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Character studies

india Updated: Aug 16, 2010 22:35 IST

Ah, the internet, the place where you can be a leggy brunette with a penchant for high-end leather even though you might be a quiet low-level bureaucrat saving money to send your children to the IIMs. As humans, we’ve always have had the knack for role-playing and self-styling. There are, after all, no ugly people in chat rooms. Taking this notion a step forward are two young American innovators, Lauren Mechling and Laura Moser, who have created a fake character on Facebook, a 16-year-old named Natalie Pollock. Ms Pollock doesn’t exist and yet, as artificial intelligence scientists will recognise, what makes a human in the sense of information is the facts that make her or him a ‘character’ — even though the facts are all made up.

In a way, this is what strong characters in literature are all about. With the requisite characters forming an imaginary person — whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, R.K. Laxman’s Common Man or God — he, she or it feels like a real person, invested with qualities that the ‘believer’ may include even without the creator of the character necessarily making them known. So even if we haven’t been told whether, say, Tintin the ageless reporter has written a single news report from his many adventures, we can imagine that he is a veteran journalist.

Such imaginary characters on the internet, however, don’t bring pleasure to everyone. Recently, Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen was horrified to find that there was a fake ‘Amartya Sen’ on Facebook doling out his or her gyan — in contradistinction to the real Amartya Sen’s economic beliefs — to innocent netizens. While the real Nobel laureate is peeved with Facebook and its ability to deal swiftly with this impersonator, the Martian, without any knowledge about the Bengali economist may find both the Amartya Sens equally real. Thus, proving once again that we are the sum of the information that we carry about us.