One of the striking aspects of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to me was the inter-relationship of Hiro Protagonist with his avatar in the Metaverse. When Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash in 1992, the concept of virtual realities, avatars and alternate identities were simply science fiction. Concepts related to identity and even sentience of alternative beings was portrayed only in science fiction novels and in media shows such as Star Trek. In The Next Generation’s episode of The Measure of a Man Data’s character was on trial to determine if he was a sentient being, if not then he was property of Starfleet and could be dismantled. How is this significantly different from the perceived separate identity of Hiro’s avatar in the Metaverse? The identity and actions of this avatar were unique to that character. In The Measure of a Man, the criterion for sentience is “intelligence and self-awareness”. Granted, the avatar was an aspect of Hiro’s identity, but it functioned as a separate identity within the Metaverse. Who then is to say that it was not its own sentient being?
I realize that the argument is at best specious, but the concept of identity within virtual worlds is already one that is already being examined. Identity within a virtual world such as Second Life; along with the legal and ethical implications associated with that identity, has been, and currently are, under consideration. Currently, there is no legislation regarding “rights” of individuals being portrayed via an avatar (Graber & Graber, 2010). Within their argument, Graber & Graber (2010) indicate that possession of a physical body is not a necessary condition for rights; and that rights are extended to the representations of a person to which no biological consciousness is attached. Their argument, similar to the argument made when determining Data’s sentience, is that avatars meet all the conditions for protection of rights currently made to those of a biological body. Conversely there have been legal challenges and convictions related to theft of virtual property. The perpetrators were prosecuted as if the theft was of actual property, not of pixels in a virtual world.
When considering an avatar, what is it truly? In actuality it is a grouping of pixels in a defined environment using code to formulate the image. Those pixels however represent a person’s identity within the virtual environment. It is a graphical representation that allows the user to interact with other graphical representations in a defined space. That representation allows for a user to obtain a personal experience and perspective of the world and their identity. In effect, the utilization of an avatar allows for an individual to interact in a world that functions as real, and allows for experiences that both mimic and transcend the corporal world. Individuals attach personality, emotions, and values that can represent actuality, but frequently provide for an altered representation of self.
The fact is that an avatar is an extension of one’s personality, it therefore can and does change the definition of self. The user views the avatar as themselves and thus seeks the same rights currently afforded them. The definition of “identity” is currently changing and under debate. What role does the environment in which an interaction occur impact the definition? Identity is shaped by others with whom we interact. Additionally, though parts of identity are controlled by an individual, a significant part of identity is created within the world in which the individual functions. There are layers to each person that are shaped by the interactions of others and the reality in which they live. Each person has a separate identity based upon their roles. The roles defined by the terms of spouse, family, employee, friend etc extend to virtual worlds. How then can the avatar identity not be considered as a separate entity? Currently virtual worlds and the identities created within them are defined by the boundaries of the games or software that create them. As those boundaries expand, how then does the definition of identity change and expand in response to these changes? There are a multitude of questions with few answers. As virtual worlds extend further and further into the corporal reality, finding these answers will take precedence.
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