by Barry Chudakov on May 25th, 2011

What Is Metalife? (The Interview)

“Would you have a drink with you?” the Stoli Vodka ad taunts us. “Create your alter-ego at” Alter-egos are all the rage now that 12 million people play World of Warcraft, and 500 million more have a second life on Facebook. Or perhaps, given the mounting evidence of how we are changing our lives, there’s more going on with this alter-egoing than meets the eye, or the I. We are all engaged in massively multiplayer online and offline role-playing. Is it a game, or a ruse resembling a game resembling a life? Whatever is happening as we evolve our identity, our tools and technologies, this is as good a time as any to ask a few questions. The following is an interview of the interviewer. The subject is Metalife. The Stoli’s on us. Both of us.


Max Headroom, an early Metalifer. Source:, Creative Commons License.


Q. What do you mean by Metalife?

A. We have more than one life now. We have our so-called ‘real life’ where we choose a profession, go to work, maybe fall in love, start a family and make our way in the world. And we also have what I call a Metalife—a synthetic, virtual version or dimension of that ‘real life.’ This is more apparent now than when I first began writing and talking about Metalife. Today in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, an avatar designed to look like you can help you lose weight, exercise more regularly, even save more for retirement. Now with 5.3 billion mobile subscribers (about 77 percent of the world population) more of us are beginning to notice that with these tools in our hands we actually live differently—think and feel and react and make “massively parallel computing” decisions—about who we are, and about so called ‘reality’. We are looking at the world through some smart intermediary, some technology-enabled tool. So when we look through the tool’s window at the world, we not only see differently, we change our lives. The way we change our lives, part evolving process, part new way of thinking and acting—is our Metalife.


Source: Flickr, hand mateo_salta, all rights reserved.


Q. Why does that happen?

A. There are a number of reasons. First, our brain incorporates tools as self. We take our tools into our bodies to become part of ourselves, parcel of how we think and react. There is a growing body of research that supports this idea. Second, we don’t use these communication tools and windows passively. We look into them, we use them as mirrors. And so our thinking is done in the “image and likeness” of our communication tools. They entrain our thinking; in some measure they are our thinking. One of the Seven Tempting Paradoxes that I use to define Metalife is, “What you think is what you think through.” Nicholas Carr and others have written extensively about the history of thinking tools. From book to Kindle to iPhone and iPad, our thinking tools are part of human consciousness, some of the most important aspects of what make us human. And, as McLuhan said, when we use our tools, they use us. We begin to incorporate the logic of these tools into the fabric of our daily lives. This changes our lives and engenders our Metalife.


Avatars are just the beginning of new kinds of presence for the self. Source: Flickr, Second Life, woman, ritratto,some rights reserved by yukali.


Q. Why does that matter?

A. Because your Metalife and your so-called ‘real life’ are complementary and soon they will be competitive: one will feed and at the same time challenge the other. To some that may sound outrageous. But this is the paradox at the core of Metalife and that paradox is actually being played out now: it is happening before our eyes almost anywhere you turn.


Q. And we suppose you have evidence of that?

A. The first evidence of this change dawned on us sometime last century as we became aware of not only Moore’s Law but the fact that our lives were following its trajectory. We felt our lives speeding up, we began to define our focus and interactions in terms of blur, we began noticing changing demands on our attention; Linda Stone called the new state of distraction ‘continuous partial attention.’ Now evidence is mounting that with changed attention come changing habits. We’re taking these smart tools into our most intimate corners and spaces. Recently Nielsen spoke to nearly 12,000 “connected device” owners, and discovered that 68% of tablet PC users use them while watching TV, an activity that took up about 30% of the time they used the device. 57% of tablet PC owners also use them in bed, and 61% of e-reader usage happens in the bedroom—an activity that takes up 37% of their total e-reader usage time. 15% of Americans answer phone calls during sex. Half of people under 25 find it acceptable to use their smartphone while eating. 24% use their phone while using the bathroom.


Smartphone, Creative Commons License.


Another kind of evidence comes from the ways we now watch each other. Security Software Systems has sold almost two million units of Cyber Sentinel—a $39.95 site—and a service that enables parents to cybersnoop their kids in unprecedented numbers. As the Computer Crime Research Center reported recently: “Parents have long tried to keep tabs on their children’s activities, from eavesdropping on phone calls and snooping in diaries to chaperoning school dances. But worried mothers and fathers are now importing computerized surveillance tools from the workplace into their own homes—deploying child-protection software on their offspring (or occasionally on a cheating spouse).” And parents or spouses are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

There are an estimated 30m surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. We used think of privacy in terms of doors closed or inaccessibility. We have a new sense of presence: now we can surveil someone we don’t know or someone we know very well; someone who is remote from us, or someone who is in the same room but doesn’t see us recording them. We now have many more spy tools: our phones, gadgets and apps enable us to see further (and know more about) what anyone else is doing. And we have institutionalized spying not only as legitimate but cool, even necessary. From the PD-100 black Hornet spy Helicopter that fits in your hand to the DARPA Nano Hummingbird that has a 6.5-inch wingspan and weighs less than an AA battery, including batteries, motors, communications and video camera (a small unmanned aerial vehicle that can observe unobtrusively from inside a building, hovering to ensure steady camera images)—we have turned a corner and stepped into our new spy vs. spy metalives like walking into a movie.

In this movie we are unwittingly performing the role of secret agent, adopting the motivation of necessary espionage, spying on one another as a means of knowing. To spy is to see with our own eyes, and that seeing is a means of knowing which elicits control. If I can see what the nanny is doing, I will know how my kids are being treated. If I can see what sites he’s visiting, I’ll know how productive my employee is, and then I can better evaluate his performance. COLOR is a location-based, photo-sharing app that takes voyeurism to post-Twitter levels by letting users see all of the photos that are being taken by strangers who happen to be within a 150-foot radius of the user’s smartphone.

We are all becoming Chance the gardener. We all like to watch—and we are watching each other.


Developed by AeroVironment Unmanned Aircraft Systems under contract from DARPA, this highly maneuverable spy drone boasts authentic flapping wings, the ability to hover, clockwise and anti-clockwise rotation, and can be controlled remotely by a human pilot. Source: Wikipedia Commons, public domain.


Further evidence of our changed lives comes from the way celebrity, or as Mark Leibovich christened it, celebrification, can become a game-like virtual world with multiple dimensions, not far removed from The Truman Show. Consider Casey Anthony, an Orlando woman accused of murdering her child in one of the city’s most sensational cases in recent memory. Casey now has a Metalife of astonishing depth in the form of an entire website channel devoted to the history and updates of the ongoing proceedings against her. Called The Case Against Casey Anthony, Orlando’s local news Channel 13 has web coverage that includes photo galleries and full details of “all key players” including her family, lawyers on both sides of the case, experts, witnesses, and others. You can follow the Case Against Casey Anthony in pictures, you can customize your coverage by social networking channel, meet the jury, see a story and documents archive, or follow the Anthony Case Timeline. And, of course, as the trial commences, Casey’s Metalife will only expand and extend into further virtual realms: this is a made-for-Metalife movie.



Q. We’ll take a wild guess and say beyond these you have even more Metalife examples?

A. There is now so much Metalife evidence and these examples are evolving so rapidly, knowing where to begin isn’t easy. Security cameras and scans, simulations, avatars, robots, big data, online profiles, models, fashion images, virtual worlds, gaming characters, medical images & records, social networking, telepresence remotes—all create or enable a Metalife.


Q. OK, how about a primer for beginners?

A. You have a Metalife …

► playing a character in a MMORPG: Jane McGonigal says the average gamer will have played 10,000 hours by age 21 with 99 percent of male gamers (94 percent for females) under the age of 18 playing five days a week; as a planet, we play videogames about 3 billion hours each week

► incarnating as a character in an animated movie: think of Tom Hanks in The Polar Express or the actors in L.A. Noire, where each actor was filmed with MotionScan using 32 cameras trained on their faces

► impersonating in Cosplay

► as a capture on face recognition software and systems

► as a capture on monitored surveillance

► restyling yourself as a manga character

► as a telepresence robot at work

► as a patient in Cisco’s HealthPresence

► as a TSA full body scan

► reinventing yourself as a fashion makeover to look like a model you’ve seen in InStyle or on America’s Next Top Model

► as a celebrity wannabe like the Chinese woman who underwent extensive plastic surgery to look like Jessica Alba

► as a porn star wannabe: more people are watching porn according to a recent study, perhaps because access is now as easy as an Internet connection; 78 percent now, compared to 40 percent in 1983

► as a soldier in virtual Iraq where the virtual war zone is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms

► as big data in a massive data stream such as OKCupid’s database of 275,294 match questions—probably the biggest collection of relationship concerns on earth—that yields 776 million answers people have given them

► as a Facebook profile

► when a lawyer ‘Facebooks’ you as a potential juror

► as an avatar of yourself in a virtual world, say working at IBM

► as an avatar of yourself morphed to attract more voters

► as yourself in a video game like LeBron James or Dwight Howard in NBA Live

► once you alter your self-perception by encountering various (or earlier) versions of yourself like Oprah scolding herself on the cover of O Magazine


According to OKCupid, frequent tweeters have shorter real-life relationships than everyone else. OKCupid compiles their observations and statistics from hundreds of millions of OkCupid user interactions, in order to explore the data side of the online dating world. All rights reserved by OKTrends, dating research from OKCupid. For more on how data creates a Metalife, see the earlier Metalifestream post, The Blind Men and the Elephant Stampede.


Q. So briefly, what are all these Metalives doing to us? What do you see going on here?

A. Each one of these is an individual Metalife. But these aren’t individual: this is an emergent phenomenon happening on many fronts simultaneously. You are your metadata. Your movements can be tracked by your smart phone, your healthcare interactions now create an Electronic Health Record, your decision to go online can engender an unwanted Metalife as happened recently to Sony Playstation gamers. Sony admitted that an unknown hacker gained access to nearly all types of user information—including names, addresses, email addresses, birthdays, and PSN login details of over 70 million PSN users. Because now everything is miscellaneous, we are beginning to realize that each Metalife can be digitized, categorized, indexed, connected, related, conveyed, received, retouched, reordered, and of course, hacked. In other words, each one can take on another life.


Remirror'd, Flickr, brancusi7, all rights reserved. The brilliant John Seven, aka brancusi7, often returns to the theme of mirroring and mirror reverberations, an essential element of Metalife.


Q. What are some of the implications of this other life?

A. Well, there’s a lot going on, but here are two key reflections that can launch us into larger discussions. First, these Metalife incarnations give us new and very interesting ways to be both more present and absent in our lives. So presence in all its connotations and absence in all of its ramifications are in play here. I can be a new presence at work in San Francisco when I work in Boston via a telepresence robot. And I can be more absent with my boyfriend because I’m texting the girls when we’re alone in his room. Second, with all these different Metalife incarnations that now are affecting everything from the way we drive to the way we date, whom we call a friend and marry to our body image and what faith we follow or relinquish, we see that Metalife affects what I call the thing itself. In other words, the bookness (physical attributes) of a book, the ability to be present with another and see the world through the eyes of another (called alterity)—knowledge that defines the thing of friendship or the thing of love or attention or any number of other very basic elements of being human and alive—all are affected by these new Metalife incarnations and realities. As a result, the thing itself may either be expanded or at risk: we may claim new dimensions of our humanity, or lose essential aspects of ourselves in the mirrors and mirrored reverberations of our Metalives. There are no easy answers here.


This interview is part of a larger Metalife discussion that will be published soon as an eBook.


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