Ghost in the shell

It's well-known that the way that people choose to appear online is distinct from physical appearance, and this is often perceived as some kind of falsehood. But honestly, for someone you've never met, which is their “real” face? And do you learn more from a photograph or an avatar? This is my first departure from “pragmatic” ideas into somewhat more “spiritual” territory, which I plan to follow up for a few weeks. I hope to explore some of the human side of online interaction, since that's how most free software gets made.

The cyborg

Meet Major Motoko Kusanagi, the ultimate handicapped heroine, eponymous protagonist of Masmune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell (GitS). She is in biological terms only a “brain in a box”, being what in the manga is called a “full prosthetic cyborg”. Receiving near-terminal injuries in a plane crash as a young girl, essentially her entire body was replaced by a factory-made android body, a procedure, which in the story's universe is extreme, but not unheard of. Virtually everyone in Shirow's 2030s Japan has been “cyberized”, however, meaning that they have an interface embedded in their brain stem allowing their brains to be attached directly into virtual reality interfaces and in most cases, allowing the brain (containing the person's “ghost” to use the GitS terminology) to be safely removed and placed into another body (called a “shell” in GitS terminology).

Like all great works of science fiction, GitS doesn't merely use metaphors, it creates them, and in the cyberpunk genre, it has become a key source for defining metaphors of the future of computer technology and the place of humans relative to it. There are, of course, dozens of points one could make about the world of GitS—certainly enough for two movies Ghost in the Shell and Innocence and the series Stand Alone Complex and S.A.C. 2nd Gig—but this isn't a review, so I'm going to move onto a particular point that the series raises about avatars.

“Avatar” has a special meaning in computer culture. In the most basic sense, it is simply the thing which is used to represent you when you interact online in a virtual reality or an online forum. Ideally, it would be a fully animated 3D model, representing your virtual body when you are in the virtual world, and also ideally, it would reflect your reactions and personality as faithfully as your body does in real life. It is a kind of answer for the distance and lack of clear emotion that is often complained about in the plain text conversations of email or usenet.

In the GitS world, this is exactly what an avatar is, and the high level of control involved is resolved through the “cyberbrain” mechanism—all nerve control is directed to the avatar, so it moves as naturally as would your body, maybe even more so. For Kusanagi, this raises an interesting question: “Which of her bodies is the ‘real’ one? The plastic and metal factory-manufactured robot that carries her brain around in the physical world, or her personally-coded computer simulated one that carries her about in cyberspace?”

Which is the real Kusanagi, the plastic and metal android or the 3D virtual reality avatar? (Frames from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series, ©2004 Masamune Shirow, Production I.G., Kodansha / Fair Use)

No doubt, in her case, lacking physical constraints, the avatar body is more responsive. It is almost certainly more unique than the factory model android she drives in the physical world, and it clearly reflects more of her personal choice and identity. In fact, her physical body, despite its much more aesthetically appealling styling, is in principle the same as a “Dalek” from Doctor Who, isn't it?

To such a being, “real” and “virtual” may not mean the same thing, and they are certainly not so clear cut as they are for us. In fact, to make matters worse, Kusanagi is actually obliged to replace her physical body on a number of occasions with an identical unit simply because of damage acquired in her (very dangerous) job as an anti-terrorist operative in “Section 9” (a secret para-military organization in the 2030s Japanese government). A minor theme of the S.A.C. series, in fact, are the “external memories” and personal effects that she uses to provide continuity through these changes—the watch which she always wears, for example, and to which she is clearly sentimentally attached (the significance being that the watch is actually the same watch, even though the wrist within it is a replacement).

The extension effect

As a science fiction fan, I'm comfortable with the significance of such “unreal worlds”, but maybe the real world implications of the above are less clear to others. The point, however, is this: we are already experiencing some of the identity crisis of GitS. Even though we are not explicitly violating the brain-body connection, it is clear that we often extend ourselves beyond our physical bodies.

As I write this, I am not conscious of the keyboard and monitor. In fact, thinking about them makes it more difficult to type. In the most natural mode of composition, they simply disappear, becoming extensions of my body. Communicating by text in the virtual world is in that sense, very like talking.

Many activities are like this. Driving a car down the road, the control interfaces of the car (the steering wheel and pedals) become invisible and the car is merely an extension. You have a sense, after driving a vehicle for awhile, of exactly where its limits are in space, and you lose consciousness of the fact there is anything in between your brain and the wheels. For some people, the car even becomes an important part of their identity. Driving a high quality “sexy” car becomes an expression of the person's body consciousness and self esteem.

Something similar happens with video games—at least if the interface is any good. For centuries we have relied on books and other external memories, but the Internet, through the ease of searching, has invaded our actual thought processes. There are things I think I know, but I don't. What I know is how to instantly retrieve them when my global external memory is attached. As I become reliant on this kind of extended identity, losing my Internet connection is like a lobotomy—I feel an almost physical sense of loss as a portion of my intelligence is removed. I've become dependent on a new brain center that isn't located inside of my body.

Virtual identity

Meanwhile, the reverse is happening as well. Even if there are biological nerves, arms, and fingers involved in the interface, we are still connecting our brains to our digital presences on the Net, and we use avatars of various kinds when we do that.

Back in the days when usenet and email were the state of the art, we identified via ASCII signatures—some containing elaborate ASCII art depictions, others merely carrying pithy quotes, like personalized license-plates on the Net, just as emotions came to be conveyed by textual emoticons like this: ;-).

Today, there actually are virtual reality forums, like the MMORPG-based Second Life, which has become increasingly popular as a gathering place, particularly for Creative Commons fans (but they are by no means the only inhabitants of “Linden”, the “in world” city of Second Life). Now, Second Life involves a fairly high standard for client platform, and not everyone can use it yet, which is why all my information about it is second-hand (mostly for hardware and connectivity reasons, as there is a Linux client for Second Life, since early this year).

Mia Garlick in real life (left, Flickr:nicsuzor/CC-By-SA) and Second Life (right, as “Mia Wombat”, New World Notes:Wagner James Au/Fair Use).

Even though Second Lifers (presumeably) have real and original human bodies to go home to, they might nevertheless find certain things more attractive about their virtual ones, since they are under their own control. Some users—like Mia Garlick, a prominent legal counsel for Creative Commons—have opted to create avatars remarkably similar to their real appearance (see figure), while others have opted to be dragons, fish, lizards, or bizarre undefineable things in their virtual existence.

For those of us whose computers are still a few years behind the state of the art, there are a plethora of more conventional web fora based on such packages as PHP BB, which provide various kinds of threaded conversation interfaces. Many of these allow “avatars” to be used which are simply small static pictures —usually of faces or face-like pictures. In these fora, emotional content is still transmitted by emoticons, although they frequently take the form of graphical smilies, rather than the ASCII art ones we are used to from usenet.

Yet, even here, the power of the avatar as an identity is stronger than you might think. After all it's just a little 100×100 picture, why should I even care about it? Yet, an avatar is far more personal and expressive than a username. It's also instantly recognizable, like a face. You learn to recognize your friends, so that you immediately know who's speaking and you subconsciously provide context to what they say.

On one particularly successful PHP BB forum (which has been running for at least six years), avatars are used as “seniority badges” for new users: there are a series of classes between 1 and 1000 posts. There are of course, abuses of this system (“forum spamming”), but active moderation keeps these under control, so there is a fair correlation between “post count” and “real experience”. I was brand new at web forums (though I'd been using mailing lists and usenet for many years) when I first joined, and I was really surprised at the degree of motivation that those silly little pictures provided. Even I felt it.

Once you get experience on the forum, you then get to choose an avatar, which becomes your identity on the system. You become much more of an individual person when you reach that point, because people know your online “face”, and respond to it. They associate it with the kinds of posts that you make, and they learn to consider what you say much more in a total context of who they think you are. People feel like they “know” you. It wasn't long before I became a moderator on this forum, and so my personal identity is much more important to users who want to know what I'm up to, how I'm likely to react, and who “don't want me sneaking up on them”, as one poster put it. Recently I considered replacing my avatar with a new one, simply because my old one is fan art based on a licensed anime series, and therefore of somewhat questionable licensing (or at least originality). My newer avatar, which I use on other forums I've joined since then is original.

However, I got feedback asking me not to change. Not that anyone suggests I shouldn't have the right to, but people get comfortable with familiar avatars, just as they do with familiar faces, and conservativism tends to be preferred.

On another forum (where I use the newer avatar, by the way), the atmosphere is a bit different. Individuals choose their own avatars as soon as they join (your post count affects a “rank” tag that appears over the avatar, but is much less prominent and is plain text). Changes in avatar are more common on this forum, which is much more specific in topic, as it is a fan forum for a web comic. People tend to retain the same theme and design for their avatars, but often make alterations based on events in the story. For example, for awhile, everybody put virtual blue “Smurf” caps on their avatars, and when the plotline went into an alternate universe storyline, posters created photo-negative or mirror-image versions of their avatars to follow along with the plotline. So there is much more avatar play on this forum, but the same pattern of conservative identity prevails—Limax with a Smurf cap is still recognizeably Limax.


I'm rather shy of posting real pictures of myself—or indeed any deeply personal information, but I'm not very careful about it, and I feel a bit ambivalent. I'm not bothered at all if people I already know make the connection, though I am a little concerned about spambots being able to collect enough information to make detecting them difficult, I also have the feeling that sooner or later I'm going to be recognized if I'm going to be at all successful in communicating. Still, I'm not always sure if I'd rather be known by my physical face or my avatar.

Some low-tech avatars are just face-like pictures. Pamela Jones is rather famously known by the drawing at left, drawn by J.D. “Illiad” Frazer. The one on the lower right is the avatar I use at Anime Cafe (it's a fan art drawing of Yurika from Martian Successor Nadesico of somewhat questionable licensing, although this is probably fair use), while the one at the upper right I use at Keenspot (a character I designed for cartoon illustrations in a work-in-progress book).

Someone who certainly is very careful is Pamela Jones, famous as the creator of Groklaw. She also has a print magazine column, and I find it interesting that she uses an avatar in place of the usual author photo even in the magazine. I've never seen her real face, and I'm not sure if it can be found anywhere on the web or not. I know she's taken other steps to remain anonymous and frankly, she's a bit paranoid about it (her life, her prerogative).

Not long ago a reporter with a pro-SCO agenda (that would be a euphemism for “anti-Groklaw”), wrote a rather disturbing piece about trying to track Pamela Jones down. I say disturbing, because what she was doing was undeniably “stalking”, and that's a threatening behavior, even if you intend no violence. But what I couldn't get over was the idea that O'Gara apparently thought that any of what she was writing was relevant, because I already know who Pamela Jones is: she's the person who runs Groklaw. I've sparred with her in words online, and found her site an invaluable resource of information. I already feel a connection as personal there as I need to get (not that that's a lot). To me, Pamela Jones looks like a “big-eyed, red-haired woman wearing a red dress while SCO sinks behind her”. Maybe when the whole SCO case is over she'll delete the SCO “Titanic” part of that drawing, but I hope she keeps the face.

If in the physical world, Ms. Jones is physically a “91 year old woman in New York” or a “40 year old guy in Maine” or a “25 year old woman in California” just doesn't matter to me. Why should I regard that as any more real than the person I know online? I've met a few people offline who I first knew online, and in general, it's been a non-plussing experience. I'd just as soon go back to chatting with them electronically and forget the “real” person. There's very few exceptions.

Not that I feel it's good to misrepresent reality—I'm always quick to remind posters that, “I am not in fact a girl with purple hair”. But isn't it really the “ghost” we care about, not the “shell”, be it virtual or physical?


Additional notice: the images in this article are believed by me to be used in accordance with the terms of “fair use”, however that may or may not apply to any other use of the images.


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