Cyberculture is the experience emerging from the dominant role of computer networks in communication, entertainment, education, business and industry. The reality of cyberculture is, however, often very different to its representation. One of the most pernicious experiences of cyberculture is identity theft.
Identity theft is the fraudulent use of another person’s biographical details, most often to gain financially. Identity theft is also used to disadvantage the person and damage their reputation. The term dates back to the mid-1960s when it was criminalised. Identity theft is often hard to stop as there are many means for obtaining the information. Identity theft isn’t always high tech, although ‘skimming’ credit card information is a common-form, sometimes an individual’s recycling or rubbish can be searched to obtain personal data. There are multiple technologies for stealing WiFi information, cloning keyboard inputs, and other forms of malware and spyware. Social media sites are often a means for obtaining the basics of personal information then used to determine bank details and establish fake accounts.
Mark Poster (2007) used the term ‘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, accounting for the role of informational machines and media to give a 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 posting of identity as the core of the self.”
Identity theft is particular to the occurrence of digital networks, argues Poster, and barely recognised by the press until the mid-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 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.
Science Fiction and Cyberpunk tropes represented identity theft long before mainstream broadcast media turned it into a moral panic. The linking of human existence to the online and digital often leads to feelings of anxiety and loss, and this is not simply paranoia. Just recently Eye-scan payments are being implemented 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’. The movie represents the most literal form of identity theft, but other cybercultural texts often delve into a deeper level to the concept of the removal or theft of identity.
The Ghost in the Shell (1995), for example, examines the move between the digital and the analogue and argues that the line between them is not always clear. Cyberculture asks if human identity is purely tied up in the physical biology of the organism, and can it be digitally transferred? Cyberculture asks can artificial life be ‘real’ life.
These questions arise because the digital is still in a relationship with the physical in terms of storage and transmission: the digital does not escape our reality. The power of the online world is one of indeterminacy, border crossing and transgression, and this brings into doubt whether the digital and the virtual, can ever be thought of as same as the biological.
Cyberculture is often concerned with dystopia and a world in which the human is no longer the cutting edge consciousness it once was. Many are threatened by the idea of no longer being the most intelligent and dominant form of life on the planet. When your consciousness can be downloaded into a new body as the old one is worn out or gets injured in the line of duty as with the cyborgs in Ghost in the Shell, where does life begin and end?.
In cyberculture, identity even at the mundane level becomes fluid and indeterminate.
The first virtual worlds and online communities, running on American university networks in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, were called Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). MUDS enabled multiple players to exist together in a text-based virtual world. MUDs replicated pen-and-paper roleplaying games, like Dungeons & Dragons, which enabled players to explore locations, pick up objects, interact with other players, defeat monsters and collect experience points to develop their character’s abilities. Players communicated with each other by typing basic commands: Go North, Use Sword, Open Door, etc.
The games were designed to present players with fantasy-themed challenges, such as slaying monsters, exploring locations, complete quests and have adventures together.
The popularity of MUDs and similar early internet experiences led to the idea that the internet was an anonymous place for expressing new identity formations. Early cyberculture theory celebrated the virtual because it meant that 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 harassment such as trolling, doxxing and fraud.
In the essay, A Rape in Cyberspace (“A Rape in Cyberspace, or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society”) by Julian Dibbell in 1993, Dibbell documents an act of cyberrape in a MUD called LambdaMoo, and discusses the impact of the act on the community.
In the essay, Dibbell is thinking through his experience of extremely anti-social and aggressive behaviour by a participant in an online environment. He concludes that even in the absence of the physical presence, people can still have powerful emotional responses to the virtual.
This leads us to question exactly what is real. Take, for example, an element of a novel, television show or movie that brings us to tears or causes us to laughter. These are a fictional, mediated, virtual universes that are 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.
Connecting to the brain
One of the recurring motifs of cyberpunk fiction is the representation of the mind-machine interface – the ability to plug directly into the brain. One of the dreams of technology engineers is to perfectly convert the biological signals of the brain over to a digital 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. Stellac is now a professor at Curtin University and has made a career exploring the obsolescence of the human body. Stellarc’s performance art typically involves robotics and objects like cyberpunk jewellery that challenges us to rethink the concept of the monstrous. One of his most famous works allowed participants to control his body via the internet, using electronic muscle stimulators to force his body to move in different contortions. He has performed with a robotic arm and a six-legged walking machine. His work forces us to contemplate where the body begins and ends in its relationship to the machine. He considers that the organic and the mechanical are not simply a binary construction, but a continuum of options and experiences. Most recently growing he became famous for growing a new ear on his arm for future experiments.
Stellarc’s work is part of an international movement, called Transhumanism, which seeks to enhance what it means to be human. Transhumanists examine the benefits and ethical problems of using new technologies to improve the human body. The earliest transhumanist thinking informed the science of eugenics and led to radical speculation about space colonisation, bionic implants and cognitive enhancement. Roboticist, Hans Moravec, is a futurist whose made important contributions to thinking about robotics and artificial intelligence.
The philosopher Max More, developed the transhumanist doctrine, in Principles of Extropy in 1990:
Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life. […] Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies […].
One of the goals of the transhumanist movement is to navigate the ethical dilemma of creating intelligent artificial life. Moravec is particularly interested in navigating between the complacent and apocalyptic poles of posthumanism. Other theorists, like Ray Kurzweil, are concerned with the notion of the technological singularity, the point at which technological innovation accelerates to the point of fundamentally changing the nature of what it means to be human.
The future of race
I want to point out here that early discussions of race and cybercultures were often dominated by white middle-class males, and if you visit Reddit you would be mistaken that it still is.
In 1995 Lisa Nakamura published her research into 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.
In the essay, Where Do You Want to Go Today?”; Cybernetic Tourism, the Internet, and Transnationality, in her book Race in Cyberspace, Nakamura describes how media corporations in the 1990s (IBM, Microsoft, etc) used exotic images of non-westerners, to convey the image of global connectivity. She argued that such representations of cyberculture exaggerated ‘otherness’ and treated Arab and Asian identities as touristic objects, extending the practices of colonialism to the new digital frontier. Nakamura was one of the major thinkers in the 1990s to interrogate how cyberculture shaped our perceptions of race, ethnicity and identity.
Other Issues of Experiencing Cyberculture
Cyberculture and the near ubiquity of new and mobile media technologies have important cultural, social, and environmental consequences, from the increased regulation and enforcement of intellectual property rights to increased incarceration for network and digital crimes and the impact of technological obsolescence.
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 in order 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?
Another problem that is beginning to emerge in the reality of cyberculture is the rise of artificial intelligence. This is largely a more panic, but at some point, we will have technologies that we interact with that will be indistinguishable from human consciousness.
Interactivity is an important concept and may be said to occur when the machine is responding to the user’s wishes expressed via the inputted commands. A users interacts with the presented results of a query for example, such as a google search, in order to reduce the number of results and refine the result: the Google website can be said to be interactive.
There are multiple levels of interaction. Compare an information website: Does Tripadviser have a greater or lesser, or equal degree of ‘interactivity’ as Facebook? Is interactivity the best way of 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 supercomputer hundreds of years to crack an average level of 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 establish 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.
Read: Poster, Mark 2007, ‘The Secret Self: The case of identity theft’ Cultural Studies Vol. 21 No. 1 January, pp. 118-140.