Now there’s a question that has perplexed scientists, philosophers and, probably many of the people reading this right now, down through the ages.
There are many definitions of ‘life’, ranging from the broadly inclusive, through to the explicitly exclusive. How we define being ‘alive’ varies depending on our own personal viewpoint. There are those who will insist that the truest indication of being alive is sentience, whereas most will take a more conservative view and will say that anything capable of respiring and growing is – for our purposes at least – alive. Many of us will have pondered how life may have evolved elsewhere, perhaps in the far-distant reaches of the galaxy – a more challenging prospect entirely – are breathing, growing or any of our more traditional methods for defining ‘living’ adequate when it comes to dealing with alien beings?
What about artificial life? Can an automaton ever achieve the distinction of being a living organism? Where do we draw the line? Would a robot, with parts grown from organic materials and possessing an artificial intelligence – perhaps a neural network – capable of learning and making moral judgments, be considered ‘alive’? It’s not as simple an argument as we might wish.
It’s a problem that arises not just out of the complexity of the abundance of possibilities, but also out of the inadequacy of our perception. What one person might define as a living, another might consider to be completely inert. It becomes even more complex when we start to consider some of the more esoteric and nebulous ways of interpreting ‘living’ – the capacity to interact with others, the ability to influence, the ability to experience the world around us. You know where i’m going with this, don’t you?
You may be wrong though… don’t think for one minute that i’m in any way suggesting that our sl avatars are alive in any sense of the word: that’s stretching things just a little bit beyond the realms of reasonableness. However, i have no difficulty at all in suggesting that it’s perfectly possible for us – the people behind those avatars – to experience a life that is entirely separate and distinct from the usual definitions we might apply to living, through the medium of our avatars and their interactions with each other and the virtual environment.
That seems like a pretty obvious premise – it’s not called Second Life for nothing – however this alternative life is such that it is quite possible for us to imbue our lifeless creations with all the characteristics and nuances of living things, to the point at which they are sufficiently convincing to persuade others, and more importantly, ourselves that they actually possess some sort of life-force. How many of us, for example, not only find ourselves relating to the avatars of others, rather than the people behind them, but doing so only through the character of our avatar, rather than our real selves? Sometimes i find it almost disturbing if i have to think of those around me in terms of real people, or if something should breach the gap between my avatar and the real me. Maybe i’m just a bit weird? It’s not unusual for me to find myself disliking a fully completed real life tab in a profile, especially if there’s a rl photo too – sl does belong in sl – and the same is true for voice. To illustrate my point – i have a friend who has a brilliant laughing gesture, it’s one i associate intimately with her avatar; if i was to hear her laugh for real, whilst in the company of her avatar, it would seem wrong and completely disrupt the picture that i’ve built up around her inworld presence.
‘Living’ may not be a valid appraisal of what our avatars do, but it could certainly be argued that we ourselves can live vicariously through our avatars. Indeed, there are those in sl whose virtual lives are infinitely more interesting, diverse, exciting and fulfilling than the real thing and, whilst they’re experiencing life through the eyes of their avatar, it is very much to the exclusion of external stimuli and the environment outside the confines of the screen. Living, it seems, need not be limited to our physical environs – we can choose to experience life at a distance and, despite its obvious limitations and artifice, it can feel as valid as the real thing.
They chose well, when they decided to call this platform Second Life – for some, maybe a great many, that’s exactly what it is.
Wouldn’t it be good to be on your side
The grass is always greener over there
And wouldn’t it be good
If we could live without a care
Nik Kershaw – Wouldn’t It Be Good