2. Posthuman Futures & Virtual Realites.
Paula Rabinowitz’s essay Soft Fictions and Intimate Documents: Can Feminism Be Posthuman? proposes that women are in fact “posthuman” as until the recent achievements of the feminist movement history has been recorded in terms of “Man” and from a male perspective. Reading this led me to question whether the interface of one’s computer could be regarded as a “posthuman”. A remote user, a stranger, gives the machine a voice – but they are so distant to us that they are dehumanised and we are less sensitive to the reality. Do we trust these posthuman machines because we feel they cannot betray us? Or perhaps it is just much easier to confess to a faceless machine, as they do not appear to judge our behaviour. If we consider them “posthuman”, outside conventional human society, then perhaps they can sympathise with our unconventional secrets.
We know, in the back of our minds, that when we converse with a screen, we are conversing with a human somewhere. Perhaps the distance we feel from them liberates us on the Internet. Our personal lives will not affect those of strangers, or perhaps they will and we hope that our victories and failures might inspire them. Are online confessors and groups are seeking something they cannot find in their everyday lives? In general, there is an increase in overlap between social and online lives – social networking sites provide opportunities for “real life” friends to come together – Facebook for example has an ‘Events’ application to make easier the organising of events, parties, protests etc and a more intimate e-mail service which makes it simple to add several contacts to a conversation for inviting guests, to say, a dinner party. The organising of ones social life using Internet tools is increasingly becoming a mainstream activity amongst teenagers and twenty-something’s (although it is interesting to note that the average age of a Facebook user is 33). In the past, socialising via the Internet carried a certain stigma; it was the domain of online role-playing gamers or the lonely. But there is a growing feeling that the Internet should not replace real life, merely be an aid to it, and as people become more familiar with Internet life and real life crossing over and merging there is a chance for these tools to become more useful and creative. So we find ourselves at a crossroads, where the Internet could either stall in its current format, or evolve further onto different platforms and to form new functions. The technologies of the moment, smart phones and tablets, do bring the Internet to new spaces – perhaps the posthuman cyborg is not far away.
Science fiction writers have tackled ideas of posthumanism for a century, from George Orwell’s Thought Police of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), and within the past decade several have slowly brought it into pop culture and mainstream entertainmen. Robert Venditti, the writer of The Surrogates (2005-2006), a five issue graphic novel, which has recently been made into a film, was inspired by several reports of people who lost either their partners or jobs due to their addiction to the Internet or their online personas. He created a world in which everyone lives their lives, from the comfort of their own homes, by sending out humanoid, robotic, remotely controlled versions of themselves, “surrogates”, to interact with other surrogates. Venditti is quoted as saying;
"It dawned on me that if you were somehow able to create a persona and send it out into the real world—where it could go to work for you, and run your errands, and so on—then you would never have to go back to being yourself."
These posthuman, walking, talking avatars, can of course be created to be more attractive and any pain they experience is not experienced by their humans. Set in 2054, this concept feeds the fears of many Internet sceptics – that the masses are living increasingly through their online personas, to the detriment of their real lives. The film was set in 2017, bringing forward the potential of this reality to a mere 7 years from now.
Various other authors and directors have used online worlds as inspiration for their work. James Cameron, best known for directing Titanic (1997), spent 15 years developing new camera technology, with his private funds, to bring to life the planet Pandora for his most recent work, Avatar (2009). The film sees a paraplegic former marine, Jake Sully, given the chance to take over from his dead identical twin brother in a mission to a distant planet, rich in a valuable material, to study the indigenous population. The DNA of his brother has been mixed with that of the native Na’vi to create a humanoid ‘avatar’, which can be controlled remotely by the respective human (or one with identical DNA, i.e. an identical twin.) While Cameron has stated that the inspiration for the avatars was the Hindu belief that gods can come to Earth in the form of an avatar, and not the modern use the word - a picture or icon, which represents a person’s online persona - it is easy to draw parallels between the latter and the avatars of the film. We see that Sully becomes increasingly comfortable in his avatar body, and progressively more reluctant to return to his human body. In his avatar he regains the ability to walk, learns to fly pterodactyl-like creatures and falls in love. He also turns against his own species in order to help the natives save their home. The bio system of Pandora is interconnected, in a similar way as neurons in a brain, or computers networked to create the Internet. Na’vi can “upload” thoughts and memories to the bio system through ports in an appendage that grows from their heads. So whilst being real, it is as if they exist in our virtual worlds. The humans plugged into avatars have the ability to disconnect from this world, as an Internet user could disconnect. By the end of the film, Sully decides to leave his human body behind, to let it die, and live forever in his avatar body, by essentially uploading himself to the planets bio system, and then downloading into the avatar. Leaving behind the human body, the one in which all his experiences, pre-avatar, had been felt, and moving his consciousness to the machine, the avatar, is an unimaginable act. James Cameron has created a human future, much like Robert Venditti has with The Surrogates, in which the posthuman becomes a possibility, where humans can live in manufactured bodies forever in a virtual world. Posthuman experiences such as these are a clear extension of our current relationship to virtual lives.
Other examples of pop culture and science fiction using our increasing reliance on the virtual to create a horrifying version of the future include the television series Dollhouse (2009-2010), created by Joss Whedon, writer and director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). The show follows life in Los Angeles’ Dollhouse – a place where young people who have usually experienced some trauma give their bodies over to a company for five years. Their minds are then wiped and stored on disc, to be downloaded again once their contract is up. The company can then upload new personalities to the minds of the “dolls”. Dollhouse clients pay large sums of money to have these dolls programmed to any personality specification. This mixture of slavery, prostitution and the questionable morals of the company and its clients of course lead to disaster, and the first season finale (titled “Epitaph One”) depicts a world, ten years in the future, where any technology which transmits a signal, i.e. televisions, radios, telephones, can be used to wipe the minds of the public and install new personalities. This splits the world in to two tribes – those who are themselves, and those who are part of the doll army. Finally, in an emergence of a theme prevalent in science fiction, society breaks down and there is little chance of survival, as we know it.
All of these examples present a future where the human sense of self will be consumed by machines or technology and the introduction of a collective consciousness. This alludes to the fears of some commentators that our personal lives and privacy of thoughts are being compromised in the digital world.