The evanescence of pseudonymous online identity

Paul Raven @ 23-08-2011

Charlie Stross:

Google are wrong about the root cause of online trolling and other forms of sociopathic behaviour. It’s nothing to do with anonymity. Rather, it’s to do with the evanescence of online identity. People who have long term online identities (regardless of whether they’re pseudonymous or not) tend to protect their reputations. Trolls, in contrast, use throw-away identities because it’s not a real identity to them: it’s a sock puppet they wave in the face of their victim to torment them. Forcing people to use their real name online won’t magically induce civility: the trolls don’t care. Identity, to them, is something that exists in the room with the big blue ceiling, away from the keyboard. Stuff in the glowing screen is imaginary and of no consequence.

That’s a brief aside from a longer post in which Charlie joins the (largely unopposed) chorus of people trying to make Google aware of just how dickish they’re being with this whole pseudonyms business*; worth reading for the borrowed list of programmer assumptions about human names alone, though it’s all good stuff.

[ * For my part, I’m more astonished by the Big G’s uncharacteristic tone-deafness on the issue than by the issue itself (which is simply a hallmark of contemporary concerns about identity in the network age); they’ve responded faster and better to much smaller outcryings in the past, which lends a certain weight to the suggestions that this is a push to monetise enforced canonical identity… a push that “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”; after all, if that really is the plan, they must have known there’d be a push-back against it, and that resistance would only increase with time. But again, it seems very out of line with the usual corporate character on display from Mountain View… so, if it’s the mask slipping, why is it slipping now? ]

Infamous 2: Mindless Fun and the Basis of Aesthetic Judgement

Jonathan McCalmont @ 17-08-2011

It rained on Saturday afternoon. It rained and it rained and it rained. It rained so much that I couldn’t go out, not even to the cinema, not even for a walk. I was trapped, so I decided to invest some serious time in a video game. I powered up the PS3, slid the armchair just that little bit closer to the TV and I dipped my toes into the world of Sucker Punch Productions’ superhero sandbox extravaganza Infamous 2.

A few hours later, I unfolded myself from the chair and looked up at the clock on the wall… I registered 5 pm but my joints were screaming. How long had I been here? In something of a daze, I headed upstairs to my computer where I checked my email. My computer’s clock read 7:30 pm. Surely this was a glitch. I googled the time: same problem. I headed downstairs and asked my girlfriend what time it was and she pointed to the clock… the one that I had checked only a few minutes earlier. It now read 7:35 pm. Continue reading “Infamous 2: Mindless Fun and the Basis of Aesthetic Judgement”

Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story: High School, Privacy and Blended Identity

Jonathan McCalmont @ 25-05-2011

Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story is the follow-up to Christine Love’s critically acclaimed indie game Digital: A Love Story. Much like its author’s previous work, Don’t Take It Personally is a game devoted to exploring the nature of online identity. However, while Digital expressed a delicately muted nostalgia for a fictionalised past in which cyberspace allowed Mind to detach itself from Body, Don’t Take it Personally expresses a similarly ambivalent attitude to a notional future in which privacy has become an archaic and outmoded concept. Continue reading “Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story: High School, Privacy and Blended Identity”

post-Empire celebrity

Paul Raven @ 14-03-2011

Bret Easton Ellis pops up at The Daily Beast and manages to pull a whole bunch of cultural threads together using almost-overnight memetic sensation and celebrity-carwreck Charlie Sheen as nexus/exemplar.

You’re completely missing the point if you think the Charlie Sheen moment is really a story about drugs. Yeah, they play a part, but they aren’t at the core of what’s happening—or why this particular Sheen moment is so fascinating. I know functioning addicts. They’re not that rare or that interesting. What this moment is about is Sheen solo. It’s about a well-earned midlife crisis played out on CNN instead of in a life coach’s office somewhere in Burbank. The midlife crisis is the moment in a man’s life when he realizes he can’t (or won’t) any longer maintain the pose that he thought was required of him.


Anyone who’s put up with the fake rigors of celebrity (or suffered from addiction problems) has a kindred spirit here. The new fact is: If you’re punching paparazzi, you look like an old-school loser. If you can’t accept the fact that we’re at the height of an exhibitionistic display culture and that you’re going to be blindsided by TMZ (and humiliated by Harvey Levin, or Chelsea Handler—princess of post-Empire) while stumbling out of a club on Sunset Boulevard at 2 in the morning, then you should be a travel agent instead of a movie star. Being publicly mocked is part of the game, and you’re a fool if you don’t play along. Not showing up to collect your award at the Razzies for that piece of crap you made? So Empire. This is why Sheen seems saner and funnier than any other celebrity right now. He also makes better jokes about his situation than most worried editorialists or late-night comedians. A lot of it is sheer bad-boy bravado—just cursing to see how people react, which is very post-Empire—but a lot of it is pure transparency, and on that level, Sheen is, um, winning.

Transparency! We’ve been talking about its effects at the nation-state and corporation levels for a few years, but the same corrosion is happening down here in the culture trenches; I’m sure you can think of people in your circle of friends, online or off, who are doing a similar “performative fuckuppery” kind of thing, albeit (probably, or rather hopefully) not as intense. (After all, a 7-gram-rocks coke habit isn’t accessible to most income bands, AMIRITES?)

But this is important: Josh Harris may be a bit unhinged, but he realised it way before anyone else: we live in public. You know how when you get a videocam out at a party or bar and there’s always a few folk who immediately start playing it up for the lens? Well, we’re all on camera all the time, metaphorically speaking… and behaving normally does little more than let you fade into the background. This is the same root phenomena that drives comment trolling and those Westboro shitheads, but also the chain of revolutions across the Middle East and the sudden upsurge of protests in the UK and the US. Publicity is a feedback loop, but only now is it fast enough that the feedback can start really amping the signal. Sheen is not an end-case; he’s more of a prototype.

As Ellis points out, we’re in a transition period where Empire and post-Empire celebrity share the stage, but the Empire types don’t understand the landscape that the post-Empires are exploiting to their advantage. For example, here’s a classic Empire project: David Tang’s iCorrect website, where celebrities can correct the false mythologies that have accreted around them in the roiling mediasphere. But why would you want to go and shatter the mystique? They’ll believe whatever they want to believe, anyway; you might as well just play to the peanut gallery. After all, they’re the people who are most likely to spend money on things you do in the future… better to be a carwreck on a busy highway than pulled up carefully on the verge of a backroad.

Transhumanism has already won

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

So claims Nikola “Socrates” Danaylov of, anyhow [via Mike Anissimov]. His argument is that transhumanist/Singularitarian topics and pundits (especially the ubiquitous Ray Kurzweil, who has a movie to promote) are cropping up regularly in mainstream news outlets (TIME Magazine, The Daily Show, so on and so forth).

I can see where Danaylov and Anissimov are coming from, here; transhumanism is definitely breaking the surface of the media ocean, but much like an iceberg, only a small part of it is visible to Josephine Average thus far. Sure, the internet is full of deep engagement with the technological and philosophical questions raised by transhumanism, and some of the more serious journalism attempts to grapple with the big issues, too. But I think Danaylov is caught in a kind of subcultural myopia; you could come to the same conclusion about the ubiquity of transhumanism as a discussion topic just by looking through my own RSS reader’s XML file, but there’s a big selection bias going on there. Perhaps it’s different in the US, but over here in the UK I’d be surprised if one in ten randomly selected folk-on-the-street would recognise the words transhumanism, singularity or Kurzweil. (The latter might ring a bell for veteran synthesiser collectors, of course, but they’re an even smaller demographic than transhumanists… )

Of course, if Kurzweil’s movie makes a big enough splash, that may change, but I think transhumanists could do with taking a cautionary lesson from the science fiction community which might be best summed up as “when everyone’s talking about your thing, they may not talk about it in the ways you’d have liked”. The cost of that increased media profile will be paid in pillory: rather than being a unified political movement, transhumanism is a loose collection of politely (or sometimes not so politely) warring factions, a rhizomatic network rather than a hierarchy. When the mainstream media goes out to research a story, it looks for the folk at the top of the pyramid, and it treats their take on things as representative of the collective… which means that while Kurzweil’s movie is surely going to raise the profile of transhumanism as a concept, it will do so at the price of enthroning Kurzweil as the figurehead of the entire movement.

(Yes, yes; I know he isn’t, and so do most other folk with an interest in the field. But beware the simplifying and polarising impulse of mainstream journalism: movements must be capped with a leader and placed on the political spectrum, and they’ll do both on your behalf even if you’re leaderless and disconnected from the tired Left-Right axis. Just ask your nearest anarchist.)

As a fellow-traveller (the less charitable might say camp follower) of transhumanism, this is where things start to look really interesting; the most exciting phase of any subculture is when the mainstream discovers it. My concern is that many transhumanists, being generally smart and intellectual types, are fatally underestimating the general public’s capacity for fear, disgust and ridicule; the spotlight of publicity can get pretty hot, especially when your core ideology questions deeply held cultural values. (I’m put in mind of the reaction of British culture to the punk rock explosion back in the late seventies; the politico-economic climate is similar, for a start, and transhumanism’s core interests just as transgressive of body/identity politics, if not more so.) It’s all very well to claim that you see transhumanism as a platform for a secular examination of mortality and the afterlife, but once the Daily Mail (or FOX News, or whoever) has painted you as mad scientists who want to stuff yourselves full of silicon and live forever, you’ll have a hard time getting that philosophical nuance across to the public. Visibility leads to demonisation; if you think the mainstream techgeek scene can be disparaging of transhumanism, just wait until the America’s Got Talent demographic gets a smell of blood in the water.

As an observer of culture (and as a writer of stories), this is the moment when transhumanism comes into its own for me; its internal conflicts are intellectually interesting, but it’s as it rubs up against the belief systems of the majority that sparks will start to fly, and I suspect that a lot of transhumanist advocates are going to get a pretty rude political awakening – not just from media misrepresentation, but from co-opting and branding efforts by bandwaggoning corporations, and schismatic clades of oddballs and outsiders glomming on to the parts of the ideology they like while throwing out the more troubling philosophical questions.

Luckily I have a decent excuse to be pondering such matters; I’ve been invited to be part of a panel discussing the impact of transhumanism (and Kurzweil’s movie in particular) at a Humanity+ UK meeting in London on Sunday 9th April. Given that the other panellists are likely to be proper boffins and theorists (I see Dr. Anders Sandberg is already on the list with me, which means I’m already outclassed on IQ and knowledge by at least an order of magnitude), I’m going to focus on the cultural bow wave that will form as transhumanism plows its way into the Zeitgeist. I fully expect to learn a great deal more than I teach, but I’m hoping that my fence-sitter status gives me a usefully different perspective on things.

If not, it should be an entertaining couple of hours of being made to feel incredibly stupid. 🙂

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