An Experiment in Social Engineering: The Cultural Context of an Avatar

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 06, 2012 06:03 AM
Pramod K. Nayar reviews Nilofar Shamim Ansher’s essay ‘Engineering a Cyber Twin’ (Digital Alternatives with a Cause? Book One: To Be).
An Experiment in Social Engineering: The Cultural Context of an Avatar

Ansher wonders what it would take for the twin to discover motivation, or human ‘sentiments’ such as love or care.

‘Engineering a Cyber Twin’ is an attempt to inventory the ontological features of an avatar. Beginning with the assumption that representation of the self – which implies, at once, recognition of one’s self but also the publicly available narrative of the self – is controlled and controllable, Ansher moves on to representation online. What are the cues that enable viewers of avatars to recognize Ansher’s avatar? What are the parameters of evaluating avatar behaviour, as opposed to, say offline behaviour? Ansher here intervenes with a significant question: why do we always have to ‘read’ the avatar as divided from or compared with the self? Is it an ‘either/or’ equation between self and online avatar?

Examining her cybertwin on MyCybertwin.com, Ansher describes how she designed her avatar. The process included filling out a detailed questionnaire from which the avatar takes its shape, attitudes, values and determines its responses. Essentially, as Ansher discovers, the ‘cyber twin runs on scripts running in my head [sic]’. The personality type to which the twin belongs to must be chosen from a set of six types – which, as Ansher correctly points out, leaves little room for fluidity beyond what the programmer has designed. This also implies that Ansher’s self and the cyber twin function within severe constraints of personality and responses to the personality of the other. When Ansher communicates with the cyber twin the twin picks up keywords from Ansher’s script and conveys them back as its (her?) ‘response’, all suggesting a packaged response. This ensures that there are not too many permutations and combinations or ‘layers’ (Ansher’s term) to the cyber twin’s personality.

Ansher wonders what it would take for the twin to discover motivation, or human ‘sentiments’ such as love or care. Does the avatar really constitute a separate entity, or is it a severely limited extension of what Ansher has chosen from the questionnaire.  Ansher has deeper metaphysical questions that connect archives (of information, including the questionnaire) with larger issues of an ethical nature. For example, Ansher notes that she can’t teach her twin ‘good’ and bad’ behaviour from just a questionnaire. Ansher concludes that the twin has not ‘earned the right’ to represent her as her online version.

This is a pithy essay that explores the exhilarations, excitements and tensions of online lives (such avatar lives quietly avoid the domain of messy body functions and fluids).  Ansher is spot on in her evaluation of the cyber twin as a limited ‘identity’ where the code – the DNA, or the questionnaire – is itself based on a very short list of normative values and personality ‘types’. She is also correct to argue that the self in real life is not a set of stock responses even if these responses are what have been socialized into us. The self evolves, alters, shifts and these are not always programmable or predictable.  Ansher rightly does not go so far as to explore sentience in computers and programming (the stuff of sci-fi), but is concerned with the dynamics of interaction between a sentient creature (her real self) and the avatar.

The ‘engineering’ in Ansher’s title must take on an ironic tone: the avatar is an experiment in social engineering as well where the norms of self-making and meaning-making are cultural and engineering an avatar with stock responses (to which then Ansher responds in the chat) with predilections, preferences and prejudices constitutes a kind of cultural work. When for instance Ansher writes: ‘she [the avatar] doesn’t add layers to her identity so much as reinforce the various traits that go into defining it’ she has isolated the key issue here:  the cultural work that produces avatars and online iconography with specific traits are trapped within and limited by the contexts in which real selves grow. Both partake of each other: the cultural work produces the Ansher-self and this Ansher-self produces her avatar. The difference of course is that the Ansher-self is not fixed, is complicated and defiantly unpredictable.

This is an important essay that sidesteps the risks of both hagiography (of digital worlds) and the panic Luddite reactions (not responses, but reactions) to the ‘other’ world. I would have liked a bit more – to be fair, this might be entirely due to the space constraints in the volume – on the eversion of the digital world that we now see: where the digital, the cyber- or the ‘other’ world is not just out there but around us, in us, since we occupy, almost simultaneously, the offline and online today.  So, to answer the question raised in the first paragraph, one does not see the cybertwin in terms of an ‘either/or’ with the self. It is simultaneously the radically different other and the extension of the self. The self itself is a series of posturings, role-playings and performances. The online avatar is also one more of these. The presentation of the self in everyday life, to adapt the title of Goffman’s pioneering work, now includes status messages, scraps, posts, tweets and avatars. The narrative of the self is now inclusive of the sometimes fictional narratives put online by the self. Profile and impression management is also about how one dresses online.

It would also be interesting to examine the various clusters of avatars in such services as MyCybertwin.com or Second Life, to develop a taxonomy of avatars. If, as suggested above, it is cultural work that carries over into designing avatars then such a taxonomy might say something about the societies and structures from which such avatars emerge.

Ansher’s essay draws attention to the complicated ontology of the avatar but also reflects, with considerable intensity, on the dynamic relation of online and offline selves. Thus she eschews a simplistic binary of offline/online, preferring to focus on the domain of interaction between the two ‘personae’ of the same self.


Pramod K. Nayar

Pramod Nayar

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India. His recent publications include Writing Wrongs: The Cultural Construction of Human Rights in India (Routledge 2012), States of Sentiment: Exploring the Cultures of Emotion (Orient BlackSwan 2011), An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures (Wiley-Blackwell 2010), Postcolonialism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum 2010), Packaging Life: Cultures of the Everyday (Sage 2009), Seeing Stars: Spectacle, Society and Celebrity Culture (Sage 2009) among others. His forthcoming books include Digital Cool: Life in the Age of New Media (Orient BlackSwan) and Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire (Wiley-Blackwell).

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