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 an 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 dillemena 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 aregued 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 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 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.
Poster, Mark 2007, ‘The Secret Self: The case of identity theft’ Cultural Studies Vol. 21 No. 1 January, pp. 118-140.
Histories of Virtual Reality
Virtual optical interfaces can be traced to examples of 360-degree art in the panoramic murals that began to appear in Italian murals in the 1560s. At first floor level, Baldassarre Peruzzi painted the main salone with frescoes of a grand open loggia balcony with city and countryside views. The perspective view really only works from a fixed point in the room otherwise the illusion is broken.
The notion of the 3D goggles has been around for a long time, and Stanley G. Weinbaum proposed a google glasses like system for virtual reality in the 1930s in his short fiction called the “Pygmalion’s Spectacles, which included his hypothetical design for goggles that would display holographic recordings of fictional experiences.
Morton Heilig was famous in the 1950s for his “Experience Theatre”, which was an attempt to include all the senses in the cinematic experience, by expanding the view to encompass the individual audience and attempted to include them in the onscreen activity. Heilig built a working prototype of his virtual reality device, called the Sensorama in 1962, as a large cabinet device that had to be sat inside. The prototype had five short films and stimulated the senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch. This is a concept that we see emerge time and time again, just recently plastics for 3d printing became available that would give off different aromas when used. The use of smell and body posture has been also anticipated in the immersion effect.
In 1968 Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull, create the augmented reality (AR) and VR head-mounted display (HMD) system. Rudimentary and exceptionally heavy, the HMD was supported from the ceiling. The device had a basic user interface and a wire-frame virtual environment and was called The Sword of Damocles.
In 1990 Jonathan Waldern, a VR PhD, demonstrates “Virtuality” a Computer Graphics exhibition staged at London’s Alexandra Palace. His garage startup company would go on to produce the Virtuality as a line of virtual reality gaming machines found in video arcades and adventure parks and game stores in the early 1990s. I remember playing these multiplayer at about the same time that i first reader Neuromancer in 1992. The VR machines delivered almost real time (less than 50ms lag) gaming via a stereoscopic visor, joysticks, and networked units for multi-player gaming. Virtuality was the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer VR location-based entertainment system. Costing up to $73,000 per multi-pod Virtuality system, they featured headsets and exoskeleton gloves that gave one of the first “immersive” VR experiences.
The famous, or infamous, Virtual Boy was created by Nintendo and was released in Japan and in North America in 1995.
In 2014 Facebook [invested] $2 billion into Oculus VR. [Palmer Luckey] created his first VR prototype at age 18 in his parents’ garage in 2011, which was a headset that included a 90-degree field of view. Luckey developed a series of prototypes over ten months increasing the range to a 270-degree field-of-view, while also decreasing size and weight.The 6th iteration was named the “Rift,” and He first started Oculus VR in order to facilitate the Kickstarter campaign
9,522 backers pledged $2,437,429 to help bring this project to life.
The VR unit relies on a series of cybernetic feedback loops between the CPU, the Worn device, the user’s Body, and the graphic output and visual display which is also an input device for the on screen direction and movement.
Putting the headpiece on is very much like putting on a mix of Ned Kelly’s Helmet and Tony Stark’s Iron Man visor – it’s a mix of the primitive and the advanced.
Video for Elders Reacting to the Oculus Rift
[The Virtual Yellow House Project]
The Yellow House was the brainchild of Sharp and filmmaker Albie Thoms, modelled on the failed artist community set up by Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France, during the late 1880s (Thoms 2012). Set up in Macleay Street, Kings Cross, by Australian artist Martin Sharp in 1970, and running through to early 1973, the Yellow engaged local, national and international artists who visited the three-storey terrace building and helped shape the artistic and cultural development of this experimental and communal space. Painting, music, theatre, film, puppetry, light shows and mixed-media performances were held in Spaces with titles such as the Stone Room that were filled with textured walls, artistic recreations of famous artworks such as The Great Wave by Hokusai, and sculptural pieces which became one with the immediate environment.
Over the next three years, the 3-storey terrace at 57-59 Macleay Street became the site of a living, breathing artist community. The exterior was painted yellow, and the interior became an art history museum, with the walls, ceiling and staircases painted and sculptured, and installations put in place to reflect the tastes and interests of anybody who cared to participate. Art, music, drama and film were created, performed and exhibited at the Yellow House by its residents and visitors until the doors were closed early in 1973. The building became an exhibition gallery, artist’s studio, performance space, living quarters and meeting place.
The re-creation of the Yellow House in a 3D virtual reality (VR) environment will make use of contemporary photographic and audiovisual archives applied to technologies such as the Oculus Rift, to facilitate art historical, media, communication and graphic design studies. Resources to be utilised include photographs taken in the Yellow House by photographer Greg Weight and artist George Gittoes, over 30 hours of film footage from Yellow TV produced by Albie Thoms, ABC television documentary and news footage, original building plans from the City of Sydney Council Archives, and oral history accounts by those involved. This material will be used to create a replica space in 3D and add original textures to that virtual space. The prototype developed for this project will, in the initial phase, enable students and researchers to interact with University of Wollongong Library collections focused on Australian counterculture art and publishing movements during the 1960s and 1970s. T
The project will also create an open-access teaching and learning tool which can be freely used, modified and adapted for a broad range of applications beyond recreation of the actual Sydney-based Yellow House. These applications will include interactive exhibition spaces and 3D digital archives sourced from the library and archival collections external to the University of Wollongong. For example, the State Library of New South Wales has a dispersed collection of material relating to the Yellow House and the art of Martin Sharp, whilst the archives of Albie Thoms are located in the National Library of Australia and National Film and Sound Archive collections in Canberra.
The primary aim of the Yellow House project is to provide an opportunity for students, academics and the public to engage with library and archival collections in new, innovative and productive ways, and demonstrate the active application of curriculum‑driven, technology-enhanced learning experiences. It will create an open access 3D, immersive and interactive VR gallery based on the Yellow House. Using Oculus Rift and similar virtual reality technologies, students and researchers will enter the virtual Yellow House gallery and engage with its historic elements, learning from, and being actively stimulated by, the experience.
In addition, they will be able to modify and adapt their own Yellow House room using the open data object created as part of the project.
The VR experience will serve as a virtual gallery space for experimentation and collaborative experiences between academics and students and as a means for experiencing not only the University of Wollongong Library’s expanding digital collections but also other relevant material brought to the space by the participants.
In the first instance, the Yellow House VR gallery will be available to students to present their own work and use the virtual gallery as their own space.
The Yellow House web portal will provide the gateway to the virtual reality Yellow House space, along with open data files of this product for reuse, experimentation and redesign by others.
It will be an extension of existing work undertaken by the University of Wollongong Library, including the acquisition and digitisation of significant historical Australian collections: including OZ magazine Sydney (1963-9) and London (1967-73), the Garry Shead and Martin Sharp edited Arty Wild Oat (1962) magazine, and Richard Neville’s The Living Daylights (1973-4).
The Yellow House portal will be integrated with the Library’s existing Digital Collections portal (University of Wollongong Library 2015), and include the technical capability for students and other users to share their experiences and stories regarding experiments with the open source files, thus offering students a new model in which to engage with content.