The cyborgization process of becoming in which we presently take part has a long history and a very likely and highly plausible future. This will include an array of options for radically enhancing our bodies and minds. However, the cyborgization of our civilization is a multilayered, multidimensional progression that can be parsed in many ways, one of which is the hyper-connected, virtualized enmeshed reality already in progress.
Here I am looking at the virtualization of identity as part of the meta-layer of the conceptual framework of cyborgization, a kind of underlying semantic infrastructure of our cyber-evolution.
More specifically, I reflect upon certain linguistic needs – such as the clear distinction between rigid and flaccid designators – by which we may, if we can be mindful and careful enough, manage a certain ambiguity into a possible liberating procedure.
(This essay belongs to the thread “Forays in Philotopia – exploring the possible Philosophy of a Polytopia”)
Not long ago, a friend of mine came to ask my advice about an apparently simple issue which had started as a local remark and became a deep philosophical conversation between her daughter and herself, and later between us. This conversation prompted this essay.
Her daughter is about to celebrate her 15th birthday and needed to fill some forms for a coming exam. In the form, she needed to fill in a box for gender and almost did, before stopping to ask her mother: “Why do I need to fill the box of gender? Why do they care about my gender in any case? And also what does my gender have to do with my exam, my knowledge and my understanding of the subject matter?” (Before you raise your highbrows, yes she is a very bright young person).
My friend, her mother, answered, that this was the norm and she needn’t make a fuss over it. It’s probably used only as an indicator for statistical purposes and in any case, it’s the accepted form of identification of the person involved and therefore one should completely disregard the meaning of the question and simply “get on” with it.
She did “get on” with it and proceeded to complete the form, but later that evening the conversation between them resumed, moving to the deeper aspects of personal identity, gender, the issue of personhood and its derivative functions in society.
However, the issue became complicated when my friend’s daughter mentioned that in her online world, she plays certain games and uses avatars that are predominantly considered male ‘”just for fun” (her words). She said: “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if I play as a male or female, my character in the online game has no ‘real’ gender and even if it does, I don’t play as if I have a gender. I play as ‘me’ and I don’t want to have a gender in the game. It’s about my know-how, my capability as a player and my knowledge, none of which should be correlated to my biology.”
That is the point I made when I was asked to give my view of the issue, in light of my work on the Polytopia project.
It is not my intention in writing this essay to deal with the issue of gender specifically, but rather with the issue of transference (or indeed transposition) of identity designators between the actual and the virtual. This is an issue which I deem paramount for the sane evolution of our intersubjective cyborgization process.
Rigid Designators vs. Flaccid Designators
The Polytopian stance assumes a richness of mind that applies the distinction between rigid designators (Kripke) and flaccid designators (wiki) for different configurations of speech and thus, dimensions of semantics.
Rigid designators (rigid designation is a property of the way terms are used, not a property of the terms themselves – wiki) imply that the same object carries the same identity and thus the same characteristics in all possible worlds. Flaccid designators are fluid and allow for multiple options of descriptions in different worlds. The aim here is not to confront the one with the other, but to propose that rigid designators should be left to conventional speech only, for purposes of efficient communication and quick look-up taxonomies. Moreover, rigid designators should not be allowed to imply ontology and / or metaphysics. They should remain in the normative dimension with no necessary traceable memory (see endnotes #2). This will assume that proper names have meaning and application only inasmuch as they reflect the necessity of accurate empirical representation. In switching to flaccid designators, it’s proposed here that fluid terminologies are the way to go when dealing with hyper-complex systems like identity and more particularly, identity as represented in virtualities and the interrelation between said identities, especially in hyperconnectivity.
Within the motion of cyborgization in which we take part, we can discern the advent of a semantic transposition from the actual to the virtual. There’s a degree of transference of historical notions into a domain of existential realism to which those notions are not adapted and are factually obsolete. Such is the movement between terms pertaining to the conceptual category of rigid designators based on habitual ontologies; a sense of conflict arises and can be perceived when parsed in a virtual environment. No longer are we able to detect common indicators of identity, manners of representation and styles of recognition because the virtual does not yield to fixed indicators. It is thus, for example, impossible solely by perceiving a given avatar to determine its gender, orientation, age, morphology, race and so on. In fact, on first appearance, it may seem that due to the motion from the actual to the virtual, much information is lost and thus our capabilities of discernment and discrimination are the poorer for it. However, it’s the Polytopian stance that this apparent paucity is in fact a false impression, due to an analysis based on rigid designators too inflexible to allow the creative value of the virtual to come into play.
At present, the fact that our minds are embodied in a particular physical configuration stands as the main culprit in our habitual usage of identity indicators as rigid designators. Irrespective of the future possibility of mind uploads and similar post-physical modes of existences, we need see that already at this stage the networked infocology in which each and every one of us to different extents exists is already a form of non-physical existence. In perceiving virtual existence as a dimension separated from traditional actuality, we assume a different set of contextual representations and epistemic structures that, though they can be bridged to regular style embodiment, cannot be fully mapped to the body. This distinction, if clarified, allows us now to embed a re-definition of the concept of identity on the net that is distinct, different and only partially co-extensive with our physical embodiment. The issue here that we need reflect upon is that certain identities in virtuality are not extensions of our physicality but have, as it were, an independent or semi-independent existence (such as an avatar in an online game or Second Life) for which a contextual state of affairs must be defined.
No longer can we assume a central locus indicated rigidly by our bodily location and to which all our identities are bound. Moreover, from a different perspective, we can no longer assume that the motion of intelligence is still, in all cases, directed from the actual to the virtual. In fact, in many cases (“you are what you pretend to be … you are what you play (Turkle, 1997 #3), we discern quite the opposite, a motion of intelligence from the virtual to the actual. Rember that though it is an interplay of flows, symmetry is not implied –quite the contrary. In the relation between the virtual to the actual and the actual to the virtual, asymmetry reigns supreme. In some instances, the flow of actuality into virtuality will gain the upper hand while in others, the opposite will be the case. Nevertheless, we must emphasize the tension between those two motions and the clarification of directionality.
While embodied identities maintain a formal highly structural and a rigid set of indicators defined primarily as body and gender, our virtual identities are factually indicated in a fluid manner and thus pertain to the flaccid designators category. The initial condition of the human has changed and can no longer be theorized based on immovable objects of identity. What the Polytopian stance suggests is that our virtual identities are social entities allowing a co-present, inter-subjective, hyper-connected state of affairs, radically rewriting the codes of social encounters.
A number of different perspectives exist which desire different application of the correlation between the actual and virtual. Some of these would like to maintain a rigid continuity of identification, assuming wrongly that only such rigid continuity will allow valid confirmation of identity and thus trustworthiness (see Obama’s internet passport). While there are certain domains where such a view is applicable (banking for example), in most cases pertaining to the evolution of our cyborgization this will be untrue. The same goes for the opposite view that the virtual domain should be totally and uncompromisingly free, detached from any rigid correlation and continuity to actual embodied identity. In fact, most of the social entities considered as domains of interest extended in time in the infosphere pertain to neither perspective but to a grey area which is, to use the old adage, neither this nor that. Most of our cyborgization processes of becoming, manifested primarily via the networked, hyper-connected infocological state of affairs is fundamentally ambiguous, uncertain, oscillating and fluctuating, and should be considered as a flow of in-betweens. The flow of in-betweens is actually comprised of multiple domains of interests, passions and relations, but more importantly, of radical creative encounters. This is the domain where the cross-fertilization of human endeavor finds its home. This is presently a fragile realm, fuzzy in its orientation, passionate in its desire to explode into new forms of life and home to a fundamental structural instability. Though it may seem that this structural instability, also called inherent approximation, is a fault line indicating a potential problem possibly degenerating into the chaos of indeterminacy, it’s in my view a feature rather than a bug.
Indeterminacy is a feature, not a bug
I submit to you the idea that there is no direct continuity between an avatar and its originator, or the possibility of fully mapping an avatar as a “stand-in” representation of its creator. Although it’s probably possible to trace back an avatar to its originator, it’s highly likely that given enough time and diversification, including mutations, alterations and transformations, no such thing will be possible or desirable.
An avatar has a quasi-infinite variety of possible interpretations depending on context, semantics and syntax. More importantly at this stage is understanding that the relationship between the avatar and its originator is an indeterminate one that inherently exhibits the characteristics of ambiguity and fuzziness.
Not only do I think that the Avatar-Originator relationship is inherently ambiguous, I propose to make this particular ambiguity a kind of benchmark reflection on the concept of identity. I want to see a radical motion towards a possible liberating procedure in which our conscious usage of the ambiguity of this relationship replaces the closely coupled, rigid designations, we still transpose from the actual to the virtual.
The indeterminacy of our identities in the hyper-connected infocologies we are presently enmeshed in, is, I believe, only an indication or the beginning of a much greater fuzziness waiting for us in the process of cyborgization, to which the virtualization of identity is a crucial step.
It is my view that the evolution of intelligence is currently undergoing a dramatic shift towards a greater uncertainty and openness, a deeper ambiguity and larger indeterminacy through which we may, if sensibly and wisely managed, become freer.
There are many ways to understand intelligence: as issues of problem solving, the capacity for reasoning, adaptability to new environments, learning from experience, pattern recognition, the exercise of judgment, imagination, originality, artistic and abstract perception, complex interpretation and so on. All are possible interpretations, definitions and usages of the concept.
However, for the purpose of this essay I am using a semi-poetic interpretation of the term intelligence. Here I refer to intelligence as a luxury of mind, a bonus that I use in a very specific manner. I refer to intelligence as a luxury here because I see the capacity to exist in ambiguous situations, to extract relevant information from fuzzy circumstances that are non-linear and highly relevant to the new state of affairs we have co-created.
The hyper-connected, virtually enmeshed infocologies upon which we are projecting our newly minted avatars are oscillating representations that slowly but surely are disengaging from their points of origination. This disengagement process, itself part of our cyborgization, opens new options for the evolution of our self-descriptions into new horizons of freedom.
Issues of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, status, age and any other rigid designators ought to be relegated to the conventional realm. The hyper-connected, virtually enmeshed infocologies present no inherent necessity for these issues unless they are highly specified in functionality (as in the banking example) or chosen (as in creating an avatar with specific characteristics). In every other context, the disengagement process of an ambiguous identity is the luxury of intelligence we can finally afford and to my eyes, should passionately apply.
Whether we are hardcore Singularitarian, futurists, transhumanists, Extropians, philosophers, artists, AI designers or any modern person, in using the media of our current connective technologies, we are performing acts of luxurious intelligence application.
It doesn’t matter what exactly it is we believe concerning the future of our civilization and our very nature; what matters is the manner in which we understand the process of becoming a better species, a better human, a more empathic mind, increasingly rational, passionate and conscious, open to the beauty of the great uncertainty that is life.
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.”
Ursula K. LeGuin
# 1. Let me be clear, while I advocate total freedom of self-representation on the net, there are certain kinds of social interaction in which gender representation, as an example, is fundamental. Though a dating site might require the knowledge of your gender, there is no inherent reason for a requirement of gender identification in an online game. As I see it, it’s high time that we question most of our assumptions about identity representation and their correlated implications, especially in situations where common sense dictates that no such identification is necessary. This goes far deeper than the privacy versus transparency debate; this goes to the very root of the personhood perception mechanisms that we put into place millennia ago. These must be upgraded to fit our modern day hyper-connected, interfaced minds.
# 2. I use no necessary traceable memory to designate the rigid factuality of designation of a particular individual in the original dimension of the actual that does not transpose into other possible worlds, especially as refers to the virtual hyper-connected dimension. Hence, though it will be true to state that person P is a female, in actuality this description may not necessarily be transposed into the virtual and thus does not carry traceable memory.
# 3. Turkle, S. (1997). Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet. Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.