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Have your avatar tweet my avatar and we’ll do a virtual lunch.

By ROGER SCRUTON [New Atlantis] – In its normal occurrence, the Facebook encounter is still an encounter — however attenuated — between real people. But increasingly, the screen is taking over — ceasing to be a medium of communication between real people who exist elsewhere, and becoming the place where people finally achieve reality, the only place where they relate in any coherent way to others. This next stage is evident in the “avatar’ phenomenon, in which people create virtual characters in virtual worlds as proxies for themselves, so enabling their controllers to live in complete self-complacency behind the screen, exposed to no danger and yet enjoying a kind of substitute affection through the adventures of their cyber-ego.

The game Second Life offers a virtual world and invites you to enter it in the form of an avatar constructed from its collection of templates. It has its own currency, in which purchases can be made in its own stores. It rents spaces to avatars as their homes and businesses. By late 2009, the company that created Second Life announced that its user base had collectively logged more than a billion hours in the system and had conducted business transactions worth more than a billion dollars.

Second Life also provides opportunities for “social” action, with social positions achieved by merit — or, at any rate, virtual merit. In this way people can enjoy, through their avatars, cost-free versions of the social emotions, and can become heroes of “compassion,” without lifting a finger in the real world. In one notorious incident in 2007, a man attempted to sue an avatar for theft of his Second Life intellectual property. The property itself was an “adult entertainment” product — one among many such Second Life products now available that enable your cyber-ego to realize your wildest fantasies at no risk to yourself. There have been many reports of couples who have never met in person conducting adulterous affairs entirely in cyberspace; they usually show no guilt towards their spouses, and in fact proudly display their emotions as though they had achieved some kind of moral breakthrough by ensuring that it was only their avatars, and not they themselves, that ended up in bed together.

Most people probably would see this as an unhealthy state of affairs.

Continued at New Atlantis | Also in the Fortnightly Review: Lost in the loneliness of anti-social networks | More Chronicle & Notices.

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