Your Federal Quarterly Tax Payments are due April 15th Get Help Now >>

Technolculture 20essay 20 20 20identity by RF65W7q


									Pete Wardle                    Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE


                Our changing perception

                     of our Selves


                    PETE WARDLE

 Pete Wardle                                                             Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE


Abstract.................................................................................................................................... 3

A Note on Terminology ............................................................................................................ 5

Definitions of Identity ............................................................................................................... 6

The influence of New Media on the ways we communicate ............................................... 8

Communication in Cyberspace .......................................................................................... 10

Factors influencing our identity in cyberspace ................................................................. 11

Changing Role of Identity in the 20th Century ................................................................... 14

Identifying Ourselves.............................................................................................................. 14

Identifying Others ................................................................................................................... 15

Constructing Identity - We can be whoever we want to be… or can we .......................... 19

Implications of new technology for the 'techno-body' and the real body ........................ 22

Bibliography .......................................................................................................................... 26

 Pete Wardle                                             Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE


This essay will analyse how the emergence of electronic media, from television onwards, has led to
changes both in the way we perceive identity and in the nature of social interaction. It will look at how
the use of cyberspace as a communications media has effected the ways in which we interact and
consider the factors which influence how we portray ourselves in cyberspace not via a single coherent
personality but by the expression of multiple identities.

 Pete Wardle                                            Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

“Sociology has long conceptualized persons as occupying multiple positions in organized sets of social
relationships, and as playing out the diverse roles associated with those multiple positions”
                                                                                 (Stryker & Burke 2000)

“An identity is a set of meanings applied to the self in a social role or as a member of a social group
that define who one is.”
                                                                                 (Burke and Tully, 1977)

“Although major stages of identity development are characterised by the integration of separate
identity threads into a coherent whole and multiple identities are frequently thought of as a medical
problem… it would appear that it is, at least to some extent, normal to have multiple adult
identities…which fit the context in which they are operating. People have different identities associated
with multiple roles. These roles are generally played out within differing physical or temporal spaces,
leaving the choice of how much to reveal about the other identity to the individual who inhabits it.”
                                                                                        (McAlpine, 2005)

 Pete Wardle                                              Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

A Note on Terminology

Throughout this essay I use the term „Real Life‟ to describe our primary physical lives as opposed to
our non-physical existence in cyberspace and to any other physical identities we may manifest. This
term is used rather than the term First Life (used by participants of Second Life to describe the same) as
to use the latter would seem to imply „Second Life‟ as an inclusive term for „all that which is not First
Life‟ which is not the case, i.e. using such terminology there is no appropriate description of non-
Second Life cyberspace existence. While it is acknowledged that a true definition of Real Life must
include all our physical and cyber realities this essay will therefore limit the context in which it is used
to refer only to our primary physical existence.

    Pete Wardle                                             Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Definitions of Identity

While it is commonly believed that mentally healthy individuals exhibit a single, coherent personality
which integrates all aspects of their identity, this is rarely if ever the case. Different facets of identity
become dominant dependent upon a number of internal and external factors. Our personality is formed
by how we perform in response to such factors and how others perceive such performances.

Burke (2003) categories identities as being based upon one or more of three sets of circumstances;
     personal identities i.e. those based on one‟s unique biological attributes or nurtured values. We may
      describe ourselves as fat, thin, short, tall, energetic, lazy, kind, selfish and may identify with any of
      these descriptions in a negative or positive way.
     social identities, i.e. those based on being members of groups;
     role identities i.e. those based on an individual undertaking certain pre-defined roles, e.g. as defined
      by our careers, family responsibilities, etc.

Using terms popularised by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu it could be said that „Personal Identity‟ is one
of Agency, ie. the acts of individuals made independently under free will, while the „Social identities‟
and „Role identities‟ are Structural, i.e. in response to factors such as expectations and contraints
imposed by society such as social codes and conventions, class, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc. In
Huxley‟s vision the roles of the lower class Delta labourers are entirely Structurally defined, prescribed
for them by the Brave New World in which they exist.

However it is clear that that there is Agency implicit in our Social and Role Identities, insofar as we
ultimately choose, whether conciously or otherwise, our careers, social and family circumstances, just
as it would be naïve to beleive that our personal identities are not influenced by our responses to society
around us. For example, societies dubbing an individual overweight may lead to such individual to
develop Personal Identity attributes such as shyness, or to take action to lose weight, or may have no
discernable effect.
The colour of an individual‟s skin may not only affect the individual‟s Personal Identity but also their
Social and Role identities. The work of Bourdieu was particularly prominent in emphasising that,
despite apparent freedom of choice in such areas as mucical preference (e.g. classical, rock, folk), such
choices are strongly influenced by an individual‟s social background and position. Further he evidenced
that personal qualities influenced by an individuals upbringing, eg. Accent, style, are often major
factors in their career and status in later life.

    Pete Wardle                                             Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

We might also equate these three modes of identity as equivalent to the framework of modalities,
Having, Being and Doing, identified in The „Exchange Theory‟ ( Foa & Foa, 1971, revised by L'Abate,
Sloan, Wagner, & Malone).
     Our personal identity can defined by what we have, eg. Brown hair, white skin, and further extends
      to include our belongings, eg., one might have, or desire to have, a large house, fast car or designer
     Our social identity becomes defined by who we are, eg. A supporter of a particular football team, a
      member of a political party, a college teacher.
     Our role identity becomes defined by what we do, and semantically suggests absorbtion into our
      role, eg. We swim, we dance, we teach.

One may, for example, wish to become a writer, a Social Identity. The only way to achieve this is to
absorb themselves in the process of writing, and in doing so define for themselves a Role Identity. This
definition of the Role Identity as „doing‟, corresponds with the philosphy of Neitzche who argues that
“there is no I” i.e. there is no separation between the do-er and the deed.

 Pete Wardle                                             Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

The influence of New Media on the ways we communicate

Marshall McLuhan (1964) highlighted the effects which the introduction of new forms of media had on

      “Every new form of media is an extension of the human body. The book is an extension of the
      eye. The wheel is an extension of the foot. Clothing is an extension of the skin.”

It follows that as our body is extended, so is our perception of identity. We identify with, or rather
assimilate into our identity, what we read, what we drive, what we wear and, of particular relevance to
this essay, the methods we use to communicate with each other.

      “A man's identity is not best thought of as the way in which he is separated from his fellows but
      the way in which he is united with them.” Robert Terwilliger Director, Trinity Institute, NYC

McLuhan recognised how our society had changed radically with the introduction of the visual
language of writing and the further widespread impact following the introduction of the printing press.
Influenced by McLuhan Neil Postman (1985) went further quoting Marx‟s „German Ideology‟;

      “Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press the singing and the telling of the muse
      cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear.”

Postman further commented on the effect of both telegraphy and television upon society;

      “For the first time in human history people were faced with the problem of information glut... we
      were sent information which answered no question we had asked and which, in any case, did not
      permit the right of reply.”

In brief we had become a society based upon passive consumption of information. It can now be seen
that the introduction of newer forms of media have created further and increasingly faster changes in
our methods of communicating. The diagram below shows how technologies have been integral to the
swing of societal preferences not only between the oral and the typographic, but also between active
two way communication and passive consumption.

 Pete Wardle                                            Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Technology                                            Oral/Typographic      Active/Passive
Conversation and storytelling                         Oral                  Active
The printed word                                      Typographic           Passive
Telephony                                             Oral                  Active
Television                                            Oral                  Passive
Web                                                   Typographic           Passive
Email, chat rooms                                     Typographic           Active (but with delay)
Messaging services                                    Typographic           Active
WebCams, Voice in Second Life                         Oral                  Active

The above is a simplification of the true position. Both Foucault and Baudrillard wrote of our
active/passive relationship with film and television respectively and it is noted that a passive viewer
might be considered to be actively responding by assigning meaning to the transmitted content.
However, even if the viewer is active in this way the relationship must still be considered passive as the
actions of the viewer have no immediate link to the subsequently transmitted communication. Truly
active communication media, when viewed in McLuhan‟s terms as an extension of our selves, have a
particularly significance as it is through them that we create a two way interface with those who in turn
influence or consolidate our identities.

    Pete Wardle                                          Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Communication in Cyberspace
The psychologist John Suler has written extensively on how we communicate differently over digital
media than we would were we using other forms of communication, particularly the tendency for
deviant behaviour, or deviant identities, to manifest in cyberspace due to the effects of „disinhibition.‟

“ Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears,
wishes, show unusual acts of kindness and generosity, and as a result intimacy develops... On the other
hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language, harsh criticisms, anger,
hatred, even threats.”

He lists the following as reasons for the „disinhibition effect;‟
     reduced sensation - Absence of face-to-face cues
     asynchronous communication - people may take minutes, hours, days, or even months to reply to
      something you say and we need not therefore deal with any adverse reaction to what we say
      immediately. Conversely receiving no immediate reply from digital companion may make wonder
      did they have said something wrong and are being snubbed.
     Anonymity - most of the people you encounter can't easily tell who you are and your
      accountability is therefore limited.
     Invisibility – the option in many digital environments to watch and monitor others before choosing
      to reveal your presence
     Neutralizing of status – the effect of the internet to make all appear as equals regardless of any
      perceived standing in Real Life

Suler lists a further reason to be Solipsistic Introjection, or the fact that the writer feels the conversation
is actually taking place in their head rather than in a more widely shared reality. Moreover it may be
speculated that the writer, and perhaps the reader too, feels that the conversation is taking place in a
consensually shared fantasy and that the reader, by the act of reading, has „bought into‟ the fantasy of
the writer and therefore subject to the writer‟s rules. To borrow the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
these fantasies contain within them “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of
imagination that willing suspension of disbelief.” One must ask how close this is to matching the vision
of William Gibson (1984), the creator of the term „cyberspace,‟ who wrote of „disembodied
consciousness‟ being projected into „the consensual hallucination known as the matrix.‟

Disinihibition is common regardless of the recordability of internet conversation and can lead to an
over familiarity in digital relationships which may or may not continue into any Real Life relationships
which might ensue.

    Pete Wardle                                            Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

What factors comprise our identity in cyberspace

        “Identities are identified by identifiers. Some identifiers require the authentication of the entity
        whereas some identities can be authenticated by uniforms, passwords, secret hand-shakes or
        other identifiers which do not expose the entity behind the identity.” Ito, J

Multiple factors can be considered to take a part in defining one‟s identity at any given time; the way
we dress, speak, our political views, the ephemera with which we surround ourselves, or as in
Hershman‟s work „Dante Hotel,‟ discard, or the physicality of our interaction with others, e.g. the
identity as an individual as a teacher is reinforced by the physicality of standing in front of the class, the
identity of the student reinforced by sitting at a desk amongst rows of other desks. Foucault wrote of
how „physical mechanisms‟ such as the „cellular distribution of bodies‟ such as found in schools,
factories and monastic cells assists in creating a discipline which allows authority to “construct docile

However in cyberspace our identity is no longer subject to such conventional restraints.
In McLuhan‟s terms Cyberspace may simply be an extension of our communicative faculties, however
it might equally be seen to offer an extension of our identities. Such digital identities can be constructed
as carefully, or carelessly, as our physical identities.

What goes into creating one‟s digital identity/s is in many ways a reflection of those things which go
into creating our conventional identities;
     Our names; in Real Life, we may choose to call ourselves by different names on different
      occasions by utilising titles, nicknames, etc. The names we are called by others as children, e.g. our
      parents or our contemporaries at school can hold power over us just as the names we call ourselves
      can hold power over others. The use of a middle initial may infer seniority as in Harry S Truman or
      George W. Bush. In most digital environments we are at liberty to choose any name we wish,
      however it is interesting that within Second Life, while users can choose any first names they are
      limited to a pre-defined list of surnames.
     Our addresses; Marketing companies, insurance companies, etc, may define our social standing by
      the postcode at which we reside. In cyberspace everyone becomes equal, but the addresses we
      choose to use still say something about us. People may, for instance, doubt the authenticity of a
      hotmail address and the use of a middle initial in an email address can lead to the recipient
      categorising it as spam.
     What we say; perhaps even more crucial in cyberspace than in Real Life due to the fact that
      generally, what we say in cyberspace is recordable. Nonetheless, participants in cyberspace seem to

    Pete Wardle                                           Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

      subscribe to an illusion of privacy and treat digital communication with an undeserved levity and
      disregard for the fact that others may read it.
     What is said about us; In cyberspace any individually constructed identity may or may not be easily
      traceable to its „owner.‟ In any case, what is said about any of our identities influences the way
      people will view that identity and react to it. In his recent Guardian column Jon Ronson recounted
      how once, following the release of Paul McCartney‟s Frog Chorus, he had written in an article that
      the wrong Beatle had been shot, only to realise the impact of his actions upon receiving a letter
      from Linda asking him if he really meant to advocate the murder of her husband and father of her
      children. He went on to compare this to the phenomena of blogs, forums and chat rooms which turn
      us all into published writers who, without perceived accountability, can casually demean the Real
      Life or virtual actions of others.
     The places we go; the sites we visit, the forums and groups to which we subscribe, the shops we
      visit and the items we buy, all help form a part of our digital identity or identities. Amazon and
      other stores base their business upon tracking this kind of information and offering us products and
      services based upon the digital trails we leave.
     Our circle of friends; Cyberspace friends fall easily into two categories; the ones we have met and
      interact with in Real Life, and those who we have met only digitally. It is becoming increasing
      common for individuals to have more friends in the latter category than the former. However, while
      it is far from unknown for marriages to take place between individuals whose relationships began
      on the internet, cyber- friends are often seen as more expendable than their Real Life counterparts.
      David Birch writes “research (by Danah Boyd) in the US has confirmed … that young persons who
      forget their MySpace password are just as likely to make a new account as fret over their lost
      friends… an online profile is not seen as something to build an extensive identity around, but
      something to use to talk to friends in the moment‟”
     Our avatars; Avatars are a particularly powerful and personal graphical representation of identity
      which individuals construct consciously and carefully. Avatars are integral to the construction of a
      digital identity as represented through chat rooms, forums and environments such as Second Life.
      As visual representations they are a key determining factor in how people perceive the identity we
      are promoting. While they could be compared to the clothing we wear in Real Life, they are much
      more than this. They are the bodies we wear in cyberspace.
     What we share; With sites such as Youtube, Flickr and Facebook growing in popularity we are able
      to share aspects of our Real Life personality within cyberspace. This, more than any other, becomes
      the defining boundary between Real Life and cyberspace, a point at which, if we allow it, the most
      intimate aspects of our Real Life identity become publicly available. However the inherent dangers
      are clear. Not only do we risk breaking down the boundaries between carefully constructed
      identities in both Real Life and cyberspace, we also put our trust in the identities shared on these

 Pete Wardle                                              Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

    sites by others without consideration that, like Hershman‟s Roberta, they could be carefully
    constructed fakes.

In many respects the identities we construct in cyberspace need no authentication as in casual cyber
conversation it hardly matters whether we are who we say we are and it is generally accepted that we
may, in fact, not be. There is a trend for individuals encountering new people on cyberspace to
immediately inquire as to their ASL (age, sex, location), in an attempt to classify that which lies
beneath the visible constructed identity, without apparent realisation that whatever response is given
can just as easily be a description of a constructed identity. A request for ASL therefore constitutes
little more than a hopeful plea that the respondent might allow a true glimpse at the „authentic‟ identity

True authentication of identity is different from the other aspects of identity in so far as it is not,
generally speaking, constructed either intentionally or by behaviour patterns, but rather is a way of
authenticating the digital self‟s transactions in the physical world. Jo Ito writes;

         “It is essential to consider the issue of identity independently from the issue of authentication of
         the entity. When one is engaging in a transaction with some identity, one is concerned with the
         risks and attributes of the identity with respect to the transaction. When one is trying to sell
         diamonds, one is concerned with the authentication of the other identity‟s financial attributes. If
         one is trying to receive donated blood, one is concerned, not with who it came from, but the type
         and whether it is safe. If one is selling liquor, one is concerned with the age of the purchaser, not
         the address.”

The digital age has given birth not only to a multitude of new methods to track and authenticate identity
for purposes of both security and marketing, with the arrival of such techniques as digital signatures
and biometric identification, but has given rise to previously unheard of terms, and crimes, as identity

 Pete Wardle                                           Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Changing Role of Identity in the 20th Century

         “The pretence of being another person, or a number of other people, is a precondition of
      electronic access.”
                                                                                  Lynn Hershman Leeson

Identifying Ourselves

The growth of advertising in the twentieth century first through the medium of print, and then radio and
television, encouraged identification with „Having‟, that is to say identifying our Selves with our
possessions, leading to the preoccupation of many with „keeping up with the Jones‟s,‟ a phrase coined
in 1913 by cartoonist Arthur R. "Pop" Momand . (Hendrickson, R). In McLuhan‟s terms these
possessions could be viewed as extensions of our body, though in actuality they are much more
extensions of our identity.

Postman (1985) writes of this phenomena;

      “Who would have suspected the automobile would tell us how to conduct our social and sexual
      lives… would create new ways of expressing our personal identity and social standing?”

The example of automobiles is an interesting one. In the middle of the 20th century there was a
tendency for individuals to identify with there cars as separate entities which they would give names in
the same way one may treat a family pet, which can be assigned to the mode of „having‟. However by
the time of Postman‟s writing this practice was becoming less common, to be was replaced by the
tendency for individuals to personalise the number plates of their vehicles as an expression of their
name, career or personality, i.e. directly identifying the vehicle with themselves, which can be assigned
to the mode of „Being‟. As our possessions become extensions of ourselves, technology supports
further evolution of our facilities in the form of cameras and monitoring equipment to allow us to
monitor these extended selves.

Only when we absorb ourselves in our actions entirely do we truly identify ourselves with Doing and in
the realisation of this identification it ends. When one drives a car, they simply perform the act of
driving, of Doing. When one realises „they‟ are driving, they see themselves as „a driver‟, a state of

 Pete Wardle                                            Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

In modern society it is easy to create a record of what we have done, and so identify our selves with this
archive, confusing the recording of Doing with the act of Doing itself. No longer limited to scrapbooks
and albums the web offers a wide range of ways by which we may not only preserve a record of our
Doing, but present it to other in the form of websites, blogs, photo albums, youtube videos, deviant art,
etc, everyone competing for their „five minutes of fame.‟ The same people who present this
information also act as voyeurs, hungry to view similar information from others, and feel they are
participating in the Doing of others, some of whom they may never even have met.

A manifestation of this is the popularity of „fly on the wall‟ TV shows such as Big Brother. Baudrillard
writes of the effects of the precursor to such shows when in 1971 the Loud family disintegrated during
a seven month American filming experiment. Postman anticipated the modern equivalent when he

         “In the Huxleyan Prophecy Big Brother does not watch us , by his choice. We watch him, by
      ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes
      distracted by trivia, when …in short a people becomes an audience and their public business
      becomes a vaudeville act… culture death is a clear possibility.”

Identifying Others

         “There is always an assumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what is in the
      picture.” Sontag (2001)

This may have once been true, but with the emergence of New Media photographic manipulation has
become so commonplace that such an assumption is no longer possible. Even in the early days of
photography, artists subverted medium to express the concept of alternative identities. An early
example of this is Duchamp's photographs of himself in drag as Rrose Sélavy. Many artists since have
used photography as a medium through which to express ideas of identity, notably Cindy Sherman,
whose career has been based a succession of photographs, using herself as the model. Rochelle Steiner
wrote of her;“because Sherman takes on different personas for her photographs she cannot be
identified in them.”

She quotes art critic Craig Owens in saying;

      “the significance of Sherman‟s work resides in the artist‟s permutations of identity from one
      photograph to the next.”

 Pete Wardle                                           Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Television however changed forever the way in which a wider public viewed identity. For the first time
the public was confronted with a situation whereby the individuals they encountered most frequently,
and whose lives became most intimate to them, were fictional. A tendency emerged for people to feel
that they actually knew the character on screen, and further to identify, or even confuse, the actor with
the character being played. This led to actors becoming typecast, renown for a single character, or type
of character, but failing to secure a wider range of roles.

When actors left a role which they had made their own, producers had to develop strategies to assist the
public in making a transition to a new actor assuming the identity of the character. Often this worked
best when the transition was both highly publicised and when the new actor presented a markedly
different characterisation of the fictionalised identity. Today, for example, it is not uncommon for
individuals to be able to list all of the actors who have played James Bond. One of the most creative
examples of such a transition was in 1966 when Dr. Who producer Innes Lloyd chose Patrick
Troughton to replace the William Hartnell in the lead role. Troughton was in no way similar to his
predecessor, an issue which was resolved by a plot device to allow not only the identity of the actor to
change, but also the identity of the character to undergo dramatic transformation.

The idea of a single role being expressed by a number of individuals is not unique to the field of acting.
It echoes much older institutions, for example the role of a King or Pope. The idea was been taken up in
the 1970s by artist Lynn Hershman Leeson‟s creation of Roberta Breitmore, a persona she adopted. On
her website Hershman says;

      “Many people assumed I was ROBERTA. Although I denied it at the time and insisted that she
      was "her own woman" with defined needs, ambitions and instincts, in retrospect we were linked.
      ROBERTA represented part of me as surely as we all have within us an underside; a dark,
      shadowy anaemous cadaever that is the gnawing decay of our bodies, the sustaining growth of
      death that we try with pathetic illusion to camouflage . To me, she was my own flipped effigy; my
      physical reverse, my psychological fears. As can be inferred from the records of both of us, her
      life infected mine.”

                                         Hershman‟s Roberta

 Pete Wardle                                             Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Hershman lived Roberta‟s life and masses of information, documentation and ephemera were generated
to authenticate Roberta‟s existence. However Hershman also employed other actors to take on the
identity of Roberta. Alvarez (2003) writes;

        “Roberta was a virtual clone of Leeson that took on a life of its own – in fact, three lives. In the
        second year of Roberta‟s life her adventures became so numerous that she grew into a multiple;
        Leeson ended up hiring three separate actresses to "perform" Roberta.”

However unlike the actors who played Dr. Who and James Bond, these actresses tried to represent the
same „authentic‟ Roberta as Hershman. The artist herself spoke at the Autonomous Agents Symposium
(Manchester, 2006) of “authenticity being only ephemeral.”

The photographic and video work of Alison Jackson uses the codes and conventions of the hidden
camera to subvert the ideas inherent in identity and celebrity. In her work she uses look alike actors to
assume the identity of celebrities and public figures in private, often embarrassing, situations, to
convince the public that they are viewing not a look alike, but are taking an authentic look at a „private‟
event in the life of the celebrity, even to question what they know of that celebrity‟s reality as in the
picture below representing the child of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed .

Alison Jackson‟s Dodi & Diana                       The „Real‟ Lara?

The character Lara Croft, heroine of the Tomb Raider Game released by Eidos in 1996 is a commercial
example of a character which has been portrayed by a number of individuals, each of which has
attempted to be faithful to the authentic original. The difference in this instance is that the „authentic‟
Lara is not portrayed by an actress, but rather is an entirely digital creation. As well as the actress
appearing in the movie adaptation, Angelina Jolie, Eidos have cast a succession of "real-life" Laras to
act as an ambassador for the Tomb Raider brand, appear on chat shows and embody the „essential‟

 Pete Wardle                                           Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Baulillard wrote; “simulation threatens the difference between the „true‟ and the „false,‟ the „real‟ and
the „imaginary.‟ Lara Croft is such an example of the blurring distinction between a digital „imaginary‟
character and a „real‟ character. Is the „real‟ Lara the digital original or the current flesh & blood copy?
Over a decade earlier, Channel 4‟s „Max Headroom Show‟ raised similar questions with the
introduction of the title character, a purportedly „futuristic digitally-generated‟ character, portrayed by
real actor Matt Frewer, recently revived for a series of Channel 4 adverts promoting digital television.

The relationship between real and digital portrayals of identity become even more blurred when we
consider digital characters whose movements are based upon the Real Life performances of actors such
as is the case with Andy Serkis‟s performance of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies.
New questions begin to arise; can a digital performance such as this be nominated for existing
performance award categories?

In 2002 Wired magazine wrote;

      “If an actor can alter his face with makeup and still get nominated for awards, why can't
      someone who alters his appearance with digital pixels?... every sick smile of Gollum's, every
      scampering movement, was created by the actor and then recreated digitally… It's like applying
      makeup after the fact, only the overlay isn't with latex before the performance. It's after the
      performance with computers," Serkis told the Associated Press recently.”

Perhaps more important is the unresolved issue of ownership, i.e. does ownership of the physical
performance still reside with the actor following digitisation?

San Francisco Chronicle pop culture critic James Sullivan wrote;

      "In an age of stem-cell research, digital imaging, advanced robotics, and fabrications that are
      often more dear to our hearts than real people, at what point do the products of human creativity
      declare independence from their creators?"

 Pete Wardle                                           Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Constructing Identity - We can be whoever we want to be… or can we
      “(Some) groups in cyberspace encourage or even require that you assume an imaginary
      persona... You could get away with pretending to be someone very different than who you are, or
      you could alter just a few features - like your name, occupation, or physical appearance - while
      retaining your other true characteristics. No one will know.”

McAlpine (2005) was earlier quoted as discussing how multiple identities are generally „played out
within differing physical or temporal spaces.‟ In communication via digital media this is no longer true.
We are permitted the opportunity to hold many conversations, and juggle multiple identities,
simultaneously. Furthermore we have more opportunity to construct these identities than ever before
and, once constructed we no longer see ourselves as „having‟ ownership of these identities, but rather as
„being‟ them or identifying with the acts they are performing (doing.)

Donna Haraway saw how high tech culture could challenge dualisms persistent in Western tradition
such as self/other, mind/body, writing;

      “Any objects or persons can be reasonably thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly;
      no 'natural' architectures constrain system design… It means both building and destroying
      machines, identities, categories, relationships.”

An interesting phenomenon is that of digital „gender switching.‟ Sadie Plant described identity as “not
the goal but the enemy, precisely what has kept at bay the matrix of potentialities.” With the
construction of digital identities, even factors such as gender are no longer constraints. While the
practice attracts less controversy than its Real Life counterpart, its motives may be similar, e.g. the
desires to explore emotional characteristics of the opposite sex, or same sex relationships, which
individuals may feel to be difficult in Real Life. Of course, this is not always the case - in multiplayer
games a male player becoming a female character may be advantageous to procure more assistance and
progress faster in the game.

Other hidden aspects of oneself may emerge in a digitally constructed identity. According to Suler;

      “How we decide to present ourselves in cyberspace isn't always a purely conscious choice. Some
      aspects of identity are hidden below the surface. Covert wishes and inclinations leak out... A
      person selects a username or avatar on a whim, because it appeals to him, without fully
      understanding the deeper symbolic meanings of that choice.”

 Pete Wardle                                          Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

While cyberspace offers us an environment to create ourselves and our identities anew, we may just as
easily find ourselves falling into existing patterns of behaviour and replicating our conventional

It can be questioned whether any identity we create for ourselves can display characteristics that are not
already present in the creator. However they can be constructed using elements of the individual that
would normally be hidden. Turkle writes;

       "We do not feel compelled to rank or judge the elements of our multiplicity. We do not feel
      compelled to exclude what does not fit."

Once constructed, as with Hershman‟s Roberta, their reactions to external stimuli might be viewed to
be autonomous. Individuals are free to indulge their fantasies. However they must be aware that even
in cyberspace their actions may have consequences, for themselves or others with whom they interact.

In Second Life adult players may choose for avatars to depict children, even form part of virtual
familys.While this may have no sexual motivation, others indulge in "Age Play", in which adult players
participate in virtual sex with other adults using child avatars. In Germany such practices constitute
virtual child pornography, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Second Life is of course not unique in this. Traditional and deviant sexual practices are rife in
cyberspace. Even before the rapid growth of cybersex, Haraway wrote;

      “Ideologies of sexual reproduction can no longer reasonably call on notions of sex and sex role
      as organic aspects in natural objects like organisms and families.”

Opponents argue cybersex is wrong, that it is anonymous, superficial, artificial, unnatural. These are
perhaps the very characteristics that add to its appeal. Online groups such as are
based on the premise that users can express fake identities, but swiftly evolve into meeting places for
those seeking cybersex. There is no denying the inherent dangers of cybersex for adolescents who may
become targets of adult predators while the reverse may also be true, with documented cases of
adolescents who pretend to be older in order to flirt with unsuspecting adults. While under 18 year olds
are prohibited from taking part in Second Life or Fake, it is in practice impossible to effectively check
the ages of all participants but regardless of its dangers and detractors cybersex is a growth
phenomenon. Second Life features shops devoted to sexual items, services, and avatar bodies.
Cybersex has given rise to groups such as nerverts, described by Mieskowski as those who manifest
[the] convergence of computer nerd and weird sex. As Suler writes; “Sex always sells, in real or
virtual life.”

 Pete Wardle                                            Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

If cybersex allows individuals to participate in fantasies that would otherwise be prohibited to them,
where then, if anywhere, is the line to be drawn? There are already examples of the development of
sweat shops in Second Life, slavery exists albeit, so far, only in the form of consensual sex slavery.
Will the future see „virtual murder‟ where individuals are able to eradicate the carefully constructed
digital identity of another and, if so, will this be deemed a crime in Real Life?

However, regardless of the prominence of „deviant behaviour‟, it is not always the reason for creating a
digital identity. Forums and cybercultures exist for almost every interest group. Suler writes;

      adolescents are drawn to cyberspace because they make friends there. Cyberspace technology
      excels in all sorts of methods for forming groups - and adolescents take advantage of it because
      joining and shaping a new group is so important to their evolving identity. What do they do once
      they're in the group? They joke and play games, complain about their parents and teachers, talk
      about their lives, support and give advice to each other... the same things they do in "real" life.

 However, as with groups in Real Life, there is a tendency for groups to identify with only a single
element within an individual‟s identity, eg. race, religion, sexuality, politics, and in doing so elevate it
to a disproportionate importance, e.g., gay men subscribing to forums such as Gaydar, may come to
view and describe themselves solely in terms of their sexuality rather than seeing sexuality as an aspect
of a more complex identity structure.

 Pete Wardle                                            Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

Implications of new technology for the 'techno-body' and the real body

Rene Descartes theorised that the mind was more real than the body in which it is housed. We may ask
then if, through our journeys into cyberspace, we are evolving to a stage where our virtual lives will
replace our Real Lives, or indeed if this is already the case?

Suler asks:

      “What is one's TRUE identity? We usually assume it must be the self that you present to others
      and consciously experience in your day-to-day living. But is that the true self? Many people walk
      around in their f2f lives wearing "masks" that are quite different than how they think and feel
      internally…Our daydreams and fantasies often reveal hidden aspects of what we need or wish to
      be. If people drop the usual f2f persona and bring to life online those hidden or fantasied
      identities, might not that be in some ways MORE true or real?”

Indeed there may be instances where it is unclear whether we are interacting with a „true‟ individual or
a machine, such as is the case on Agent Ruby‟s edream portal created by Hershman, as with certain
Bots in MUDs and Second Life. Moreover Dr. Rudolfo Llinas, Professor of Neuroscience, contends
that Real Life itself is no more than a structure of imagination:

      'Basically, the brain is a dreaming machine. It is the brain that generates reality.‟

Turkle (1997) presents a possible answer;

      “Since everything is surfaces to be explored, and no surface has any more legitimacy than any
      other, the "embodied" life we live on a day-to-day basis has no more reality than the role-playing
      games on the Internet …MUD players can develop a way of thinking in which life is made up of
      many windows and RL (Real Life) is only one of them."

Turkle cites Lacan with a "more radical decentering" of the self and the"portray[al] of the self as a
realm of discourse rather than as a real thing or a permanent structure of the mind."

It is evident though that digital life cannot offer all the same satisfactions as Real Life.
humorously promotes the benefits of RL; “Fornicate using your actual genitals!” Suler writes of the
limitations of text relationships but his comments may apply equally to any online relationship;

      “LOL and [[Joe]] are textual representations of a laugh and a hug for Joe, but they are NOT the
      laugh and the hug. What are the implications of interacting with textual representations but not

 Pete Wardle                                           Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

      with the actual physical and bodily experiences? How does the psychological and emotional
      impact of typing an LOL or even the abstractly raucous ROFL compare to the actual experience
      of rolling on the floor laughing? Does a text hug sink in the same way as actually feeling
      someone's arms around you?”

One advantage of cyberspace is that it can create virtual environments which, while they may choose to
copy reality have no requirement to do so. Predicted by the Holodecks in Star Trek, immersive virtual
realities could be used to give a historical tour of ancient Greece, or to take one into uncharted fantasy
realms. Immersive usually taken to mean full „physical‟ immersion however it is evident that to become
immersed in a virtual environment, whether Second Life, game play or a movie does not rely upon this.
Full immersion may in fact lead to unpredicted changes in the personality. Cars, for example, provide a
closed, immersive, environment in which otherwise meek personalities become aggressive towards
other drivers, exhibiting the characteristics of „a different person behind the wheel.‟ The American
army is currently developing hi-tech armour which provides an immersive environment for the wearer
and encourages focussed aggression.

In most cases where we construct identities and relationships a screen suffices provided no glitches
occur to jar the „us‟ from our immersion. Manovich talks of the screen as „a window into another
space‟ which;

      „doubles the viewing subject who now exists in two spaces: the familiar physical space of his/her
      real body and the virtual space of an image within the screen. This split comes to the surface with
      VR, but it already exists with painting and other dioptric arts.”

      “Perhaps hundreds of years from now, media historians will consider TV and movies the earliest
      forms of VR.” (Suler)

Artists are currently working with the idea of avatars becoming individual entities such as Paul
Sermon‟s Real Life/Second Life interactive installation, Liberate your avatar where Real Life visitors
and Second Life avatars were brought together to share the same park bench. Hershman‟s Roberta
appears as an avatar within Second Life reminding us of Foucault writing of the image of the monarchs
unseen but as reflections in the mirror in Las Meninas; a representation of a representation. Similarly
there is nothing to prevent an avatar, or rather the constructed identity it represents, promoting
themselves and their relationships using on Facebook.

    Pete Wardle                                          Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

                                                                      Roberta (left), Las Meninas (right)

One potential issue is that of „authentication‟ of constructed identities insofar as there is no guarantee
that the avatar with whom we interact is being „operated‟ by the same individual each time we meet.
Similarly any one of multiple people could be responding to using a single email address, msn identity
or even mobile phone. Ultimately we must decide for ourselves whether this is of concern or if we are
happy taking the digital identity with whom we interact on its face value.

Digital life brings with it other new problems to be addressed;

     Disintegrating boundaries between our identities are reflected in increasingly blurred distinction
      between our work and leisure lives; while doctors are still researching into the phenomena of
      addiction to video games, particularly multi-user online games, many manifestations of compulsive
      behaviour are more subtly pervasive. Unnecessarily frequent checking of email is common, as is
      invisible monitoring of chat rooms to check who is there
     Not only is our physical existence under almost constant CCTV surveillance, our digital identities
      too are monitored with our tacit or explicit agreement. Chat room monitors can read our „private‟
      conversations while anyone can log onto Facebook to see our most personal events. Cookies from
      shopping sites such as Amazon monitor our purchases and adware monitors which sites we visit.

In cyberspace we find ourselves able to participate in activities which parallel new developments in
Real Life and lead to moral or philosophical debate.
     We seek to change the perception of our identities by modification of our bodies. Cosmetic surgery
      has never been more popular and artists such as Stelarc work extensively with implants. While this
      is happening in Real Life, cyberspace frees us to modify our avatar bodies as we will.
     Scientists are working to develop neural interfaces which will allow paraplegics to operate
      computers to transcend the boundaries of their physical capabilities. In cyberspace such
      transcendence is of the physical already allows us to soar high above the cities of Second Life or
      City of Heroes.
     Cloning raises the question whether one person can exist in two places at one. Cyberspace allows
      us to simultaneously coexist in one physical reality and multiple digital realities.

    Pete Wardle                                        Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

     Modification of the genetic code may allow parents to choose to eradicate disabilities, or other
      attributes they may consider undesirable, in children at the point of conception, constructing new
      life in the way that parallels the choices we make when constructing identities in cyberspace.

Detractors from the potential of science may see the above as examples of man playing god. Must we
therefore question whether there is any moral difference between the physical developments and their
virtual counterparts? Haraway wrote of technology as challenging the duality between god and man.
Reminiscent of the Matrix movie Suler proposes that through cyberspace “we have entered the next
stage in the expression of what it means to be human.” If this is true, given our unprecedented freedom
to construct and direct the evolution of our identities, we might better ask if we are becoming the
intelligences behind our own intelligent design.

 Pete Wardle                                         Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE


Alvarez, D, The Frankinstein Syndrome‟ 21/7/2003

Birch, David

Brinberg, D & Wood, R, (1983) A Resource Exchange Theory Analysis of Consumer Behavior, The
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 10, No. 3., pp. 330-338 available on JStor

Buadrillard, J, Simulcra and Simulation, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford; Stanford
University Press, 1988), pp.166-184 also available from translated by Sheila Faria

Burke, P. J., and Tully, J. C. (1977). The Measurement of Role Identity.

Burke, Peter J. (2003) “Relationships among multiple identities” available from

Burke, Peter J. (2007) Identity Control Theory available from

Foa, EB & Foa, UG 1974, Resource Exchange Theory -

Foucault, M, Discipline and Punish (trans by Sheridan, A) Penguin Books Ltd; New Ed edition (1991)

Gibson, William, 1984,Neuromancer, Phantasia Press

Grieb, M, (2003) Transformations of the (Silver) Screen: Film after New Media, University of Florida

Hendrickson, Robert, The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Checkmark Books; 3Rev Ed
edition (2004)

Hershman, Lynn - and Autonomous Agents Symposium at Whitworth
Gallery Manchester on 22nd November 2007

Ito, J, Identity and Privacy in a Globalized Community available at

Jackson, Alison (images) available at

L‟Abate L & B 1981, The Dream and the Reality; Family Relations, Vol. 30, No. 1. (Jan., 1981), pp.
131-136 available on Jstor

 Pete Wardle                                          Technoculture: IDENTITY IN CYBERSPACE

L'Abate, L, 1994, A Theory of Personality Development 1994, John Wiley and Sons

Manovich, L, 2001, Language of New Media, MIT Press;

McAlpine, Mhairi, E–Learning, Volume 2, Number 4, 2005, E-portfolios and Digital Identity available

McLuhan, M, 1964, Understanding Media MIT Press; New Ed edition (1994)

Mieskowski, Katherine quoted by Borsook, Paulina, 2000,Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the
Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech

Nietzche, F, On the Genealogy of Morals, reprinted Oxford Paperbacks

Plant, Sadie, 1996, "On the Matrix: Cyberfeminism Simulations".

Postman, Neil, 1985, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Methuen; (paperback 1987)

Ryan, K, Click on Me: Identity as Commodity in the Digital Age-

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817, Biographia Literaria, Cited By Ferri, Anthony J. (2007) Willing
Suspension of Disbelief: Poetic Faith in Film

Sontag, S, 1977, On Photography, paperback reprint by Penguin, (1979)

Steiner, R, 2003 Cast of Characters, Cindy Sherman Catalogue, Serpentine Gallery

Stryker, S & Burke, P.J. (Dec., 2000), The Past, Present, and Future of an Identity Theory, Social
Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 4, Special Millennium Issue on the State of Sociological Social
Psychology. pp. 284-297.

Suler, J – Online Essays -

Sullivan, James, quoted on

Turkle, Sherry. 1997.Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York:Touchstone,

Watkins, Tony, 2001, Blurring Boundaries, quoting Llinas, Dr. R, 2000, Brain
Story, BBC TV


To top