One of the most pernicious experiences of cyberculture is [identity theft].
Mark Poster (2007) used ‘identity theft’ to illustrate contemporary conditions of privacy and secrecy, and to consider how the nature of identity is called into question by the construction of identity as an object, not purely as a subject. He drew on the framework for understanding a “technology of power”, provided by Michele Foucault, accountting for the role of informational machines and media to give challenge to the “ideology of individualism” that recognises, in part, the nature of identity as external and material (119).
The materialisation of identity and it’s digitisation, argues Poster, is a “dangerous supplement to the positing of identity as the core of the self.”
Identity theft is particular to the occurrence of digital networks, argues Poster, barely recognised by press and the law until the 2000s due to the popularisation of the Internet and its open structure (Poster 2007 128-129). In his genealogy of ‘identity’, Poster draws on philosopher John Locke to map its familiar dimensions and examines the cultural history of identity and its combination with media in the 19th century and the influence of social movements and “postmodern practices of popular culture and consumerism” in the late twenty first.
Cyberculture represented identity theft, long before the mainstream broadcast media turned it into a moral panic. The linking of human existence to the ‘online’ and digital, often leaves to feelings of anxiety and loss, and this is not simply paranoia. Just recently Eye-scan payments are being trailed in Jordan by the UN World Food Program as refugees are used in the testing phase of the attempt to remove cash from the economy.
The Hollywood nineties ‘blockbuster’, [The Net (1995)] is about a woman who has her identity stolen by extortion and the powers of the [‘hacker’]. This is the most literal form of identity theft, but cyberculture and its representations offer a deeper level to the concept of the removal or theft of identity. The move between the digital and the analogue is not always clear, particularly because the digital is still in a relationship with the physical in terms of storage, it does not escape our reality, but the online world is also one of indeterminacy, border crossing and transgression.
Cyberculture is often concerned with dystopia and a world in which the human is no longer the cutting edge consciousness it once was, and many are threatened by this idea of no longer being the most intelligent, flexible and modern form of life on the planet. When your consciousness can be downloaded into a new body when the old one is worn out or gets injured in the line of duty as with the Major Kasinga in [Ghost in the Shell].
In cyberculture, identity even at the mundane level becomes fluid and indeterminate.
As online culture emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, the experiments with identity went from bulletin boards and text adventures called [Multi User Dungeons] (MUDs) to virtual worlds and online communities.
The expansive opportunities of the internet for expressing identity were celebrated because the virtual world of cyberculture means the body was no longer the central means for locating identity, gender and race, but this means that people can deliberately misrepresent their own identity for the purpose of harrasment such as trolling, doxxing and fraud.
[See Julian Dibbell’s paper, ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’] and the movie [Catfish (2010)].
In the essay Dibbell is thinking through his experience of an extremely anti-social and aggressive behaviour by a participant in an online environment. He concludes that the absence of the body means people can have powerful emotional responses.
This leads us to question exactly what is real. Take, for example, any television or cinema that moves us to tears or laughter: a fictional, mediated, virtual universe that is having a physical effect on the body.
Consider what the future of virtual reality will bring and the types of authentic and real experiences that we need to be thinking critically about, especially as we see a new generation of virtual reality and augmented reality devices emerging at the consumer level [see the combination of the Leap Motion Controller with Virtual Reality Displays]
[Connecting to the brain]
One of the recurring motifs of cyberpunk fictions is the representation of the mind-machine interface, and the function of technology that converts the biological signals of of the brain over to high speed, presumably optical, communication device. The Matrix films have a kind of data-spike that plugs into the brainstem, while the Mirrorshades features examples of characters hacking, or “jacking into” cyberspace, which like in Neal Stephenson’ ‘Snow Crash’ involves a visual representation of a digital environment, a virtual world, that can be controlled and changed through its code.
The artist [Stellarc] is well known for his machine-body-brain interface performance experiments, and objects like cyberpunk jewellery that challenges us to rethink the monstrous, to rethink where the body begins and ends in its relationship to the machine that are not simply binary constructions, like organic and but a continuum of options and experiences. Most recently growing and ear on his arm for future experiments.
I want to point out here that early discussions of race and cybercultures were often based on notions of the Net as being dominated by white middle-class males, and if you visit reddit you would be mistaken that it still is.
Lisa Nakamura (1995) investigated how people engaged in an online environment, a textual world at the time, and how they responded, when asked to choose an avatar described as ‘oriental’. The study described, for the first time, how users, would engage with a virtual race that was other than their own, Nakamura found that users activities were totally structured by racial stereotypes, representing a very limited understanding of the culture they wore as a mask.
[Further Research] One of the ways to expand your own research project is to look to the scholarly materials and available research, both via the UoW Library catalogue and other services like Google scholar. This material will be useful in assisting you to develop a broader understanding about the implication and implementations of new media technology.
[ Other Issues of Experiencing Cyberculture]
The imaginings of cyberculture and the near ubiquity of new and mobile media technologies has important cultural and social consequences, from the increased regulation and enforcement of intellectual property rights and increased incarceration for network and digital crimes.
Reaction is usually framed within a [moral panic]: the concerns over sexting, identity theft, online games addiction and media violence and so on.
Another concern of the cultural implications of both the materiality and immateriality of cyberculture is the ephemerality of the digital form, and the struggle to effectively preserve, collect, save and share. How do we know what we should keep for prosperity? What will future generations and historians want to see to make sense of this time? The problem of conserving digital cultures like early games cultures is the need to also preserve the technologies on which they performed.
Should email be preserved? Is it important to know what a website looked like 10 years ago? Do we really need to know what the Kardashian’s tweet this week in 100 years time?
The mention above of ‘interactivity’ points to a much deeper concept: is every technology we engage with as a user ‘interactive’ to some degree? Can technologies and media forms be more or less ‘interactive’?
Interactivity may be said to occur when the machine is responding to the user’s wishes expressed via the inputted commands. The uses interacts with the presented results of a query for example, such as a google search, to reduce the number of results and refine the result- the google website can be said to be interactive.
There are levels of interaction. Compare an information websites: Does Tripadviser have a greater or lesser, or equal degree of ‘interactivity’ as Facebook? Is interactivity the best way for explaining how and why we engage with information and activity available via a specific website? What other terms and concepts might be employed?
Another level of interactivity to consider is the Turing Test, a test for artificial intelligence, created by Alan Turing in 1950, who proposed a machine that could be designed that would produce a meaningful response to a variety of questions posed to it by a human. We see a kind of Turing dialogue test in the opening of [Blade Runner], where the investigator is attempting to determine if the interviewee is a human or a machine replicant.
In a Turing machine, like those designed by the British mathematician, the physical limitations of the technology available at the time, are completely arbitrary, rather it is the ability of the machine to carry out specific instruction to solve complex problems that is important.
As the movie [The Imitation Game] shows, the computation might take weeks, but the machine marches on regardless of time, to compute the solution to the problem. This is what we mean we say that it would take a supercomputer hundreds of years to crack an average level email encryption.
The Turing Test asks an individual to determine between two interview respondents, which of the two answering typed questions on a keyboard is the human and which is the machine. Turing wanted to know if machines could think, at least enough to fool a human and this inquiry help to established the field of artificial intelligence. Over the years there have been many different iterations of the Turing Test, but the basic principle remains the same, if the human interviewer could not tell the difference between the two respondents, the machine could be said to be artificially intelligent.
Poster, Mark 2007, ‘The Secret Self: The case of identity theft’ Cultural Studies Vol. 21 No. 1 January, pp. 118-140.