Virtual Identities
Palazzo Strozzi
  Strozzina
       
         

 

 

Autors:
 
Franziska Nori
Antonio Glessi
Roberto Simanowski
Michael Wesch
Sherry Turkle
 
Antonio Glessi
Digital Egos: Ubiquitous Nomads

Among humans, a person’s identifying traits are a face, a voice and a signature. In the world of the machines that power the internet they are alphanumeric data: a password, a pseudonym, a tax code. They are bits, and they travel in billions per second from one side of the world to the other, without occupying practically any space. They are capable of replicating themselves infinitely, always perfectly identical and, above all, can aggregate in thousands of different forms. Bits are the true nature of the internet. In order to be online we have consented to trade off a little of our privacy for a series of undoubted benefits: operating efficiency, economic profit, social conformism. Most of us have nothing to hide and, on the contrary, we often like – if not actually desire – to display even intimate aspects of our daily lives. According to The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, in 2007 sixty per cent of internet users declared that they were not particularly preoccupied that their personal data were available on the web. Over half of the teenage bracket and almost a quarter of the adults had registered personal profiles on social networks accessible to anyone. Day after day our photographs, e-mails and snippets of our digital being have thus become part of the large flow of bits, chewed up and digested in the shadow of a software that is increasingly capable of distilling their contents, identifying their recurrence and correspondence. Once they have been combined and recalled by search engines, they are translated into useful suggestions, forecasts and unexpected associations.
In the majority of cases, it is simply targeted advertising, which is certainly more useful and intelligent than the traditional kind, but no less invasive. Nonetheless, something may come to light that concerns us personally: something we would never have imagined could re-emerge from the depths of the internet or could be associated with people and events far removed from us. For better and for worse. Until a few years ago the idea of living online still had a sciencefiction ring to it. Then the first virtual worlds arrived. They allowed the accomplishment of what has revealed itself to be not quite a “second life” but a banal double life (Adriano Sofri, 2007). Consequently, they did not have the same appeal as the promise offered by social networks to widen the horizons and opportunities of one’s own first and only real life through the use of new multimedia technologies and the relational methods associated with it. The paradigm has thus been upturned: humanity has not dematerialized and migrated into the virtual world, but instead this silent and pervasive virtuality has crept into our reality, which has made the transition from virtual to “augmented”. And everyone (or almost) has embraced it.

The process – not only technological – that has permitted this mass participation is known as “convergence”. Foreseen by theorists in the mid-Eighties, the phenomenon has grown constantly and exponentially, thus going practically unobserved by the majority of people. Most of us have found ourselves projected into dynamics of online collective participation that until a few years ago were precluded, if not unknown, where different media systems seamlessly coexist and exchange all kinds of digital contents, continuously reversing the roles between those who produce them and those who consume them.  
The preferred ground for these practices is the increasingly vast area of social networks: technological platforms where the convergence of information and communication services is fuelled by the activities of their public, who act as both the users and the producers of contents. While the most immediate sensation is that of a personal multimedia window, the social network is actually a stage for the public display of one’s “social capital”, composed of friends (or acquaintances) and areas of interest, which in fact determine the user’s online personality through his or her accreditation in the social circles to which he or she purports to belong. Online, in the eyes of most people, it is not so much what I say that I like that defines me, but who I like and who likes me. It is no coincidence that sociologists use the term “performance” to define the building and management of an online profile. From the professional sphere to that of play, the reciprocal promotion between users and service triggers an unstoppable cascade mechanism that attracts ever more users. And the more a technology is adopted, the more useful it becomes. The extraordinary rise of Facebook is a clear demonstration.   While it already brings together a tenth of the world’s inhabitants, Facebook is not alone. The panorama of social networks is wide and varied. With a certain degree of abstraction, we can try to imagine their unlikely geography (see, among others, the Recorded Future project in https://www.recordedfuture.com/), which is constantly evolving, but it is practically impossible to understand their exact demographics. The “one head, one vote” relationship is no longer valid in the online world. Indeed, multiple versions of the same self may hide behind the selfsame physical person, more or less deliberately scattered across a myriad of virtual centers where there is no harmony, but only speed and exuberant abundance.  

The logic of traditional television broadcasting has been upturned. “We are all media” as Al Gore put it. It is from online chatter that the most authentic states of mind – both individual and collective – pressingly emerge. Fashions, novelties and innovations increasingly arrive – at an ever faster rate – from the diffuse periphery of the empire; they are spawned in the mayhem of digital signals, from the remix of contents where the public and the private spheres have become inextricably intertwined. In accordance with the law of large numbers, someone or something always ends up intercepting the widespread sentiment of a dispersed tribe that suddenly gathers around the unthinkable solitary madness of an individual in which it recognizes itself, creating instant planetary cyber stars. These media meteors are capable of gathering millions of followers and descendents at the same speed with which, a moment later, they fall into the obscurity of the “already seen”. Today Andy Warhol’s famous prophecy that everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame in the media society of the future is an everyday reality. 

 Although the internet voraciously consumes, it never forgets and is ready to exhume every tiny detail when necessary. The progressive lowering of the cost of digital storage and distribution to close to zero means that each chunk of our digital life is recorded, saved, organized, cross-referenced and obsessively tracked down to a painstaking statistic by search algorithms at the service of armies of trendsetters who attentively monitor the migratory flows of net citizens. This mass of data is potentially capable of predicting both market and cultural trends of unthinkable niches. Follow the swarm and strike in its midst. If you’re lucky you’ll catch something. Is this the end of planned marketing? Perhaps not, but the rules have certainly changed, with a transition from techniques to relational technologies.   If, as Jaron Lanier claims, networks are created by people and not algorithms, then we must ask ourselves if and to what extent instruments influence the degree of socialization, leading to new practices, which become cultural rather than technical. The opportunity to manage one’s relations online, outside the usual spatial and temporal confines of real life, has undoubtedly constituted a change of perspective and perception of interpersonal relations, in both the professional and emotional spheres (Paul Adams, 2010).  

As underscored by David Brin, the next inevitable step is that from a post-private society to a transparent one. It is not a case of resignedly accepting the fact that it is impossible to defend our private sphere, but of finding the right instruments to be able to protect it. If details of our lives, that we would rather remain unknown to the public at large, can be found by strangers because they are available online, then it must be made technically and legally impossible to use them to damage anyone.  
Awareness of the instrument and the ability to use it efficiently in order not to miss important opportunities, while at the same time avoiding trouble, becomes an essential part of our cultural baggage. In a globalized society where it is work that seeks you and not the opposite, allowing yourself to be found and prominently displaying your qualities has become a competitive element in all professional areas. It is not dissimilar to what happens on online dating sites, which are increasingly popular and specialized. For the new generations finding a business partner or soul mate online has become perfectly normal. At the same time, there is an increase in cases in which online relationships are cited as grounds for divorce. From heaven to hell in a click. However, “being careful” in “requesting attention” is not always sufficient. It is also necessary to have the “ability to maintain” attention, both our own and that of others. From the emotional to the physiological, technology once again seems to address only the mind and forget the body.  
At the end of the 1990s, at the height of the Net Economy boom, Microsoft launched a global advertising campaign with the slogan “Where do you want to go today?”. It was a blatant invitation to explore the internet and an extraordinary new opportunity for immediate access to the universal library, the wonderful summary of the best and worst of everything, in which to turn in the moment of need or desire for knowledge. Year after year, that little window onto the world has turned into a voracious funnel into which our attention is increasingly channeled. In a recent commercial for its WinPhone7, Microsoft concluded with a heartsick plea to give due consideration to the things and people closest to us in the real world: “Be here now” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHlN21ebeak). It is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the contemporary “Age of Distraction”, with the actors depicted in the midst of the most diverse everyday activities, but so absorbed in using their smartphones that they are completely unaware of the anger, incredulity and resignation of those around them. We have made the transition from the age of access to that of excess. The emotional emergency that seems to prevail today is thus that of reuniting the body and soul, which are too frequently split and even broken, in the vain yet irresistible attempt to divide and multiply ourselves in order to remain connected to the never-ending flow of signals and stimuli from the internet. In the pre-internet world information traveled through privileged or specialist channels and was never really sufficient. Today in the communication market the scarcest resource – and thus most precious and sought after – has become our attention. “Attention shapes the self, and is in turn shaped by it” observes Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in his Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The question is thus no longer “where are we going today?”, but rather “where are we now?” What is our analogue digital hic et nunc?   Media devices of varying intelligence, but always smaller, faster, more sophisticated and more efficient, are no longer luxury gadgets of a few, but already the inseparable companions of many. Their promise is to make us ubiquitous, while keeping us nomads. Born to serve us, these instruments are instead increasingly becoming the despotic rulers of our rhythms of life (Mickey Meece, 2011). From using technologies for doing things “better and faster”, we have become prisoners of doing “more but worse”, no longer aided but rather obliged by technologies.   We continue to dialogue with machines that increase their capacity of response at dizzying speeds yet we always use just ten fingers (John Maeda, 2000). The gap between the mind, seduced by the power of the machine, and the body, forced to labor to follow both, has become unsustainable. This has resulted in the tendency to entrust ourselves to constantly new and better technological devices able to support our activities of relating to others and to the world. In particular, interiorized knowledge acquired through study or experience appears to lose importance in favor of contextual information passed on to the electronic devices that support us. From the simple numbers in our phone contacts to specialist searches on Google, memory and knowledge have now become outsourced resources. Cognitive psychology and neurological sciences feverishly probe the field of interaction between man and machine, seeking ergonomic solutions that aid the selective management of growing amounts of data, without simultaneously increasing its complexity of representation. Despite significant recent progress, a holistic theory of states of attention – essential for the production of efficient and effective interfaces – still seems a long way off (Claudia Roda, 2011).  

Projects like Knowledge Navigator (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WdS4TscWH8) now date from almost a quarter of a century ago, but they still allow us to understand that a natural, transparent interface like a butler is what everyone wants and would immediately know how to use. Following the extravagant disappointed promises of the late 20th century, the theme of artificial intelligence is making a strong comeback with less high-flown goals, which have been replaced by extremely concrete ones. Most of the virtual identities with which we increasingly dialogue, largely unwittingly, are not human alter egos, but electronic objects with minimal but functional intelligence. Today the so-called “internet of things” is composed of billions of microchips strewn around our environments to make them more comfortable and productive. Our evident tendency to manage complexity by generating more of it creates an ever closer symbiosis with technology, bringing us to the theme of our evolutionary future considered from the viewpoint of bio-informatics. We seem to have two main options: to interiorize technology (Andy Clark, 2003) or to transfer ourselves into an independent device. Without entertaining philosophical thoughts about post- or super-humans, the basic question of identity that will arise in both cases will be to gradually ask ourselves not what makes a computer more “human”, but rather which peculiar and unique intellectual characteristics a human still possesses in order to be defined as such vis-à-vis ever more sophisticated and efficient machines (Brian Christian, 2011).   The next move will thus be decided by software engineers. In 1999 N. Katherine Hayles already saw “coders” as the psychologists of the new millennium, the only ones able to understand the new context in which we feverishly move, too worried about the “hows” to be able to ask ourselves  about the “whys” of a world in the throes of such rapid change. These hopes were misplaced according to Lanier who, ten years later, accused them not only of having failed to live up to this demanding expectation, but to have betrayed the liberal promises of the internet pioneers, transforming the net – notwithstanding – into an ecosystem of machines attentive only to dialoguing with other machines. According to Lanier, by forcing users to stick to ready-made patterns and methods of content production, software that is now inextricably interconnected is irreversibly conditioning our freedom of expression, giving rise to uninspired creative standardization, which is semantically irrelevant and profitable only for the commercial and financial exploitation of the internet.  

As showed in his video Machine is us/ing us, the anthropologist Michael Wesch is far less pessimistic, asserting the central role played by the user online, in his or her power to influence its development according to his or her degree and desire for participation, which must however be collective and conscious in order to be truly effective.   Never has the saying “there is strength in numbers” been truer than on the internet, which was originally founded to promote the free circulation of knowledge among the world’s scientific communities. From the mid-Nineties the Open Source movement established the paradigm of what has been defined the new digital socialism: maximizing the individual and the collective autonomy and resources of the community of its members. This has proved a winning model, in which everyone gives what they can and receives much more than they need. Through four degrees of participation (sharing, cooperation, collaboration and collectivism), it has inspired a series of projects – first and foremost Wikipedia – that have gone down in the history of the internet and contemporary culture.   These participatory models have generated great hopes for the spread of democratic principles in the social fabric of the real world. However, despite journalistic emphasis on the supposed impact of new media technologies on international political dynamics, a closer and more detached examination elicits far less enthusiasm.  
While it has been shown that the internet makes ideas travel faster, it has also been proven that it does not change opinions. It is a formidable organizational structure that brings together and consolidates the followers of all causes, strengthening the unity of those scattered around the world, but it rarely creates new ones. Malcolm Gladwell in his Small Change maintains that if Martin Luther King had used Twitter, the civil rights movement would never have existed. The excessive array of media forums of various political orientations available through social platforms is a reason for the further detachment from the political scene of onlookers who are not already politically orientated, and who are dazed by the amount of available opinions and annoyed by the radicalization of the conflict between the factions.   Other media, such as telephony and satellite television, also lead to closed behavior. Indeed, by annulling distance, they allow communities of immigrants in foreign countries to maintain very close ties with their cultures of origin, slowing the processes of comparison and integration with their host societies. Consequently, an internet composed of infinite self-referencing micro-feuds is undoubtedly on the horizon and it will be a fertile ground for fundamentalism of all kinds. Nonetheless, the very nature of the internet means that none of these digital places will be able to be truly impermeable to outside influences. Peer-to-peer networks and Facebook are capable of penetrating everywhere, although WikiLeaks has not reached Pyongyang or Teheran, where perhaps there was the greatest need for it. Indeed, although news and images that would otherwise be censored can always be disseminated abroad over the web, dictatorships have found more of a precious ally than an awkward interlocutor in the internet. By employing unauthorized intrusive techniques on the computers and telephones of its citizens, the police of an authoritarian state can monitor an entire country in real time at minimal expense and with greater efficiency than traditional espionage technologies (Evgeny Morozov, 2011).   Despite the possible disappointments, the internet unites and associationism abounds, demonstrating that there is a strong wish for a kind of politics different from the institutional variety. However, until now the politicized online communities have managed to express only protest or condemnation, regardless of their strength and visibility. They do not necessarily help build an alternative. Examples like Anonymous, the indefinable group of digital protectors of online freedom that came to the fore through its support of WikiLeaks, nonetheless indicate that an approach stripped of the structure of traditional logics of relation – the sole and fundamental characteristic of the group is the total absence of individual personalization of its members, the true stateless population of the web – is the only one with true power to destabilize. Ultimately online collective identities appear far more structured and defined than personal ones, which are still carelessly managed by most people and considered an inconvenience, rather like a badly managed directory of personal data.  
However, as Gladwell wrote, we must be careful not to confuse instruments with ideas, a misunderstanding that is frequently perpetuated online. The dynamic separation of contents and containers enabled by Web 2.0 technologies has often led to claims of innovation when, in reality, we are simply looking at the ostentatious remixing of the same contents. It is thus necessary to maintain a healthy and balanced skepticism. Like every meaningful theme regarding the internet, the question of virtual realities also leads to the deepest element that has always characterized it, i.e. the credibility of what it contains and those who frequent it. In a sphere like the digital world, where there is room for everything and the opposite of everything, all communication must be subject to precautionary suspicion. The theme of the double, the different, the multiple and the unknown arouse natural diffidence. However, they are elements with which we must learn to converse rather than evade, because they are – and will always be – inevitable in our online lives and constitute the aspect of their wealth that is most difficult to discover and manage. Networks have always existed in nature and in society. They promote the exchange of genes and ideas alike and are the quintessential means of evolution, for they accelerate the natural selection of the best combinations. Far from being perfect, our increasingly interconnected world still has much room for improvement. This is a great opportunity, but it also calls for great responsibility.

From the exhibition catalogue "Virtual identities", published by Silvana Editoriale, 2011.


 
    EVAN BADEN
CHRISTOPHER BAKER
NATALIE BOOKCHIN
ROBBIE COOPER
etoy.CORPORATION
NICHOLAS FELTON
LES LIENS INVISIBLES
CHRIS OAKLEY
SOCIABLE MEDIA GROUP

MICHAEL WOLF
Special project: I AM NEDA
Special project: ME 2.0


         
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