“It’s 2012. Do You Know Where Your Avatar Is?”: An Interview with Beth Coleman (Part Two)

You reference your own avatar many times across the book but you do not tell us much about why you chose this self-representation or how you relate to your avatar. So, what’s the story?

Henry, it’s a tale of two cities, one academic and one engaged. Practically speaking, I had to make an avatar to do research in Second Life, as I would with any social media platform. In the same way, I had to have actual experience with the augmented reality and alternate reality games I describe in the book. So, on the one hand, my avatar is a simply a device, a way into the different platforms and communities I investigate. In a sense, my avatar is like a microphone. I need to have it to conduct research.

With that said, I am glad to be upfront about how my avatar functions because it has everything to do with me–who I am in my different facets as academic, artist, etc. So I will describe Hapi, my Second Life avatar, as an example of this positional Jujutsu. Hapi is a cute, white robot diminutive in size and genderless in affect that designed with Jenny Mu, a graphic artist and game designer from Parsons School of Design. From my point of view, Hapi was happily free of race, gender, or even humanness and that’s how we had intentionally designed that avatar.

In my experience, the highly identifiable avatar bodies of MMORPG and other graphical virtual worlds could carry a serious burden of identity. It felt heavy to me to have to represent so exactly a gender or race or even species. Additionally, I needed to find an avatar that other avatars would talk to in neither an overly aggressive nor sexualized way. So, I landed on a cute robot, which is a figure personally near and dear to me. In other moments, you and I have discussed the place of race and gender in the contemporary world, where we both find ourselves liberated from some forms of the historical trappings and, yet, also recreating them. And so, I saw my avatar persona not so much as an alternative or different me, but as a strategic extension of myself.

You include an interview where Cory Doctorow describes himself as “offloading” reading to his students and playing to his wife. I realize he is to some degree joking, but it does raise the question about whether one sentient being can function as an “avatar” for another under your definition. How much control must we be able to exert and how much identification must we feel in order to see something as an Avatar?

Cory, as we know, is scrupulous researcher and a person intensely committed to seeing through to completion the project of a networked open-source world. With that said, he is also an avatar of economy. He makes part of his work the work of outsourcing to the right sources. Alice Taylor, his partner, is an accomplished gamer; Cory will never be that. Thus, free riding over her shoulder is his best education. Boingboing.net, the massively popular blog site of which Cory is one of the founders is based on the premise that other people find the stories on which the blog posts are based. The bloggers of Boingboing do not do “original” research in the traditional sense; they aggregate information (one of the exceptions to this is Xeni Jardin and Cory’s first hand reports from Occupy Wall Street last winter). Cory describes this process of managing what would be for most of us information overload. He has tagged something about the aggregated now–the avatar effect as it were–that we need to attend to in moving forward. As for his students, Cory is pretty clear that he gives away books and asks students to report anything interesting. The students become proxy readers, but in a way that seems mutually beneficial and relatively transparent. If you think about the medieval formulation of the university and how graduate students are apprenticed, this seems like a relatively ethical approach.

What roles do you think telepresence plays within participatory culture?

Telepresence, or what I am calling copresence (the sense of being present with someone via mediation), is huge for participatory culture. We are moving unerringly toward a more graphic and increasingly real-time mediation. One of the things I underscore in the book is the idea that people in their everyday engagement of networked media create all kinds of innovation and intervention. I cite your work and that of Stefana Broadbent and Mimi Ito to support this point. I see copresence as one of the critical factors in how we move forward.

If my ideas of X-Reality hold–that online and worldly engagement become increasingly meshed–then copresence is a critical aspect of that progression. We feel each other across the networks. We strategize for regime change or denial of service attack or group buying power across these networks. The more vividly we feel each other’s presence the more effectively and passionately we can work together to achieve our ends.

What do you see as the distinction between “users” and “agents”?

Users, as I quote scholar Wendy Chun, get used. Agents are activists. I don’t mean exclusively political activists but, rather, the profile of one who engages. You yourself have talked about the importance of avid fan networks in the transitional state of moving from active viewer to active maker. I see this formulation of agency as the critically important to the theories of network society and open-source models that we find in influential thinkers such as Manuel Castells, Yochai Benkler, and Lawrence Lessig. In One Way Forward, Lessig’s most recent book, he takes as a given that We the People are agents, the authors of our destinies. He also says that that We the People is a sleeping giant that needs to awake to its power. I agree that we need to awaken to the power of networked agency. In my mind, X-Reality and copresence are tightly bound up in a notion of twenty-first century agency.

You use various metaphors – especially “supplement” and “augment”–to describe the ways we use digital communications in relation to face-to-face contact. Both of these imply a complimentary rather than oppositional relationship between the two. Elsewhere, you make the claim that human agents are “not entralled by technology.” How would you respond to critics who think we spend too much time in “virtual worlds” or in front of “screens”?

We spend a lot of time in front of screens. For my two bits as a media designer, I want to see us take these screens outside as often as possible, and I would like to see as much heads-up engagement as we can muster. What I see is people making the technology work for them by any means necessary. I invoke the Malcolm X adage because it is crucial to our sense of freedom and agency that we control our network outlook–our avatar.

I say this because of the data battles on the horizon. We have a shockingly new and powerful economic model where our data flows fuel the engine of Google or Facebook or other social media sites. We are at a moment when we need to consider seriously how we use network media to augment our lives–create greater opportunity for real-time and copresent exchanges. We are also at a moment when we need to reclaim our avatar

imprint, our data trail, as our own.

In this sense, my concept of augmented reality and mediation as a supplement to face-to-face presence are not metaphors at all. We actually use these mechanisms as we would a pair of glasses or a cane–we use them to see ourselves and each other more clearly. Think about whether you would rather lose your computer or your cell phone.

Most millennials would say without hesitation junk the computer. The hardware is nothing. The pervasive connection is everything.

You attempt to update Sherry Turkle’s discussion of people as “cycling through” virtual identities. What do you see as having changed since she wrote her book, Life on Screen?

I don’t think people cycle through. I think people use their online personas to extend, augment, and help actualize who they are in the world. I see what has historically been called “the virtual” as a contemporary aspect of augmentation. We don’t think of a telephone call as “virtual;” we think of it as extending connectivity beyond geographic limits. I am suggesting that online engagement should be thought of in the same way.

For business people whose only engagement with “cyberspace” in the 1990s was their Blackberry connectivity, this has always been the case. Today for teenagers using mobile and social media to make status updates in real-time, this is also the case. There is no

separation between the “virtual” and the “real.”

You compare your “virtual cannibal” with “Bungle the Clown” in Julian Dibbel’s classic essay, “A Rape in Cyberspace.” What has changed about “transgression” in online communities since Dibbel wrote his essay?

When Julian wrote that essay in the early 1990s we were both working as copy editors at the Village Voice. I saw in that piece and in that moment Julian framing a generational experience: we were the first generation of networked users to play wildly and freely in this undefined space of online. Subsequently, post-deluge, there are multitudes of us online. Julian translated a boutique experience to many.

Now, as I describe with the virtual cannibal, anyone can embark on a quest to find the edge of comfort and culturally acceptable behavior. There are two main points for me in understanding the experience of the virtual cannibal. First, we can Google extremist cultures and fairly easily join in the rumpus; in effect, as all things are more findable,

the historical idea of marginal cultures changes. The global jihadist movement illustrates this vividly. So does the sustained glee of the burners (Burning Man participants).

Second, the things we experience in simulated or virtual space are actual events in our lives. Julian’s story of Mr. Bungle has often been interpreted as a cautionary tail of the raging id of online life. I see it in a different way. I think “A Rape in Cyberspace” tells us, from very early one, that our actions online have clear, connected impact on our lives in the world. I think he tells one of the first proto-X-Reality stories, even if it has not been generally interpreted as such. The difference now is that transgression is normal, not exceptional, in an era of avatars and that everyone can be Mr. Bungle. 4chan certainly figured that out.

You end the book with a discussion of alternate and augmented reality games. What do these experiences teach us about living in relation to “x-reality”?

I think the most important technologies we see coming online today augment reality in some form or another. Whether it is a game played across a city (an alternate reality game) or a handheld-device with real-time feeds, we are experimenting and rapidly prototyping technologies of augmentation. We see a profound augmentation of reality in how movements such as Occupy Wall Street or the occupation of Tahrir Square or even the Tea Party all use network media for collective action. This is X-Reality in action. But I still hold near and dear to my heart (and my analysis), the everyday use of avatars as augmenting reality. X-Reality describes the way in which people right now make manifest a collective power and individual agency. I know, it’s a tall order. Nonetheless, it seems that we have amazing, vivid examples of this kind of heroism all around us.

Professor Beth Coleman believes in the power of storytelling to transform the world. She works with new technology and art to create transmedia forms of engagement. She is the director of City as Platform, Amsterdam, a Faculty Fellow at Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, as well as a professor at the Institute of Network Cultures, Hogeschool van Amsterdam. From 2005-2011, Coleman was an assistant professor of comparative media studies at MIT. As an artist, she has a history of international exhibition including venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Musée d’Art moderne Paris. She is the co-founder of SoundLab Cultural Alchemy, an internationally acclaimed multimedia performance platform. As the newly appointed co-director of the Critical Media Lab and a professor of English Literature and Languages at the University of Waterloo, Ontario Canada, she continues to work internationally with collaborators in through Africa, Europe, and Asia. Her book Hello Avatar is published by the MIT Press.