Monday, June 30, 2008

Exploring the (un)reality of virtual life: Part 1

SL is an empathy box. It sorts those who can treat others as real, as feeling beings, as autonomous people, from those who can only treat others as tools...[Second Life] does separate the few who stay from the many who don't. And one boundary between them, I believe, is empathy - is the ability to see this place and these people as real, at least as real as the physical world. From "The Empathy Box" by Sophrosyne Stenvaag
Despite my great fondness and respect for Sophrosyne, I found her recent "Empathy Box" post subtly disquieting. "What's up with that," I wondered for the better part of last week. Try as I might, I couldn't pin down what bothered me. By the weekend, I finally realized that I hadn't been reacting to any specific ideas she proposed, but rather to my own lack of understanding of what words like "reality" and "empathy" mean when they're used in reference to virtual life.

You'd have thought I'd learned my lesson about announcing a series of posts with no idea where they'll end up, but that's what I've decided to do again. Instead of taking a week in the privacy of my own server to journey through dead-ends, wrong turns and unexpected detours, I'm offering you the dubious honor and uncertain pleasure of traveling along with me as I attempt to gain some clarity on the (un)reality of virtual life.

For now, I'll leave us with an initial axiom to consider:

An avatar's personhood exists solely in the underlying sentient being.

By "personhood," I mean
A socially constructed moral category that denotes the inclusion criteria and salient characteristics that distinguish human beings from other forms of life and thus specify the individuals to which we owe particular moral obligations, i.e., those obligations we have to others due to their status as persons. (from Healthcare Ethics)
Let's see where this takes us.


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A beautiful thought experiment personified through the imagined perspective of a self-aware avatar. My creator's site can is at