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STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 07/09/2013

Cyberworlds, Cyberethics, Cybermissionaries?

by Brian Glenney

“Why, if we can get back to our own world by jumping into this pool, mightn’t we get somewhere else by jumping into one of the others?” —Digory in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew

I wish I could get my hands on the magic rings used by Digory and Polly in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. I’d have the power, like them, to jump from one fantastic world to the next.

I’d find a world that suited my philosophical tastes, one where I could layer on a neo-cortex with special sensory capabilities. Echo-locating my car in the parking lot like a bat has always been a dream of mine.

A similar universe, a virtual universe, has opened up worlds akin to those envisioned by C. S. Lewis. One called Second Life allows me to create my own virtual “self” in a land as real as any on a computer screen. I meet virtual “others”—other people who are living their virtual lives simultaneously with me—and visit virtual communities: listen to a preacher’s sermon in a virtual church, or hear a lecture on a virtual college campus.

Another, the World of Warcraft, is quite similar yet constrains my actions: I must complete missions of vital importance—save maidens and vanquish dragons. (All in a day’s work, so to speak.) Both present themselves as an extension of our own actual world, a digital mirror-image of our own analogue world, populated with digital people but controlled by their “real world” counterparts.

Ah! But does my digital self have bat senses? Well, yes and no: Yes, because I program my digital self as I please; no, because it isn’t quite me who is echo-locating. But this is where things get confusing (and intriguing). For in another sense it is me echo-locating. Let me explain.

“Avatars”—a form or incarnation of the self—is the name given to these digital alter egos. The name suits since the creation and use of these “beings” is so lifelike that a recursive effect called the “proteus effect” is known to occur in the users. Avatars change the behavior of their users, not just in terms of more snacking and soda-drinking in front of the computer screen, but in terms of how the users view themselves. For instance, if an avatar is tall, the user of that avatar is more likely to behave with the confidence of a tall person in his real “analogue” world.

How else might avatars affect self-understanding? Might there be, for instance, something more than a morale booster in having tall, good-looking avatars? Might there be moral implications to certain ways in which an avatar is used? In other words, is there a moral component to my avatar—a digital soul, so to speak?

No. Or so I would say when the question is posed directly. But this is my rational self speaking, a self that is often out of touch with my moral self—a self wrapped up in a confused array of intuitions and sentiments. If I consult my intuition, my answer regarding the moral status of an avatar is different.

For instance, when I ask whether a married man, whose avatar has had a sexual encounter with another avatar, has himself committed adultery, I intuit that some kind of affair has occurred—something more than a mere imaginative encounter but something less than a real encounter; something to be met with disapprobation nonetheless. Oddly enough, I am also inclined to consider the avatar itself as having behaved inappropriately; and hence, I saddle the avatar with some kind of moral status.

I’m not the only one with pear-shaped intuitions. Many of my students—students who use the low-grade avatars of chat rooms and Facebook—hold similarly conflicting intuitions. Out of a survey I conducted on 105 unsuspecting Gordon College students, 94 denied that avatars are moral beings (85 percent), but more than half of them (55 percent) felt that they enabled real affairs of their users.

Even more surprising, a third (38 percent) felt that the avatar itself (or him/herself) was morally culpable in such situations. This clash of intuitions suggests that the realism of digital technology presents a special challenge to our understanding of what constitutes a moral being. What I think makes the ethical status of avatars so unclear is that their very category of being is tied to their existence as an extension of a user—a moral user. In other words, the virtual reality of the digital world seems to provide a unique space for human activity; a space that many philosophical psychologists, like myself, have manipulated in other ways for other purposes.

For instance, one of the central projects of my philosophical psychology lab is the engineering and facilitation of sensory substitution devices—computing devices that translate colors from a head camera into sounds heard through headphones. Subjects wearing these devices are able to blindly navigate in their environment by “hearing” its colors. Like avatars, these “sound-colors” are not quite real colors, nor are they purely imaginative. What they are is, like the moral status of avatars, still under investigation.

I want to suggest that it is our unfamiliarity with avatars and sound-colors that generates our confused intuitions about them. Those who have significant familiarity with avatars, for instance, view them as no more problematic than fictional characters.

They do, however, blink an eye when I mention the proteus effect—the changes in self-understanding that occur in avatar users. But it’s a blink of excitement. They see the digital world as an area of outreach—a cyber mission field exploding with opportunities to share Christ’s love and to thereby positively affect the self-understanding of other avatar users. These digital missionaries deserve our consideration. After all, if cyberspace is the new mission field, you may be financially and prayerfully supporting one in the near future.

Brian Glenney, Ph.D., works primarily on the philosophy of perception, in particular with how we perceive shape by sight and touch. He and his wife, Lisa, have four children.


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