A lot can change in ten years. Sometimes it can be difficult to step back and appreciate just how much things have been altered by such a relatively short and innocuous passage of time. For context, little more than ten years ago the humble phone box still ruled the urban cityscape (now nearing extinction in many countries), and the concept of shopping via an electrical cable connected to your home still seemed like sinister alien technology.
These are mostly crude examples; they don’t even begin to penetrate the true inter-personal fabric of social change in response to the radical acceleration of technology in almost every aspect of our lives. In the last decade, technology moved in strange and unexpected ways, and its sites of influence could not always be anticipated. Its most innovative penetration has been within the social sphere, where pervasive technologies such as the internet have, within a short space of time, reorganized, and effectively reinvented, an entire system of social integration.
Those who have bravely assimilated themselves with the appropriate technology already live a largely virtual existence. Their social interactions are mapped by the discursive patterns and instantaneous timings of digital technology; mediated via a keyboard, a touchscreen, a webcam or microphone.
It goes further.
To the extent that others perceive us directly via the mediated interface of technology (a pixelated image, abbreviated text message, onscreen avatar) our existence is not simply part-virtualized, but our essential identity is that of a virtual being. Our technological utterances leave digital echoes that take on a new form of techno-infused subjectivity.
For instance, if I choose to send a digital text message to a friend, upon its reception my temporal identity becomes in that moment physically inseparable from the device and its system of digital representation. Similarly, if I choose to participate in an online multiplayer game, my transposed identity takes on a new hyper-reducted form within the pixelled image of the avatar, where it may coexist with any number of other virtual beings, some of which may be AI controlled. The avatar of the AI, to the extent that it may be visually indistinguishable from the subjective player, creates moments and spaces of subjective uncertainty; the AI expresses itself through the same representational syntax as the virtual being, causing a radical flattening out of the distinction between the real and the virtual, subjective and objective.
In the virtual world, the narrow representational gulf between human and machine is one of carefully disguised agency. There is no concrete identifier of the virtual being, it must be pre-supposed upon ever narrowing criteria of ‘human-like’ functions. The AI, meanwhile, is never far behind in its ability to mimic and replicate its biological counterpart. To the extent that identity is bound within certain processes of socialisation (i.e. how we are directly perceived and responded to by others) then the voluntary induction of the subject into the status of virtual being is made concrete reality.
Why do we desire machines in this way? Beyond the immediate convenience and spectacle, is there a pleasurable, anaesthetizing quality to this voluntary assimilation? Perhaps we should view it as an augmentation rather than a detraction; a sign that we have evolved beyond evolution, reshaping the world via metal and silicon to fulfill a peculiarly undisclosed drive toward total assimilation with the machine. As we approach this sinister precipice of technology, do we jump boldly into an unknown future, or step back before it’s too late?