Sunday, April 1, 2007

the challenges of disembodiment

i was recently interviewed by my UR colleague Ignatius Onomatopoea for his Second Life Blog "In A Strange Land" for the Richmond Times Dispatch, and though half the interview involved me falling into the ocean, stumbling around and sitting in Iggy's lap we exchanged some good conversation. i was experiencing all the accidental bumblings of someone just getting used to digital disembodiment. In RL, i practically never stumble around, fall into the ocean or sit in Iggy's lap!
(and i have to confess that i've been *so* engaged with my RL and my bio-embodiment, i haven't been spending the SL time necessary to evolve beyond my avatar's awkward adolesence)

So, once I settled on a spot that was at least within typing/talking distance, Iggy and I had an enjoyable conversation - my longest in SL so far, and ce
rtainly the most coherent. Iggy set me at ease by removing his head to reveal the blinding white putty-man head beneath. Fortunately for me, he softened the glare and the contrast by putting his shades back on.

Here's what he looked like before he removed his head:

The characteristic "air-typing" motions of SL avatars is an interesting aspect of communication here and I am wondering what changes will come when the Lindens offer voice capability. During the interview, our cadence of synchronously typed & read conversation was an odd one, often resulting in Iggy asking a question while I was typing an unrelated comment, making me appear inattentive. Because we have no established protocol (or maybe SL does? have to check...) for effective SL keyboarded conversation we haven't learned how to work out this awkard cadence.

Of course, all my considerations of conversational cadence evaporated when, to set me at ease, Iggy removed his head revealing the bright white generic 'putty-head' beneath. i had accidentally discovered earlier during my encounter with the trick party hat - Iggy was like a bleached-out member of the Blue Man Group!
Fortunately, he donned some shades that lessened the glare a bit, and
this made him a more appealing interviewer.
(note the ocean into which i fell behind us)

During our conversation, Iggy asks about the potential future of SL...what is it becoming, what can it become?
I was reminded of UCLA English professor N. Katharine Hayles whose August 2006 Critical Inquiry essay "Traumas of Code" suggests that computer code is quickly becoming analogous to the human
"code is the unconscious of language...
Since large programs - say, Microsoft Word- are written by many programmers, and portions of the code are recycled from one version to the next, no living person understands the programs in their totality. (italics mine)." (137)

The words we see on a computer screen, or in a digital document, are the result of a dense web of sub-codes that is beyond the comprehension of most capable computer users. And now that machines are writing the code, it is not only beyond our ken, it is no longer fully human expression. What might be the vast density of the SL unconscious?

I think what I appreciate most about Hayles' work is that she evokes a vision of the 'cyborg' that does not automatically denigrate, dismiss or replace the body but rather celebrates its primacy as a self-augmenting biological entity. Citing Nigel Thrift's perspective that "cognition as something that, far from being limited to the neo-cortex, occurs throughout the body and stretches beyond body boundaries into the environment." Hayles develops this idea by noting that this embodied cognition can be extended or 'augmented' (Englebart) by humans "enrolling objects into their extended cognitive systems"
(139), something we've been doing this ever since the inventions of fire and language. This view situates our bodies at the center of importance as our primary tools for knowledge - not our machines.

This is the more theoretical aspect of my choice of the animal avatar - guess you can tell i'm the "T-head" in this collaboration.
(that's "Theory head" wise guy!)

But, Iggy's chief concern about SL is in regard to our students who are increasingly interacting in digital spaces rather than face to face on Facebook, cell phones, email or other medium. Where will this lead us as a social species? Our observations are preliminary, but we both agree that students seem to lose some of their face-to-face (f2f) social skills and as a result find digital interaction more comfortable.

Of course, that could just be our mutually apocalyptic perspective - the fact remains that, outside of academics, the big draws of the college experience still involve altering brain chemistry and pursuing intimate physical contact with appealing partners - and many of our students haven't even heard of Second Life.


1 comment:

Ignatius Onomatopoeia said...

Now you need a gorilla suit.

It has changed my (second) life.