Sex and the SimCity?

I had been working with an engineer from a large multi-national company. I had never met or conversed with this engineer except by email, but I understood from her name that she was female.

Having been married for 17 years to an MIT graduate, I like to think I have some appreciation of how women engineers behave and how they should be treated.

In the course of our work, this engineer created an avatar, and she commented on how it looked like her. Her model was based on a typical digital content industry product. Few people other than my wife look like these figures – Barbie dolls on steroids. By what turned out to be an accident of technology, this model arrived on my desktop stark naked – no clothes and no hair. But it was highly detailed, and artfully done.

This probably should have been the end of the story, except that I happen to work from home, and my wife of 17 years picked that moment to walk into my office. She’s used to seeing me stare at screens and screens of floating-point numbers, looking for meaning like some sort of freak from “Numb3rs.” She was not overly impressed with the fact that I was sitting at my desk staring at a nudie avatar. I’m pretty sure I didn’t improve the situation any when I explained that we were having technical difficulties. As I recall, a flip-flop up-side my head was involved.

Several hours and emails later, the textures arrived. Jeans, a nice but somewhat dowdy sweater, and long long gray hair.

Fascinated by perceptions, I called my wife to come look. The interesting thing was, she was totally intrigued by the clad avatar. In digitial identity, age is only skin deep!


In my house we haven’t spent a lot of time considering the implications of how virtual sexuality will affect society. I think those implications will now spring to mind every time I tell my wife I’m working late because we are having technical difficulties!

Most of my work on Croquet has been about core technology: math and engineering. We were supposed to have been dealing with the social aspects. My very first project at UW was to have been an experiment run by a professor of Education. This MIT Media Lab alumnus, and former school teacher and peace corp volunteer was going to let people connect to Croquet from the same room — but ensconced in cubicles and headphones — while he observed how they performed in group conflict-resolution exercises. The Mellon Foundation money didn’t come through and it never happened. Our first real end-user project was with an art professor using Croquet anonymity and abstraction to help students learn how to give and receive criticism in a constructive and detached way. We ended up spending most of our time dealing with the early network code. Of course, the Intel exec got a big laugh joking at his conference that his buff 20-something SecondLife and Forums avatars looked just like him. But this avatar texture mix-up was the first time I had ever actually witnessed the immediate and very real power of creating your own self, or of the many layers of sexuality that involves.

P.S. Sorry, John. No pictures for this one. (But the many representations of Alice were great! Thanks.)

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

One Comment

  1. Wasn’t it Asimov who has this thing in one of his books where people, online, appear naked and do all kinds of forward, uninhibited things (think: porno webcams), but when they meet in flesh world follow typical social conventions (clothing, modesty, etc)? If I recall correctly, something like this appears somewhere in the Foundation trilogy — which was obviously written way before the Internet was real. . .

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