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A Social Science-Fiction on Electronic Identities
1. IntroductionWe come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine. - Sherry Turkle
In this essay I want to explore how the concept of identity is challenged through computertechnologies. I want to show how electronic identities can be constructed nowadays and in the future, what kinds of the psychological implication are involved in that and I want to suggest some possibilities how these electronic identities can affect real life. At several points I also want to discuss the concept of health and its changes.
For this project I rely on the one hand on research conducted by Sherry Turkle and philosophical considerations by Jean Baudrillard, on the other hand on often supposed to be pseudo-scientific speculations by Timothy Leary and science fiction authors. That is all part of a social science fiction.
First I have to note that the term identity is to be understood for the sake of this project in a broad sense from something like the memory and narrative of one individual's history to something like personality to something that includes also body existence. The sociological dictionary says identity is the "psychoanalytical-socialpsychological term for the steady inner to be-the-same-with-the-self, the continuity of self experience of an individual [..] mainly produced as well by the enduring adoption of certain social role- and group-memberships as through social recognition as somebody who occupies the concerning role respectively to belong to the concerning group." (Fuchs et al. 1988: 327 -transl. by S.J.) This is quite a strict definition. I think identity is much harder to pin down, is something much more fuzzy. It becomes even fuzzier when you look at computermediated communication with its virtual identities and communities, which makes it much harder to define terms like social role or group.
So I want to show how the traditional concept of a healthy identity with its aspects of authenticity, coherence, stability and its 'steady inner to be-the-same-with-the-self' is challenged by the rise of electronic identities with its aspects of simulation, incoherence, fluidity and flexibility.
2. Electronic identitiesIn the internet nobody knows that you are a dog.
With electronic identities nowadays are meant the million of people worldwide who interact via computers and often use therefore personalities of their own creation. As example shall for this serve the internet and especially applications like online-conference-system as for example the IRC (internet relay chat) or the very popular online roleplaying games MUDs (Multi User Dimension or Dungeon). Online-conference-systems like the IRC are conversational forums where any user can open a channel and attract guests to it or can join an open channel himself. They are only textbased. Everybody is identified by a nickname that you can choose freely. The rest is just typing in text to take part in the conversation. This IRC is very popular in the internet and it is also popular to fake identities that are not your own. You can pretend to be somebody else, with another name, another age, another race and another gender. You can find under IRC-users very bizarre identity-constructions. Very popular is cross dressing or even being a double-agent, men who play women pretending to be men and vice versa. This all is possible because the identity construction happens only on a virtual level. So you can construct an identity through creating your own digital narrative.
This is still a very simple form of creating an electronic identity but it shows already one of its main-possibilities, the possibility of creating whoever you want to be in simulating an identity. There are people in the IRC who develop the same character which is very different from their own identity for months and so start more and more to think and behave like their alter egos. There are psychological risks in doing this, for example loosing the contact to your own body by gender-swapping but there are also the possibilities of learning to understand a different position.
More radical becomes the construction of identities in the virtual playground of MUDs. "MUDs are dramatic examples of how computer-mediated communication can serve as a place for the construction and reconstruction of identity." (Turkle 1997: 14)
MUDs and all their similar counterparts like MOO, MUSE or MUSH are text based role-playing games inspired by the face-to-face role-playing games Dungeons and Dragons, which swept the game culture in the 1970s. MUDs are like an interactive novel with sometimes a quite difficult plot. The aim is normally to solve some secrets or fight some dragons.
They are also a 'new kind of social virtual realityı. In one game up to a couple of a hundred players are logged on at the same time. MUDs are metaphorical spaces where the virtual environment is described by text where the user can walk around, pick up things, communicate with other users by talking, whispering or shouting to each other, or by going to the postoffice and sending them an e-mail. You can also fight or even kill, have sex or even marry each other, all by typing in commands on the keyboard.
Every user has to create a character in the beginning. Here the freedom of choice are even bigger then in the IRC. "The character one creates for a MUD are referred to as one's personae. This is from the Latin per sonae which means 'that through which the sound comes', in other words, an actor's mask. Interestingly, this is also the root of 'person' and 'personality'." (Turkle 1997: 182) Everything for this character is possible. It does not have to be human or one of the known genders. You can be a superhuman or a rabbit. "MUDs provide worlds for anonymous social interaction in which you can play a role as close to or as far away from you real self as you choose. (ibid: 183) As a user describes it:
"You can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want. You can be the opposite sex. You can be more talkative. You can be less talkative. Whatever. You can just be whoever you want, really, whoever you have the capacity to be. You don't have to worry about the slots other people put you in as much. It's easier to change the way people perceive you, because all they've got is what you show them. They don't look at your body and make assumptions. They don't hear your accent and make assumptions. All they see is your words. And it's always there. Twenty-four hours a day you can walk down to the street corner and there's gonna be a few people there who are interesting to talk to, if you've found the right MUD for you." (quoted by Turkle 1997: 184f.)
The story of MUDs are all written by their users. So you cannot only create your own character, but also virtual space for example your little own house, where you can invite friends in, by using a certain easy to learn programming language. You can even automatize certain things by creating a sort of artificial intelligence known as bots, which do certain things automatically. So there can be for example waiter-bots that offer you a drink or so, but you can also automatize certain aspects of yourself. "Some leave behind small artificial intelligence programs called bots (derived from the word 'robot') running in the MUD that may serve as their alter egos, able to make small talk or answer simple questions." (Turkle 1997: 12) So with an electronic identity, parts of this identity can be replaced by artificial intelligence and often enough you are not even sure whether you talk to somebody real over the keyboard or whether it is just an artificial intelligence answering you. These features are similar to the aspects of storing one-selve's behaviors and habits that I will describe later in chapter 5.
This has also the effect that parts of one's identity only exist in these MUDs, only exist in cyberspace and as I would like to argue this part is growing and maybe can even replace the real part to a great degree.
Furthermore there is to state that these social virtual realities offer possibilities to create virtual identities and you can act through them. Nowadays most of these MUDs are still only textbased, but there are already the first graphical MUDs where you can pick up or create your own 'avatar' (virtual body) and walk through three-dimensional environments. The creation of even more realistic environments like the Metaverse described in Neal Stephenson's science-fiction-novel Snow Crash, where you can use specially designed helmets, body suits, goggles, data gloves and data-suits to intensify your sensations is only a matter of time.
3. Distributed identitiesThese electronic identity constructions challenge the traditional way of the concept of an authentic, stable, to-be-the-same-with-the-self identity in a radical way. "MUDs, like other experiences in cyberspace, blur the boundaries between self and game, self and role, self and simulation. One player says, 'You are the character and you are not the character, both at the same time.' and 'You are who you pretend to be ... You are who you play.' But people don't just become who they play, they often play who they want to be." (Turkle 1996: 157)
With this roleplaying game it is possible to be different identities and personalities at the same time. In Turkle's research these roleplaying games act as an example for the rise of new identity-constructions which she refers to as distributed identities. Each of the identities lives in a separate window on the computerscreen.
"As a user, you are attentive to only one of the windows on your screen at any given moment, but in a certain sense, you are a presence in all of them at all times." (ibid.: 159) Real Life (RL) is just one more window and so this way of thinking about identity has also influenced the way RL identity is thought. "Windows have become a potent metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed 'time-sharing' system. The self is no longer simply playing different roles in different settings, something that people experience when, for example, one wakes up as a lover, makes breakfast as a mother, and drives to work as a lawyer. The life practice of windows is of a distributed self that exists in many worlds and plays many roles at the same time." (ibid.: 160) Muds act in this sense as a virtual playground for RL.
Maybe there is nothing new in this development, but just the way to think about it becomes new, just the way the concept of identity is perceived changes. So "what we perceive as 'one' in any context is, perhaps, a conglomerate of 'ones." (quoted by Turkle 1997: 257)
Psychoanalysts describe this multiplicity often as a breakdown of identity, but more and more identity becomes perceived "as a 'pastiche of personalities' in which 'the test of competence is not so much the integrity of the whole but the apparent correct representation appearing at the right time, in the right context, not to the detriment of the rest of the internal 'collective'." (quoted by Turkle 1997: 256) This leads to a new way of defining identity.
An open question remaining is: How we can be multiple and coherent at the same time? The coherence is necessary for this thing we call healthy identity. Robert Jay Lifton tries to resolve this seeming contradiction in The Protean Self. He sees several ways of resolving this contradiction. One of them is the idea of a fragmented self, but this is a dangerous option that may result in a fluidity lacking moral content and sustainable inner form. The only 'healthy' opportunity for identity and multiplicity he sees in the "healthy protean self. It is capable, like Proteus, of fluid transformations but is grounded in coherence and a moral outlook. It is multiple but integrated. You can have a sense of self without being one self." (quoted by Turkle 1997: 258)
What Robert Jay Lifton describes as a concept of an intact identity construction, is very similar to the psychiatric description of multiple personality disorder (MPD), which is supposed to be a form of psychosis. And in fact according to Turkle there is a massive increase of the number of cases of MPD and also of their complexity. In the 1970s this syndrome was very rare and "there was typically only one alter ego in addition to the host personality. Today, cases of multiple personality are much more frequent and typically involve up to sixteen alters of different ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations." (Turkle 1997: 260)
Though mudding and MPD is similar there is still a difference, but these multiple identities become more and more normal and so "the many manifestations of multiplicity in our culture, including the adoption of online personae, are contributing to a general reconsideration of traditional, unitary notions of identity." (ibid.: 260) In the end it depends on the communication between these multiple personalities, whether the host knows about his alter egos and their lives, whether it is supposed to be normal or abnormal. "Thus, in addition to the extremes of unitary self and MPD, we can imagine a flexible self." (ibid.: 260) This valuation has to do with a new valuation of flexibility in contrast to stability. More and more to be flexible, to be able to adapt and change is valued as important in life and its many aspects. It is important to adept to new jobs, new career directions, new gender roles and new technologies. So with the changes of the concept of identity also the concept of health and the definition of well-being is under change. In Darwinian terms of the survival of the fittest, the fittest nowadays is not a stable unitary identity, but a fluid flexible one.
So as Sherry Turkle concludes the ability of 'being digital', that we can live through virtual personae, means "two fundamental changes have occurred in our situation. We can easily move through multiple identities, and we can embrace -or be trapped by- cyberspace as a way of life." (ibid.: 231) That the possibilities of 'being digital' are not only limited to cyberspace but have also a severe feedback on our Real Life, I want to show in the next chapter.
4. Electronic identities and Real Life"In the MUDs, virtual characters converse with each other, exchange gestures, express emotions, win and lose virtual money, and rise and fall in social status." (Turkle 1997: 183) But MUDs are just the playground for the creation of electronic identities and with better technology this playground will become soon an important and serious part in many people's everyday life. Social space and social activities are already and will become even more in the future substituted by cyberspace and online activities. For example going shopping in a storehouse can be replaced by a virtual online-storehouse with a 3-D-interface, where you navigate your electronic identity through, equipped with digital cash to pay for your shopping. More and more real life events can be substituted by virtual events, from online-conferences, virtual shopping, cybersex, virtual marriages to events like virtual raping or virtual pickpocketing. So identity told as a story becomes more and more told in form of a digital narrative, a story told in form of digital bits, stored in computers. Many aspects about an identity or personality become digitalised, created or stored in computers. One part of this digital narrative is your own narrative, part of it like your name, nationality, educational degrees etc. are created and stored for you in the same cyberspace. The difference is not a fundamental one. All this digital information determines, who you are and what you can do in your real life.
As shown at the example of MUDs, 'Being digital', to have an electronic or simulated identity means also to be able to create an identity which is easy fakeable. Though it is probably not legal anymore to fake your electronic identity when this has left the area of a playground it is still possible at least with methods like hacking.
What kind of possibilities are involved in this, I want to describe with the example of the fictional computer-hacker Nick, the protagonist in the famous Cyberpunk-novel The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner.
The story starts with: "At the moment I am Arthur Edward Lazarus, profession priest, age forty-six years, unmarried; founder and holder of the Church of Infinite Insight ..." (Brunner 1979: 15 - transl. by S.J.) But this man is also one of the most wanted persons of this future's America and he is a genial hacker, who developed a kind of a computer-virus which does nothing else than hacking into computersystems which store information about his personality and creates new data about a new virtual personality, with a new name, new nationality, new bank-account, new profession and so on. This man is on the steady escape from his persecutors, a fascistic government (as usual in Cyberpunk-stories) and fakes suicide of his old personality and creates a completely new identity as soon as his persecutors have traced his old identity. So during his life he moves through many names and professions like "utopia-designer, lifestyle-adviser, delphi-gambler, computer-sabotage-specialist, system-rationalisator... [..] and priest." (ibid.: 14 - transl. by S.J.) Each time he plays his new personal role and therefore becomes like a genius actor all his life. For the shock of changing his personality he uses a drug developed for treating the shock of a removal. What happens is that this man has not one but many identities in the course of his life, and he even gives up the notion of coherence in his identity construction. He can change his identity so easily because it is mainly determined by digital data.
Of course this is a fictional, somehow unrealistic future scenario but things like this are not totally impossible. As we have seen in the last chapter in the internet you can be whoever you want to be, you can fake your name, age and whatever you want and this can have effects also on Real Life. You can use your online-personality also in Real Life. E.g. it becomes quite common to use different pseudonyms for publications and then for talks on conference. For example Hakim Bey and Peter Lamborn Wilson are the same person, the pseudonym Hakim Bey is used for anarchist publications, Peter Lamborn Wilson for publications on Religious Studies. These identities are not only identities on the net, but he uses them also in Real Life, e.g. when he talks on a conference.
So what I am trying to say here is that by the simulation of an identity in creating an electronic identity is more than just a virtual game, but this identity becomes or at least can become real. At best this is probably understood with Jean Baudrillard's concept of Simulation.
Excursion: Jean Baudrillard: SimulationIn Baudrillard's concept of evolution simulation is the third step after representation and production. Simulation can also be seen in contrast to dissimulation, as a form of feigning or deception:
"To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign what one hasn't. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But the matter is more complicated, since to simulate is not simply to feign: 'Someone who feigns an illness can simply go to bed and make believe he is ill. Someone [sic] who simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms.' Thus feigning ordissimulating leaves the reality principle intact: the difference is always clear, it is only masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between 'true' and 'false', between 'real and 'imaginary'." (quoted by Bogard 1996: 10)
So through simulation it "becomes increasingly difficult to separate the realms of the true and false, appearance and reality, secrecy and transparency." (Bogard 1996:11) Simulated reality becomes hyperreality and therefore more real than reality. "It is finally impossible to distinguish truth from fiction, real and unreal, the production of goods from the production of signs, persons from their holographic images or bionic reconstructions, or societies from their reincarnations over electronic nets." (ibid.: 11) What happens is that the whole definition of the real according to Baudrillard is 'that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction.' So the real is not thinkable without the hyperreal and the hyperreal therefore precedes the real.
So if you simulate an identity in form of an electronic identity, this identity is not only a faked identity but becomes hyperreal, more real than the real. This is a step taken in philosophy and science fiction, but if you accept this step, if you accept that electronic identities are real or hyperreal identities, this includes severe changes for the even most fundamental basics of our existence. If electronic identities can become real identities, identities can also be immortal.
5. Becoming immortal through an electronic identityYou can duplicate any human emotion or recreate any human experience with technology - Michael Deering
If the electronic identity can become a real identity than the concept of health is threatened in an even more radical way. Not only to have an incoherent, flexible, multiple identity can become judged as healthy, but maybe even a remedy is found against the last disease, the one of death.
As Timothy Leary argues there are a couple of ways, how we can reach immortality, and they all are similar to creating electronic or digital identities. The underlying philosophy under the following methods and the possibility of reaching immortality is quite radical and maybe can best be summarized by the statement: "We're basically brains. Our bodies are here to move our brains around." (Leary 1994: 35)
According to Timothy Leary and Eric Gullichsen there is not just one but different ways of reaching immortality. Nevertheless the basic rule to become immortal is:
"Preserve your body-
preserve your brain-
preserve your DNA.
To immortalize: digitize!"(ibid: 202)
So the different ways of becoming immortal are more to be understood as ways of digitizing different forms of one own's personality and therefore immortalize different aspects of the personality. Methods named here are the 1."Archival-informational. One standard way of becoming "immortal" is by leaving a trail of archives, biographies, tapes, films, computer files, and publicized noble deeds,"(ibid: 200) 2. the "Personality data-base transmission. "Head Coach" is a system developed by Futique, Inc., one of the first examples of a new generation of psychoactive computer software. The program allows the user (performer) to digitize and store thoughts on a routine daily basis. If one leaves, let us say, twenty years of daily computer-stored records of thought-performance, one's grandchildren, a century down the line, can "know" and replay your information habits and mental performances. They will be able to "share and relive experiences" in considerable detail."(ibid: 200), 3. "Nanotech information storage: direct brain-computer transfer.[..] We consider building an artificial computational substrate both functionally and structurally identical to the brain (and perhaps the body) of a person. This can be achieved with predicted future capabilities of nanotechnology. Communicating nanomachines that pervade the organism may analyze the neural and cellular structure and transfer the information obtained to machinery capable of growing, atom by atom, an identical copy."(ibid: 200f.) and 4. the "Computer viral existence in the cyberspace matrix. [..] In the 21st Century imagined by novelist William Gibson, wily cybernauts will not only store themselves electronically, but do so in the form of a 'computer virus', capable of traversing computer networks and of self-replication as a guard against accidental or malicious erasure by others or other programs."(ibid: 201)
"KON-TIKI OF THE FLESH
In the near future, what is now taken for granted as the perishable human creature will be a mere historical curiosity, one point amidst unimaginable, multidimensional diversity of form. Individuals, or groups of adventurers, will be free to choose to reassume flesh-and-blood form, constructed for the occasion by the appropriate science."(ibid: 202)
So according to Leary many aspects of our identity can be made immortal, our nature (method 3), our habits and behaviors (method 2), our thinking (method 1 and 2), our desires/strategies (method 4) and maybe these data will be able to rebuild a human body and brain by an 'appropriate science'.
The step to replace bodily existence through technology sounds probably more radical than it actually is. Medicine in our modern times made this step already quite often for parts of our body. Whenever there is a malfunction of the body, this part becomes replaced by technical devices. Ears become replaced by hearing-aids, arms and legs by prothesis etc. To replace the whole body with its inherent disease of mortality by a totally electronic existence is just one step further. This can lead to new forms of human life in the future. Timothy Leary predicts therefore: "a bio/machine hybrid of any desired form; and one not biological at all: an 'electronic life' on the computer networks. Human as machine, and human in machine." (Ibid: 199)
So maybe one day when somebody walks to the doctor and asks: 'Oh I got this terrible disease, I am still mortal, can you help me?" the doctor just answers: 'We just got this new form of therapy here, digitalization.'
So the concept of health can be changed not only in the way that what once was unhealthy like MPD can become valued as healthy, but also what once was healthy, being mortal, can become valued as unhealthy.
6. Conclusion and previewMaybe there are some gaps in the presentation of these thoughts here, maybe the argumentation sometimes also leaves the area of pure science, but I never promised more than science fiction. Nevertheless what I can conclude out of these considerations are that the traditional concept of identity becomes challenged in many ways by computertechnologies.
On the one hand the status of a human identity becomes challenged by the substitution through technical devices on the other hand computertechnolgies enable us to view ourself and think about identity in a different and new way. And this is probably the most radical change in this context. In science esp. psychology it becomes quite popular to think about the human in a cybernetic way, to make an analogy between human being and the way a computer works. On the one hand the self can be understood as a 'multiple, distributed timesharing system', on the other hand our bodily existence can be understood as something to carry the brain around. By reducing the whole identity to a digital narrative it becomes also a free determinable identity and this free chooseable existence becomes reality or hyperreality through the process of simulation. So also identity-aspects like the reality principle become threatened and there are many more aspects not discussed in the text here like e.g. prosthetic memory. Also the whole discourse about cyborgs fit in the context but could have been only touched shortly here.
All this leads to a reconsideration of the traditional, unitary concept of identity and by doing this also the concept of health must be put under reconsideration.
Not only multiple personality disorder with its distributed, multiple and incoherent identities or schizophrenia with its lack of reality-consciousness must be reconsidered, but even body handicaps are to be reconsidered, when important parts of our identity become substituted by an electronic identity. And so every era constructs its own metaphors for psychological but also physical well-being. It seems to be that a healthy identity becomes described less in terms of authenticity, stability, to-be the-same-with-the-self, coherence and unity, but more in terms of flexibility, multiplicity, maybe even incoherence (as a form of protection against information-overflow) and to-be-able-to-deal-with-prothesis, as they all seem to offer advantages in the struggle of survival. This can all lead to a dissolution of the body and its possibility of immortality.
But no more speculations at this point. Let's see what the future brings.
For anybody more interested in the subject presented here, the further reading list and the conference announcement in the appendix may be helpful.
7. BibliographyBogard, William 1996: The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in telematic societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Brunner, John 1992: Der Schockwellenreiter, München: Heyne-Verlag
original: 1975 : The Shockwave Rider
Fuchs, W.; Klima, R.; Lautmann, R.; Rammstedt O.; Wienold, H. 1988: Lexikon zur Soziologie. Opladen: Westdeutsche Verlag
Leary, Timothy 1994: Chaos and Cyber Culture.. Berkeley: Ronin
Stephenson, Neal 1994: Snow Crash. München: Goldmann
original: 1992: Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Books
Turkle, Sherry 1996: 'Parallel lives: working on identity in virtual space ' in: D. Grodlin and T.R. Lindhof (eds.) Constructing the Self in a Mediated World. London: Sage
Turkle, Sherry 1997: Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the internet. London: Phoenix
8. Appendix: Conference-announcement