"For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream"
Vincent van Gogh
The cyborgization process of becoming in which we presently take part has a long history and a very likely and highly plausible future, including wide arrays of options of radically enhancing our bodies and minds, however, the cyborgization becoming of our civilization is a multilayered, multidimensional progression that can be parsed in many ways, one of which is the hyperconnected 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 enough 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 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 a young person about to celebrate her 15th birthday and needed to fill some forms for a coming exam, in the form as is common, she needed to fill the box of gender and almost did, when she stopped and asked 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 of it, it is probably used only as an indicator for statistical purposes and in any case it is the norm and 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 fill the form, but later that evening the conversation between them resumed to the deeper aspects of the personal identity issue to which ‘gender’ relates as a defining characteristic, and apparently the issue of personhood and its derivative functions in society.
However the issue became complicated when said young person 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, but really ‘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, its 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 when I was asked to give my view of the issue, in light of my working on the Polytopia project.
It is not my intention in writing this essay to deal with the issue of gender specifically but with the issue of transference (or indeed transposition) of identity designators between the actual and the virtual in general, 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 but to remain on the normative dimension with no necessary traceable memory (see endnotes #2). This will assume that proper names have meaning application only in as much as they reflect the necessity of accurate empirical representation. Switching to flaccid designators it is proposed here that fluid terminologies are the way to go when dealing with hyper complex systems such as identity and more particularly identity as represented in virtualities and the inter relation 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. A motion 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 that a sense of conflict rises and can be perceived when parsed in a virtual environments. No longer are we able to detect common indicators of identity, manners of representation, and styles of recognition for the simple reason that the virtual does not yield to fixed indicators. It is thus for example impossible solely by the fact of 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 capability of discernment and discrimination is the poorer for it. However, it is the Polytopian stance that this apparent paucity is in fact a false impression due to an analysis based on rigid designators not flexible enough 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 to the future technological possibility of mind uploads and similar post physical 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 need assume a different set of contextual representations and thus epistemic structures that though can be bridged to regular style embodiment cannot be fully mapped to said 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 of our identities in virtuality are not extensions of our physicalities but have as it were, an independent or semi-independent as the case may be (such as an avatar in an online game, or SL ) existence to which, a contextual state of affairs need be defined.
No longer can we assume a central locus indicated rigidly by our bodily location to which all our identities are bound. Moreover, from a different perspective no longer can we 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 will discern quite the opposite, a motion of intelligence from the virtual to the actual. And let us remember that though it is an interplay of flows
, in no fashion is symmetry implied, quite the contrary in fact, 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 whilst in others the opposite will be the case. Nevertheless our effort here must emphasize the tension between those two motions and the clarification of directionality.
Whilst embodied identities maintain a formal highly structural and therefore rigid set of indicators, defined primarily as body, gender etc., our virtual identities are factually indicated in a fluid manner and thus pertain to the flaccid designators category. The initial condition of the human thus 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 in fact social entities in and of themselves allowing a co-present, inter-subjective, hyper-connected, state of affairs, radically rewriting the codes of social encounters.
A number of different perspectives exist as of today desiring different application of the correlation actual-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
). Whilst there are certain domains to which such view is applicable (banking for example) in most cases pertaining to the evolution of our cyborgization this will be untrue. Same goes for the opposite view that the virtual domain should be totally and uncompromisingly free and 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 middle ground grey area which is, to use the old adage, neither this nor that. Most of our cyborgization process 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 perhaps, of radical creative encounters. This is the domain where the cross-pollination, cross-fertilization of human endeavor finds its home. This home, at present a fragile realm, fuzzy in its orientation yet passionate in its desire to explode into new forms of life, contains 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 is 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 for that matter the possibility of fully mapping an avatar, as a ‘stand-in’ symbol of representation, to the person that originated that same avatar. (And though at present it probably is possible to trace back an avatar to its originator, it is highly likely that given enough time and diversification, including mutations, alterations and transformations, none such will be possible or indeed desired.)
An avatar has a quasi-infinite variety of possible interpretations depending on context, on semantics and syntax, but more importantly at this stage is the understanding that the relationship between the avatar and its originator is an indeterminate relationship that inherently exhibits the characteristics of ambiguity and fuzziness.
Not only do I think that the relationship Avatar-Originator, is inherently ambiguous I propose to make this particular ambiguity, a kind of benchmark reflection on the concept of identity. A radical motion towards a possible liberating procedure, in which our consciously aware usage of the ambiguity of relationship Avatar-Originator, replaces the closely coupled, rigid designations, we still transpose from the actual to the virtual.
The indeterminacy of our identities in the hyperconnected infocologies we are presently enmeshed in, is, I believe, only an indication or the beginning, if you like, of a much greater fuzziness that is 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, a new state of affairs of mind, through which we may, if sensibly and wisely managed, become more free.
There are many ways to understand intelligence, and in many contexts, issues of problem solving, capacity of reasoning, adaptability to new environments, learning from experience, pattern recognition, judgment exercising, imagination, originality, artistic and abstract perception, complex interpretation and so on, are all 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 if you like, 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 as non-linear and highly relevant to the new state of affairs we have co-created.
The hyperconnected 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 becoming, opens new options, fresh possibilities and a wide array of potentials for the evolution of our self-descriptions into new horizons of freedom.
Issues of gender (such as the one mentioned in the little anecdote above), of race, of creed, of ethnicity, of status, of age and any other rigid designators, ought to be relegated to the conventional, indeed to the material, as it is now, to the actual. The hyperconnected virtually enmeshed infocologies, present no inherent necessity for such, unless highly specified in functionality (as in the banking example) or so chosen (as in creating an avatar with specifically chosen 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.
Finally, whether we are hard core Singularitarian, futurists, Transhuman or Extropians, philosophers, artists, AI designers or just any modern day person, using the mediums of our currently available technologies to hyperconnect we are factually performing acts of luxurious intelligence application.
It does not so much matter what exactly it is that we believe concerning the coming future of our civilization and our very nature, what matters is the manner we understand the process of becoming a better specie, a better human, a more empathic mind, 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
shortly to be continued..
# 1. Let me be clear here, whilst I advocate a total freedom of self-representation on the net, there are certain kinds of social interaction in which gender representation, as an example, are fundamental for the purpose of the designated interaction. 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. Moreover, as I see it, it is high time that we put into question most of our assumptions about identity representation and their correlated implications especially in situations where common sense dictates that no such identification is indeed necessary. This goes far deeper than the privacy versus transparency debate, this goes to the very root of the personhood perception mechanisms that we have put into place, millennia ago and need be upgraded to fit our modern day hyperconnected interfaced minds.
# 2. No necessary traceable memory I use here 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 hyperconnected dimension. Hence though it will be true to state that person P is a female in actuality this description may not necessarily be transposed unto 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.
# 4. second image in text: Double Pendulum with LEDs by Michael G Devereux
# 5. third image Succulus by Robert Pepperell