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Discrimination against Digital People?

August 18, 2009

Transhumanist magazine h+ has an interesting article on discrimination against “Digital People,” who use online worlds like Second Life to create a new persona that better fits how they see themselves. Keeping that separate from their physical self, however, can be a difficulty, as many people are uncomfortable working with an anonymous avatar. As one Digital Person puts it:

Many potential clients are expecting to talk to me on the phone and sign Real Life documents. I tell them that I have two options. One is total anonymity, which sometimes works because I have a pretty solid reputation in Second Life and a recognizable name. The other is I offer a Real Life proxy to sign all papers. Exactly the same as when people do business in Real Life. It’s binding. If something goes wrong, they can sue him.

I can’t seem to find a way around it. It’s very difficult to tell your client you want to remain anonymous and then say, ‘trust me.’ They immediately suspect something is wrong.

My knee-jerk response is to think people should be willing to put their “real” names on their work. I always say you should never do anything that you’re ashamed to own up to. For the most part, I use my real name online.

But that’s not really the issue here — Digital People have reputations to protect, just like anyone else. That reputation just happens to exist online. Many of them aren’t using they’re anonymity to hide what they’re doing; rather they don’t want to be encumbered by their physical selves.

Digital People don’t see themselves as well represented by their faces, voices, bodies, etc. Why shouldn’t they remain anonymous? After all, when I buy something on Amazon or eBay, I don’t expect to see that person in the physical world. I don’t expect a phone call. I don’t even usually expect an e-mail. I judge whether or not the person is likely to be trustworthy by the ratings and feedback the person has received, and I accept the risks of the margin of error.

And really, if you go to Second Life to hire someone, is it really so odd that the person would want to carry out the transaction in that forum? It’s so typical of established forces: trying desperately to branch out, lest they be left behind, but completely missing all of the cultural cues involved in their new endeavors.

That said, I have to wonder about the psychological distress of someone who feels it is necessary to completely break bonds with one’s past, one’s heritage, and one’s physical place and being. It seems to me that maybe it would be healthier to deal with it, overcome it, take pride in it. But maybe I’m the one with the identity problem — maybe I’m a little too attached to my atoms.

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