Pixels of life

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around, does it make a sound? Does the world really exist outside my door, once it’s closed? If you put a cat in a box with a bottle of poison, do you have a half-dead/half-alive cat, or does it just make itself stupidly comfortable and go to sleep?

These are the sort of questions that philosophers, drunk students and men in pubs have debated over since booze began and will no doubt do so until the world is taken over by flesh eating robot zombie aliens, some time in the distant future, (most likely, late next December, according to the Mayans – i’d hold back on the Christmas shopping, if i were you). You could ask some of the same questions about sl… Does any of it really exist once we log off? If there’s no-one on a Sim, is it still there? If you put a breedable cat in your inv. is it a half-rezzed/half-unrezzed moggie?

If you find yourself often pondering these sort of questions about sl: a) you probably need to get out more and, b) you may need psychiatric help! That aside, these sort of philosophical questions do suggest to me some characteristics that underpin the fundamental nature of both life and SLife, (although i’d hesitate to suggest they tell us much about the nature of cats, virtual or otherwise). The experiences that we understand as life/SLife, although they might appear to us to be continuous in nature – and certainly we perceive experience as analogue in form – are not as they first seem. This becomes evident when we consider sl, since at its most basic micro level we know that it is an entirely digital construct: Similarly, although maybe not quite so obvious to us, when we consider it on a macro level, the same principles apply.

Nobody spends all day, every day logged continuously into sl; and, whilst our overall impression of SLife is that it is one continuous, linear flow, in reality it’s delivered to us in small packets on time online, interspersed with time offline; each online session bringing its own contribution to the whole… in any 24 hour period, i might only spend some 2 hours of that time in sl; sometimes more, sometimes less, however the over-riding impression that i have is one of a continuous, pretty much unbroken, stream of experience. The 22 hours in between being logged into rl are immaterial and essentially cease to exist, other than to provide information that can feed into and inform my sl existence. In this way, my sl experience seems to me a continuous, contiguous flow – it’s exactly the same as a large file saved on a hard disk, split into multiple segments in various locations, yet when i view the contents of the file, i’m completely unaware of the gaps and see only the complete file. On a global scale, as on the micro, sl is a digital experience.

The same is true – although less obvious – in rl.

The human brain is a remarkable thing, capable of storing and retrieving vast amounts of information – however, it has its limitations. Whether it’s possible to retain a whole lifetime’s experience within the brain’s capacity is another unanswerable question – i’d say it’s unlikely. Yet, we’re incredibly adept at retaining information in the form of memory and, more remarkably, we can do so within context and in a form that provides us with a continuous and linear experience of life to refer back to. Again, we tend to think of our experiences as analogue in form, yet on numerous levels we stitch together a picture of the world around us – which then becomes ‘experience’ – by sampling packets of information… Yep, i really am contending that the way in which we experience life is digitised!

Take eyesight, although the theory of persistence of vision, (which in simple terms suggests that everything we see is split up into 25th of a second chunks), is pretty much considered nonsense these days, with more weight being given to beta movement, (where the brain assumes what is happening in the gaps between what we’re seeing and ‘makes up’ the bit that joins them), even if our eyes and brain were capable of collecting and interpreting a truly continuous stream of information, it’s still not the full picture. Imagine walking down the street in a busy city – our experience of that situation is made up of lots of difference packets of information from multiple sources… The sounds we hear, what we see with our eyes; the assumptions we make about what we can’t see and what those sounds mean; our senses of smell, taste and touch also feed into the picture, as do more esoteric influences: Our mood, circumstances, even the company we may be in. Our brain arranges all these separate ‘pixels’ into a coherent picture of the event – and it is that digitised picture that becomes our remembered experience.

Still with me? Good. Similarly, just as in sl, our life experience conveniently misses out the vast bulk of things that happen to us, and what is left – the chunks of life that matter to us – becomes one long continuous experience. So, whilst we won’t recall every single time we walked down that city street, other than in very generic terms, we will remember the occasion someone stole our handbag – and we’ll remember the context, the events surrounding it and when it happened relative to the rest of our lives. It’s no different from perceiving our SLives as one continuous experience, even though we won’t recall the minutiae of every session or the non-sl bits between visits.

Does it really matter anyway? The same question could be asked about all those deep philosophical conundrums i posed at the beginning of this post, and it is itself, a question that could be debated ad-infinitum. i think it does matter – not so much for sl but certainly in real-world terms.

In the main, our virtual experience is a positive thing – it’s about socialising, creativity, enjoyment and relaxation – these are the chunks we remember and which form the bulk of our SLife experience, (let’s call these chunks ‘paxels’ – macro pixels). Although the not so good stuff like falling out with people, inventory losses, bad experiences etc feature, they tend to merge into the background, so when we grumble about lag, for example, it’ll be in very generic and corporate memory terms… try to tie us down to a specific instance and, apart from the most recent occurrence, we’ll struggle to come up with one.

With rl, the stuff that makes up our experience is far more important. Our paxels – the packets of information and events that contribute to experience – are going to be both positive and negative and how these are weighted is going to influence the way we are and the way we respond to the world around us. Consequently, it stands to reason that we owe it to ourselves to make as many of those moments as positive as possible – commonsense, yes, however it’s not necessarily something that we all do or indeed, find particularly easy.

Perhaps we should apply sl principles to rl a little more frequently? – If we’re able to seek out the positives and make them our raison d’être for being in sl whilst letting the negatives merge into the background, (or even joke about them and make them into further opportunities for fun), then why shouldn’t we do the same in rl too? Of course, the real world isn’t going to fit in with our plans and we are, to a certain extent subject to its whims – and i’m not going to suggest for one minute that life is a bowl of cherries – but what’s to stop us from trying? Maybe it is a bit too much to expect anyone to make wholesale changes to their world view, just like that; but what about the little things? Start small – at pixel level – and work upwards… it’s got to be worth a try!

s. x

“Life isn’t about endings – it’s a series of moments.”
Tim – The Office

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