10 November 2010

Avatar Abuse

Last evening, whilst watching television, I noticed an advert for a bread product called "Genius". It wasn't the nonsensical name of the product that caught my eye but the fact that they were using a CGI'd Albert Einstein to promote it. I have been thinking for a while about this growing trend of "re-animating" dead people to use for commercial purposes. I am not altogether comfortable with it.

The famous faces being portrayed are dead, so the use/abuse of their "image" is of no concern to them. My argument is not really to do with dignity either, as I often wonder about the true motivation of those seeking to preserve the "dignity" of the dead. Neither is this connected to the issue of rights or legality: some individual or corporate body (sic) has presumably sold the rights to the deceased's "image" to the marketeers: I am sure the transactions were all above board - at least within the hopelessly anachronistic confines of our current legal systems. My concern is the larger issue of the overall control of the wider "self" or avatar.

It's unlikely that Einstein (for example) would have spent a great deal of time worrying about how his image might be used after his death. He may not have imagined the technology that would make such accurate visual re-animation possible. We can be pretty sure, however, that given a choice of uses of his avatar, having it punting bread-products would not have been high on his list. But this is a flippant example. Now imagine your avatar being used for purposes you positively detest: you were a conservationist but your avatar is a smiling apologist for an oil company; you were an atheist but your avatar is a kiddie-fiddling priest; you were a lifelong anti-militarist but your avatar is a gun-runner in an 18-cert blood and guts video game. And so on. We may get the chance, if we are forced down this route, to protect against these abuses in our wills. But the less-recently deceased will not.

I think that this kind of burgeoning abuse is connected to our own mistaken "body centrism": we think of ourselves as self-contained units of being - homunculi driving our own "self-tanks" across the battlefields of daily life. You forget that you are probably the only people that sees yourself that way. Every other person perceives us differently: we are one person to our mothers; another to our wives/husbands; another to our colleagues at work. And in the wider sense we are even less definable: we are more like a story; a web of impressions and moments; a collection of images both still and moving. One that persists for others even after we die.

If one steps back for a moment and looks at the avatar as the "extended self", then everything changes. From this point of view there is a very real (if diluted) part of our "self" in every representation of that self. In this scenario there is a part of Albert Einstein in the horrible Genius bread man. If you think about it another way it must be true, otherwise why would the advertisers wish to use his image in the first place? A portrayal of Albert Einstein with no Albert Einstein in it would be an empty thing indeed. Kind of like a food with absolutely no nutritional value.

I think that the realisation of the concept of the avatar is a good thing. Avatars let us extend ourselves outwards to touch other realities, and to communicate with other people in new and diverse ways. But what happens to the avatar when the "host" dies? Perhaps we have some responsibility to protect those fragile ghosts from the machinations of those who would seek to abuse them.