Avatar


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09/Dec/2013

'Avatar' as a term was almost unknown before the 2009 film of that name, except by students of Hindu beliefs, in fantasy role-playing games (FRPGs), starting in the 1970s, and in the online virtual world of 'Second Life' (SL; 2003 onwards). The classical definition is "A manifestation of a deity in bodily form on Earth", which is also the meaning in FRPGs; more generally an incarnation or manifestation of a person. In SL an avatar is the means by which a person interacts with the virtual world, as a 3d virtual 'body'.

In the film 'Avatar' the hero is able to walk around on an alien world in a physical body which wasn't the one he was born with. In FRPGs, even the pencil-and-paper, table-top ones, you could call the player-character an 'avatar', as without this the player isn't 'in' the game. SL is useless, except maybe to a systems administrator, without an avatar.

A good argument can be made that whenever a human interacts with a computer system, in anything but the most trivial anonymous way, some sort of avatar is involved. The human has a representation, a model, within the computer system, which interacts with the system on their behalf. This isn't anything mystical, but is needed so the system knows something about who is interacting, their requirements, and can confirm that the human is who they say they are, possibly over a considerable period of multiple interactions.

'Identity Theft' is a major modern problem, though the idea of impersonating someone, typically for illegal gain, goes back a long way. More and more of modern life, in the early 21stC, depends on information held in computer systems, and the link that enables humans to use this information is the representation, the model, which the system holds of the human. This link depends on 'shared secrets', sometimes combined with biometrics. In poetic terms, your avatar is becoming more and more of your life.

How should the above be dealt with? Unless you advocate a 'back to nature' approach, which would likely result in the death of 90% or more of the population, or a fundamental change in human nature, the answer would seem to be a smarter version of the human-avatar link.

(c) ROMsys Ltd, December 2013, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes

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