The Rise of Avatarism

The next decade is going to be wild, and weird. The wave of disruption sweeping over our society from the Big Bang-like creation of the Internet seems to only be accelerating, and many long dreamed-of technologies such as AI, AR, VR, decentralized trust, and biological augmentation seem to be on the cusp of delivering seismic shocks to our institutions, cultures, and even what it means to be human.

These changes will come to be seen as the catalysts for the arrival of second-wave liberalism. Much like the first Enlightenment, we should expect the second one to be tumultuous, confusing, and at times, scary. Many will find themselves in a world they no longer recognize, much like those who were terrified as the old order of the church and aristocracy crumbled around them and the great chain of being unraveled.

One thread which will emerge in this new tapestry of ideas is the largely liberal movement of avatarism. Much like the printing press was a technological prerequisite for endowed rights like freedom of speech to become recognized and secured, the rights which avatarism will seek to secure will gain universal relevance with the arrival of virtual and augmented reality visors (described below.)

Before reading further, note that some of the possible implications of avatarism may be surprising, offensive, or downright revolting. This article isn’t meant to be an endorsement of avatarism, but a map to help you better see the terrain ahead. Avatarism will upset large parts of the social order. Some will embrace it, but many will resist it as a threat to their entire worldview. Frankly, I am not sure where I personally land on most of the questions it raises. Like you, my opinions will solidify as these issues become more relevant to my own life and the lives of those I care about.

Avatarism, like all -isms, isn’t a single belief but a constellation of interconnected beliefs that share a few common roots. There will be tacit supporters, moderates, and even extremists in this movement. Here, I will attempt to predict what the various flavors of avatarism and their adherents might look like.

But first, I’ll sketch out the core of what avatarism is, and then describe how it will emerge, catalyze, and come to permeate much of our discourse.

What is Avatarism?

Avatarism is a movement to recognize and protect the fundamental human right of freedom of form. Like freedom of speech, freedom of form is a claim on an endowed right to free expression. And like the right to bear arms, it is a right which will suddenly gain relevancy after specific technological breakthroughs.

Specifically, freedom of form is the right to choose the form in which you are seen by others.

This is a rather strange concept to imagine in general, nevermind one which will one day be seen as important enough to codify as a universal human right. What does it even mean? Despite the temptation to seek out good analogies, most analogies fall short.

Other than rare practices like full body modification or costumes, people typically do not attempt to radically change or replace their physical form. Many go their entire lives without even considering it. And for those who do, they’ll make such changes a small number of times, usually retaining much of their prior form out of necessity (such as when changing their gender presentation.)

Body modification enthusiasts are rare given the immense personal costs of permanently altering your physical form. Soon, taking on these kinds of forms will be less life-altering than changing clothes. (Credit: HuffPost)

Soon our physical form will become subservient to one or more virtualized ones. Fully controlling how we are seen by others will become more accessible, frequent, common, and culturally accepted, and be less like a radical, life-altering event, and much closer to how we think of changing our clothes today.

What are the consequences of our freedom of form in a world where it’s easy to change it?

Perhaps one day if a person claims they are not a cat, and, against their wishes, you continue to interact with them as a cat, it will be seen as a violation of their rights.

Weird, huh?

How Avatarism will emerge

If this movement emerges, it won’t materialize out of nothing.

Avatarism will emerge from:

  • Groups of people benefiting from virtualized avatars,
  • Who are harmed by oppressive power structures which inhibit their ability to be seen how they wish,
  • That will cause them to demand recognition and protection of their freedom of form,
  • Along with catalysts and network effects which will lead these concerns to expand to all of us.

It turns out, this all now seems evident, for reasons described next. And so, avatarism seems certain to emerge and grow into a universally recognized, coherent movement.

Pre-adopters

Today, many are benefiting from virtualized avatars or by completely overriding their physical forms. Avatar chat apps and online games have allowed millions to embody avatars. In my own work, I’ve directly observed the benefits of avatar-based representation, seeing it reduce social anxiety and help people construct entire social lives they otherwise would have not had. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many turned to using avatars to offset “Zoom fatigue.” Gaming literacy, which fosters the normalization of avatars, will eventually be as common as reading literacy.

Meanwhile, phone-based augmented reality is taking off, letting people experiment with fully overriding how they appear to others. Snapchat filters, AR-generated clothing, and celebrity deepfakes are getting more and more sophisticated and accessible to your average person. Phone AR provides a literal and figurative window into the future.

Phone AR avatars give us a glimpse of what is to come. (Credit: Road to VR)

All of these point to a wider trend of virtualized, avatar-based representations becoming widely accepted and embraced.

Motives for the avatarist movement

Most of these developments are happening organically and, for the most part, are not yet being directed towards reshaping society around the goals of avatarism. However, we can start to see the early conflicts that will seed the demand for a unified movement for protections around freedom of form.

There are large differences between the avatar chat applications available today in the degree they empower or constrain avatar representations. Some, like Mozilla Hubs or VRChat, allow the use of any humanoid avatar the user can create themselves. Many others constrain avatar choices to photo-realistic or semi-realistic humanoids, intended to reflect a person’s physical appearance. And some, like Jel, constrain choices to extremely abstract avatars, which allows expressiveness while not pressuring people to embody avatars which mirror their physical appearance.

Avatar chat apps can impose constraints or assumptions around what avatar choices we ought to make.

Power over representation is already being distributed unevenly in these various environments: sometimes the centralized platform owners exhibit immense power over individuals’ choices, and sometimes individuals exert power over other individuals in how they are seen. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any unifying movement to advocate for restraining these power structures in accordance with protecting our freedom of form, though some holistic frameworks for XR ethics have been proposed that touch on these concerns.

Everything unfolding currently affects a relatively a small number of people in tightly bounded contexts. Lives are not yet being widely damaged through violations of freedom of form. But if the status quo of existing avatar systems and their embedded power structures were magnified to envelope all human affairs, similar to how social media has magnified to a global phenomenon over the last decade or two, there would be widespread demand for a coherent movement to protect the right to choose how we appear to others. That movement is avatarism.

Catalysts for global reach

Before the avatarism movement will coalesce, avatars must first become understood as being as relevant in our lives as our physical form. To get there, one or more catalyzing events must occur. These events will be defined by one key characteristic: they will radically expand the contexts where avatars can be used in lieu of our physical form.

For most people today, avatars are secondary forms, subservient to our primary physical form which is felt to be our “real” self. Avatars are typically used exclusively online, in social media or in games. In-person interactions, professional spaces, or other “third places” have the norm of appearing as our “real”, physical form.

This is going to change soon, with the arrival of devices which unlock a capability I refer to as full photonic override. Specifically, we will soon have augmented and virtual reality devices (likely in the form of hybrid, pass-through camera over-the-eye visors or goggles) which will allow software to fully control everything we see while incorporating the outside world. A glimpse of the potential of full override can be seen with Phone AR, which fully allows software to modify, remove, or replace what is seen by the camera. Imagine two such cameras on the front of a pair of opaque goggles, which feed themselves into screens on the inside, and you have the general idea of a passthrough, hybrid visor.

Apple’s rumored VR/AR hybrid headset may be more magical and disruptive than this sketch alludes to. (Credit: The Information)

Passthrough visors will take us a step further beyond phone AR by covering our entire field of view and hence will allow software to have full control over all of our visual and auditory perception. High resolution displays on the front will render expressive eyes driven by eye tracking, which will allow wearers to make bidirectional eye contact with anyone not wearing one. With these visors, it becomes possible to convincingly remove and replace people with their virtualized avatars. This will be indistinguishable from magic, using simulated lighting and advanced rendering such that the naked eye will be unable to tell that these avatar replacements are anything other than real.

Once the public can see, for the first time, other people being fully, convincingly replaced in front of them with new, fantastical forms they can fully customize, it will be clear where things are headed.

It will be obvious these devices will rapidly become smaller, cheaper, more comfortable, and eventually ubiquitous. And in that world, you will, for the first time, be able to take on whatever form you wish as your “primary” form, leaving your physical form now (and forever) behind as the subservient, secondary representation you were born with, one only seen by others during childhood and by your closest loved ones behind closed doors.

Avatarism emerges

Once our avatars have a place in our minds equal to or even superior to our physical self in how we are seen by others, we will feel a deep need to secure and protect our right to forever be able to be seen how we wish.

One day, a person will be victimized by having their avatar altered or removed under the sight of others in a way that harms them.

They will assert their right to freedom of form in court. And they will win.

Avatarism and liberalism

Some extremists within avatarism will have deeply illiberal beliefs, such as a belief that people should be forced to wear passthrough visors when interacting with them. However, some kind of freedom of form will be accepted as a human right within the liberal framework. Like other such rights, its legal protections and the cultural norms surrounding it will be hotly debated and will slowly evolve over time.

Avatarism and personal liberty

Liberalism is centered on personal liberty. Avatarism presents hard questions around such liberties. While advertising my preferred form seems like an obvious application of freedom of speech, what about you, who observes me? Where does my freedom of form end and your freedom to shield your eyes from me begin?

With our physical form, these questions seem a bit easier to answer. If a plastic surgeon alters my face, when we are together you have no choice but to see my new form. In the physical world, within the inherent limitations of body modification, reality itself seems to secure my right to be seen how I wish. But does it? The following thought experiment highlights the dilemma we will face once virtualized forms become widely embraced.

Let’s say I enjoy the look of popular fictional character who happens to be entirely blue. At some point I develop a desire to replicate this look and become blue myself. I head to the local tattoo parlor, emerging with my entire body inked with a bright, blue hue. As I look in the mirror I’m overjoyed: I look ridiculously awesome.

Now, imagine a colleague at work who loathes the the idea of blue humans. One day, I walk into their office, and they put on a pair of blue-filtering sunglasses. To them, I now appear as muddy grey, a look I find disgusting, but which they prefer. As I chat with my colleague, I struggle to accept that they’ve not just chosen to subvert how I wish to be seen, but now see me in a way I find detestable.

Left: how I wish to be seen. Right: how my colleague’s glasses lets him see me. Is he violating my rights? (Credit: gomezcasseres on deviantart)

Is my colleague violating my rights by putting on those glasses? Situations like this where a person can personally alter how they see others are rare or contrived, so we don’t yet really have a good answer. But as we’ve seen, ubiquitous full photonic override will make such a possibility not just common, but nearly universal.

Avatarism will force us to start asking these questions. It could be that while you cannot force another person to see your preferred form arbitrarily, taking actions to replace or modify a person’s preferred form while interacting with them could be considered a violation of their rights, with social or even legal consequences.

This creates more questions than answers. What if you fear negative mental health consequences, such as triggering PTSD, upon seeing someone’s preferred form? At what point does removing a person from view run up against altering them? It’s obvious these questions will not be fully settled anytime soon, if ever.

I’m not sure where these boundaries will be, but avatarism will force us to start trying to draw them.

Avatarism and equality

Beyond personal liberties, there is a more controversial area of avatarism that will likely emerge. It is grounded in the liberal principle of equality and the goal of creating a colorblind society.

Liberalism’s primary mechanism of creating social justice has been maintaining an open door for incremental reforms and the free exchange of ideas. These mechanisms of progress have served us well. They are, however, bound by the assumption that many forms of stereotyping will always exist as our physical appearance can always be used to divide us. And so bigotry must be continually undermined through free speech and legal force, as it will never go away completely.

Some avatarists will question this assumption, seeing a new path to eradicating stereotyping and bigotry based on appearance: diminishing the role of our physical form altogether. Some avatarists will seek to relegate our physical traits to a role similar to our blood type or fingerprints: useful for medical or authentication purposes, but not much else.

Humanity’s immutable, always-visible physical forms may come to be seen as a curse inflicted upon us by nature. The long history of violence and upheaval stemming from the lack of empathy we often show towards others who do not look like us will be used to argue that this particular curse is one we should try to escape from by any means necessary.

To avatarists, the idealized liberal society of true colorblindness will be made possible not through laws or persuasion alone, but through excising our physical appearance from most human affairs. Not just a cure for past ills, this may be also argued as a panacea to cut out stereotyping itself at the root. One mechanism to do so would be deploying software to adjust how we appear to others which takes into account their biases, so as to undermine their ability to stereotype us, and eventually force them to abandon those (now useless) stereotypes.

It will be argued that if this could pave the way to a world where we will judge people entirely on the content of their character, we should pursue it.

Striving to completely eradicate physical appearance from our day-to-day affairs would be far from cost-free, and may not be attainable. But many avatarists who already went through this transition will advocate for it to become the norm, despite the potential that it would almost certainly displace our existing cultural identities. Needless to say, this will likely be one of the most contentious areas in the development of avatarism, but one we should be prepared to engage with given the stakes involved.

Hopes and Conclusions

If you’ve read this far, you are better prepared for one of the many societal tsunamis headed our way as we continue to slam into one technological exponential curve after another. The rise of avatarism will cut into nearly every facet of our lives and the lives of our children.

Avatarism has the potential for great benefit or great harm. Sane, liberalized systems to protect freedom of form may let us live out the best versions of ourselves, less shackled by social norms and high stakes interactions, with more fulfilling relationships. If we make the wisest choices we may even eliminate some of our greatest problems in a way that our descendants will be grateful for.

However, if we choose poorly or fail to prepare, we could also see great moral confusion and fear, societal schisms, suppression of our identities, or more widespread surveillance and constraints imposed on our lives by centralized mediators.

Avatar representations will soon eat the world and be embedded into our lives and the physical world we currently inhabit. Our devices will literally mask over the people we already see day-to-day, replacing them with the versions of themselves they want us to see.

As this story unfolds, we must think a few steps ahead. It’s during this period where the issues still seem distant and have yet to become controversial that we can think the most clearly about them. We should try to live a bit in the future, forming coherent beliefs about our rights to freedom of form, before we are rushed into doing so. Then, we can design the systems and norms to create the world we want to live in. It’s going to happen fast, and so we should feel some urgency to start preparing.

Avatarism is about the sudden arrival of transformative, new answers to a universal question: how should others see you?

If you think the answer is a simple one, one day you might just look back and yourself, and smile at your naivete.

And your past self, who you now barely even recognize, may smile back.

Creator of @Jel_App. Formerly: Eng lead @MozillaHubs. Co-founder @AltspaceVR. @Etsy. Tweets are my own.

Creator of @Jel_App. Formerly: Eng lead @MozillaHubs. Co-founder @AltspaceVR. @Etsy. Tweets are my own.