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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 January 2007, 11:28 GMT
Searching for the soul of cyberspace
Paul Mason, BBC
By Paul Mason
BBC Newsnight business correspondent

In the second part of this report, Newsnight correspondent Paul Mason continues his search for the soul of cyberspace.
A family out for a walk, BBC
Many people use the net to trace their family tree

One of the booming activities on the internet is genealogy. I got temporarily hooked on it for two weeks last year, during which my knowledge of my ancestors beyond my grandmother's generation went from zero to detailed.

But more than that, I experienced what many genealogists will recognise - an emotional rush of affinity with the people I was researching.


Not really once you remember ancestor worship, or communing with one's ancestors, was one of the big features of early religions.

My inquiries along these lines took me to Nuneaton to meet John Stephenson. I'd asked the website Ancestry.co.uk to introduce me to some of its heaviest users and John was one of them. He's found about 500 distant relatives on the Ancestry website and he described two forms of "affinity" he's come across in the process.

The first is the network effect - because Ancestry.co.uk links you to everybody else researching the same family, town or regiment, suddenly -as with World of Warcraft - you are part of an extended clan. But there's more.

"It's really a feeling of excitement," says Stephenson, when I ask him what he gets out of the research emotionally, "even though they lived 150 years ago they are part of your family. I can't talk to them - they are closer than they ever have been, before they are just names, now I get to know a bit about them, it becomes a full package."

Do you feel emotions about these people you have never met, I ask? "I do," he says. "It seems strange but a few weeks ago I found my great-great-grandmother's sister had a child that died - and I was upset. I felt pain and anguish"

Where's that coming from ? I ask "I don't know - it's a tricky one," he says.

Emotional connection

Now the experience of being a Tauren Druid in WoW and communing with people you never knew on Ancestry.co.uk are very different but they are producing the same kind of experience. John puts it into words any heavy online gamer or chatroomer or programmer would understand:

"When I'm in the metaverse, I'm physically at my computer, mentally I am at that virtual location."
Ian Hughes/Epredator Potato
"You get engrossed with what you are trying to discover, the phone may ring and you are back to 2007, but you go straight back to what you were doing - like you were in another world perhaps."

I wondered whether people are becoming so attached to their online selves and relationships that they are supplanting the real; and whether the emotions we feel during online interaction are more intense than those in real life.

To find answers I decided to go back into Second Life. Newsnight famously became the first TV programme to broadcast from within that virtual world in January 2006

I've been largely keeping out of that world over the past 12 months, because there is only so much you can see of people in daft avatar outfits dancing to disco in a virtual Irish pub before it starts to affect your work.

But last month I got myself an invite to IBM's "private island" in Second Life.

Big Blue not only has a dedicated space in Second Life but a replica of its Sussex R&D centre Hursley House. It was here I caught up with Epredator Potato, a man employed fulltime by the computer giant to be its "metaverse evangelist".

Epredator introduced me to a dozen or so IBM types and we chewed it all over, hurled friendly insults at each other and ended with a breakout session involving spinning round in mid air.

After that, my arrival at the real life Hursley House was a bit of a comedown. Epredator himself is, in real life, Ian Hughes. He's been a programmer and gamer for decades and used the Epredator handle across various platforms - so much so that the online persona is an extension of his offline self.

A virtual Paul Mason, BBC
Paul Mason returned to Second Life to seek its soul
"The avatar," he tells me, "puts a face and feeling on who it is you might be talking to. You are able to gauge what they might be like: the side of their personality they want to bring to the fore. So the conversations become more productive more quickly - you take the avatar at face value because somebody spent time and effort making it."

Tool time

IBM uses Second Life as a business tool, and has 1,000 of its 30,000-plus workforce in-world already. Ian's job is to get the rest of them there. He helped me survey 300 of his online workmates.

No, 90% of them said we don't prefer our online selves. And no, we don't express emotions more online. This latter figure was only 61%. More than a third said they do express emotions more easily in cyberspace.

Ian tells me that some IBM workers, veteran gamers like him, have been trying to work out how to capture the feeling you get when you are in a game and have a heightened feeling of affinity or comradeship:

"I would love to know how to capture it but I just know it becomes a more real experience it becomes something that settles in your brain as much as everything else. They will reminisce about things that happened online.

"It's got something - we just need to work out what that something is so we can replicate and adapt"

I asked Ian where he thought he was when in an online world?

"When I'm in the metaverse, I'm physically at my computer, mentally I am at that virtual location."

Screenshot of Second Life, BBC
Emotional involvement with an avatar is becoming more common
"So you're in a dual location?"


"And this is something new?"

"It's something that's evolving for human activity."

I put the same question to Dr Klastrup: "In a good gaming session I am in there, in the gaming world rather than being here - at the same time I have a certain distance from the character."

When I asked John Stephenson he said "I am not here, I am not in Warwickshire. Because sometimes it can be a time factor - perhaps you are 150 years ago in your head, you're thinking what the people are like, and sometimes you're in Australia or America."

What nobody gave was the flat, materialist answer that they were "only" flesh and bones sitting in front of a plastic and silicon machine, sending and receiving data over ADSL. Wertheim thinks the more we do this, the more humanity's view of itself will revert to the old, dualist body and mind approach:

She wrote: "Cyberspace is showing us the limits of the hardcore materialist view of nature that has largely ranged in the scientific world for the last 200 years - and we are going to see a rebellion against it and an insistence of that we actually have to have an understanding of the human self as part of reality."

"I think therefore I am a Tauren Druid" is not as snappy as the original but it might be the phrase that sums up how the web has begun to change who we are.

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