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

I first met Beth Coleman when she spoke at the first Race in Digital Spaces conference, one of two joint events hosted, curiously enough, between MIT and USC in 2001-2002. I wrote at the time, “

Cyberspace has been represented as a race-blind environment, yet we don’t shed our racial identities or escape racism just because we go on line…The concept of ‘digital divide,’ however, is inadequate to describe a moment when minority use of digital technologies is dramatically increasing. The time has come to focus on the success stories, to identify examples of work that has increased minority access to information technologies and visibility in digital spaces.”

Coleman was there as an academic speaker on one of our plenary panel and in her guise as Dj Singe from Soundlab Cultural Alchemy, she performed alongside DJ Spooky and others. This helped to cement in my mind the image of Coleman as a gifted theorist/scholar, artist/performer, and activist, who was going to help teach us to think in new ways about digital experiences and identities.

Flash forward to the present moment. I brought Coleman to MIT to be a colleague in the Comparative Media Studies Program where she taught for many years. She’s continued to do cutting edge work not only in sound design but also in transmedia and locative media experiences. And she’s just come out with a hot new book, Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation, which is making people’s heads explode.

You may think you know all about avatars and virtual worlds: this was what we were talking about with great anticipation five or six years ago, and what has fallen from grace once everyone got past the buzz about Second Life. But, Coleman is turning this concept on its head, getting us to think about what she calls “x reality” which lies at the intersection between our digital and physical identities, thinking of our new social media as themselves places where we construct and deploy avatars, and thinking about new forms of information and entertainment which are going to be part of our fused identities in the not so distant future. I had watched the book develop over time, but nevertheless was surprised and intrigued by some of the reframing of its core concerns which had taken place in the past few years. It’s a short book but it packs a wallop, as I think will be suggested by this interview.

Reading Clay Shirkey’s introduction, I am reminded of our three way exchange about the future of Second Life which was conducted via our blogs. You and I were far more optomistic than Shirkey about the long-term impact of this early virtual world. What are your thoughts reflecting on the issues of that debate with 20-20 hindsight?

In a nutshell, Clay was right. Second Life was too hard to use and too

essentially dorky in its “sexy avatar” ethos to achieve and sustain a broad

popular interest. Although it aspired to be a kind of Facebook, where people

would use it as hub for information, it was not that for multiple reasons. That said, Henry, I think that you and I got the spirit of the thing right. We were both pointing to the aspirational uses of the site, where people as represented by their avatars strove to create often utopian spaces. I am suggesting that those utopian space (even when they come in rather dystopic forms like my virtual cannibal) present actual events in

peoples’ lives that they use, often, as a point of leverage to transform themselves. And that is what I argue in the book. Sure, Second Life was a powerful chapter in the innovation of graphic networked engagement. But the big change in network engagement is what I am calling X-Reality: the sense that all our worlds, spanning the simulated to the bodily, are working toward a greater sense of an avatar existence. In short, we are neither “virtual” or “real” but rather these networked creatures whose technologically mediated exchanges directly impact our worldly experience. The #occupy movement, the Arab Spring, even Obama’s election campaign make it achingly clear that we are now occupying X-spaces in a way that we were not at the turn of the century or in the 1990s. I think Linden Lab (the creators of Second Life) got their own message wrong. If they were creating a cyber-escape from reality, then they did not realize what

century they were working in.

Given what we now know about Second Life, what do you see as the likely future of virtual worlds?

We will only see more graphically rich interactive spaces. In my definition of virtual worlds, I include Facebook and other kinds of social sites where we create by text, image, and sound the image of ourselves–the avatars as it were–that we use as our public faces. This type of “virtual” representation is not new. In the book, I talk about the concept of “persona” in ancient Rome, where one’s reputation as citizen was based on how one crafted a public face.This crafting of a public face is happening at a global scale today with the support of social network platforms. In this sense, the virtual worlds of our

network persona are now a part of daily life. And the scale at which we engage

this type of virtual world is immense.

In terms of the traditional, more narrow definition of a virtual world as a walled garden of text or graphic space….well, small, distinct user communities will always populate these platforms. But for the real future of the virtual world, we have to think about the value of shared, real-time visualization tools applied to the pressing issues of the day. Mapping radiation levels in Japan, crisis mapping across Kenya…these are recent historical events that illustrate the value of shared real-time graphical/informational tools. It is

no longer a virtual world. It’s a networked one.

A key concept running through the book is that of “x-reality.” What do you mean by this term and how does this approach differ from some older ways of talking about online experience?

At base, I use the term X-reality to signal that we are no longer role-playing online, trying out identities as it has been proposed, but, rather, that we have harnessed the power of online networks to build the world we would like to see. That it is a real world we are building is clear; that this real world includes all kinds of technological mediation is also clear. In this sense, X-Reality is a break from prior theories of online engagement.

Historically, and here I am thinking of Sherry Turkle and Julian Dibbells’ seminal work in the 1990s exploring online communities (but we find the same perspective in the cyberpunk of William Gibson, the technofuturism of Wired, and the libertarian hacker ethos of the code writers and legal activists of the “free” Internet), cyberspace was a space away from the rest of the world. It was a place of adventure, play, and marvelous experimentation for the few who learned how to engage in that technologically compelling and difficult space.

So it is a moment of legend, where hackers were cowboys and everything was up for grabs as long as you left the body and any ideas of embodied experience out of it. Now, some twenty years after launch of the World Wide Web as the popular (and graphical) adoption of the Internet, we see a different world. In my estimation, it is an X-reality world. I mean by this idea of X-reality that we, as networked subjects, as people who engage in mediated communication of many sorts all the time, live our daily lives somewhere between what had been the virtual and what had been the real. In other words, when you send me a text message or follow me on Twitter, you are using all manner of real-time mediation without even worrying about the fact that we are reaching each other in what might reasonably described as “cyberspace.” As with the telephone and other real-time media technologies we have incorporated into our lives, we have reached a point with online networks where the distinction between the virtual of mediation and the real of embodied experience mash up into each other. In other words, increasingly we understand our world to be a porous one where the events of online exchange influence the events of the physical world. We are neither virtual nor real but a mix of theses states. And this is what I am calling X-Reality. One of the things I am grateful for is that we do not see a strong first world-versus-emerging world bias here. This is not about reliving the PC revolution of North America and Central Europe of the 1990s. The shift to X-Reality is a global one.

Another core concept here is that of the Avatar which you descirbe as a “figure of transition.” How are you defining avatar in this book? What roles do avatar play in social and mobile media as opposed to in virtual worlds?

As I discussed a bit above, I think that we all engage in deep avatar play, regardless of the platforms we use. So, for example, in a classic virtual world, you will have a little figure running around a graphical or textual world that represents you, one way or another. But the space for greatest cultural shift around avatars has not so much been virtual or game worlds but the pervasive use of social media. We are everyday using mediated forms to represent us as proxies. Avatars are figures of transition in the sense that we have already arrived at a moment where it is normal to have your Twitter persona or your Facebook page convey important information about who you are. Essentially, I think James Cameron got it right with his vision of science fiction jungle utopia. In the film Avatar, the avatars were figures of transitions, conduits to a fuller self for the protagonist Jake Sully. In our everyday experience of avatars we may not be blue, giant, or quite as magical, but we are increasingly recognizing the power of our connectivity and how we might transform ourselves. The transition I see is the shift from an idea of role-playing online to the instantiation of avatars as ambassadors–the networked presence that precedes or augments the face-to-face encounter.

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.