You and Your Avatars

July 7, 2011
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If you and I talk on our cell phones, we’re actually not speaking with each other, but with each other’s avatar. The real you is where your body is. The “you” that I experience is a digital representation of your voice. Through the conditioning of the modern age, we’ve come to associate these strings of numbers with ourselves and each other. But still, as U.C.

If you and I talk on our cell phones, we’re actually not speaking with each other, but with each other’s avatar. The real you is where your body is. The “you” that I experience is a digital representation of your voice. Through the conditioning of the modern age, we’ve come to associate these strings of numbers with ourselves and each other. But still, as U.C. Santa Barbara professor Jim Blascovich explained at a talk I attended, we increasingly deal with each other’s avatars. This trend is not going to slow down.

So it might make sense to put more thought into the avatars we create. After all, they’re going around the world representing us. For many people, they are us. In fact, it’s safe to say that most of the heavy lifting in our personal and professional relationships will be carried out through avatars, and that traditional person-to-person dealings will something of a boutique offering.

You could argue that the longstanding avatar in the professional world has been the resume. Each one is a representation of a person. The difference, though, is that if the resume does its job, the company calls in the flesh-and-bones for an interview. The resume represents people but does not stand in for them.

Now, though, our avatars are asserting themselves. Consider the most prominent ones many of us have: our profiles on social networks and dating sites. They represent the public (and semi public) faces of more than a billion people. Each one is optimized for branding. While the explicit message is “This is me” the truth, as in all of our dealings, is more complex: “This is what I want you to think of when you think about me.” Some of them, like the voice on a bad cell phone connection, barely resemble the person. But they’re out there interacting. As far as many people are concerned, those profiles are us.

What goes on with avatar is like theater, where one person represents a role and the other people–the audience–make use of the endlessly adaptive human brain to accept and experience it as “truth.” With cell phones, we do it unconsciously. But really, accepting that buzzing, crackling noise as a human voice requires patience and creativity on the part of the listener. (Try talking on a cell phone to your dog. My guess: she’ll run away from it.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about avatars, because I’ve been writing a book–a novel–in which they play a big role. I’ll write more about the book later.