What new can I do with space after the experience of cyberspace?
Johannes Thumfart: Transparency, post-matter, identities in flux, open culture, radical democracy, free information, crowd intelligence, cognitive surplus—these and other buzzwords formed the pillars of the promises of early Web prophets such as Howard Rheingold, Clay Shirky, and Lawrence Lessig. Many of these were based on the idea that cyberspace is an immaterial realm. The 1995 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” prototypically stated: “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here. Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.”
Disillusionment. It is 2013 and we have learned. The Internet, of course, has and always had a body; it depends on a fiberglass backbone, which can be controlled. Hence the equations: Google, Apple, Microsoft = coworkers of NSA = military-digital complex; Facebook, Twitter = private, not public spaces, personality shopping malls with constantly vigilant security/censorship forces. Also, the play with identities in flux isn’t so light hearted anymore. Although it is possible to create infinite alternate identities on a user level, it is actually quite difficult to fool professional spying programs.
If the Internet is no longer a heterotopia, what happens to the identities in flux that the Internet brought about? Is it possible to realize the ideals of Internet utopianism somewhere else—that is, outside of the Internet?
Strangely enough, contemporary digital-inspired identities in flux seem to arrive at a point where the more elaborate products of the German Frühromantik tried to establish their resistance against Rationalism in the nineteenth century. It was G. W. F. Hegel, for example, who in his 1807 Phenomenology of the Spirit characterized Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s philosophy of identity as the one of a “motionless tautology.” Hegel’s point against Fichte was precisely that consciousness isn’t simply “I is I,” as Fichte’s famous formula goes, but rather the opposite “I isn’t I,” inasmuch as a conscious I “is” precisely something else, i.e., the progressive relation between “I” and “self.” From this perspective, a fundamental divide—not identity—lies at the center of the thought process.
F. W. J. Schelling later radicalized Hegel’s critique of the Fichtean notion of a unified ego in his 1809 Investigations of Human Freedom. If the individual was to be absolutely free, he concluded, then it needed a kind of strangeness toward its own unity, which allowed it to act contrary even to its own norms. Even God, as an image of this fragmented individual, Schelling argued, contained a dark, shadowy side, the Ungrund—“un-ground”—which was the condition for his absolute freedom. Practices exploring the transposition of Internet utopianism into matter are once more dealing with this un-ground of the human animal, its endless malleability and formlessness that is being covered up by this or that personal identity.
Examples of this are Zentai-suits that cover all entire body, which transform nonidentity-based online behavior in anonymous chat rooms into real-world experience; or a more neutral phenomenon is the appropriation of foreign identities that can range in its severity between tweens “biting their style” on the streets after spying online, up to the productive and unproductive theft of ideas between artists, up to, finally, cyber-thugs who use the online identity of a person to ruin that person’s real life (these were also the origins of Anonymous). One also shouldn’t forget the gigantic Live Action Role Playing (LARP) events, in which tens of thousands of people dress up as knights, elves, and trolls, and make their avatars from World of Warcraft a material reality.
The complete interchangeability of material identities is prepared by pages such as ODesk or TaskRabbit that allow you to outsource any task from shopping to babysitting up to copywriting. In a way, location-based sex apps such as Grindr already work with the interchangeability of identity, inasmuch as they provide their users with a semi-anonymous, nameless body, a real-life avatar that solely exists to fulfill their desire.
Although most of those strategies depend heavily on the Internet as a tool, the crucial part happens outside the Internet. All of this means acting as if there was no body, as if there was no identity, acting as if Internet utopianism was real, but within material reality.
Of course, this challenges one of the most important notions of our society. Our society, in which you are obliged to carry a passport, is built on personal identity and personal juridical liability. Our political system, too, is built on personal representation. “One man, one vote” seems fair to us, but why exactly?
In the past, such identity-based systems were already put in question by the Internet: for example, in copyright trials where the owners of WiFi are sued for others committing piracy when using their Internet, and concerning problems regarding the democratic legitimacy of online mobs, which can consist out of many or just of one hacker capable of Astroturf-simulation, i.e., the generation of fake crowds. In online life, acting under a wrong IP-address became mandatory. “Don’t be who you are,” “Inauthenticity is a must”—these are the first imperatives of the “cypherpunk”-age. Since identity is ever more enforced in the Internet, ultimately, this logic of nonidentity can only be saved by translating it into real life, un-grounding it.Johannes Thumfart is a writer and philosopher living nomadically between Mexico City, New York, and Berlin.