These observations complement the recent finding the animals’ perception of time is linked to their pace of life’ (Healy et al. 2013). The pace of life on the internet is measured in milliseconds, or the time it takes for a page to load. The virtue of patience is valued in proportion to the speed of our internet connection. In answer to the question, How has the internet changed the way you think? Academics from physicist Max Tegmark to psychologist Shelley Turkle to neuroscientist and ethologist Robert Sapolsky have commented on its potency as a distraction (Edge 2010). The correlation between incidence of ADHD and technology use is small but existent, although it is possible to wonder whether technology causes ADHD or whether technology attracts those already diagnosed (Schmidt and Vandewater 2008). The addictive potential of technology is well documented. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) affects between 1-8% of the American-European population (Cash et al. 2012) and is implicated in depression and anxiety disorders (Akin and Iskender 2011). China and South Korea have identified IAD as a significant public health threat (Block 2008). The advent of the digital technology of the internet appears to have changed our qualitative experience of time—it appears to move faster, and the offline world to move slower—and it is a potentially significant mental health burden for a statistically notable subset of the population.

Social media and video games allow people to create “second selves” in the form of virtual avatars. Interesting conceptual and normative questions arise concerning the degree to which avatars represent those who create them, if virtual identities can be punished, if the diffusion of psychological continuity among multiple selves is the effective destruction of the original, enduring self, and if avatars should be given rights normally given to physical bodies only. An avatar is either an extension of the self or a self in its own right. In either case, it is arguable that avatars deserve rights (Graber and Graber 2010). But the question of how to enforce the negative right to freedom from harm when, say, an avatar on Second Life has no first-person experience of pain is a serious problem. Despite this, avatars are treated as extensions of their offline counterparts: a Dutch teenager has been arrested for virtual theft (BBC News 2007), Belgian police patrol virtual streets to prevent digital rape (Weber 2007), and South Korean police receive reports of virtual criminal activity in excess of 20,000 times a year (BBC News 2003). Though there are strong intuitive reasons to believe that an avatar is an extension of my psychological self but is not a self as such, in actuality virtual and biological selves are increasingly being subjected to identical judicial treatment.

Viewed through the perspective of the looking-glass, the treatment of virtual people as normal people might have us believe that they are in fact identical. But we know this to be false. Avatars behave and are treated differently than their biological counterparts. Ordinary language sentences such as “I am in a chat-room” situates our self in two places at once and leads to what Hans Geser (2007) calls “distributed person hood”. Our self is segmented into separate personalities each of which acts in unique contexts among particular types of individual. One study of “tweenagers’” avatar use concluded that hybrid and specialised selfhood can result in disappointment and depression when real identities are discovered, in the abandonment of the development of the biological self and the hypertrophy of idealised but unrealisable virtual selves which, when it is made obvious that they are not actually the “real” self, can lead to paradoxical depressions where the person discovers their real self, and so on (Kafai, Fields and Cook 2010). Viewing ourselves through the eyes of others, and through the eyes of our other selves, can be bad for mental health.

Digital technology and virtual reality have not changed our experience of the world in any fundamental way. People still thieve, attack and malign others, have trouble forming coherent identities and with accepting their worldly selves, with managing their time effectively, and with staving off addiction. Digital technologies seem only to have increased the number of means by which people can continue being people. Novelties such as patrolling virtual playgrounds for virtual criminals and the safekeeping from these criminals of virtual goods do no more than add another, albeit an interesting, “dimension” to the varieties of human experience.

References

 Akin, A. and Iskender, M. 2011. ‘Internet Addiction and Depression, Anxiety and Stress’. International Online Journal of Educational Sciences. Vol. 3 (1): 138-148.

BBC News. 2003. ‘Does Virtual crime need real justice?’ BBC News. URL: < http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3138456.stm>.

BBC News. 2007. ‘Virtual theft leads to arrest’. BBC News. URL: < http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7094764.stm>.

Block, J.J. 2008. ‘Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction’. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 165 (3): 306-307.

Cash, et al. 2012. ‘Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice’. Current Psychiatry Reviews. Vol. 8 (4): 292-298.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Edge. 2010. URL: < http://edge.org/responses/how-is-the-internet-changing-the-way-you-think>.

Geser, H. 2007. ‘Me, my self, and my avatar: some microsociological reflections on Second Life’. In: Towards Cybersociety and Virtual Social Relations. Zurich: Sociology in Switzerland. URL: < http://socio.ch/intcom/t_hgeser17.htm#2.5>.

Goffman, E. 1984. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Pelican Press.

 Graber, M.A. and Graber, A.D. 2010. ‘Get your paws off my pixels: personal identity and avatars as self’. Journal of Medical Internet Research. Vol. 12 (3): e28.

 Healy, et al. 2013. ‘Metabolic rate and body size are linked with perception of temporal information’. Animal Behaviour. Vol. 86 (4): 685-696.

Kafai, Y.B., Fields, D.A., and Cook, M.S. 2010. ‘Your Second Selves: Player-Designed Avatars’. Games and Culture. Vol. 5 (1): 23-42.

Parfit, D. 1986. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, M.E. and Vandewater, E.A. 2008. ‘Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement’. Children and Electronic Media. Vol. 18 (1): 63-85.

Weber, A. 2007. ‘Belgian police patrols Second Life to prevent rape’.  Second Life Insider. URL: < http://www.m.secondlifeinsider.com/2007/04/21/belgian-police-patrols-second-life-to-prevent-rape/>.

 

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1.      How has our experience of the temporal nature of our self changed? For example, do we value the future less than the present? Do we feel that our self changes faster or slower than it did before our relationship with tech?

2.      How has others’ experience of ourselves changed? For example, do people think we behave differently online and offline?

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