“Birth is when we get our identity. Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.

Now that we can say more of our selves,
will others have the chance to know about it?

“The human experience of identity has two elements:
a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate.Windley, Phillip J. Digital Identity. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2005.

Our shadows played together as we walked, yet I am not able to tell you about it.

In 1976, two paleoanthropologists in a group led by anthropologist Mary Leakey, found, not far from the village of Laetoli in Tanzania, two pairs of fossils which today question the nature of those that existed before us. The discovery, as any of this nature, fuelled much debate. Some argue that the fossils, in fact footprints, were made by early hominids who resemble contemporary humans in stride and standing posture, while others, rooting their argument on the historical and artifactual record, challenge the idea that Laetoli marks were made by early iterations of us since there is no evidence of human culture or intelligence during that time period.

For the believers, it was Australopithecus Afarensis who strolled throughout Africa as early as 3.9 to as late as 3 million years ago and left his or her legacy for us to find. The discovery has been crucial to the field of anthropology in that if early humans indeed made the footprints, these represent the earliest proof of bipedal locomotion in the archaeological record. One thing is clear though, if it was in fact Australopithecus who left his or her marks, it could walk but could not talk. Skull casts of other skeletons discovered and dated to the same time period indicate that such development had no yet happened. The brain was still much like that of a chimpanzee and the talking ability was still not developed.

I just realized I don’t have a shadow and I can tell you about it.

In 1992, Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash, a cyberpunk genre novel where he coined the idea of the metaverse to describe what today we know and refer to as an online virtual space. The creation of this digital world and the complex way in which it related to the real world described in the narrative, later inspired Philip Rosedale, an internet entrepreneur, to launch the virtual world Second Life.

The environment had two main ideas driving its inception. The first is that it was built as an alternate existence that was modeled by its residents. There is no overarching force dictating that details of what this world can be. A second driving idea may be the most powerful: “other than chat rooms, much of the Internet is devoid of people. If you’re shopping on Amazon.com, you have no idea if you’re alone or if 20,000 other people are there at the same time. There’s no way to notice if you and another shopper are looking at the same product, and start up a conversation about it. Eventually, Internet users might go to Amazon through Second Life instead of through a browser, walking into the Amazon store and interacting with shoppers and clerks Kevin, Maney. The King of Alter Egos Is Surprisingly Humble Guy. 05 Feb. 2007.” Second Life is a more people-minded interphase to travel the world wide web.

The project, which began in 2003, is today “inhabited by millions of Residents from around the globeSecond Life. What Is Second Life. 2007. 23 Oct. 2007”. In this alternate reality, those who choose to join the service are asked to create an avatar, or a visual digital representation of their own choosing (or as many different ones as they wish Roland Barthes said “a myth is a system of communication, that it is a message”. In a sense, through the creation of these avatars the users of Second Life could be creating myths of themselves. As per Barthes in Mythologies, “The myth of the Abbé Pierre has at its disposal a precious asset: the physiognomy of the Abbé. It is a fine physiognomy, which clearly displays all the signs of apostleship: a benign expression, a Franciscan haircut, a missionary’s beard, all this made complete by the sheepskin coat of the worker-priest and the staff of the pilgrim.” In Second Life, users have all that is necessary for them to create their own physiognomy.), which can be whatever the imagination allows: a man, a woman, a cat, a human dressed as a dragon. Once the avatar is ready (by the user’s wishes), he (maybe now a she) or she (maybe now a he) can have it teleport through three-dimensional spaces where it can communicate to other avatars, own money, purchase virtual land, build property, own material artifacts, attend concerts, stay in hotels, have sexual relations, or even get married. One observation of this alternate existence: our human avatars cast no shadows. We are shadow-less beings in a lit world.

You were not able to talk, yet we know much about you | we can talk, yet we know nothing about each other.

In the Laetoli breakthrough, the discovery includes two pairs of footprints walking side by side. Not just one pair. We have the physical marks of two beings, possibly human, who could not talk with each other, yet they were able to come together and stroll next to each other. “Jacques Lacan coined the neologism ‘extimacy’ in order to theorize two interrelated modes of psychical apprehension: first, how our most intimate feelings can be extremely strange and other to us. Second, how our feelings can be radically externalized on to objects without losing their sincerity and intensity”. Kingsbury, Paul. “The Extimacy of Space.” Social cultural geography 8.2 (2007): 235.Physical proximity must have allowed for some kind of non-verbal interaction to occur between these two hominids. We can infer this from the stamps they left in the ground that provide proof of their encounter and existence.

Second Life, on the contrary, builds on a framework of disembodied visual and audial exchanges. Users have the ability (and choice) to communicate with others but are doing so from different, possibly global locations. We have no point of reference on any person we meet there. “How drastically can a person change and still remain, in the eyes of either themselves or their peers, the same person? Schroeder, Ralph, Ann-Sofie Axelsson, and Wartime Classes Golden Anniversary Endowment. Avatars at Work and Play : Collaboration and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments. Vol. 34. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006. ” How little change could be made and provoke the opposite? When facing Second Lifers, the relationship between avatar and creator “multiplies intentional ambiguities before our eyes.Michel Foucalt uses this idea to delve into the ambiguities of having two representations of the same object come together in the painting Les Deux mystères (1966) by René Magritte. He ponders, “There are two pipes. Or rather must we say, two drawings of the same pipe? Or yet  a pipe and a drawing of that pipe? Or yet again two drawings each representing a different pipe? Or two drawings, one representing a pipe and the other not, or two more drawings yet , of which neither the one nor the other are or represent pipes? Or yet again, a drawing representing not a pipe at all but another drawing, itself representing a pipe so well that I must ask myself: To what does the sentence written in the painting relate?” The relationship between an Avatar and its creator is thus looked at in this paper with a similar lens. What is it that we are really looking at in Second Life?” This lack of context is then added to the reality of not being side-by-side with one another. We are not really there, even though we are there Roland Barthes’ study of the photographic message in Image Music Text seems fit to expand on the problematic viewpoint of having to face an avatar. “It is thus at the level of this denoted message or message without a code that the real unreality of the photograph can be fully understood: its unreality is that of the here-now, for the photograph is never experienced as illusion, is in no way a presence (claims as to the magical character of the photographic image must be deflated); its reality that of the having-been-there, for in every photograph there is always stupefying evidence of this is how it was, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered. This kind of temporal equilibrium (having-been-there) probably diminishes the projective power of the: the this was so easily defeats the it’s me.” It is here thought of an avatar as a photograph as here explored, not being able to consider avatars as real interpretations.. This Second Life experience creates no physical record of events that take place, yet Barthes could argue that “myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no ‘substantial’ ones,” and by just creating and communicating with these avatars within Second Life we are already creating a myth for ourselves, hence leaving a record.

Bruce Sterling, on the other hand, in his futuristic look in Shaping Things, looks into human identity and anticipates that coming generations will “…like to have some coherent ideas about the demographics of every one who interacts in any way whatsoever”. They will not be interested in “pigeon-holding people inside demographics” but what will be of interest to them will be “when people transit across demographics. A rural fundamentalist who somehow moves to a foreign country, triples her income and is now a refined international diplomat– she sounds like someone we might want to talk to”. Considering Barthes’ view, we may be creating a record of ourselves, but in reality, avatars are still not allowing us to know much, or what we would want to know, about their creators.

“Power is tolerable only on the condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

A great deal of what we know comes from what others left behind.

In 2006, for the first time in history, the Canadian National Census questionnaire made its way to the country’s 32.5 million residents with a new confidentiality question that asked to approved or disapproved of their personal information being included in the census. “Many genealogists and historians feared that survey participants didn’t realize the importance of saying “yes,” and initiated a publicity campaign to educate people on the implications of the confidentiality question, and on why Canadians should care about what happens almost a century from now, in the year 2098, when the 2006 census is released to the public.Kimberly, Powell. Will You Be Remembered in 2098? 8 May 2006. 2 Nov. 2007” Why should we care what happens 90 years from today? Why does it matter? Saying no would be like living without a shadow.

We know of early pre-historic hunting strategies from the Lascaux Cave drawings. Egyptian pharaohs and their burial techniques are studied today because we were able to find mastabas, pyramids, temples and scrolls. We can imagine the Loch Ness Monster because we have seen blurry images. To Catholics, Jesus Christ is God, not human, because there was a Council of Nicea and we can imagine him because we can see the Turin Shroud. Stonehenge is an international mystery because there are unexplainable rocks still standing. We believe man has visited the moon because we have seen a video of it. In all of these cases, the importance lies in that the “objects no longer perhaps possess a power, but they certainly possess meaningsBarthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977..

Why is it that for most of society biography is destiny?

Let’s consider the culture of geocaching. What drives its members to geo-annotate a physical space? “Every one of these personal geo-annotations boils down to “I was here” or “You are hereInstitute for the Future. Why People Will Geo-annotate Physical Space. 22 Oct. 2004. 20 Nov. 2007”. It has to do with marking in relationship to presence. This space now has information that allows others to decipher who was there or why they were there: “This is the place where he proposed”; “I’m a tourist and really having a great time”; “I lost a bet, as part of my payoff I have to mark the spot where….

It is of further interest the way individuals want to be remembered and how they leave marks for others to interpret in relation to their personal identity. “Ever wished to pull out a pen and write an angry message on the wall next to you? Do you enjoy observing and participating in toilet graffitiGeonotes. Digital Graffiti in Public Spaces. 2002. 24 Nov. 2007? This urge is neither recent nor contemporary. It is part of our human condition. We have always, whether in an intentional or unintentional manner, strived at making ourselves known. It used the archaeologists who were those uniquely interested with understanding what came before us. It was them who were worried with digging up the past for clues, answers and history, but contemporary socialscapes have mutated. This idea of marking and decoding the mark has shifted from an academic panorama into a social trend, and technological improvements have paved the way for this move.

The them, the me and the mine

Richard Saul Wurman believes that “we learn through context, through what surrounds, informs, and opposes an ideaWurman, Richard Saul, et al. Information Anxiety 2. Indianapolis, Ind.: Que, 2001..” From his understanding, people seek conversations with the interest or purpose to exchange information. Through communicating with others, exchange of words and ideas takes place.

Recent improvements in digital communications provide a stable framework for this exchange to exist on a more regular and stable manner. The contemporary physical world is becoming more digital and so are we. Our current perceptions of identity cannot deny the amalgam between our physical selves and our digital representations of our self. This relationship will only lead to making this inchoate digital identity more real. Your digital creation (or creations since there is an opportunity here to create more than one of us) will take life. You will take it with you at all timesCurrently credit cards do this. Our digital information is exchanged every time we purchase an item and as Sterling recognizes, “…we want to know what the thing looks like at every stage of its lifecycle, not just when its fresh from its shrink-wrap and styrofoam blocks Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.”. We will be interested in all its aspects.

“Extending one’s sense of self in the form of abstract representation is one of our most fundamental expressions of humanity.Schroeder, Ralph, Ann-Sofie Axelsson, and Wartime Classes Golden Anniversary Endowment. Avatars at Work and Play: Collaboration and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments. Vol. 34. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006.

We exist by implication

Contemporary digital environments have allowed a re-thinking of our selves and of how we relate, connect and present with others. The emergence and popularity of social networking sites in the Internet brought about new perspectives to the ideological sphere of personal identity. In 1995 came Classmates.com. In 2002 we had Friendster. In 2003 MySpace showed up and in 2004 Facebook appeared as a private experiment, only to then go public in 2006. The popularity of these platforms grew exponentially, with many of the users profiling themselves in more than one of them at the same time.

These sites have in common that they allow users to digitally curate their own lives in respect to the physical social relationships they are entailed in. Users can post content about themselves and have it annotated by others, while at the same time, others can publish information about them (which in return, they could also annotate). In other words, the curation takes place through the implications of these messagesWhich would lead to a slow birth under Bruce Sterling’s idea that identity gives us life.. The creation of this digital self takes place through text, images and as of recently, video. As Barthes’ said “pictures become a kind of writing as soon as they are meaningful: like writing, they call for a lexisBarthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.”. People are visually mapping new creations of themselvesBarthes sees the increasing technological developments with a skeptical eye when it relates to identity. “This is without doubt an important historical paradox: the more technology develops the diffusion of information (an notable of images), the more it provides the means of masking the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning.” (image music text) This is important to the questioning at hand for if technology is helping the masking of meanings, what will be our legacy later when who we are today will then be interpreted by technology?. Computer game players sometimes talk about their real selves as a composite of their characters and talk about their screen personae as means for working on their real lives.

In this digital curation most of the communication and growth relies on the captioning of information. Users post messages, images or videos and others can annotate, comment, verify, disprove, lie or fantasize with them. Personal and external texts illustrate the imagesAgain Roland Barthes in Image, Music, Text talks about this change in roles. “In other words, and this is an important historical reversal, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image. Formerly, the image illustrated the text (made it clearer); today the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination. Formerly, there was reduction from text to image; today, there is amplification from the one to the other”. . “Sometimes, however, the text produces (invents) an entirely new signified which is retroactively projected into the image, so much so as to appear denoted there… Sometimes too, the text can even contradict the image so as to produce a compensatory connotationBarthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.”. Jungian ideas stressed that the self is a meeting place of diverse archetypes. The sum of all annotation creates this digital social being.

How do the younger generations deal with this? Let’s consider a being totally un-oriented in the contemporary world. What does it mean for it to identify itself as something with an internal cohesion? It means that this being needs to find an orientation in the world, that is, it needs to make a distinction between an inside and an outside. How shall it know that there are things that belong to itself and things that are outside of the scope of its being? A crucial question is what will be the element that is likely to reveal to it its nature, its place in the world; or in other words, what will the living being recognize itself in?

Freud had in this regard a quite interesting proposition that is useful for our purposes. In Instincts and their vicissitudes he states: “Let us imagine ourselves in the situation of an almost entirely helpless living organism, as yet unoriented in the world, which is receiving stimuli in its nervous substance. This organism will very soon be in a position to make a first distinction and a first orientation. On the one hand, it will be aware of stimuli that can be avoided by muscular action: these it ascribes to an external world. On the other hand, it will also be aware of stimuli against which such action is of no avail and whose character of constant pressure persists in spite of it; these stimuli are the signs of an internal world, the evidence of instinctual needs. The perceptual substance of the living organism will thus have found in the efficacy of its muscular activity a basis for distinguishing between an ‘outside’ and an ‘inside’.”

“…Tomorrow’s tomorrow–is neither an object nor a person. It’s a Biot, which we can define as an entity which is both object and person.Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.?

The present’s future relies on today’s digital shadows

Context is important. We use it in the development and management of who we are.  We are good at understanding, evaluating and deciphering the information handed to us as we experience the physical world. The digital world thus presents an interesting challenge: there is no space for us to leave our marks.

In 4 million years, will someone be able to find a trace of who we are today? If we continue on this path of digital self-identification, how will we resonate in the physical world? How will be transcend in a world where transcending and improving technologies might archive or out write us? How will we be able to search back? Will there be a possibility of discovery? A chance for surprise?

As the digitalization of society pluralizes and infects every aspect of our daily lives, some projects are reconnecting the digital sphere with the physical world that created it. The importance of leaving a physical mark is still present.

Esquire Magazine’s The Napkin Project, a project completely based on an traditional story of someone, in a bar somewhere, scribbling on a napkin in the failing afternoon light; the kind of story or list or note that might be crammed in a pocket and pulled out years later to tell something deep and forgotten, perhaps life’s most intimate first chapter, nearly lost forever. This digital project uses analogue techniques to create narratives that are shared digitally with others, yet the physical mark has been made. In truth, the server that holds the project could break down and the information could be lost, yet the originals are probably somewhere, archived, with the potential of being discovered years from now.

The Yellow Arrow project is trying to create a global public art community that uses the digital world to annotate the physical one. In this project, the arrows left by people “point what counts” in their own respect. The arrows serve as captions to things that people may not necessarily pay attention to.

Both of these projects talk to us. There is something about the handling of the relationship of the digital and physical worlds that allow us interact with them at multiple levels. Most importantly, both projects leave marks that can be picked up by others later.

“Hence, knowing that a system which takes over the signs of another system in order to make them its signifiers is a system of connotation, we may say immediately that the literal message is denoted and the symbolic image connoted.Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. Image, Music, Text

Transcending today

Social networks do not talk back at us. It’s other users within these frameworks that do. This situation creates a new set of rules that implicate what identity means in a digital space. Our identity, in this scenario, is dictated by others with whom you are related in the physical world. In realms such as Second Life, identity is managed differently. We create our own avatar, but no information is given back to us about what the creation means or implicates. We can become what we pretend to be. For some, this is the opportunity to be someone they had always wished of being. For others, this is a unique way in which they can explore new that they can never be or to behave in ways they never thought possible.

Jake Kirchner, in the article Your Identity Will Be Digital, discusses how biometrics can measure unique individual characteristics well beyond fingerprints. Individual attributes of your face are measured by themselves and in relationship to one another, creating a complex digitized mathematical model. This, along with the reality that every person’s iris and retinal patterns are unique and can be scanned like a human barcode and that the geometry of your hand, patterns of veins in your wrist, and the map of your pores can be used as unique digital identifiers begs us to question if our identities will become models. Will I become numbers or patterns for the future generations?

Our individuality is a construction that takes place through ideology, language, and representation. How can we, as individuals, leave our own marks to be identified or remembered later? Then again, maybe all I have to do is leave my footprints in the sand…

 

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