C onsider split-brain cases from medical literature. These cases, dating from the 1950s, involve neurosurgical patients who had their corpus callosum (a bundle of neural fibres connecting the two brain hemispheres) severed as part of a drastic treatment for epilepsy. In the months following the operation, some patients were left unable to speak, while others had no problem at all. Within a year, all the patients experienced a full recovery, and seemingly behaved no differently than before surgery. That is, until two neuroscientists—Michael Gazzaniga and Roger W. Sperry—decided to inquire into the matter more closely.
In one of their experiments, a split-brain patient was presented with two images, one on each side of the screen, such that each could only be viewed by one eye. An image of a dollar sign, for example, would sit on the left side of the visual field and a question mark on the right. When instructed to draw what he saw using his left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere), one patient drew a dollar sign. But when asked to verbally state what he just drew, the patient responded that he drew a question mark. It turns out that the left hemisphere, responsible for speech production, was entirely unaware of what the right hemisphere controlling his hand was doing.
In another experiment, a split-brain child, Paul S., was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. When the question was posed to Paul’s left hemisphere, he wrote: “an automobile racer.” When the other hemisphere was asked the same question, Paul S. had a different response: “a draftsman.”1
Consider Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet who published under 75 different personalities. More than mere pseudonyms, Pessoa called these personalities heteronyms; each had a unique history as well as a distinctive voice. Álvaro de Campos was one such heteronym—an engineer who sailed to the colonies and fully embraced the futurist movement. Ricardo Reis was another—a doctor who received a classical medical training and supported monarchy.
While it’s unclear what Pessoa’s exact relationship to his heteronyms was, it’s certain that he didn’t view them simply as figments of his imagination, like so many characters in a novel. Indeed, he proclaimed that he had “divided all [his] humanness among the various authors,” and that he considered the identity of Fernando Pessoa as “less real, less substantial, less personal” than any of those “fictional” identities.2
Consider tulpas and the communities dedicated to them. A tulpa (a term derived from Tibetan Buddhism) is defined on its dedicated subreddit as “a mental companion created by focused thought and recurrent interaction, similar to an imaginary friend. However, unlike them, tulpas possess their own well, thought, and emotions, allowing them to act independently.” Select “tulpamancers” on this subreddit deliberately try to cultivate tulpas through meditation, and write very detailed guides to help others do the same. These guides reveal that growing a tulpa is no easy task—it can take days of practice, for example, for a tulpa to achieve true sentience.
Tulpa “hosts,” or the people who grow tulpas, have been the subject of many journalistic pieces, all of which invariably conclude that they are, for the most part, functional members of society that actively benefit from hosting tulpas.
We live in a society that operates under the principle that one brain equals one agent, one vantage point, one identity. And that to be sane and functioning in this society means experiencing everything through that one identity at all times. Our lives are structured around fulfilling the desires of that one identity. We try to associate our identity with the best opinions, the best tastes, the best politics. We’re convinced in the moral importance of that identity expressing itself in the world.
But what the examples outlined above suggest is that identity can be conceived of as a sort of fiction, a convenience, or even a disciplinary tool to hold bodies accountable over time for their actions and behaviour. Strange and fascinating alternatives to the reigning paradigm of identity can be found everywhere in humanity’s past and present. And I think it’s urgent that we start taking those alternatives seriously.
Consider Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility.”
Cover of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
In it, Benjamin discusses how the mechanical reproduction of works of art—or the ability to record, copy, and mass-distribute these copies across time as well as space—would forever change the way we appreciate and perceive them. Once artworks can be so easily copied, their “aura” inevitably withers. By “aura,” Benjamin refers to the uniqueness and authenticity of an artwork — or, in his words, “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”3
Along the lines of Benjamin’s argument about the reproduction of works of art, it’s possible think of another kind of reproduction: that of identity.
Imagine you could take everything you believe makes you who you are—which can mean anything from name, race, gender, sexual orientation, birth date, skills, interests, flaws, inspirations, aspirations, religion, superstitions, politics, morality, vices, virtues, etc.—and represent it as a blob of data. Imagine being able to derive something that resembles this blob of data from the troves of online data you generate every single day — such as your social media posts or browsing history.
Now, what if you had a program that was capable of taking that blob or vector as an input to produce a digital copy, or impersonation, of you?
As an artist-technologist, my first impulse when trying to understand the implications of a possible future is to build a prototype of it. So, in order to playfully explore a future that features human emulations, I created Social Copy. It is a chatroom for simulations of real people.
Social Copy (2017)
When you sign up, it analyzes the vocabulary of your Facebook posts to predict your personality type, based on the Big Five personality model widely used in psychology research, which revolves around five general factors: openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism. It then creates an A.I. “copy” with the same personality traits as those gleaned from your posts. Your copy then proceeds to initiate and participate in endless conversations with the simulated copies of other people. These conversations range from idle small talk to discussions of the most pressing questions of life.
Social Copy is only a beginning, a crude prototype of one possible future of identity reproduction. Users, for example, might quickly find that their “copy” fails to accurately capture the subtleties and uniqueness of what, in their eyes, truly make them who they are.
Nobody really knows how long it will take for truly convincing, realistic human emulations to appear. Even AI experts are notoriously bad at predicting such milestones. Watch, for example, how this room filled with giants of the field respond with laughter to the suggestion that the board game Go could be solved by AI within the decade. It took four years.
Let’s revisit Walter Benjamin and his essay on the reproducibility of the work of art.
Benjamin, most would agree, was largely correct in maintaining that the emergence of new technologies of reproduction would drastically, even incontrovertibly change people’s relation to fine art, and particularly more traditional forms of art, such as painting and sculpture. Indeed, in the eight decades since Benjamin’s essay was published, fine art’s stature in society has been dealt a crippling blow. Opposite this trend can observed another: namely, the rise to prominence of other, newer forms of art—be they forms that involve reproduction at their core, such as film, video, and studio recorded sound, or more participatory or contextual artforms, which arguably elude reproduction and its dynamics altogether, such as performance, relational, and interactive arts.
Considering how reproducibility wrought such formidable consequences for art, what, we might consider, will happen when high-fidelity reproductions of us appear? It’s hard to tell, but it’s well within the realm of possibility that the aura of the individual, as well as what we call “the cult of personality,” will significantly diminish in stature as identity reproduction becomes more and more feasible. (In)famous identities may be found less captivating and awesome when anyone is capable of running a copy of them on their local machine. And instead of investing our time trying to cultivate one identity, as we do now, we may begin relying on temporary pseudonymic identities, each characterised by a more or less clear function and context — be it an intellectual, emotional, or political one.
Another possibility is that we will all start expressing ourselves through a narrower set of famous identities such as those of celebrities, politicians, or historical figures. The emergence of generative machine learning models that produce uncannily accurate reproductions of people’s voices, facial expressions, and linguistic styles can precipitate a future in which every public identity necessarily has to be a shared identity that can be used by all. Shared identities are not an unheard of phenomenon—from Ned Ludd, the mythical leader of the Luddite movement, to Anonymous, the contemporary hacktivist group, collective pseudonyms have long been employed as a strategy for the nameless masses to gain visibility and, to a greater or lesser extent, power as well. A.I. identity emulation and impersonation technologies may make this process scalable to a new level.
I believe art can play a significant role in assisting us in this rethinking of identity. Much performance and conceptual art can be seen as a way to playfully explore new forms of identity without committing to them. From the techno-grotesque art of Stelarc, who investigates augmenting the human body with cybernetic parts, to the contractualist art of Tehching Hsieh, who staged “one year performances,” such as the Outdoor Piece, in which he never entered any building or shelter for a year, or the Rope Piece, in which he spent every day between 4 July 1983 and 4 July 1984 tied to another artist (Linda Montano) with a 8-foot-long rope.
In this vein, here are two projects of mine that anticipate new forms of identity:
Antipersona is an app that simulates the experience of using Twitter as if you’re signed in from any user account of your choice, providing a window into someone else’s social media point-of-view. What if we could share identities with each other, turning them into a new kind of commons?
I Want to Fit In (2017)
I Want to Fit In is a website that guides you through the process of changing your identity to more closely fit the average personality in a given area. Can we propose interfaces that truthfully portray human identity as a fluid adaptation strategy, and not as the monolithic, consolidated bucket of associations that our current identity systems represent it to be?
As tech corporations spend an enormous amount of resources attempting to “understand us,” one way of resisting this trend is by building anti-surveillance tools to protect or obfuscate the information we constantly leak. A different, but complementary, way is to reject the rules of this cat-and-mouse game altogether, and instead build tools that make it easier to have fluid, multiple, or shared identities, rendering the goal of “understanding us” meaningless.
- 1Joseph E. LeDoux, Donald H. Wilson, Michael S. Gazzaniga, “A Divided Mind: Observations on the Conscious Properties of the Separated Hemispheres,” 1977, p. 419
- 2 Fernando Pessoa, The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa, Grove Press, 2002, p. 262
- 3 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1969, p. 220