Avatars in Second Life?

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También en español You can refer back to our last post talking about Krishnamurti as an example of two concepts of avatar as they played out in the life of one person. Initially, Krishna was publicly identified as an avatar representing a fixed system of belief, Theosophy. When he renounced this role that he had been thrust into, his willingness to sacrifice the false social foundation of his life to honor the truth he found in his own mind made him into an avatar of the living truth, the only thing humans can achieve or become avatars for.

he word avatar has a much more recent meaning in the universes of virtual reality (VR). There are a number of virtual realities in which vast numbers of people cooperate and compete, design and build, and interact with each other in all manner of visually simulated environments and actions. Best known is probably Second LifeWorld of WarcraftMinecraft, and others built on variations of theme and system architecture. Among these, the avatar concept is most fully developed in Second Life.

In Second Life (SL), you are called a resident. Your presence is represented by a visibly displayed 3-D figure, you as an avatar, at a location within the simulated world that is visible to all participants within visual range. Your avatar has a great many basic and inherited characteristics, as well as the ability to accommodate a virtually unlimited number of visible, functional, and interactive augmentations.

When you view a scene in SL, you see the shapes and surface textures of the avatars that are located within your view. When this data is combined with a representation of terrain, including elevation and vegetation, structures and oceans, a composite scene can be rendered that places three-dimensional images of the avatars in a three-dimensional terrain context.

SL avatars are most often humanoid in form, some in animal or human-animal hybrid forms. and are often equipped with alien, gender-variant, and species-variant erotic organs.

One of the virtues of the use of artificially constructed forms for the avatars is the ability to give the avatars any shape, articulation, and surface texture desired, as well as the ability to animate parts of the avatar body or face, given sufficient scripts and code. At all times the avatar is under the control of a human being through a viewer that connects to the SL servers and provides local interfaces and image generation. Your avatar can walk, run, and fly around, observing an entire simulated patch of earth.

As the resident of the avatar, you have complete control over everything it says and does. You can hear what other people say or communicate by text. You can see the world from the avatar’s viewpoint, or from any other accessible place. You can hear ambient sounds in the simulated environment. The avatar is an extension of your self into the virtual world. As such, the acts of the avatar in dealing with the virtual world and its inhabitants are your acts for which you are ethically, if not legally, accountable, to another avatar and its resident (who can be physically located anywhere in the world).

In the relationship of the SL avatar to its resident we find a metaphor for the relationship of the human avatar to living truth. An avatar in SL can have default behaviors which cause them to be in a state of motion appropriate to each situation, e.g., still when seated and in a constant “dance” when standing. This level of behavior is akin to motor and reflex functions of a human body. The avatar performs a great range of simulated actions under the direction of its resident. The human body similarly performs actions in Real Life (RL) under the direction of higher mind functions. This division of mind levels in humans and avatars is conceptually similar, though the actual human mind content is a universe  greater than the most elaborate of all present day avatars.

A major theme of Transhumanist thought is the future emergence of Artificial Intelligences (AIs) that can simulate human thought faster and more accurately than a biological human. Any part of one’s mind that could be accurately modeled in an AI could, in principle, be immortalized by simulation in an artificial substrate. If this can be done, there would be no problem in endowing an SL avatar with the same human mind function.

We have no idea how far this idea might be carried because the first necessary steps to move beyond mechanical mind to minimal cognitive functionality by a machine are not yet well understood in humans. In the meantime, experimentation with AIs in VR interfaces like SL seems likely to help identify “low hanging fruit,” such as augmenting apparent avatar autonomy, while retaining a control link to the mind of the resident. The definition and implementation of such an interface would itself be a major accomplishment.

Coming up: What would it be like to live inside the world of SL?


…and The Model is Not the Action (Sex is not Gender)

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The field of General Semantics introduces patterns of thought required for success in computer programming and related subjects, and I’ve been struck by how much its basic ideas of cleaning up human thought by insisting on principles like “the map is not the territory” correspond to real life and all language.

In the 1930s, when Korzybski began to popularize this thought, relatively few people were interested in this subject that had largely been the domain of professional philosophers. Today, this sentiment is so commonplace in many technological areas it is hardly worthy of note, yet the less informed non-technical community will fall into this way of thinking, and propagandists often use it to distort the behavior of their ignorant fellows.

Systems engineering, broadly defined as the application of systems science to the real world, is an approach to solving large problems by assembling smaller components to achieve a goal that is “more than the sum of its parts.” It is an informal way of analyzing situations and synthesizing solutions that emerged in the 1940s from work done on developing a nationwide telecommunications system. Systems engineering knows no recognized debt to General Semantics, although the name/thing dichotomy is fundamental to its epistemology. From the application of systems engineering principles, the use of the scientific method in the evaluation of complex systems, technologists are gaining more advanced understanding of the problems of accurately representing real world experience.

One of the major areas of computer usage today is simulation of complex systems to predict peformance and operating characteristics. A simulation describes a virtual activity as if it were occurring in reality. Thus, a simulation of a nuclear power plant is a bunch of data that describe, in physical terms, the state of every component of the plant. The simulation also determines how the physical state of each component will evolve in time. Thus, core temperature is a state of the core, a data item that represents the expected or known value of a real world quantity. Simulations estimate the state of the system at the next instance of time from all the data and relationships it possesses about the system—the change in core temperature is estimated from current data using credible rules of change. This collection of data and the rules for proceeding from one time step to the next is called a model of the system.

LEGO Model of Ancient Calculator

There are many kinds of models, such as a LEGO block model of a pyramid or an ancient astronomical calculator, that are easy to grasp as different from the function of the thing modeled. In each case materials and processes that may or may not relate to a real world product are used to convey a critical idea of the product, without representing (and thus becoming) the product itself. Put very directly, a model of a nuclear power plant will not light a lightbulb, although the thing that is being modeled can power a large city. The model will simply report that, under certain assumptions, the plant will provide an estimated amount of power. The real power plant is a complex assemblage of material that actually exists. The model power plant is a coarse approximation to some of the behavior of the real plant. It helps create understanding by eliminating excessive detail, but what if the information thought to be mere “detail” is, in reality, what makes the thing work the way it does?

If the model is correct for a wide range of conditions, we have a useful model, which yields a plausible estimate of results in “normal” situations, even though it may incorporate no understanding of the activity it purports to describe. And here lies the danger of loose thinking. Seeing the predictive power of the model, people easily come to believe it represents either the way the world actually works or, worse yet, how it should work. And for many areas of experience, like the matured elements of 20th century engineering disciplines (mechanical, electrical, aeronautical, nautical, automotive, etc.) this is entirely satisfactory for routine projects as long as no situation unanticipated in the model can arise to invalidate the model’s assumptions (like an undersea earthquake and the resulting tsunami).

But consider what emerges when the model is computational and it models another, more complex computation. In this case, since everything, real and virtual, is the product of an abstract computation, it is easy to confuse the model with reality. While no one believes that a LEGO model of a locomotive will inform the design of a device for rail transportation, almost everyone believes that a dichotomous model of sex and gender phenomena determines how human relationships are constructed in reality, although the most casual observation shows that real human relationships do not agree with this dichotomous model in any way, since they emerge from sex distinctions only through a very long and complex sequential development process. This elevation of an egotistical construction of the human mind, based on incompetent observation of reality, to the level that almost everyone in our society is forced to order their lives in accordance with this delusion, represents a temporary triumph of mass insanity over the truth and reality of all our personal experiences and observations.

Existing models of social categories fail the test of rationality for two reasons. First, they provide a small or dichotomous choice of labeled properties of the world as data. Second, they fail to recognize the fundamental multidimensionality of all living experience. Nowhere in all human thought and philosophy is this conceptual failure to understand the nature and role of models in science and technology more profound and more injurious to individuals and society than in the complete misapprehension of the nature of sex and gender that oppresses all human activities on this planet.

First consider the insane idea of the dichotomy of human biological sex. It has been noted that over 99% of all humans have either XX or XY sex chromosomes (but not both) in their somatic cells. This is a biological fact. If one then creates a model that says “all humans have either XX or XY sex chromosomes (but not both) in their somatic cells” that model is not correct. If one goes further to say “all persons with XY sex chromosomes have penises” and “all persons with XX sex chromosomes have clitorides” the model becomes much worse in its ignorance of a growing mass of variant sex presentations. When the ignorant and bigoted satraps of human society go even further to assert “all persons with XY sex chromosomes are men” and “all persons with XX sex chromosomes are women” the foolishness reaches a climax of stupidity. At this point it is correct to quote  the late Richard Feynman who would tell his students that their model, their idea, is “not even wrong,” that is, it incorporates so many incorrect assumptions as to have little relationship to the thing it purports to describe. But the foolish, irrelevant oversimplification has hardly begun and grows rapidly to serve the forces of oppression.

The failure of all human philosophy about sex and gender on the biological level is made worse by the failure to recognize the rich multidimensionalty of reality, compressing the common conceptual model even further to dichotomous models such as “men work best with men, women with women” or “men do not dress like women, nor women like men” or “men only share erotic play with women, and women with men.” Not only is the basic biology reduced to a false model, lacking a continuum of intermediate values, but also independent levels of genetic sex, sex expression, sexual orientation, social affinity, gender identity, and gender orientation are assumed to be all one thing, determined by genetic sex. An XY body has a penis and fucks XX bodies that don’t. The XY is socially attracted to other XYs and all of them think they are people who wear pants and fuck people who wear dresses, having no idea of the reality of gender.

And such people have largely succeeded in convincing everyone in the world that their blighted understanding, obviously silly at every turn, is the way the world should work and that anything that does not fit this asinine model should be suppressed.

The growth in application of rational methods of analysis and synthesis to understanding inadequately explored aspects of everyday life, driven by the great growth in general understanding of information and systems technology, at least among us geeks, is bringing for a new generation of thinkers, whose superior vision of the true realities of sex and gender freedom will displace permanently the foolish ideas of their pastfathers. Today’s state of social and economic injustice calls for more than mental exercise, it requires bold action to reverse these false hypotheses that create bad thinking and discriminatory laws.

A more complete discussion of the levels and dimensions of sex and gender expression is provided in my paper, I Am an Intersex Bisexual Transgender and So Are You.

—Dan Massey

The Name is not the Thing and…

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This is the story of the great change in the accepted understanding of human language that occurred in the last century and how it is forcing extensive public reevaluation of large bodies of “received wisdom.”

In less than one century a logical/linguistic misconception has become a hallmark of ignorance and illiteracy. It has so dominated popular thought as to give rise to so-called “Christian Fundamentalism” and numerous other literalist philosophies that greatly inhibit social progress. The second part of this story will explain another logical/linguistic misconception that continues to distort human understanding of the foundation of society, specifically the free expression of sex and gender.

Ignorant literalism led to the conflation of terminology with reality in public understanding of sex and gender throughout the last century, a problem that is now being corrected through death and technology. A complex literalism that insists human theories are more correct than observable facts, suppresses counter-evidence, and ignores the rich complexity of life in favor of simple categories and labels, continues to plague our society. However, the application of elements of the “scientific method” to address a wide range of non-technical issues is beginning the liberation of human thought from the simple man’s effort of trying to force the world to be something other than it actually is, again with specific reference to issues of sex and gender freedom and expression.

My first exposure to this dichotomy, the real world as opposed to the real world as described by random men, was when a classmate shared with me The World of Null-A by A. E. Van Vogt. At 13 or 14 years of age, I couldn’t quite understand the plot at the time, maybe because I could only sneak a chapter or two every afternoon during dramatics club rehearsals. Later I was to learn that most people had to stretch their imaginations a lot to make sense of a Van Vogt plot. At the top of every chapter, in italics, was a brief saying, such as “the map is not the territory” or “the word is not the thing defined” and it would be signed with an enigmatic “A.K.” Another classmate (we were all hooked) whispered “General Semantics” to me and I thought that sounded like something really neat, especially since this guy in the story, this Gilbert Gosseyn (that’s “go-sane”) has two brains and all kind of superpowers, especially including the ability to see and understand and react appropriately to whatever is going on. And, an S. I. Hayakawa essay was being taught in class at the same time, and he was a General Semanticist, whatever I thought that was.

Later, The Players of Null-A was published, giving me an even greater thrill of the rational mental powers unleashed by “non-Aristotelian” logical thinking. And, although it was clear that the novels were mid-century futurist fantasy stories, there was something that stirred my imagination and belief that the ideas were not just fantasy and might have some grounding in reality. Twenty years later, I decided to try to learn more about this and many other subjects in connection with my professional career developing computer architectures. I knew that “A.K.” was Alfred Korzybski, who had set forth a philosophy of rationality that he called General Semantics in his 1933 book Science and Sanity. Van Vogt was a believer in General Semantics and incorporated many of Korzybski’s ideas into the Null-A novels. But by that time (1970’s) something much more powerful was in motion.

One of the curious things about the rise of computer technology is that every fundamental and important thing for starting the revolution and interpreting its capabilities and limitations was already in place by the 1940s. In many ways, the developments since that time (before computers) have been in engineering technology to create increasingly better realizations of ideas that were well developed by metamathematicians like Alonzo Church and Alan Turing in the 1930s. Of course, each major generation in technology has brought greater capability, and increasingly powerful applications have abstracted and incorporated these capabilities to create increasingly useful tools for information manipulation; however, the fundamental process of computing conforms to the limits first understood by Turing and Church.

But beyond mere computing machinery and fundamental mathematical limits, we found the job of representing a task to a computer (programming) to require a kind of orderly thinking that leaked over and influenced the way we software designers think ourselves. We early learned to use “variables” or “handles” to allow us to identify and manipulate the data objects on which we wished the machine to operate. We understood that a name of a quantity can be assigned a meaning that has no relationship to the actual quantity or the literal letters of the name. We can use a name like “fuel” to allow us to designate a numeric quantity of liters. And we well know that the letter string “f-u-e-l” is not itself something you can run your car on. Although f-u-e-l identifies and allows us to manipulate such a number. The name is not the thing. Us geeks were first to use these concepts routinely in our work.

When I investigated General Semantics, I found amazing how many their basic ideas of cleaning up human thought by insisting on principles like “the map is not the territory” corresponded to patterns of thought required for success in computer programming and related subjects. In the 1930s, when Korsybski began to popularize this thought, relatively few people, except some professional philosophers, were interested in this subject, Today, this sentiment is so commonplace in many technological areas as to hardly be worthy of note, yet the less informed non-technical community, as well as insincerely motivated propagandists, will fall into this way of thinking or even use it to distort the behavior of their ignorant fellows.

Van Vogt captured from General Semantics and popularized the “cortico-thalamic pause.” Basically, this is the systematic consideration of every conscious reaction in the context of a stimulus. A very simple example suffices. If someone slaps your cheek, what do you do? Although you may instinctively react in some way, the goal of the c-t pause is to give you time to construct a superior, even optimal response. In short, life is not all about quick action/reaction, like a game of speed or agility. Rather, every reaction, no matter how quickly chosen, should be based on sound thinking about what has just happened. Van Vogt’s hero is always reacting in unexpected and superior ways to the actions of others, and, since this is science fiction and he has an extra brain, the mere act of c-t breaking always gives him enough shift of perspective to master the situation instantaneously (even when he has to teleport across the room or wake up in a different body—wow). Although we don’t have two brains, I have always found the c-t break to be rather wise advice and try to employ it when I can muster the patience and good sense to do so. In computer programming and debugging it can be very helpful in clearing the mind of incorrect binding of names as things. In managing one’s life it can be a life-saver.

Next we will examine how overly simplistic thinking and incorrect reasoning lead directly to sex and gender oppression.

—Dan Massey