Posted by Joseph Peart

"U R dumpt"

Remember when we first heard that this was one of the most common messages among teenage texts? 

Analysts, commentators and futurists now call this process the ‘techno brush-off’.  It’s so much easier to carry out unpleasant personal tasks remotely, as result of the temporal and spatial separation that cyberspace allows.  At the same time, connectivity enables us to increase our social circle and socialise more easily and frequently.  There are already 500 million mobile broadband users worldwide.

One of the constant questions posed by behaviourists, net-watchers and pollsters is whether we will direct technology, or whether we will let ourselves be directed by it and its overlords.  For instance, I’m sure you also read about CDA (cellphone deprivation anxiety) long before the latest Telegraph story was republished in the Herald (April 21, 2011). A sample of 1000 teenagers confirmed their addiction by reporting symptoms from anxious to panicked and paranoid after 24 hours without their mobiles.  Some couldn’t even last the length of the experiment.

Douglas Rushkoff has themed a new book around this question and titled it Program or be programmed. (2010). OR Books

“Choose the former,” writes Rushkoff according to his publisher, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

That is, of course, overstating it, because there are laggards, resisters and luddites who can remain beyond the influence of digital socialising software.  And there are many others who understand social media well enough to manage their relationships on the net without Unix or Linux.

What Rushkoff appears to be warning us is that gaming sites such as Disney’s Club Penguin mean that children are developing social skills within virtual worlds along with ‘real’ relationships with flesh and blood friends and relations.  Perhaps they won’t be able to tell the difference.  But it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. The Futurist (March-April, 2011) reminds us that the Internet can also strengthen traditional family ties.  In Norway, for example, ‘one study showed that college students were in touch with their parents on average 10 times a week’, via Skype, texting, Facebook etc.

The question that remains is how well people will be able to continue to distinguish between the virtual and the real.

In the same article Arnold Brown tells us that advances in brain research cast light on the nature of virtual relationships.  Brown notes that neural devices allow people to control wheelchairs and televisions and he accepts the Hollywood extension of that science that avatars may soon be controlled that way.

On the next page, an article by William Sims Bainbridge describes Elf huntress, Caylee Dak, who will bless any member of the Alliance in World of Warcraft who brings her a poem beginning: ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there…’

Bainbridge tells us that Caylee Dak is an active memorial for a player named Dak Krause, who died of leukaemia in 2007, dressed exactly as she was when she served as his avatar in this virtual world.  Caylee still exists, giving Krause a kind of life after death.

If that sounds weird, Bainbridge goes on to tell us that he himself had 22 World of Warcraft characters, and invested more that 700 hours of his own life in each of two of them.

He notes that their degree of artificial intelligence is low by not negligible, because they can learn which of their enemies are doing them the most damage and respond accordingly.  He draws a parallel with our everyday use of ‘information technology agents’ such as the answering machine, which speaks with your voice and records a message left by the caller.  There are also those ghastly voice recognition systems that try to direct your call according to key words that you speak when it invites you to do so.

In his penultimate paragraph, Bainbridge suggests that avatars, agents and other technology-based expressions of ourselves increase the possibility that we can all have some kind of life after death.  He quotes Buckminster Fuller’s observation, ‘I seem to be a verb.’

Based on his 22 avatars and the continuing existence of Caylee Dak, Bainbridge offers us his own conclusion: ‘I am a plural verb, in future tense.’