Thursday, July 17, 2008

Algorithms and Avatars, or: What I've Learned So Far

graffiti 2
Geek graffiti in San Francisco; photo taken on my recent trip to SF.

Once in a while, I post excerpts of papers I've written. These papers almost invariably fall into the "and sometimes history" category of my website—instructions for everyday life; Kodachrome; fallout shelters; practical magic. These excerpts are necessary, because if they didn't exist, the tagline for this site would have to read "and never history." Which would be too bad, because, I mean: who doesn't love amateur magicians?

But I've been digging through the archives. And thinking. A lot. And I keep coming back to a paper I wrote two months ago. It is not like any other paper I've ever written. It's not even about history. Instead, it's about what I've learned in the past year—about the internet, about everything. As I wander through this summer world, figuring out what it means to be a geek, to be around geeks, to live in a liminal state between the screen and the sensory world, I'm learning more than ever. This is what I knew so far, two months ago. It is a start.

I'm still starting.

And so this will not be an excerpt; it will be the whole thing. Thank you for reading, and I would love to hear your thoughts. As ever: diana (dot) kimball (at) gmail (dot) com.

Algorithms and Avatars
by Diana Kimball

May 8, 2008

It was all very romantic. The idea of it, at least. Suddenly, on a sunny afternoon, I would step onto a train and head into the sunlight somewhere else. I would be back before dark. Tired of staring at dull screens, I wanted to stare at something else for a while. In the beginning, the plan was Providence. But when the moment of planned spontaneity came, there wasn’t quite enough time for Providence—another state, another zip code. A cold and helpful website warned me of this, when I went searching for train schedules. The internet preempts many useful failures; it is hard to make a mistake (and then make something else of it) with so much information at the tips of well-worn typing fingers. I looked at my options, on the dull screen I was trying to escape. Quincy seemed the closest, and alien. I walked quickly to the red line, notebook secreted away.

My first mistake was bringing my slim flask of music. Innocently enough, I automatically tucked my iPod into my quilted gray bag as I left my dorm room. Music, I vaguely thought, would do me good. But it’s hard to get away from screens when they come in a form so innocuous, so unnecessary. Carrying an iPod around, even when your eyes are gazing off into another middle distance, still builds a private cubicle of noise. The captions live on the screen—song names and album titles, sometimes even album art. Walking on brick streets, or sitting sideways on the subway as it rockets perpendicular to your sightline, a pocket full of information can be tempting. On the red line, facing a grimy window, I did listen to some music. But I looked out the window more, trying to caption my own thoughts, rather than letting an algorithm run ahead. People swear that the shuffle function on the iPod—random—reads their minds. But maybe their minds are reading the music, rather than reading something that’s staring them in the face.

My second mistake was forgetting my camera. At the start of the year, I was determined. I would take a picture a day. My life felt undocumented, un-archived; precarious. I dreamt of smiling friends and the outdoors, captured in weightless pixels. Soon, though, I realized how rarely I venture outdoors. Attacking those moments with a camera would be treason. Also, I am usually indoors, awake in the nighttime, and nothing looks good against fluorescence and linoleum. The daily pictures became discouraging, for as long as I was stubborn; the same posters, a desk full of papers, and my own tense smile recurred infinitely. The images were lonely and inanimate. So, finally on my way to somewhere new, I felt briefly stung. Without a camera, there was no way to prove the moment with a picture. After the sting, though, I started to feel relieved. No camera, no obligation.

Arrows, Brackets, Boxes

Music flask aside, I did feel more weightless. As the subway rattled on, past downtown and then above ground, I knew I was in motion but not trapped. Unlike the disciplined confines of an airplane, the bowels of a train—even a subway train—are casual and quiet. In them, people read things on paper, or stare into the distance, or listen to invisible music. Every few minutes, another escape presents itself in the form of suddenly gaping doors. Above ground, we hurtled through a corridor of trees. The leaves nearly brushed up against the windows, close and hymnal in a way that sturdy highway foliage is not. There were no billboards hidden in the green; only advertisements hovering above the windows that offered a way out. Clutching a sheet of pale mint stationery and a brand-new pen, I liked how effortless it felt to think and write. Arrows, brackets, boxes; every centimeter of paper held something non-linear.

In the middle of everything, my telephone chimed. It was disorienting. I nearly always jump when my cell phone rings, but this time was different: on the subway, I should be safe. For a long time, there was no reception underground; messages would hit only after you emerged from the concrete mouth of the station. The system was inconvenient, but reliable, and that afternoon I was relying on it. But Verizon has reached beneath the surface, so my telephone chimed after all. The news, though, wasn’t news at all. It was a text message from my calendar, scolding me for canceling my afternoon’s plans.

Accidentally, I set my calendar to send me text message alerts about all my appointments, engagements, and plans. For a few days, now, I’ve been forgetting to turn it off. As a result, my cell phone has become a careless taskmaster, a robotic boss. Even though I had changed my plans to laboriously act on a careful whim, my calendar didn’t know. So for the rest of the afternoon I got messages demanding actions completely incongruous with my surroundings. I felt superior to my calendar—so far behind the times—but, at the same time, it’s important to remember who interrupted whom. I was at the mercy of acknowledging my cell phone’s demands, even as I knew they were wrong.

Silence, Boredom, Solitude

In 1900, wealthy Americans could travel back in time by traveling outward in space. Today, we cannot. Every destination is tethered to an origin by instantaneous communication. Once you can take a call on a mountaintop, you know you’re never safe. This leads to some artificial attempts—my sudden trip included. The screens followed me (in the form of my iPod and cell phone) because my ideas of relaxation and entertainment have, unfortunately, collapsed. Entertainment, of course, is not the same as relaxation. In the case of an iPod, it means yet another catalog of passive information to navigate at will, in order to avoid loneliness and banish boredom. It is a talisman to ward off silence.

In my class this semester on children’s literature, we have learned about the blessings of boredom. Boredom, in so many children’s books, is the impetus for adventure—not adventure prescribed by anyone else, but invented out of thin air. As barely-adults, the idea of cultivating or even allowing boredom seems laughable and nerve-wracking. But I think it is the right idea. When my aluminum laptop churns information past my field of vision, I slip into a robotic mode, accepting that everything I see deserves my attention. Instead of allowing my eyes to roam over a landscape, I end up wearing my eyes out on a thrumming 12-inch screen. There has to be more than this. I would rather be bored than stare at these unmoving windows forever.

Three Dimensions

Last May, I decided to become modern. After two years of studying the past, I realized one day that it was time to turn to the future. The easiest future, though, was the one at my fingertips: the clacking keyboards and blinking cursors that served as a textual portal to the internet. Since then, I have trained myself to sit at the computer for hours on end, “processing” things—emails, assignments, digital photographs. The “process” is so blandly intoxicating that the end result retreats into the background. And behind it all is the fact that the “process” only seems so important because it’s easy. It’s all the same. Swiping a touchpad, whether to edit a photograph or navigate toward a link, is never innovative. Like the dim cell phone that tried to give me instructions, the more I tell my technology about myself, the more I become an instrument of the technology. It is disconcerting to realize how I’ve spent my time. In cyberspace, there’s only so much space to learn. And three dimensions are, always, only an illusion.

The illusions, though, are worth studying—if only because so many people are paying them so much attention right now. And, of course, because these same people are bound to revolt sometime soon.

We build up our personal online identities, in large part, through the detritus we automatically leave behind: pictures we wanted others to see, articles we wanted others to read. Online identity is a very weird idea. It hinges on faith in honesty: if identity implies authenticity, then the information that helps to construct it cannot be false. But online identities are definitely constructed in other ways. They constitute the internet’s built environment: the structures we can see and study, and whose construction we can interrogate for meaning and consequence. These structures are in some ways completely under the owner’s control, and in others complete out of it.

For instance, I control what information appears on my website and my personal Facebook page. I select and monitor the information that appears in those places, religiously. But I do not control the words and pictures that other people post. If those things have my name—my textual name—attached, then they become part of the constellation of my online identity. If a search engine can find a piece of information and associate it with my name, it suddenly reflects on me. My name is my keyword: it unlocks the floodgates to my online identity. Keywords and passwords are worth thinking about. We are putting an awful lot of stock in words.
But no matter how much stock we are putting into words, we are slyly putting even more into static photographs and grainy videos. In one of my spring classes, Constructing Reality: Photography as Fact and Fiction, we often talked about the presumed indexical quality of photographs: that they represent a real person, a real moment, and a real photographer’s proximity to that moment. Though a generation of Photoshop users surely must know to be skeptical of the content of photographs, still something tugs at our faith when we see human faces rendered flat. We both suffer from and depend upon that faith when we perceive and produce our online avatars.


These online avatars comprise words and pictures. Sometimes, as in Second Life, the avatars are full-blown—illusory three-dimensional human-form characters, constructed in online avatar engines. Choosing your hair color, gender, and clothing are recognized to be self-creative acts: they need not correspond directly to physical reality, but are rather allowed to exist metaphorically. Second Life avatars are accepted to be fictional fronts for inner realities, the executors of ideal “second lives” in a fantasy world. Facebook profiles, on the contrary, exist in a subversive fantasy world, masquerading as a mirror of reality. By tethering profiles to a real-world college environment from the beginning, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set the stage for an assumption of unstudied authenticity. Real names, real phone numbers, real photographs, real addresses: the world of Facebook is a world that supposedly resists deception.

And yet, Facebook cannot resist the management that goes into curating an online identity. In one study, researchers found that about 10% of teenagers who are unhappy with their real-life appearances are happy with their online appearances. This happiness, I have to believe, comes in large part from the ability to select and manipulate photographs so as to place the subject “in the best light.” A Facebook avatar is really just that: a museum of presumed real-world artifacts, curated so as to cast their star in the best light possible. This concept of “best light” is no mistake: it comes straight out of the tradition of glamour photography. Online identity management, then, is something like glamour curation. It is a skill at which millions of teenagers (and adults) are quickly becoming expert. Ironically, though, most of the photos that make it through the curation process are snapshots taken with harsh flash in nighttime social settings. The indexical quality of the photographs—where you were, with whom, wearing what—is more important than their composition. Social glamour, on a fundamentally text-based internet, is almost as important visual glamour.

But what will the backlash be? What will it look like? The day is coming when the avatar and the body will merge. The modifications that exist now in subcultures—cat-eye contacts, animal costumes, tattoos—cannot stay there forever. After a long flirtation with screen fantasies, we will, emboldened, begin to modify our bodies in permanent and impermanent ways, en masse. We are being trained to manage our online identities as streams of textual information punctuated by illustrative visuals, but we are also learning from tools like Photoshop that the world is visually flexible. Soon, we will come to expect that flexibility from three-dimensional life as well.

The more sophisticated the tools, the more they will initially be used toward normative ends: beautiful, slim, young women will certainly abound in this new reality (as they already do in Second Life). However normative the mainstream uses of these tools of self-modification become, though, the subcultures that incubate them will remain experts and artists at the vanguard. Just as pornography is the engine behind the early adoption of almost all new technologies, desire for tangible fantasy fulfillment and creative visual identity management will push these future technologies forward. This “augmented reality” cannot be far away. The backlash is already gathering.

People will only be satisfied with having avatars for so long; before long, they will want to become the avatar. The transformation will be more than visual. I recently watched part of a documentary titled American Furry, which featured a man who builds and wears lion suits. The suits are visually sophisticated costumes, but they also incorporate incredibly sophisticated technology: the man has built a headpiece that augments his senses in such a way as to emulate the sensory experience of being a lion. This is not the project of a hapless amateur; it is a cutting-edge experiment, ignored out of derision. Science fiction authors, MIT students, and furries all fall below the mainstream radar for the same reason. We ignore them at our own risk, though. While the rest of the world builds portfolios of online flirtations, some people are enjoying a future that’s already here.


In a strange turn of events, however, these rogue elements—science fiction authors, MIT students, furries and their ilk—actually do quite well in the built landscape of the online environment. As Adam Rogers wrote in his eulogy to Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons, “geeks like algorithms.” The internet is full of algorithms, full of rules for visualizing and managing social behavior; Rogers himself draws the connection between Dungeons & Dragons and Facebook. An environment like Facebook provides communication methods at varying levels of intimacy—poke, wall post, private message. Geeks will parse these levels almost without thinking, observe the input content, watch the output response, and build new algorithms for social interaction.

My 15-year-old brother once told my mom that he was learning leadership skills from Runescape, an online multi-user dungeon. He had discovered that messages in lowercase letters enticed new recruits to his guild, and that careful mentorship encouraged them to stay. I have so many friends whose stories are similar. Figuring out the rules of the game, figuring out how to win at it, is incredibly empowering. The internet gives geeks a set of visible social data to analyze, incorporate, and learn from. As Adam Rogers concluded, “Mr. Gygax’s game allowed geeks to venture out of our dungeons, blinking against the light, just in time to create the present age of electronic miracles.” The internet harbors the data set that is enabling geeks to break through one of the last barriers to truly riding the whirlwind and directing the storm: the social dimension of everyday life. The more data these geeks analyze, the more they learn. It is almost impossible to beat people who approach life like a game: with curiosity, determination, and delight.


Until recently, I had always defined myself in opposition to these game-players. I grew up in a house stocked with wishful board games and science fiction paperbacks. Maybe because I had brothers, I always kept my distance from these artifacts. But they were there, and I watched how my brothers and dad—a geek to the core—used them. I could actually see my dad’s eyes light up as he ran the calculations, figuring out optimal strategies in every new board game. He was so good at them, so unrelenting, that I stopped playing against him at a very young age. My brothers, though, continued. I know they learned a great deal. I hope I still learned something. It is sad to me that I rejected this mindset out of hand, when I was young. I was terrified of growing up to be a geek. But quietly, silently, I was applying the same strategies to another domain entirely: the internet.

The internet, for me, was social from the start. I watched communities of the earliest bloggers, tracing the connections between them, figuring out their codes of conduct. It was several years before I contacted one of my heroes. Those heroes, actually, are still my friends. While I was watching, I learned how I wanted to be. In a universe of social networks, identity manifests itself at first as favorites: favorite books, movies, and bands. For a while, I focused on acquiring the right favorites. But when I got to college, I found that these favorites didn’t map to real-world friendship. As it turns out, those early heroes of mine weren’t collages of favorites, but continuous and earnest personalities. They were treating the internet like a place to write letters, draw pictures, tell stories. It was a safe, gentle, honest place. I learned their rules. I still play by them. It’s old-fashioned, but it’s a game that I can believe in.

The train to Quincy was something to talk about, from the start. I boarded knowing that I was looking for something; knowing, too, that I was partly doing it because it satisfied some image of myself that I hold close. In reality, I do not often adventure. No matter how often I use words like “plunder,” “wonder,” and “sleuth,” they are still only words. In a universe of words—the internet—that sometimes doesn’t matter. But it matters to me. It matters to me to be consistent, to strive for honesty, to try to be the person I imagine myself to be. Maybe it’s a person I invented on the internet, but I can only become that person in three dimensions. That person would have taken a train to Quincy today. In the end, so did I.


Annemarie said...

ruthlessly gorgeous; as usual, but especially.

i love you!

jason Gingold said...

absolutely blown away by this. we're strangers, though i track you on twitter.

you are seriously, dangerously, wonderfully articulate. it's ridiculous. i have tried many times to express similar thoughts, but you have hit it all spot on. i'm jealous and impressed and joyful.

thank you for sharing. i'm looking forward to what comes next.


lah said...

i found this via big contrarian. it is... terrific. i got chills, and then i started feeling guilty about my neglect of my own online avatar, and then i got some more chills.

so... thanks! :)

Matthew Gallant said...

Wonderful, thank you for sharing this. It will certainly give me pause the next time I'm tempted to put another screen in my pocket.

rnadel said...

Nicely written, however I question on what basis do you so adamantly distinguish between a digital interaction and a meat one. Is reading a book printed on paper different that reading a website, on a fundamental level? Is looking out a window on a moving train different than looking at a computer screen?

In an ode to McLuhan, you could argue that the medium is everything, but shouldn't it be in the content, the essence of the matter. Agreed, for you, it is freeing to be out on a train and staring out the window instead of at a computer screen, but for some I argue that wandering through the metavers in Second Life is much more freeing.

What you think?

ceyhun said...
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Thor said...

Hi diana thanks good page