avatars and cyborg friendship

:

Cynthia A. Davidson, Stony Brook University 2013

Donald E. Jones speaks of gaming and virtual world avatars as “the fantasy of the ultimate display.”

He identifies two kinds of avatars: normative….

And fantastic.

“Normative,” meet “fantastic.”

What is an avatar?
…[in computing] the graphical representation of the user or the user's alter ego or character. It may take either a three-dimensional form, as in games or virtual worlds, or a two-dimensional form as an icon in Internet forums and other online communities. It can also refer to a text construct found on early systems such a MUDs. (“Avatar,” Wikipedia)

Avatar defined*



the incarnation of a Hindu deity (as Vishnu) an incarnation in human form an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a person a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user (as in a computer game)
*Merriam-Webster’s Free Dictionary

Do the Gods Go Postal?
Avatars are often described as sent forth from God as his incarnations on Earth to do his bidding.  In a sense, avatars in the religious sense are messengers, but they are also living embodiments of the message of God. The word made flesh, if you will.

Some things can’t be sent…

Why “flames” don’t die easily….

Remember these cute little creatures?

Internet trolls thrive behind screens….emerging through text.

An named troll loses his power.

Monsters are unsendable and unnamed text, according to Derrida. Yet they show up.
Do monsters demand the right to laugh, to sing, and to weep, but also the right of victims? Jacques Derrida The Post Card

The nameless surprise
A monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name, which does not mean that the species is abnormal, namely the composition or hybridization of already known species. Simply, it shows itself [elle se montre]--that is what the word monster means--it shows itself in something that is not yet shown and that therefore looks like a hallucination, it strikes the eye, it frightens precisely because no anticipation had prepared one to identify this figure.

Derrida, Points, “Passages, From Traumatism to Promise”

So, what is a cyborg?


is a hybrid, body- machine a connection-making entity a figure of interrelationality and global communication that deliberately blurs categorical distinctions (human / machine, nature / culture, male / female, Oedipal / nonOedipal) emphasizing a network of differences and political accounts of constructed embodiments (Christian Hubert). Donna Haraway has defined cyborg subjectivity as requiring a commitment “to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity” (“A Cyborg Manifesto”)

Although real embodiments of the cyborg character certainly exist, theorists like Haraway and Hayles situate the cyborg as a subject position. Furthermore, as writers like Sherry Turkle and Sandy Stone acknowledge, human-machine interactions that articulate new subject positions based on human dependence on the machine interface, qualify as cyborg relations. These writers concentrate in particular on the possibilities of alternative identities on the Internet. Without the surgeries required for physical prostheses, the screen can act as a kind of prosthesis through which race, gender, age, and shape are rendered invisible (Turkle, 1995). Jessica Santone, “Cyborg”

Thinking theoretically….
If monsters are what cannot be sent and avatars are what is sent forth, what then is a cyborg? It is intuitive to think that maybe the cyborg can mediate between the two somehow, but the road to mediation is a complex and rocky one due to our anxieties about technology and the deposing of the body.

Internet trolls are one type of CYBORG…

And they operate on a principle of constantly emerging through technology. When recognized for what they are, they sink back into the shadows and change (their name, their approach, their appearance…) or they lose their influence. Hence, they are also MONSTERS (re: Derrida).

Elle se montre: the cyborg as monster in popular culture

a show of horror…exponential surprise…

Until the human is erased…

Or buried and unrecognized under the unfamiliar…

thief of human identity…

Or raw, exposed, and degraded….

Or strong, helpful, and sexy….(what)? Fantasy of ultimate display.

the power of naming…
Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman NAMED the cyborg….wrapped it in humanity…made it friendly, even lovable.  “Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: 'Here are our monsters,' without immediately turning the monsters into pets.” (Derrida, “The States of Theory”)

This popular cyborg superhero has a story…and a name (Victor Stone)

Haraway’s integrated circuitry made the everyday cyborg heroic.

Everyday cyborgs…

The familiar domestic cyborgs…

The happy cyborg…at peace?

Politicians became cyborgs…

Eye Tanya (Tanya Vlach): heroic everyday cyborg rewriting her own circuitry.
A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent a need to replace loss anymore. It can be seen as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is they want to create in that space so people that society once considered to be disabled can now becomes the architects of their own identities… Aimee Mullins

Is the Doctor a cyborg?

“Bodies are boring….”

Promotional image BBC

Who is…….?

These faces can be seen…sent…like

post cards….across space and time

Warning!

A scar in the fabric of time…

That which cannot be sent…

Cyborg (via many avatars)
Utterly tied to his technology, the Doctor’s endless regenerations are projections of humanity that he does not possess, housing oddities such as two hearts.(And in the episode where his Tardis assumed human form, his machine that houses his timetraveling body projected a body of its own. In all cases, the machine RECEDES for better projection of the human form.) The “real” doctor is a scar of energy (and memory) in time, neither flesh nor technology alone, but facilitated by both.

In other words…  The technology becomes less visible, more transparent.  The Doctor is user-friendly.  In fact, he needs friends (companions) to survive.  His bodies are his avatars, his “ultimate display fantasy” that he uses to make friends and social connections.

After his death
He is “buried” in the “machine”…  “You were expecting a body? Bodies are boring. I’ve had dozens of them.”  Calls it “the tracks of my tears” (with irony, perversity as befits a cyborg, and it is only a partial truth)  The agent (avatar) of Great Intelligence calls his life force “an open wound….that can be entered.”

The promise of a name
Inside the scar, a story unfolds Saving the friend who makes “The Doctor” possible  “The one who broke the promise” appears (elle se montre) with no revealed name  As soon as he speaks, he is identified in the show credits as “The Doctor”, and is no longer a monster, but another avatar (incarnation).  The actor who plays this newly named incarnation is named “Hurt” in real life.
 

Cyborg Friendship
We are all monsters online, constantly emerging through text, mediated by the screens of computer technology.  We build names online through which we make promises of who we are there.  We forge friendships through those promises.  Sometimes we have more than one name and more than a single set of promises.

What is a virtual world?

The computer accesses a computer-simulated world and presents perceptual stimuli to the user, who in turn can manipulate elements of the modeled world and thus experience a degree of telepresence. Such modeled worlds and their rules may draw from the reality or fantasy worlds. Example rules are gravity, topography, locomotion, real-time actions, and communication. Communication between users can range from text, graphical icons, visual gesture, sound, and rarely, forms using touch, voice command, and balance senses.
“Virtual World” (Wikipedia)

What are the purposes of virtual worlds?

MMORPGs are usually highly competitive games. Open worlds, such as Second Life or Blue Mars, also focus on environment creation, scripting, and other forms of art, as well as providing venues for social activism and distance learning. But most of these activities lend themselves to two goals…

Avatar Development…

…and Social Connections

Better projections, better connections

…are two major goals of virtual reality for those who play there. But the discrepancies between the projections and the realities can cause anxiety.

Trust and Betrayal
The Doctor tells his companions,  “You can trust me.”  But they don’t even know his name….  Or do they? They know the name that he has chosen.  They don’t know the name that he was given (at least not yet).  What (who?) are they trusting?

Cyborg social connection is built between emergent selves…

Facilitated by projections of fantasy  Mediated by technology  Trust is built around the named projections  Betrayal is a constant source of anxiety as the self is always emerging anew  Complicated by “alts” or alternative personas (represented by various avatars) with names of their own

The Twelfth Doctor=His Alt?

In one sense, the Doctor has been used here as a parable for online identity and vice versa. But it is “the Twelfth Doctor” who represents an online identity that is quite divorced from its “main” identity. The Twelfth Doctor represents the wildness of an online identity divorced from consequences…at least, until it is discovered. And named.

In this scar of the Self or “tracks of my tears” is found the emergent self or “monster” that must be integrated or destroyed. Since it has been named as part of the Self, chances are pretty good it will be integrated. (But stay tuned.)

A reality parable

Last year, my presentation at this conference included a story about the reallife passing of an online friend and the virtual memorial service we held for him in World of Warcraft. When I presented this, I thought he was actually dead. 40 players met online and marched for over three hours to a harbor in the game, where we shared memories and lit virtual fireworks in his honor.

It was very special. My guildmate, Micheala, took hundreds of screenshots. She does beautiful work. Here is one.

Here is the final shot.

Later we found out that he hadn’t actually died…

The person we mourned told some of us about his real life: his name, his physical disabilities and personal tragedies, his hatred of his own imperfect body, his emotional ups and downs, and even sent his close online friends a few photos. There were promises of real-life meetings. We were a family.  When he turned out to be alive, some were happy and some were not.

I would like to say the story had a happy ending, and we all learned to love each other for all our selves as they really were. But the person who “died” left again (moved to a different server). This time, no one mourned his leaving.

The funny thing is…
I did not regret the experience that I had during the virtual memorial, even though it was based on a death that never occurred, at least physically. When we walked for him, we were heroes mourning a fallen hero. Paladins spread their fiery wings and wept. Gnome warriors shouted his name (in text chat). It felt real.

It’s something that would not have happened if we hadn’t known so much about his sad and tormented real self. He had let us enter into the Scar and get a glimpse of the Self.

Perhaps he feigned death because he wanted to give us a better story. But he came back, even if it were only to leave again, in a less dramatic manner.

Conclusions
In cyborg friendship, the terror of technological power and possibility of the deposing of the body becomes reframed as an issue of trust and betrayal, mediated by idealized projections (of humanity or a related fantasy self).  The Self is the scar we leave in time through which we are constantly emerging, surprising others, not always in a good way (sometimes in a good way).

Sometimes the projections are dystopian rather than utopian, as we embrace the monstrous in ourselves. But the “real” monster is that which emerges unannounced and has no name.  We play with identity online to reconfigure our age-old grappling with the complexity of the Self, and to connect with others.

Thank you all for making this possible.

A full list of Works Cited and Remixed available at

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