This paper was written for the course ‘Somatechnics’ at Utrecht University.
How many artists have died mute?
Millions of years ago, a Hominin species began specializing in tool-use. The species of Homo Sapiens is currently the undisputed master of this skill – though by far not the only animal to extend its bodily functions in this way. Neurological research shows that the brain is capable of – literally – incorporating tools: the tools become part of the body-space (Berti et al., 2000). Consequently, the distinction between endosomatic (within-body) evolution and exosomatic (outside-body) evolution seems to be a nature/culture dichotomy that doesn’t hold: endo- and exosomatic are heavily intertwined and influence each other. The capabilities of our brain and body influence not only what tools we can use, but the tools we use also influence how our body forms. In a comparison between virtual reality and cave paintings, Mioduser (2005) notes:
“The development of knowledge, skills and cognitive processes is influenced by the demands and constraints presented by available knowledge technologies.”
The same holds true for the mind: the extended mind uses cognitive technologies to execute certain functions and is influenced by them in return. Exosomatic evolution is an evolution of organs. These organs may take the form of books and computers, but they are organs nonetheless. These exosomatic organs influence the development of cognitive abilities in the same way endosomatic organs do. As Hayles (1993) points out about virtual reality:
“Functionalities work in both directions; that is, they both describe the computer’s capabilities and also indicate how the user’s sensory-motor apparatus is being trained to accommodate the computer’s responses. Working with a VR simulation, the user learns to move her hand in stylized gestures that the computer can accommodate. In the process, changes take place in the neural configuration of the user’s brain, some of which can be long-lasting. The computer molds the human even as the human builds the computer.”
Virtual and augmented reality are a relatively new technologies – or organs – with the possibility of functioning as mind extensions. We have gone from the cave-paintings in Lascaux, images standing in for reality and – magically – influencing it, to more complex stories in textual or visual form, as told by others and consumed by us. Now we are moving towards interactive experiences and environments: the creation of your own story in a body that is not yours; a video-game avatar, or even another living being.
What does this interactivity mean and what are we gaining? Virtual reality gives us the chance to experience through being, but also – in the case of letting someone experience life in your body instead of that of a virtual avatar – to express through being. Most forms of self-expression need to be learned: writing, painting, making music. Even talking, a brilliant form of telepathy that uses invisible sound-waves and a convoluted biological apparatus to get thoughts from one person to the next, requires skillful transcription from thoughts-to-words, words-to-sound.
“You see something like that and you wonder how many thousands, maybe millions, of phenomenal artists have died mute, down the centuries, people who could never have been poets or painters or saxophone players, but who had this stuff inside, these psychic waveforms waiting for the circuitry required to tap in….” (Gibson, 1985)
Existing has no such pre-conditions, doesn’t need to be learned or is learned more easily, although interpretation by the end-user still needs to occur. We shared stories; now we’re sharing eyes and other sensory perceptions. Does this technology really make a difference – does it mean we’re getting ‘closer’ to the other? ‘Avatar’ is a word from Hindi, meaning incarnation and the belief that God has the ability to take any form. This is not unlike the posthuman view of the human brain:
“The posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born.” (Hayles, 1999)
This paper discusses how the experience of ‘being’ a body that isn’t yours can influence our identification and behavior – short term, but also long term. I will discuss the cognitive psychological angle of these questions as well as the philosophical considerations. I will engage with a recent augmented/virtual reality artwork and the predictions of science fiction to see where this line of thinking/technology could potentially take us.
“If the chaos of the nineties reflects a radical shift in the paradigms of visual literacy, the final shift away from the Lascaux/Gutenberg tradition of a pre-holographic society, what should we expect from this newer technology, with its promise of discrete encoding and subsequent reconstruction of the full range of sensory perception?” (Gibson, 1977)
Second life molding meat-space
The best introduction to the cognitive side of embodiment is the ‘Rubber hand illusion’ (Botvinisk et al., 1998), a classic effect that can be tested both in the real world and in a virtual reality environment. In this experiment, the participant sees a rubber or virtual hand (or a real one that belongs to someone else) in the place where they’d expect their hand to be, while their own hand is hidden. The real hand is then given haptic feedback that visually matches up with what happens to the ‘fake’ hand. This correlation of perceptual input causes the fake hand to be regarded as real – even though the participant is consciously aware that the hand is not their own. As the authors put it:
“The body is distinguished from other objects as belonging to the self by its participation in specific forms of intermodal perceptual correlation.”
This effect is noticeable in several ways – the participant can sometimes feel a shift in the proprioceptive position of the hand, as the brain matches the visual input up with the proprioception. A shock reaction occurs when the fake hand is hit, and in the real hand, histamine levels go up in response. This illusion takes a very short time to occur and illustrates the adaptive possibilities of the human brain. Hayles (1993) describes this effect and its immediate apparent consequences like this:
“The disorienting, exhilarating effect of feeling that subjectivity is dispersed throughout the cybernetic circuit. The user learns kinesthetically and proprioceptively in these systems that the boundaries of self are defined less by the skin than by the feedback loops connecting body and simulation in a techno-bio-integrated circuit.”
But what about the psychological effects, for instance when being ‘someone’ with a specific perceived morality? A study by Yoon et al. (2014) on video-gaming and avatar influence focused on prosocial behavior. Participant played a game with an avatar depicting Superman (good), Voldemort (evil), or a circle (neutral). They then participated in a supposedly unrelated taste-test of chocolate and hot chili-sauce. Afterwards they could determine, by pouring it out themselves, how much of these substances the next participant would get. People who played as the Superman avatar poured out more chocolate and less hot chili-sauce, while participants playing as Voldemort showed the opposite behavior. Interestingly, these effects did not occur when the participants watched other people play the character, suggesting that playing yourself is necessary for incorporation of the virtues and vices of the virtual character.
Rosenberg et al. (2013) did a similar study using immersive virtual reality. Participants showed greater helpfulness after an experience where they occupied the body of an avatar that had the superhero-like power of flight, as compared to an avatar that sat in a helicopter. The authors conclude that embodying the ability to fly primes people with concepts about superheroes, or specifically superman, shifting their self-concept towards ‘someone helpful’ for at least a short period of time.
One interesting circumstance here is that the researchers didn’t explicitly use the term ‘superhero’ or referred to it in any way towards the participants. This shows the effect of participant expectation, and therefore strongly hints at a possible limitation: the assumptions people make about the virtual body they are inhabiting (such as that a body with the power of flight is likely a superhero) are highly influenced by cultural upbringing. One could argue that this means that, instead of facilitating understanding towards the ‘other’, this technology leads to a literal incorporation of bias – a powerful confirmation of stereotypes.
This concern seems to be validated by earlier ‘low-tech’ research on identification and racial stereotypes. Wheeler et al. (2001) studied the effect of writing a short essay from the first-person perspective of a character with a stereotypical African-American sounding name on the math scores of non-African-American participants. As in the former study, this identification also led to incorporation of a stereotype: participants who were primed with the African-American sounding name performed worse on the math test than others.
On a brighter note, several studies suggest that seeing yourself with a different skin color can reduce racial bias. A very simple, ‘low-tech’ variation of the rubber hand illusion – using a dark-skinned rubber hand with light-skinned participants – found that this changed their implicit racial attitudes, reducing bias (Maister, 2013). The stronger the sense of subjective body ownership, the stronger the effect. Similarly, Peck et al. (2013) used immersive virtual reality to place light-skinned participants in a light-skinned, purple, or dark-skinned virtual body. The last condition significantly lowered implicit racial bias immediately after exposure.
This could have something to do with the well-known effect that experiences of people who are close to us are processed differently by the brain then experiences of strangers. An empathy-study by Beckes et al (2012) showed that the representation of friend-focused threats in the brain is very similar to self-focused threats, but not to threats towards strangers. They conclude that:
“One of the defining features of human social bonding may be increasing levels of overlap between neural representations of self and other.”
In other words, when we feel close to someone, the line between them and us becomes blurred at the level of neurological representation. What’s happening in virtual reality experiments could be the same process, or maybe even the opposite: blurring the line between bodies could heighten our feeling of closeness with the person the body belongs to.
How do we behave outside of the lab? When entering a game in a non-research environment, do we choose to experience an ‘other’, or do we rather play as ourselves? The recent success and general appeal of the project ‘The Machine to be Another’ is an example of the human desire to step inside someone else’s skin – and walk around in it.
The Machine to be Another
What if you could perform the rubber hand illusion on an entire body? That is essentially what the artwork and research project ‘The Machine to be Another’ does (Bertrand et al., 2012). With the simple combination of a virtual reality device, a camera, a computer and some clever stage tricks, this work lets you experience the world as someone else. With this technology, they are studying empathy, identity, body agency, and subjectiveness – specifically how identities are constructed and how this facilitates or inhibits empathy. Their team is multidisciplinary, and they approach the matter from many different angles, working together with other artists, research groups, and the general public. They describe the main questions that they are looking into as follows:
“How [sic] would the world be like if one could see through the eyes of another? Would it help us understand each other? Would it help us understand ourselves?”
They have used multiple types of setups through the years, but usually a performance or experience involves two people: a ‘performer’ and a ‘user’. A camera around the performers neck matches the head-movements of the user, measured by the virtual reality device the latter is wearing. The VR device shows the resulting camera feed, therefore not using a virtual environment but a real environment to construct the user’s reality (I regard this distinction as minor since the shown reality might be real for the performer, it is still constructed for the user). Through headphones, the user hears the life story and/or other thoughts of the performer, whose body they are now inhabiting. The performer watches the user, matching their movements: picking up what they pick up, walking around, sitting down. Duplicates of objects and sometimes of whole rooms are present to make the tactile feedback correspond to the visuals. When these perceptions are lined up, the effect can be unsettling:
“To call The Machine immersive is underselling it. For brief moments, I truly forgot who I was, where I was, and what was happening. I was Norma.” (Souppouris, 2014)
This is – with the current technology – maybe the closest we can come to ‘being’ the other – but the limitations are immediately clear as well:
“”In many ways, I guess I was disappointed,” he explains, “I went in with a higher expectation than could possibly be achieved; I expected to somehow transport myself into Norma’s mind and understand how she felt.”” (Coxon, quoted in Souppouris, 2014)
The question this immediately brings up, of course, is whether it is possible to remove this final barrier. Is it possible for our brain, formed as it is by nature-culture, to truly ‘be’ another mind, to interpret the signals – even if they came through a direct neural link – correctly?
The makers behind the project are very much aware of the limitations of the technology. One interesting and deliberate choice they made is to place the user in front of the performer at the end of the experience, so that when the technology is removed, the human is there. The person you just had the very personal experience of being is suddenly right in front of you. This, the makers say, is the most powerful part of the experience. The technology is not strictly needed – it is mainly the starting point for conversation afterwards.
“I was asked to close my eyes again and was repositioned. As I opened my eyes, I was now looking at myself, or whoever I was an hour ago. The experiment ended with me reaching out to shake my own hand.” (Souppouris, 2014)
The possibilities of the technology are largely explored through external input. Their usual approach in a new environment or collaboration is to explain how the technology works, and ask the community or audience there what they would want to do with it. What kind of stories or situations would they like to explore? An example of a resulting co-created experience is a teenage girl who made drawing about her experiences in life while her mother looked through her eyes and mimicked the movements. Another one is wheelchair users looking through the eyes of dancers whose bodies they could ‘steer’ using hand gestures. Uses in conflict-resolution and body-image disorders are being studied.
The project that brought ‘The Machine to be Another’ under general attention last year was their video of a ‘Gender Swap’. This particular project is interesting because it changes the dynamic slightly but meaningfully: instead of a user and a performer, you need two people (for the gender swap purpose: one male, one female) who swap perspective. This means they have to mimic each other’s movements exactly for the embodiment experience to work, all the action they’re doing having to be agreed on non-verbally. This adds an interesting dimension of agency and consent, an awareness of the ‘other’ while living them.
‘The Machine to be Another’ is a poignant example of our relationship to virtual reality. It shows us, simultaneously, the ease of embodying a skin that is not our own, as well as the limitation of still not really connecting to the ‘other’ body/mind. It is an example of the influence of technology – kick-starting conversation by making an impact – but it also brings the social back into a very personal, ‘tourist-like’ experience. The machine itself both facilitates the interaction between user and performer and stands between them.
A striking image in the description of the experience by ‘user’ Coxon is when he sees his own body through ‘performer’ Norma’s eyes – they were in the same room during the performance:
“He recalls looking to his left, expecting to see Norma, but seeing no one. “It was disorienting. [Bertrand] asked me to turn to my right, and when I did I saw myself. It was a moment of what I call proprioceptive transference, where my body was tricked into thinking that I was in Norma’s position … my embodied experience of that event had all the signals that told me I was on the left-hand side.”” (Souppouris, 2014)
This has clear parallels to Foucaults description of a mirror as a heterotopia:
“In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as that the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected to all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass though this virtual point which is over there.” (Foucault, quoted by Chun, 2002)
Chun compares this mirror to the computer screen, enabling one to see oneself – or at least the textual and visual representations with which we identify ourselves in cyberspace. In ‘The Machine to be Another’, and with virtual reality devices in general, this seeing yourself is both more literal and more complete – and also contaminated by the awareness of this other body, of which your brain now insists that it might be yours. You cannot really be in this strange body – you see yourself standing at the other side of the room. But at the same time, you have to be in this other body to be able to see yourself standing there. The body you are incorporating is as ungraspable as it is apparent.
“Being in real-time or immersive ‘cyberspace’ marks one’s absence from one’s actual physical location. (…) This disappearing body supposedly enables infinite self-recreation and/or disengagement and begs the question ‘Where am I really’?” (Chun, 2002)
Or: who am I really?
Why should our bodies end at the skin?
“If media are extensions of our psyches, the interconnectivity of the internet means that its users will become extensions of each other’s psyches” (Logan, quoted in Mioduser, 2005)
We already are cyborgs. The cognitive technologies we use, created by our brains, create our brains anew. This is anti-dichotomy, a flowing knot instead of a neatly divided world. We inscribe tools and other stories, other people real or virtual, into our cognitive contour that expands and contracts to fit in more or less of the world outside our skin. Other people can be entwined in it, because we incorporate their stories into our mind, however badly transcripted and translated these stories may be. In part, this is what makes us social animals in the first place. As Haraway writes:
“A cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.” (1985)
What is happening when we become an avatar – do we stay ourselves, a ‘One’ able to take any form, like Gods do, or a fragmented, contradictory, assembled being?
“To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God; but to be One is to be an illusion, and so to be involved in a dialectic of apocalypse with the other. Yet to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial. One is too few, but two are too many.” (ibid)
To be one in virtual reality is to be a cyber-tourist. The other as experience – no conversation afterwards, just a personal experience and a gratification of the taste for strangeness that is interesting but doesn’t come too close. ‘Where do you want to go today?’ can be phrased as ‘Who do you want to be today?’.
“His position as the exotic Other must be emphasized and foregrounded. (…) These ads claim a world without boundaries for us, their consumers and target audience, and by doing so they show us exactly where and what these boundaries really are” (Nakamura, 2000)
“…a technological utopia of difference. It is not, however, a utopia for the Other or one that includes it in any meaningful or progressive way” (ibid)
Nakamura is talking about places and web-technology, but she could just as easily have been talking about bodies and virtual reality technology. Identity- or body-tourism, virtual (with an avatar) or real (mediated by camera’s and VR devices) is appealing but it doesn’t really bring us closer together. Yet both methods, the second even more than the first, suggest the possibility of experiencing the ‘authentic gaze’, the authentic experience of the other.
“Users who created orientalist avatars such as samurai and geisha were able to temporarily appropriate an Asian racial identity without any of the risks associated with being a racial minority in real life. (…) Identity tourism resembled off-line tourism because it gave users a false notion of cultural and racial understanding based on an episodic, highly mediated experience of travel.” (Nakamura 2008)
Here, we come back to the idea that preconceived notions about what the ‘other’ is – or should be – hinders us in truly experiencing, truly understanding, truly embodying, truly being the other. Sharing perceptions in the here and now is one thing, but the histories of ‘performer’ and ‘user’ are completely different. Stereotypes and our personal history control the experience because they dictate how we experience, how we interpret – but the ideal notion that we ‘understand’ creeps up on us. If ‘living it’ for a while promises the real experience, this gags the voice of the other. If you cannot ‘show me’ by letting me live you, how can your experience be real?
“The logic of identity tourism figured race as modular, ideally mobile, recreational, and interactive in ways that were good for you—part of the transmutation strategy with the supposed potential to “break” race as a concept and break its hold on our imaginations and bodies.” (ibid)
His loathing for the perfect body he woke in…
“Here the writer’s imagination outstrips existing technologies, for Gibson imagines a direct neural link between the brain and computer through electrodes.” (Hayles, 1993)
Science-fiction author Gibson has engaged with fictional technologies involving body-sharing in several of his works. Sensory perceptions or dreams are shared with a neural link that causes the exact same bodily sensations in the listener as in the recorder, although editing is possible. Recurring technologies are ‘Simstim’, an abbreviation of simulated stimulation, and ‘ASP’, apparent sensory perception. In most of Gibson’s stories, a entertainment industry has sprung up around these technologies, with superstars and emulating super-fans eerily similar to the entertainment industry we know. Unsurprisingly, there is a large market for pornographic material – which reminds us of a more prosaic reason for the ‘Gender Swap’ video from ‘The Machine to be Another’ to go viral. Instead of a celebration of difference, the industry caters to the idealized version of life that the consumers desire.
“Roughly a quarter of all ASP users are unable to comfortably assimilate the subjective body picture of the opposite sex. Over the years some broadcast ASP starts have become increasingly androgynous in an attempt to capture this segment of the audience.” (Gibson, 1977)
Instead of a technology that breeds understanding and empathy, it is a mass media escape from bleak surroundings, almost a kind of drug. Because the sensations of the performers are edited, their lives seem perfect – or at least interesting.
“Rather than signaling the end of ‘difference’, cyberspace enables virtual passing. It allows us to compensate for our own body by passing as others online” (Chun, 2002)
Leaving your own body behind to be better bodies not only reminds us of cyber tourism but also of the appeal of ‘uploading your brain’ to become entirely virtual, entirely ‘cyber’:
“That she threw away that poor sad body with a cry of release, free of the bonds of polycarbon and hated flesh. Well, maybe, after all, she did. Maybe it was that way. I’m sure that’s the way she expected it to be.” (Gibson, 1985)
“The contrast between the body’s limitations and cyberspace’s power highlights the advantages of pattern over presence. As long as the pattern endures, one has attained a kind of immortality. Such views are authorized by cultural conditions that make physicality seem a better state to be from than to inhabit. In a world despoiled by overdevelopment, overpopulation, and time-release environmental poisons, it is comforting to think that physical forms can recover their pristine
purity by being reconstituted as informational patterns in a multidimensional computer space. A cyberspace body, like a cyberspace landscape, is immune to blight and corruption.” (Hayles, 1993)
The avatar, the power to take any form, gives us an illusion of control. While incorporating virtual bodies – especially idealized versions of bodies – our biological body becomes a nuisance, a dead weight. Here the distinction between endosomatic and exosomatic returns, but in a different way: we long to be exosomatic entirely. To be a mind extension, not an extended mind. We have to redefine what ‘world’ means when it is an accumulation of mixed realities, and we have to redefine what ‘human’ means if we inhabit them all.
“The body is not one, though it seems so from up here, from this privileged viewpoint up top (…) The body is a patchwork, though the stitches might not show (…) We patch a phantom body together out of a cacophony of sense impressions, bright and partial views (…) The project of writing, the project of life, (…) is, to interrupt, unhinge, disable the processes by which the mind … substitutes an effigy for that complicated machine for inclusion and effusion that is the self” (Shelley, quoted in Sullivan, 2006)
The technique of virtual reality and the possibilities of inhabiting other bodies creates patchworks, hybrids. We may not truly live the other but we scavenge together parts – some out of curiosity, some out of empathy or the wish for connection, some out of escapism. This is by no means a new process, but it is facilitated by virtual reality technology in a way that is unprecedented. The newly born hybrid changes behavior, identifies slightly differently – if only on an unconscious level and for a limited period of time.
“A posthuman collectivity, an ‘I’ transformed into the ‘we’ of autonomous agents operating together to make a self. The infectious power of this way of thinking gives ‘we’ a performative dimension. People become posthuman because they think they are posthuman.” (Hayes, 1999)
Is this hybrid post-human? I would like to argue that it is not. This body is not, or not only, an amalgamation of data, it is grounded in and intertwined with its biological vessel and in its history. Similarly, the hybridization is a continuous process, incorporating tools, instruments, narratives, expanding the cognitive contour and contracting again. The addition of shared sensory perceptions does not alter the mechanism – it only widens the range. The same would be true for direct neural linkage. Thus, while we can ‘be’ the other for short periods of time, technology cannot bridge the gap entirely. Aware of the other as a fellow hybrid, however, we can remove the VR device, shake the hand that only a second ago seemed our own – and realize it was shared with us.
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