Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Beauty:  the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all  
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

From John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

“Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else...You don’t have to be rigid about original detail. The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness. It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build...Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, and be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.” 
From Natalie Goldberg, Writing down the Bones

In a thought-provoking response to one of my own posts, Burgundy Mirajkar pointed out that beauty is, by definition, difficult to attain, and that human traits are often highly prized for their rarity.  She closed with this statement:

"Perhaps what we'll begin to see is the development of technologically unattainable beauty standards in-world."

In Second Life, perfect human beauty is easy to attain---or to obtain.  For about the cost of a latte and a scone at Starbucks, you can buy shape, hair and skin to make your avatar a 'perfect ten' by human standards.  With a little persistence and a good eye, you can pick them up for free.  As a result, perfect tens are a dime a dozen.  They are as blandly pretty as Barbie dolls, with as little variation.  

The similarity, avatar to avatar, is so great that if I were to turn off the names hovering over other avatars' heads, I wouldn't be able to tell one from the other, friends from strangers.  What's truly eye-catching is a unique avatar---someone recognizable from across a crowded room, who stands out by virtue of the vivid, loving detail put into their creation.  Someone who is unlike anyone else.  

I have a few favorites.  Rosie Barthelmess is one.  Jopsy Pendragon, with his elf ears and his bare feet, is another one.  I had always thought of these avatars as interesting, rather than beautiful.  Digital representations of fascinating minds, rather than virtual flesh. I had pegged the Barbie avs as the beautiful people, but now I'm not so sure.  Now I wonder if the Barbies are just ordinary and the true beauties of the world are the iconic avatars, as distinct and recognizable as logos. 

Will we see the development of technologically unattainable beauty standards?  Maybe.  

As of right now, differences in technology do affect the way that avatars look, but only to the avatar with the technology.  A high-powered graphics card profoundly affects the way that you see the virtual world and the way that your avatar looks in it, but only for you.  Your appearance on someone else's screen is limited by their graphics processing, and there is nothing you can do to change that.  Perhaps in the future, we will have other ways to gain an appearance advantage technologically---real-time motion-capture animation overrides, anyone? 

Until then, it seems that the best way to stand out in the crowd is to stand out in the crowd.  Perhaps, in a world where you can easily have any feature you can imagine, beauty lies in the rarity of your choices. 

The most expensive and highly prized pieces of avatar customization in Second Life are rare---limited edition items, like the Anastasia suit, from the Zullay Designs Couture collection, shown above.  The craftsmanship on the outfit is exquisite, with beautiful prim and texture detailing, but it only rates the L$35,000 ($131.58 US) price tag because it is absolutely unique.  Only one will be sold. 

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Deviation from the Physical

What makes a beautiful body?  

Over and over again, in studies too numerous to quote (Google it, sometime), it has been shown that men prefer women with curves.  They like breasts and butts and waists that nip inward--all signs of optimum fertility.  Really, it's all about getting your genes to the next generation. 

Even in comic books, that last bastion of adolescent male fantasy, the women are not skinny.  Where men have the opportunity to create female bodies, unbounded by physical reality, they cluster them tightly in the low end of the 'normal' BMI range, right around the BMI of 19 that I mentioned in my last post.  (Citation!)

Women, contrary to all the research, think men prefer supermodel shaped bodies, flat-hipped and skinny.  These bodies are absolutely perfect for one thing:  displaying clothing.  A very thin,  straight body allows fabric to drape smoothly from the shoulders over the hips without any uneven terrain to irritate the designer and mess up the line.  

But it is the uneven terrain that makes a body beautiful when it isn't covered up at all, and the models in men's magazines have significantly higher BMIs than the models in women's magazines.  And I would guess that the difference has to do with what the models are wearing--or not wearing--in each variety of magazine.  

Our preferences seem to be circumstantial.  What is most attractive in one situation is unattractive in another.  Here in the real world, a seven foot tall woman with a BMI of fourteen would be freakishly skinny and unattractive.  She would almost certainly be infertile.  But as an avatar, she wouldn't stand out at all.  Since her height and BMI are about average, we must look at other features to determine whether she is attractive.  Our eye has been re-normed.    

Over on Dusan Writer's blog, there is an exploration of cutting-edge architecture in Second Life.  Dusan quotes Keystone Bouchard:  

“In an environment where avatars are free to create anything they can imagine, the vast majority of the architectural fabric created is still largely driven by very literal parallels to the physical world. This happens for good reason, as we have learned to visually organize the world around us, real or virtual, based on familiar cues and patterns. A roof may not need to protect us from the elements in virtual space, but it organizes a space. Even though you can fly, a ramp is still a strong wayfinding mechanism.”

Second Life houses very rarely have bathrooms and kitchens, and a disproportionate number of them have hot tubs.  Not very many of the beds are designed for sleeping, either.  Lots of businesses don't have roofs or doors, and ceilings are often ten meters high.  

All of this stuff makes sense in this particular virtual context, and none of it would work in the real world.  For virtual buildings, our eye has re-normed.  

So here's my question:  In a generation, when we begin to see in SL the children who started hanging out in Club Penguin when they were two, how will all of this change?  Will we have a generation of avatars who don't need the literal parallels to the physical world? Will we have, as it were, Virtual Natives?

And what will they look like?