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Earl R. Smith II, PhD
DrSmith@Dr-Smith.com
Dr-Smith.com

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When I begin to work with a person, one of the first things that we focus on is the nature of the virtual representation that is put forth as the 'true' representation - the mask that they wear when dealing with the world as they find it. Most of them begin by steadfastly affirming that "this is the real me". But there quickly arises a tension between that contention and the experience of their life as they are living it. Mentoring is about helping people make transformational journeys - about helping them find and follow the path that they were meant to tread.

The early mentoring sessions tend to focus on the dissatisfaction that underlies a feeling that what they are doing with their life is not what they should be doing with it. The goal is not to directly attack the dissatisfaction - it is to find the underlying cause. Henry David Thoreau said it well. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." People come to me for help in letting the song out - of finding the purpose and meaning of their life.

One of the first areas that we focus on is the Avatar - no, not the movie but the synthetic representation of self that most people project as a purely defense mechanism in order to maintain control and a comfortable distance from the rest of the world. It's tough to get this into focus for many people and initially a source of destabilizing vertigo for most for it represents a direct challenge to the vision that we carry around of our self and our presence in the world.

One way that I have found to ease this part of the journey is to focus on anti-humanism. Under the theory that sometimes starting off left to get right is a good approach, we spend time thinking about and discussing the impact of advancing technology on human relationships. Here is something of how I approach it.

Not There, Nowhere

Much is made these days of the extended reach that all of us have gained because of the development of ‘communications tools’ like the internet, e-mail, social marketing sites and professional and social networking organizations. But there are costs that don’t seem to find their way into discussions about this brave new world of interconnectivity.

It seems to me that several important components of human relationships have taken a beating over the last several decades and that the denigration of their importance and value is directly related to the anti-humanist nature of the new technologies and new[1] vision of how humans develop and maintain healthy relationships.

Anti-Humanism

For my purposes here I am using the term anti-humanism to mean an individual’s preference for technology-mediated relationships which insulate them from direct contact with other individuals. Elsewhere I have written about the tendencies which result in this preference but here I want to focus on some of the collateral damage that it causes to the very fabric of any culture and to the people who inhabit it.

Freedom to be an Avatar

Probably the most notable [advantage] of technology-mediated relationships is the incredible flexibility that it allows when it comes to self-definition.[2]This advantage comes from the ease with which a person can ‘make up’ a personality or history and promulgate it with relative impunity.

At the core of this [freedom] is the proposition that who you represent yourself to be should have more to do with who you should be or need to be than who you are or ought to be.[3]The ease of this creation induces a tendency towards larceny – sometime on a truly epic scale.

This behavior is ‘empowered’ by the very nature of internet-based technologies and the fact that most of the people participating are simply stretched too thin to be bothered with the efforts of verification let alone disclosure. To say it another way, the relationships simply do not have sufficient substance or importance to make it worth the effort to verify the truth or lies. The internet, in all its incarnations, prefers the avatar to the person – the digital representation to the messy details that each human represents. And those who use it are forced into this value proposition or marginalized as static.

Pretty much since the 60s Americans in particular have been worshiping in this anti-humanist temple.[4] At the same time that traditional culture was dissolving – families were breaking up and dispersing – and a vocal generation was insisting that they had a new vision for society – technology was advancing in ways which would allow the refinement of this new anti-humanist vision of human relationships.

You see, the real challenge of direct human contact and deep personal relationships is to a person’s vision of self-worth. In the anti-humanist vision of reality, the difficulties of building and maintaining such relationships came to be seen as unnecessary overhead – there is an easier, far less painful and exposing way.[5]

Veracity Where Are Thou?

When Avatars define existence one of the first casualties is the idea of veracity.[6] If you can make up whom it is that you present yourself to be then why not take a bit of literary license and embellish?

The transition here is from the traditional idea that every individual is the author of their own life to the idea that every individual is the author of the virtual representation of their virtual life. Once that leap has been made the entire idea of non-virtual veracity becomes an inconvenience.

Think about it this way – what are you really to an avatar with whom you have [connected]? Mostly you represent an occasional e-mail – a stream of ones and zeros – a co-conspirator in the game of mutually agreed upon self-deception and self-denial – a consenting player in the great anti-humanist game – a safe haven from the reality that refuses to cooperate or play the game by the rules.

Within the confines of the virtual, relationships become disposable and the threshold for their abandonment becomes very low indeed. Because there are so many opportunities for new, fresh avatar-to-avatar [connections], why fuss over one that has become a bother. A click and it is gone.

One of the surest triggers for that ‘click’ is the request for veracity – an effort to see behind the mask that is the avatar. The entire anti-humanist project is to provide protection from the prying eyes of others – a mask that hides the naked truth. And to understand why that is such an offensive request, we need to take a look at the relative values of the real and virtual.

Which is Truer?

Anti-humanist existence – if it is to be tolerable at all – depends on the revision of values – in fact, the inversion of values. What is ‘real’ cannot be allowed to be true until the definition of what is [real] has been transformed to mean what is defined as [real] in virtual[7] terms.Once this jump has been made, the idea of truth becomes benign and completely supportive of the anti-humanist project – the accommodation had been made.

Here is an example. I occasionally have had people recommended others to me. When I ask “how well do you know them” I get “I met them online – they seem to be a great person.” Further inquire only brings a repeat of the original description. I realize that their support of this person’s avatar is based on an acceptance of the truth of that avatar and a calculated ignorance of the person who exists behind it.

But why ratify the virtual? That question bothered me for quite some time until I realized that it wasn’t ratification but self-ratification that was in play. By representing the avatar of the other as real they were doing the same for their avatar(s) – it was a re-statement of the rules of the game and an announcement that they have accepted those rules and would comply completely. In other words it was a declaration of the abandonment of the true self for the virtual one.

Provisional Morality

The current generations are likely to go down in history as some of the most morally corrupt in history. That is not because they are essentially evil – but because the entire idea of morality is now considered mostly tangential to human relationships. Whole industries have evolved based on the marketing of lies - a now socially acceptable form of parasitic behavior. No longer is the onus on the provider to be ethical – honest and considerate – but on the buyer to avoid being taken in. But in a virtual world all there is is being taken in and all there are are buyers!

Once morality has been relegated to ‘provisional’ status, the field opens up to all sorts of behaviors which can be legitimized merely by the contention that they are ethical. Once the virtual demonstration of ethical behavior becomes the currency of determining morality, the entire world becomes a silly putty mass that can be formed and reformed at will.

Identity Theft

It is notable that the crime of identify theft is thriving in a virtual world that began with the anti-humanist intention to abandon identity in favor of virtual identity. Identity theft is really the theft of that virtual identity – the hijacking of the avatar. And the crime is only possible if the virtual has become more real than the actual.

But identity theft is not limited to subversion of entire avatars – it also involves the denigration of concepts and ideals which have historically been important to a stable definition of the human self. For instance the idea of intimacy becomes transformed when it is intimacy with avatars.[8] One of the great assumptions of the anti-humanist project is that humans can do without all sorts of things that they thought they really needed. Technology modifies this assumption – humans can exist on virtual representation of those things which they thought they really needed. I strongly suspect that this assumption is tragically wrong.

Ephemeral Accountability

All that is virtual is ephemeral – it has no enduring substance and, therefore, it bears no responsibility for its actions or their costs.

Although this statement might sound strange, it is as true as true can be. Think of it this way – would you blame a ventriloquist’s dummy for a murder committed by the ventriloquist simply because that dummy was the weapon used to commit the crime? An avatar is a virtual representation – made and presented without any necessary reference its veracity – is, in fact, a ventriloquist’s dummy – only it is made of bits rather than wood.

The mask hides the true criminal and the crimes begin with the deception of the creation of the mask. But, if the only relationship is with the avatar, what or who do you hold accountable? The anonymity of the person behind the avatar – carefully protected by law and technology – is insulated from such accountability – as are those who provide the mechanisms to constructing and promulgating the masks.

Humans now find themselves unaccountable for acting humanly – and all who they relate to are strangers – and virtual strangers at that. No one is a person – only bits of data. There are no individuals – only data to be exploited. The very nature of relationships becomes both predatory and calculatingly deceitful.

Caveat Emptor All Around

The very nature of this new form of [human relationships] is that in a fundamental sense we are all, to the extent that we consent to participate in the anti-humanist project, buyers – buyers of the entire idea that the virtual is the new reality and that there is enough substance and sustenance in the virtual to satisfy human needs to be a social animal. But I suspect that there is danger in this assumption and that a [truth] unproven is no better than a [validated] lie.

Now Back to the Matter at Hand

All of this might seem a bit off target if my purpose is to get a person to focus on the self-created virtually reality that they have been insisting is their real self. But I have found that it allows a very personal and sensitive issue to be approached without burning down the whole house or overloading the circuits and burning them. completely out.[9] Coming to terms with the fact that a mask that you have manufactured - built out of your fears and feelings of inadequacy - is what you are presenting to the world takes a great deal of courage. One thing I can say, if this part of the journey is well taken, the rest is considerably easier.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II


 

[1] and unproven …

[2] I’ll put terms in brackets to highlight my belief that terms like [advantage] actuallyshould have the reverse meaning

[3] The press is always carrying stories about politicians, movie stars, executives and preachers who have spent their lives pontificating only to face a time of truth and admission – the avatar is sheared away – ecce home!!!

[4] The great icon of this 60s generation was Star Trek’s Spock – who interestingly shared his name with a famous baby doctor and was occasionally forced – much to his shame – to experience and evidence human emotions.

[5] Spock solves this problem by burying his human side under his Vulcan one.Since he was half human and half Vulcan he could have gone either way – but he chose the anti-humanist path.Also, it seems significant that his father was Vulcan and mother was human.This suppression of the feminine is starkly Christian.

[6] Here used to mean adherence to the truth; truthfulness - conformity to fact or truth; accuracy or precision: a report of doubtful veracity.Something that is true.

[7] and provisional …

[8] Something of the difference between food and virtual food

[9] Soprry for the mangled metaphor but, hopefully, it will help you understand what I am getting at.

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