I See Borged People

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by Aaron McLeod, a Canadian student enrolled in an Anthropology of Cyberspace class. Written Nov 20th, 2010.

I See Borged People

In our new information age the purpose of this paper is to argue that Facebook accounts are cyborgs. Ah the wonders of the information age. Being able to literally witness Web 2.0 evolve. From text based MUDs (Multi-user Domains) to full blown social networking enabled by and taken to new grounds mainly by Facebook. How elusive this piece of cyberspace has become. How influential, embedded, evocative it has become to us. It is something we hear daily now as we walk down the halls of school, work, malls, etc; it has penetrated the real world, real life (RL). Facebook has come to a point where people panic when Facebook is down, because of a newly inherent need to be connected to others via this ever evolving medium we call the world wide web. No, the need to be connected to others is not a new need, but connecting via Facebook is something new and worth taking a closer look at.

Facebook takes this need to connect to others and makes it stupidly easy, explicit, attractive, and concurrently personal and social. But there is something else at work here. Something we don’t really take notice of. The idea of cyborg counterparts or as Psychologist Sherry Turkle termed, "the second self." (Turkle 1995). When I say 'cyborg' I mean a, "symbiotic fusion of human and machine." (www.cyborganthropology.com). My claim is that a person’s Facebook account is a cyborg representation of you. Think about it. A person is giving a piece of cyberspace an identity, personality, and half the time people represent themselves differently (i.e. more outgoing, talkative, social, conscientious; to name a few) from the RL counterpart. Is your cyborg counterpart (Facebook) a... better you? A counter you? A true you? An evolved you? The purpose of this paper is to examine the cyborg element of Facebook, and to prove the second self is there, and is learning via the newly implemented Open Graph protocol or better know as the “Like” button. Let us start by looking at our "second self"

The second self is an idea where, “[p]sychologist Sherry Turkle...use[d] the phrase “second self” to identify our bodies in virtual space.” (Amber Case: O’Reilly Webcast 2010). A prominent cyborg-anthropologist, Amber Case, quotes Turkle in considering, “the computer not as a “tool,” but as an extension of the psychological and social self in reality. Cyberspace allows one to sample the self - that is, choose which pieces of the self to present the self with. A person, experiences thousands of moments every day. The moments one chooses to report shape one’s identity.” (A. Case: O’Reilly Webinar, 2010). In relation to Facebook Amber says, “[t]he production of identity in virtual reality can occur on a social network, through text, image or video and can occur in small moments or large ones.” (A. Case: O’Reilly Webcast, 2010). Every time we share information (i. e. updating personal info, status updates, uploading photos, commenting on photos, any social interaction) we are building in tandem the identity of our self and our cyborg counterpart. I believe it is the “in tandem” part that causes our cyborg counterparts to be overlooked. Remember how I mentioned Facebook being concurrently social and personal? It is personal in how interactive and customizable the interface is (setting up your page just the way you like it for others to view). It is social because of our use of the interface in communicating with others. It is our personal interaction with Facebook that overshadows our cyborg counterpart, by giving us the illusion the cyborg counterpart is our RL identity. So the Facebook account is like this pseudo-identity in which the entity is suppose to mirror our RL identity. But the RL identity is attached to a body and Facebook is disembodied. This makes things complex and will be addressed later on in this paper. Since it seems there are two identities being shaped I turn to Dr. Sherry Turkle.

Turkle, in her monograph, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, where she claims that, “[a]s players participate, they become authors not only of text but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interaction.” (Turkle 1995, p. 12). Here she is referring to a text-based game, but the same logic can apply to social networking giant Facebook. In this book she uses the term MUDs (Multi-User Domains) frequently to refer to anywhere where people gather in the virtual world. Facebook will fit this description. She offers a reason as to why we become so engaged with MUDs saying, “MUDs...offer parallel identities, parallel lives, The experience of this parallelism encourages treating on-screen and off-screen lives with a surprising degree of equality.” (Turkle 1995, p. 14). Treating on-screen and off-screen as equal constituents of identity is just the beginning. On-screen and off-screen are beginning to blur. Turkle captures this distortion when quoting players, “...jok[ing] that they are like 'the electrodes in the computer,' trying to express the degree to which they feel part of its space.” (Turkle 1995, p. 12). The irony here is that the players do not realize just how tangible this “joke,” being the electrodes of the computer, is. To explain this further I look to Amber Case's webcast.

In the O’Reilly webcast that Amber Case led, she mentioned Michael Wesch and Hyperlinked memories. The idea that hyperlinked memories are extensions of our own memory into cyberspace for future retrieval. What I found interesting about this concept, is hyperlinked memories fit into the “joke” of being an electrode in a computer. The analogy being made is that cyberspace is a brain of collectively gathered hyperlinked memories. This suddenly makes Mike Wesch’s video, “Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us,” salient. In this video, which I first viewed last year when Wesch did a lecture here, he explains that all the data that is exploding on the internet is going to be sorted and organized by us. Making us the organizing and sorting machine. He also points out that with every upload of data we are "teaching the machine." Facebook is a good example of how the Machine is us and using us.

To take this further I want to refer to Frank Biocca’s paper, “The Cyborg’s Dilemma: Progressive Embodiment in Virtual Environments.” Biocca outlines our relationship with technology and concludes that the cyborg’s dilemma is, The more natural the interface the more “human” it is, the more it adapts to the human body and mind. The more the interface adapts to the human body and mind, the more the body and mind adapts to the non-human interface. Therefore, the more natural the interface, the more we become “unnatural,” the more we become cyborgs. (Biocca 1997) The main idea behind this is we are achieving a more symbiotic coupling with machines. Biocca explains that, “[p]rogressive embodiment is defined as the steadily advancing immersion of sensorimotor channels to computer interfaces through a tighter and more pervasive coupling of the body to interface sensors and displays.” (Biocca 1997). Biocca believes that the new media will disembody the brain and, “would be coupled to a machine brain rather than to cognitive environments.” (Biocca 1997). I can think through machines, doing research. We can communicate through machines, cell phones and facebook. Is it that the mind seeks to be disembodied? Facebook has found a way that appeases our mind; we have let it enter us and us into it.

With Facebook we are being immersed in a virtual environment where the basic need to be connected to others is being fulfilled. Amber Case points out that, “[t]he more one contributes to Facebook, the more information Facebook has on human interests and behaviour.” (Case: O’Reilly Webinar, 2010). And the more Facebook learns about human interests and behaviour the more natural it’s interface becomes, thus probing Biocca’s cyborg dilemma.

How does Facebook learn about human interests and behaviour you ask? Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, recently implemented, in April 2010, a new protocol called “Open Graph” (Joanna Ng 2010). As mentioned in the introduction the “Open Graph Protocol” is much better known as the “Like” button. In the article, “The Personal Web: Smart Internet for Me,” author Joanna Ng describes the Open Graph procedure as, “users integrat[ing] web pages themselves by using the Facebook’s “Like” button, resulting in the “real-world things” represented as Open Graph objects, imbedded as subset web elements from a web page of a web site to become a part of the Facebook page.” (Joanna Ng 2010). Facebook is cataloguing your interests and behaviours through this button. Question answered.

The implications of this “Like” button are quite interesting. Zuckerberg is quoted saying, “My identity is first with Facebook and then is defined by things all over the web,” at the Facebook F8 Developer Conference in April, 2010. (Joanna Ng 2010). By clicking the “Like” button around the world wide web people are refining their cyborg counterpart (Facebook account). I perceive this as evidence that our counterpart is indeed learning. This really is allowing, “Facebook users [to] become kind of curators of the web, saying what they like and what they don’t like, and all of that is stored in Facebook. So it’s this complete treasure trove of data.” (Case: O’Reilly Webcast 2010).

This is the data that will build the identity and personality of our counterpart. A person’s Facebook account can be seen as a memescape (As said by Ollivier Dyens, "an electronic geography of memes [idea-viruses]; it is a 'plastic' idea-landscape. Dyens 1994: 328.) In this memescape, the second self thrives and Facebook is catering to our counterpart because, “if you list things that you like on your profile, instead of linking out to that actual page, it becomes a link within Facebook. So the idea is that you never have to leave Facebook, and all the clicks outside of Facebook add content to Facebook.” (Case: O’Reill Webcast 2010). You would not have to leave Facebook because the "like" button causes a person to subscribe to updates of the 'like'd' web element. Facebook has definitely established a relationship with its users and their cyborg counter parts. Dyens provides an interesting perspective to this relationship.

In Ollivier Dyens article, "The Emotion of Cyberspace: Art and Cyber-Ecology," he defines our relationship with the interface as "slippage." He argues that, "...each interface is a cyborg, for, even in the simplest one, human- and computer-information processing overlap and slip into each other." (Dyens 1994: 327). This makes the relationship much more fascinating in that it implies that the cyborg can interact with us. Dyens explains that what makes cyborgs unique is, "reciprocity. Whereas McLuhan proposed the extension of the human nervous system into technologies, I am proposing a parallel extension of technologies into human beings." (Dyens 1994: 327-328). What he is saying here is that our body serves as a screen in which the cyborg has access to reality. (Dyens 1994). According to Dyens we have a "cognitive sexual" relationship with computers and because of this relationship, "It is no longer the materiality of bodies that dominates our perception of the world, but rather their perpetual slippage." Our tie to the computer runs deep, to a point now where we are dependent and view the world differently. Turkle also questions our relationship with the cyborg.

Turkle explains that, “[o]ur new technologically enmeshed relationships oblige us to ask to what extent we ourselves have become cyborgs, transgressive mixtures of biology, technology, and code. The traditional distance between people and machines has become harder to maintain.” (Turkle 1995 p. 21). Questioning of body and mind are being rethought. The computer,

“...is a mind that is not yet a mind. It is inanimate yet interactive. It does not think, yet neither is it external to thought. It is an object, ultimately a mechanism, but it behaves, interacts, and seems in a certain sense to know. It confronts us with an uneasy sense of kinship. After all, we too behave, interact, and seem to know, and yet are ultimately made of matter and programmed DNA. We think we can think. But can It think? Could it have the capacity to feel? Could it ever be said to be alive?” (Turkle 1995 p. 22)

As Facebook is proving, it appears that we must begin to take our counterpart into consideration when theorizing the future of technology. And also, perhaps, the future course of anthropology.

Case makes the claim that, “cyborg anthropology will eventually absorb all of anthropology, because anthropology is nothing more than a chronicle of humankind and its relationship and cultural reaction to tools. And now our tools are evolving much faster than we are.” (Case: O’Reilly Webinar 2010). I agree with this claim. The information age and Web 2.0 are taking us to places that could not have been comprehended. Case, backing up her claim of cyborg anthropology absorbing all of anthropology is proven by how, “technology, as it did in the beginning, will continue to co-create us, and we will co-create it.” (Case: O’Reilly Webcast 2010). We are living in exciting times. We are in the midst of a digital revolution. We have embraced this digital revolution so comfortably that we have hardly even questioned it.

Biocca also similarly points out that, “[i]t suggests that we are designed to be cyborgs, to achieve a tighter and tighter coupling of our minds and bodies with the externalizations of ourselves, that part of the physical world that is mixed with human forms, that part is our technology.” (Biocca 1997). Biocca believes that our body itself is basically a form of technology that allows the mind to navigate the physical environment. People always say how powerful the mind can be. Maybe there is something behind that. Maybe bodies are irrelevant to who we really are and just an exoskeleton for our mind. It could explain why in virtual worlds people often will make avatars of opposite gender. It allows the mind to gain a new perspective. To provoke those who disagree with this ideology Biocca says, “[a]nyone who believes that there is a “natural” place where the body is not wedded to technology may be embracing both technology and self-deception. Cyborg theorists point out that ‘we are already cyborgs.’” (Biocca 1997).

In conclusion, it is indeed apparent that Facebook is giving us a glimpse at our cyborg counterpart. It is also giving us a glimpse at how it is learning. It is also proving several theories about how we are coupling, and not just coping, with technology. Facebook may be just a simple communication medium, but exactly because it is a vast and emergent communication medium it makes us more prone to progressive embodiment, in Biocca sense. Communication is simple, necessary and enhanced on Facebook. The “Like” button augments communication and also allows the counterpart to learn human interests and behaviours. Frank Biocca suggests it is natural that we embrace technology. Sherry Turkle also believes our relationship with computers is making the cyborg counterpart more salient. Ollivier Dyens points out that computers and humans are "slipping" into each other more and more. And Amber Case echoes the sentiments more assertively, “We’ve already been Borged.”

Look at the eye interface and facebook interface, look how they slip and couple with each other (http://www.danpontefract.com/?p=434) accessed Nov. 25

Works Cited