“Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation,” by B. Coleman
By Alex Shakar,
In his recent cri de coeur, “You Are Not a Gadget,” technologist Jaron Lanier laments the course the World Wide Web has taken in its second decade. Far from the early visions of cyberspace and jacking into virtual worlds without end, he tells us, we’ve been given a flat world of information, an airless zoo where we find ourselves in the cages. We reduce ourselves to “multiple-choice identities” on social networks and give away our precious content for nothing, to be profited from by aggregators, advertisers and corporate conglomerates. The biggest losers online are artists, journalists, scientists and other creative thinkers, he writes, but to a lesser extent it’s all of us, except for the one-percenters at the top who profit from the Web’s “free” architecture. And, since it’s just plain dull out there on the Web, we’re getting the short end aesthetically as well.
In her new book, “Hello Avatar,” artist and media theorist B. Coleman looks at the same virtual terrain and sees, rather than impoverishment and imaginative constriction, increasing personal agency, and even fulfillment. First of all, she’d like us to get over the word “virtual,” coining the term “X-reality” (or cross-reality) to get at the way that our online experiences are actual and empowering. And we find this empowerment, she writes, thanks to our avatars.
By avatars, she doesn’t just mean those little graphical people we pilot in computer games. Our avatars are something larger than that: our Facebook and Twitter profiles, anything representing us that emotes, right down to that late-’80s avatar ancestor, the humble emoticon. Those little pictures may not look like much, but no matter, because “we are more interested in shared sensory experiences — the simulation of presence — than we are in high-fidelity visualization,” Coleman writes. Unlike when we watch TV or engage with other old media, she argues, the way we are present to one another online today should be seen not as passive but active — a new form of agency.
So does Facebook give us more power? If you’re of Lanier’s view and see it as a place “driven more by fear than love,” where users “must manage offhand remarks and track candid snapshots at parties as carefully as a politician,” you might on balance disagree with Coleman. Social media’s role in phenomena like the Arab spring would seem to bolster her position on empowerment; and the fact that 800 million people use Facebook would seem to back her belief that the value of “shared subjectivity” on such sites outweighs the occasional costs of “mutual objectification.” She does note a curious discrepancy, however, between studies: those that “inform us that Americans in particular are lonelier than ever, lacking human contact and the confidences of close friendships,” and those that report a growing richness and centrality of online friendships and affinity groups.
Faster than we realize the physical world is coming online. “Whether it is with RFID tags or another kind of sensor,” Coleman writes, “one finds information systems that, in real-time, track objects whose presence can be read by satellite, radio or scanner.” Media theorists use the term “social objects” for these in-building climatic sensors, GPS-equipped cars and phones, and an array of other trackable consumer products, and consider them part of a burgeoning “Internet of Things” that monitors energy use and geographic locations — the objects’ own and ours as well. And here lie more dystopian possibilities: “At what point do our ‘smart’ houses, cars, and appliances begin to report on our behavior?” she asks. “The risk lies in the prospect that as the thing becomes sensible, the human subject, as a subject of a network culture, becomes more thing-like.” She believes such fates can be mitigated if designers can make media technologies that are more transparent to us than we are to them.
This is an academic book, written for media theorists rather than lay readers, but IT professionals will appreciate Coleman’s hands-on approach, including interviews with new media designers and forays into various X-reality frontiers. She suits up into some high-fidelity avatars and tries on a virtual reality helmet before stepping off a virtual cliff.
She tries to combine simulations and communications into a single narrative — the story of agency, of our ever-more-assisted reach in the world. Which is tantamount, in her view, to the story of technological progress as a whole. Appropriately, she closes with a discussion of the movie “Avatar,” in which Jake Sully uses an alien body “as a figure of connectivity” to renew his engagement with his life and world, and in which for the blue Na’vi people “being connected is the nature of being itself.”
“As a fiction,” she writes, “ ‘Avatar’ promises that we can be our best selves in avatar form.” One might wonder whether our need for Facebook status isn’t the very opposite of shedding one’s skin in the Na’vi’s tree of life, and whether with more and more virtual bodies, personas and avatars to groom we’re only deepening our neurotic objectifications. Yet Coleman makes a reasoned case that our quest for actualization across realities is linked with our growing interconnection, and in this there is cause for hope.
HELLO AVATAR Rise of the Networked Generation By B. Coleman MIT. 194 pp. $29.95