THE END OF IDENTITY
Elizabeth 2.0 may be unrecognizable from the 'natural' I once sang to sleep
2045 Chapter four, age forty
THIS IS THE sound of tomorrow: a cartoon band rocking a make-believe ballroom filled with imaginary kids.
Had you been a registered guest at the Habbo Hotel one Friday in August 2005, you might have heard the Gorillaz in a command performance. (Their cyber-Sinatra’s voice is that of Damon Albam, former lead singer of Blur, repurposed as a drawing called D2.) But you couldn’t really have been there, because Habbo Hotel, like the rest of our nascent Internet, is not a place but an electromagnetic field sustaining the illusion of an idea.
I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad. I got sunshine, in a bag. I’m useless, but not for long. My future is coming on. It’s coming on It’s coming on It’s coming on It’s coming on My future is coming on.
-CUNTEASTWOOD, BY THE GORILLAZ
Within that illusion—whether we are teenagers spending Daddy’s real money on digital furniture at habbohotel.ca, or Nigerian scamsters conning for bank accounts with promises of phony millions—we are, in 2005, whoever we choose to be.
Wheel that ahead to 2045, when my Elizabeth will be 40, and the possibilities for her to shift and shape her own identities stretch the limit of our antique comprehension. By then, there may be parallel Elizabeths in flesh and metal, as well as in pixels; or there may be a new Elizabeth, Version 2.0, unrecognizable to her doddering, demented 95-year-old father as the “natural” he once sang to sleep.
“The Greek eight by 10—the 80-year lifespan—has endured for 2,000 years,” says Derek Woodgate, a clever futurist (and former British diplomat) now living in Austin, Texas. “But suddenly, that’s changing. By the time your daughter is 20, she is likely to have a chip implanted in her brain. That will be a very basic and common thing. I think what is implanted in you will become a critical part of who you are. Living with differently augmented humans will be the new diversity.
“Hormone changes and androgen changes will be very much a part of everyday life. There will be a lot of nanotech and biotech and robots curing cancer. By 2025, the shopping mall will become a marketplace where you choose what you specifically need: a chip that gives you general augmentation; sensory input while you sleep. For this generation, that’s going to be a very special dimension of the way they think.”
Humans have been increasing their powers—and their chances of surviving long enough to reproduce—since the invention of the slingshot and the wooden club. But this will be different. “A lot of aesthetic augmentation already has become acceptable today—breast implants, hip replacements, steroids. Look at what this generation is learning to live with—the inter-influence of humans and machines, all the new technology. But the next generation will have to change in parallel and radically increase their ability to deal with stuff. There are a lot of moral and ethical issues to be faced before we get there. Your daughter’s generation will have a lot of decisions to make about what is right and what is wrong.”
LET’S SEE ... WHO DO I WANT TO BE TODAY?
In the future, Maxwell Peters (1) will be able to morph into whichever persona (2) he feels like taking on and it will be as easy as changing his shirt (3).
What would you change if you could? Who would you be? What would you do?
While some of those questions have become moot in a world where men blog as women and hundreds of thousands travel through mystic online realms slaying beasts or decorating homes, in 30 years the ques-
HABBO HOTEL is a Finnish idea, recently exported to Canada. It is a cartoonish chat room for children, a digital dollhouse where a teenager—or an adult pretending to be a teenager—can adopt any name he or she fancies, any skin colour, any hairstyle, any look, any attitude, any gender.
Incoming identities wave to the crowd, walk up to other identities, ask to be friends and are accepted or rejected. The mingling takes place at a lovely Banff Springs-style hotel with gardens, salons, lounges, pools, private suites and a McDonald’s.
Boys and girls aged 13 and up are invited to check in and send text messages to each other and make friends and flirt and buy stuff. As one of the Canadian executives of Habbo’s parent company tells me, a majority of the charter members are boys, but most of them check out forever as soon as they discover that they are not allowed to kill the other Habbos.
“The whole concept of Habbo Hotel is that you don’t have your own name, you don’t use your own email address and you never give out your own phone number,” says Allan Best, national manager for Sulake Canada Inc. in Toronto. “When Habbo started five years ago, this was for security reasons. But because of the anonymity that was created, a lot of people who are introverted were able to create a new personality for themselves. We have people with MS, people who are bedridden—but in the hotel, they’re mobile.”
Habbo Hotel is the next step up from text-only instant messaging. There is a visual version of someone to talk to, not just an address in the void. There have been weddings at Habbo Hotel, there is a homeless shelter, a concert by the Gorillaz in the lounge, but more than anything else, the teenage girls of the 21st century—the daughters of women’s liberation—go online to stage and enter beauty contests.
To a 15-year-old girl drowning in the abyss of unpopularity, the greatest gift of the wired world may be the eradication of unattractiveness. At Habbo Hotel, every Lisa Simpson can become Jessica Simpson. “Girls are constantly changing their characters to win the beauty contests,” Best says. “You can change your clothes, your hair, your body.”
“What do you see happening in 15 or 20 years?”
I ask. I’m thinking about Elizabeth’s online life in high school, if there still are school buildings in 2020, and not just skill sets downloaded instantly to the nano-PDA in the ruby stud in her nose.
“We don’t even know what will happen in two years,” he replies. “Habbo was set up with very simple pixilated figures so that it would be available to PC users who didn’t have high-speed connections. But as these sites get more and more real, eventu1 ally you will get to a point where I you are talking to a digitally ani1 mated person and you think that person is real—or you think you are going to a job interview on a teleI conference and that person isn’t even there. He doesn’t even existí
“Someone’s going to have to do a Ph.D. on this,” says Best.
“WHAT WE ARE doing is catching a glimpse of the self, recognizing it as a fiction, yet continuing to have selves, identities, public personas, internal T narratives, and, yes, egos,” writes Walter Truett Anderson in The Future of the Self (Anderson has a Ph.D. in political science and social psychology.) “We become multilocality, multicommunity, flexible, changeable beings. We move in and out of different symbolic universes, defining ourselves and experiencing ourselves differently as we do.”
I wish I could ask Katty Ko what she thinks of all this. Katty Ko was the winner, in May 2004, of the first Miss Digital World Pageant, a new-age colouring contest for Photoshop adepts, a Habbo Hotel for pixel-perfect pixies. She is a sleek, brown-haired, browneyed beauty with a smile that never quits, unless you download her and edit her mood. But I can’t talk to her because she doesn’t exist.
“Don’t hate me because I’m digital,” winks the contest’s home page.
Katty Ko’s default identity is Katty Kowaleczko, a Chilean soap opera star, rendered into ones and zeroes in the new symbolic universe. The 3-D graphics that won the pageant were produced by her real-life husband. So here is a man with a wife and a cyber-wife. Each one is famous, each one is lovely, but only one will age and die.
tion of identity won’t be who you can be, but how many whos. The you of the future will be personified through self-created avatars-digital bodies with any name you like, any attitude, age or gender. You will not be short or bald, fat or thin, dim-witted or dull (unless you want to be). You will be able to travel anywhere and meet countless other avatars. You will never be lonely. Your happiness will rely entirely on your own imagination.
By downloading a scenario onto the chip impanted in your cerebral cortex, you’ll launch a make-believe environment-virtual lands where you’ll find your entertainment, physical activity and emotional satisfaction just as though you were playing on your personal Star Trek Holodeck. Instead of guiding a pixilated figure across a computer screen with a mouse, you’ll
be immersed within your own theatre, walking down muddy and violent streets of Tombstone with a six-gun on your hip, sitting in a Sims living room to decide if you want the red leather or the brown suede couch, or making love to a movie star. You will feel pain if you’re shot and pleasure if you’re kissed, but every scenario will have an “easy” level, guaranteeing success.
Why? Because people find solace and enjoyment in an imaginary bubble. They win at games when they can’t face down their boss and win at love when they’re too shy to approach that certain someone in the coffee shop. In a virtual world, you are who you create and you are always the star.
But don’t worry. We’ll still watch ball games in open-air stadiums and sip beer at the corner pub. We’ll still face traffic jams and pollu-
tion and take real-life European vacations, without the ability to program the French to be more polite.
Our entire existence won’t be virtual. But even within the real world, identity will be fluid. Changing your physical appearance will be as effortless as changing the picture on your computer’s desktop. You’ll alter your hair and eye colour with a thought, maybe grow a goatee in the morning or darken your skin pigmentation as the sun breaks through the afternoon clouds. You’ll be able to manipulate your intelligence by buying a skill, like downloading the ability to play the piano or learn a language in a week. Everyone will be an inventor, constantly plying the Plasticine of the self. You will be in control. MICHAEL SNIDER
(There was some controversy surrounding the election. Someone in Chile may “inadvertently” have linked every hit to a supermarket’s Web page to a vote for Katty Ko. But MissDigitalWorld.com still lists her as the victor.)
So, is this my daughter’s future—to be reproduced digitally into a prettier, sexier self? Or is it all just fleeting vanity, as the “beauty and lifestyle futurologist” Jeanine Recckio says, a throwback to caveman days?
“What is vanity?” sighs the actual human Katty Kowaleczko (in Spanish) on a recent posting on her page at blogspot.com. “I’ve encountered this word in my blog and it surprised me, because I’m not a vain person. I have a history of working hard, like many people in this world, I have the good luck to be able to work at what I love, I scrape in the
dirt every day to not stagnate as a professional, a mother, a Chilean citizen, a good partner to the man I love, and this isn’t easy, it’s normal that one commits errors every day, but I am not a vain woman.”
So here is a man with a wife and a cyber-wife. Each one is lovely, but only one will age and die.
Nor should she be, because her doppelgänger isn’t half as cute as a Canadian contestant named Webbie.
Webbie is a crop-haired, pouty-lipped, blue-eyed parcel of impeccable pulchritude— 90-60-90 are her centimetric measurements —crafted by René Morel of Montreal out of Photoshop, Maya Fur and Nvidia Quadro 4. She did not win the Miss Digital World Pageant in 2004, or the $5,000 prize that accompanied the title, but this does not seem to disappoint Morel, who wonders why there is so much interest in digital identity, even while he is making his living creating it.
“I cannot tell you why people are so fascinated by 3-D characters,” says Morel, who is 47. “When I was a kid, I was always outside playing with other kids. Now they’re inside all the time playing games.”
Morel is the artist behind a popular video
game called Rogue Agent. In this hard-core Habbo for teenage boys, according to a review in the Detroit Free Press, “You can go light with a hand-held shotgun or heavy with an anti-aircraft machine gun.... You also have your bionic eye, which gives gamers the ability to see through walls, create a force field, tamper with weapons and injure enemies with telekinetic powers.”
“If I had a kid, I would prefer him to play outside,” says Morel, “but he wouldn’t listen to me anyway.”
“Why simulate the real world when we already have the real world?” I ask.
“In a game, they can be in control,” he replies. “In real life, it is not so easy. I played hockey—that was my reality—but maybe the reality is not easy for them to face today. Inside the game, it is always a fantasy world filled with the stuff that boys like—guns, monsters and cars.”
I wonder what Renoir or Picasso would have said if asked the same question, and why Morel still paints on canvas when he can create a perfect Webbie to haunt his dreams with her never-closing eyes.
“Maybe I’m old-fashioned,” he says, “but I don’t think that art can die or be forgotten. Maybe the medium will change, but the need to do art will always be there.
“I do not think there will be such a thing as classic Internet art. Real artwork has to be on a real material. To me, if it is just digital, it does not have the same importance. When I paint with a brush and real colours, I express myself without any limitations. With the virtual stuff, there is the limitation of the tools I have. Maybe in 10 years it will be different, but the limitations of technology put an artist in a situation of slavery, and a slave cannot make real art.”
Maybe everyone will be forced to download his consciousness to feed the Singularity Machine
“A MUSICIAN must make music, the artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself,” wrote the influential psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1954. “What a man can be, he must be.”
Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs has served sociologists for half a century, but, according to Derek Woodgate, Elizabeth’s century needs a new pyramid.
“Most people in developed societies don’t really think about food, clothing and shelter anymore,’
Woodgate says. “We’ve got those things pretty well covered. Second on my list now is belonging, affiliation, and love.
There is as much need—if not more of a need—for belonging and affiliation as there has ever been. And there is more potential for connection, for affiliation. We took that away from our kids because it wasn’t safe to go out and play, but now the Internet has brought that back.
“Now you can have a sense of community with people globally, and they are as intimate as the people who go to school with you. The more you get into simulated environments with simulated performers, the more you start to get in touch with these people and know them. Connectivity has redefined what friendship and love really mean. Today, a lot of people feel love for someone they don’t even know. The next stigma, of course, is what our relationships will be with augmented people.”
What Elizabeth can be, she must be, Maslow dictated. But by 2045, that could mean organ
or even whole-body cloning, chip implants, silicon brains, a bionic eye that sees through walls. It may mean a cyber-life far deeper and more all-enveloping than anything we can imagine today—myriad identities, multiple mates, global citizenship, genes for sale.
Maybe everyone will be forced to download his consciousness to feed the Singularity Machine.
“Do you think my daughter will ever paint a canvas or sit at a piano?” I ask. “Your daughter is your legacy,” he replies. “But 30 or 40 years from now, the question turns to upskilling, to augmentation, to downloading the ability to paint and play.”
“Does this terrify you?” “It’s all very well to say that everything is changing, but there is always a degree of familiarity that remains. I do see us still being here. I’m a positivist futurist, and I hate to say that being an optimist puts me in the minority. If you’re looking 100 years out, maybe we won’t all be humans as we see humans today. But there is one thing about your daughter that we can say for certain.”
“She will be one of far too many people.”