‘Hey, you’re a cyborg!!!’ said Time magazine. Like a million years ago. Because someone invented a digital watch with a built in week-to-view calendar. Probably. Okay, so, I have no clue if that ever happened, but that point I’m trying to make is that calling humans cyborgs is hyperbole, old news, and very, very true.
It’s a concept we should get used to, but not in its most usual manifestation – as the kitsch visual metaphor for interdependent flesh and technology. That’s the cyborg of sci-fi dreams and nightmares, with an aesthetic span reaching from The Terminator’s jagged extrusions of metal-as-armour to the frictionless simulacra of Bladerunner. It’s a fun romp through body-insecurity and organic-obsolescence but I think we’ve moved on as a culture – the cyborg of the 21st century should represent the unseen integrations of human and technology that we’ve created through our social networks; it’s a cyborg of the self.
Amber Case is another whom agrees that we need a renaissance in cyborg semantics. She refers to her sociological research as ‘cyborg anthropology’ and agrees that our technologies have extended our notion self beyond the purely physical. Think about the information about yourself that is floating around the ether at this minute: there’s the known-knowns of Facebook pics and hilarious Tweets (seriously, I love them); but there’s probably information you’re not even aware of – you might be listed in a database published by your uni, or your work – as well as odd slivers of data, generated by your interactions with other people, which are as open to interpretation as any ‘authoritative’ status update.
Case refers to this digital collection of bits (and bobs) as a ‘second self’, and really, that’s not a bad way to begin conceptualising this. When you go to bed today there will still be something that is running around with your face and name, being you, on the internet. This ‘you’ is one that people can interact with publicly of course, but it also someone that people will react to without you knowing – social freeloaders, getting their fill of judgement and voyeuristic pleasure pretty much without your consent. So far, so blah – an unfortunate side-effect of this ‘naturalised cyborgism’ is that it’s really not too shocking. It’s as Case points out – we have adolescences and then we have digital adolescences; manipulating our semiotics of self by tweaking profile pics aesthetics is so intuitive to our generation that it’s often barely conscious.
Anyway, all of this is leading into a much more enticing slice of thought pie: the concept, and fallacy, of digital dualism. It’s a term coined by social media theorist Nathan ‘so on the money he’s a founding father’ Jurgenson all the way back in 2011 and refers to a world view that conceptualises the digital and the physical as separate, non-interactive realms. When Case refers to our ‘second self’ she is subscribing to the concept of digital dualism – she suggests that there is a binary between our digital and our physical personas, when it is more constructive to consider these selves as enmeshed as doing so encourages us to assess the issues of physical/digital friction more seriously. Post-structualism teaches us that we should continuously assess and assay our language, for it drives not only how we think but also how we are.
And of course, understanding digital dualism is not simply important in a ‘It’s fun to reference Foucault’ sort of way – Jurgenson also points out why this critique is relevant in more concrete terms. For example, let’s consider the idea of ‘web objectivity’ – the concept that the Internet transcends social structures to produce a utopian wonderverse in which distinctions of class and race are stripped away and we are judged on our merits alone. This sort of thinking is easily mocked for its brand of feverish techno-optimism – the sort of early-90s enthusiasm that was commendable in its forward thinking but that failed to recognise how
social distinctions are preserved on the web. Jurgenson references the “hidden hierarchies” of Wikipedia – an entirely laudable project but one that nevertheless retains the power structures of the society that spawned it – this article from the New York times gives the relevant stats [insert article here]. Now whilst these numbers are hardly a surprise, and nor do they take away from the many successes of Wikipedia (incase its not yet obvious, I really like Wikipedia) – they do show why an awareness of digital dualism is important: it engenders a mode of thinking responsive to the hidden inequalities of web. And as Foucault says ‘invisibility is power.’
Now, since first coining the terms, Jurgenson has finessed his theories into four separate concepts (and I can’t recommend enough reading him firsthand,) labelling the view that digital and physical worlds are part of one reality and that they interact ‘mild augmented reality.’ I have to say that it’s not a term I’m particularly fond of. It seems too strongly associated with the technological ecosystems of VR goggles and augmented reality apps (programs for smartphones that add a digital overlay in realtime to our environment); whilst also implying that the ‘overlay’ of the digital world is an add-on, an ‘augmentation’ of our physical reality – seemingly denying the very ‘one-ness’ that the theory proclaims. I’m not pretending to have any solution to this terminology conundrum; I’m bringing it up simply to illustrate that this is an inchoate theoretical field. It’s exciting to think about because it makes you think exciting things, but it’s also exciting in that it is in the process of emergence as we speak and we can get involved and talk about it. I knew the internet was good for something.
Anyway, let’s return to our cyborgs and to our multiple selves, I think they’re getting a bit bored in the corner. So whilst I disagree with the conceptual underpinnings of Amber Case’s ‘first’ and ‘second’ selves, I couldn’t agree more that the issue of multiple- and extended- identity are key to understanding this enterprise and in general, with regards to, you know, life and that, terribly, terribly important.
The internet really does allow us to be different people, and it does this in a bewildering variety of ways: from the obvious methods of picking a new username or creating a game avatar, to the subtleties of profile-semiotics or the ironic deployment of memes and LULZspaek. In essence, interactions online are as complex and rich and disturbing and weird as interactions in real life are. And with this in mind we might asses the digital dualists’ position as motivated by a desire to preserve the integrity of their identity; they do not want to acknowledge the possibility that their digital identity is, to many people, as real as their physical counterpart. It’s an extension of the old humanist ideal – one that posits a completely rational and composed self, capable of truly unbiased thought. Shoring up the barricades between the digital and the physical is simply the latest redoubt in our attempts to preserve the boundaries of the self.
In all honesty, this might not even be the case – at this point, I’m only volunteering my own interpretation. The notion of identity is something that was confusing before the internet existed, and will continue to be confusing after it. As the narrator of Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo puts it “the human skin is an artificial boundary: the world wanders into and the self wanders out of it”.
 See, I told you it was fun.
 I found this quotation in the chapter ‘Terminal Flesh’ in Scott Bukatman’s excellent Terminal Identity. It’s a pretty amazing book.