Avatar Man­i­festo Redux


Session Title:

  • Virtual Doppelgangers: Embodiment, Morphogenesis, and Transversal Action

Presentation Title:

  • Avatar Man­i­festo Redux




  • Panel: Virtual Doppelgangers: Embodiment, Morphogenesis, and Transversal Action

    In 1989, after ex­pe­ri­enc­ing Jaron Lanier and VPL Re­search’s Re­al­ity Built for Two vir­tual re­al­ity sim­u­la­tor, I began to spec­u­late upon how we might ap­pear to one an­other in Multi-user Vir­tual En­vi­ron­ments (MUVEs). The po­ten­tial for choos­ing non-con­sen­sual, mu­ta­ble, or hy­brid self-rep­re­sen­ta­tions was dan­ger­ous and fas­ci­nat­ing on mul­ti­ple lev­els. As I cre­ated a se­ries of im­ages called “iden­tity con­struc­tions” and de­signed pro­to­types of po­ten­tial in­ter­faces, the World Wide Web ap­peared, Neil Stephen­son pub­lished Snow­crash, and on­line spaces like Al­pha­World™, World­Chat™, and World­s­Away™ com­bined MUDs with vir­tual re­al­ity. As the Web in­creas­ingly be­came a space for the ex­change of goods and ser­vices and these 3D chat spaces be­came en­vi­ron­ments for sur­veil­lance and map­ping psy­cho­graphic seg­ments, it be­came clear to me that the most sig­nif­i­cant prop­erty of the avatar was the free­ing of per­sonal iden­tity from ma­pable re­la­tion­ships to con­sis­tency and so­cial con­sen­sus.   The use of the avatar in on-line shared en­vi­ron­ments had the po­ten­tial to be­come a rev­o­lu­tion­ary poly­mor­phic trope un­ham­pered by is­sues of class, race, gen­der, beauty, or age; ca­pa­ble of di­vert­ing cap­i­tal’s flood­ing force of col­o­niza­tion; and of­fer­ing each of us a safe haven in an un­con­sum­able body of our own. The avatar be­came a po­ten­tial site of re­sis­tance, a trick­ster fig­ure in the belly of a mon­ster.

    In 1999 I pub­lished “An Avatar Man­i­festo,” an essay that posited a his­tor­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal de­f­i­n­i­tion of the avatar, con­tex­tu­al­ized the avatar among other types of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and ar­tic­u­lated a set of strate­gies for build­ing avatars that would re­sist the grow­ing vi­sion of vir­tual space as a new utopian shop­ping mall.  The essay ref­er­enced Donna Har­away’s “Cy­borg Man­i­festo” of 1986 but used Ar­taud’s trope, “The Body w/o Or­gans” as a point of ref­er­ence for the con­struc­tion and ar­tic­u­la­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the self within dig­i­tal, vir­tual space.  “An Avatar Man­i­festo” was largely spec­u­la­tive in na­ture, as it was pub­lished at a time when there was lit­tle recorded his­tory of our re­la­tion­ship to vir­tual re­al­i­ties and net­works. In this pre­sen­ta­tion, “Avatar Man­i­festo Redux,” I will bring spe­cific tra­jec­to­ries of the 1999 essay to bear on some ex­am­ples of the cur­rent state of avatar re­search and con­struc­tion.

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