I really enjoyed Virginia Heffernan’s piece in the New York Times Magazine today about our presumptions about the “realism” of high-definition TV. While we assume that the latest technology takes us ever closer to capturing reality as it is really is (whatever that means), it’s easy for us to forget that every technology has implicit within it certain formal devices and material dimensions that dictate its method of representation. In the unfortunate case of HDTV, humans look shinier, blotchier, and more garish and crinkled than in old-school TV. VHeff mentions that darker skin tends to look a lot better on HDTV: who knows — perhaps people of African, Hispanic, Arab and Asian decent will finally catch a break on American TV.
Her article reminded me of an interesting session I attended at the New Media Consortium this month. Case Western Reserve University has been very active in Second Life, including building spaces for personel from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation to test their skills dealing with patients. One of the more surprising problems they discovered was that it’s very difficult to create middle-aged (let alone geriatric) avatars in Second Life. Most people in Second Life want to project an idealized version of themselves into this virtual world. When Case Western took on a project for an institute that counsels patients on bariatric (stomach shrinking) surgery, the artists working in-world discovered that you can’t really make fat avatars either.
It reminded me about why I’m so interested in virtual worlds: because they are mediated spaces of representation, they are among the best places in the world to see our presuppositions about the world unveiled. Fantasy worlds like Second Life are built with a set of implicit values that reveal a great deal about our ideology of beauty. While it may not be surprising that people don’t want to look fat or old, there’s something chilling about the fact that people couldn’t do it even if they tried. Case Western is hiring some kick-ass “sculptors” to create some truly obese avatars, but most people in-world don’t have the chops to create them, nor the inclination to do so. As virtual worlds become more pervasive in our culture (and I believe this is inevitable), what will be the implications of the fact that our fantasy worlds will implicitly outlaw certain types of human bodies? Will there be a backlash which makes non-idealized bodies the most coveted bodies? And what impact will the taste economy in a virtual world have on the real world? The one thing I can guarantee you is that the border between will become more and more porous. Right now, I’m not looking forward to the day that we will be able to see in HD.