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This Digital Life

Three stories of physical existence and digital self

INFERSTUDIO by Bethany Edgoose

What does it mean for something to be digital?

Half a century or so before Jesus was born, the Roman senator and philosopher Cicero wrote to a friend, complaining that he was being charged too much interest on a loan. The going rate of interest at the time was apparently 12 per cent. Cicero was being charged 48 per cent, and in his letter, Cicero exclaims that he understands the discrepancy between the two amounts because he can count them out with his digitos, his fingers. This is the earliest record of the latin word for ‘finger’.  Through the evolutions of language, the word ‘digital’ came to mean a number that could be counted out on the ten fingers of two average human hands.[1] Digital numbers are whole numbers. They are familiar numbers. The counting machines that became modern-day computers were referred to as digital because they worked on the simplest principles. They use just two numbers, zero and one; two absolute conditions of an electric current, on and off; and two default positions of the gates of a circuit board, open and closed, through which electricity passes. There is a simple, tactile reality to the digital processing that computers perform, grounded in principles that our own bodies, and our fingers, can help us understand.

And yet–  

As I sit at my kitchen bench typing into a word doc with one of the strangest, most challenging, and computer-mediated years of collective human existence at my back, the word ‘digital’ fits into natural antithesis with words like ‘physical’, ‘tangible’ or ‘real’. By ‘natural antithesis’ I mean sentences that come up in FaceTime  conversations with my Mum – “I want a real dog – not a digital one” or “I’ll send you digital flowers for your birthday – you don’t need to water them and they won’t die”. When I’m talking to my mum, or a stranger at the supermarket, or some lawyer at a party who wants to buy me a drink, I listen as ‘digital’ slips into the semantic place of ‘virtual’ or ‘computer-generated’. We all seem to agree on what we’re talking about – roses that disappear when you turn off the computer screen, animals that don’t need oxygen or fresh air, faces that can’t be touched or poked or stroked. It is a blurring of conceptual boundaries and yet it makes sense; virtual cards and worlds and meetings, brought before our eyes and ears by digital processing done by a machine that thinks with two numbers. Digital things can still be fingered, with the  tip of your pointer on the screen of your phone. But they’re not graspable, in either sense of the word; the operative maths exceeds the understanding of almost everybody on the planet, no matter their number of fingers, and as anyone who has sent a hug over Zoom can attest, the digitally-rendered form of a lover is no substitute for the tangible, physical reality of clutching their arm and holding their hand. No – digital realities and digital identities cannot take the place of physical form. Our human senses are too demanding for that. If virtual and augmented perception is developed for multi-sensorial experience, then we might conceive of a day where our eyes, fingers, and tongues quiet their whispering with every pinch and swipe; “you’re not really there”, “it’s not really him”. But until that point, digital realities and identities must be developed as a way of being adjacent to the technique as old as the universe itself of just showing up as an arrangement of atoms in physical space. Digital realities have their own power and their own limitations. To that end, through three stories of digital identities, I seek to draw out something of what this term can mean.

Digital Disappearance

There is a man who disappeared from the Internet. His name is Philip Agre and until 2009 he was an academic who was teaching at the University of California, in Los Angeles. Philip Agre trained as an engineer and he was a pioneer of internet technologies and Artificial intelligence, working on a collection of ideas about the nature of reality and how computers should perceive it, dubbed New AI. In 2009, he disappeared.

The first I learned of this was when I was racing through the introductory chapter of a book Agre wrote about computers and human experience. It was relevant to a project proposal I was working on at the time and I was in the thrall of stomach-clenching excitement; I had found someone whose ideas provided my vague swirling thoughts with an academic platform, a way into the legitimating corridors of a real institution, maybe a PhD! I Googled him – maybe I could apply to study at whatever institution Agre was teaching at, if he wasn’t too old that is, or dead!

As far as I know Philip Agre is not dead. But since 2009, that is all anyone on the Internet knows at all. At some point that year, Agre’s sister filed a missing person’s report with the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s department.[2] A search was conducted.  A report was made. According to the report, duly covered by the news station NPR, Philip Agre was, in 2010, “In good health and self-sufficient”. [3]  End of story. The only additional information I could find across 10+ pages of Google results, was on the website of writer, sound and performance artist Inge Hoonte. Hoonte has created her own written work inspired by Agre’s ideas, and she mentions when describing her project that a group of Agre’s colleagues teamed up to track Agre down in the flesh. Reportedly, they found him - only to be asked to please leave him alone again because he wished to remain “offline”.[4]  Nowadays, a Google search for Philip Agre returns the same brief details of his academic career and publications across news sites, blogs, and Wikipedia, plus some forum posts and tributes from former colleagues and students, reflecting on his legacy and archiving his work so that others may learn from his research and insights.[5]

Why do I find Agre’s story compelling? It starts from the fact that he is the first identity I have encountered who has, with deliberation, quarantined his physical existence from computer-mediated society. There are many others whose physical lives go unrecorded, or recorded in such a way that nothing specific to their own collection of atoms is easily pulled to the surface of the information ocean. But Agre’s body and mind left digital marks. Their activities were encoded into digital artefacts; online articles, a book available as a PDF, university profile pages, a renowned mailing list with essays and articles that Agre sent round to subscribers in the 1990s. I am intrigued by what distress or enlightenment prompted him to decide that the remainder of his biological life would pass without any such digital trace. I am also intrigued by the implication of strangers like me likely never knowing when the man named Philip Agre dies. I propose that this means his life is extendable – up until a point, presumably, where people on the internet will have to draw a line and conclude that Phillip Agre must be dead because otherwise he’d be 123 and that’s older than any human person has ever lived.[6] I tried to work out when that time might be – but I couldn’t find out his date of birth.

Agre’s unusual case makes visible the intertwining of physical existence and digital identity. The digital is dominant, as it is all most will ever know. But it is also an incomplete and time-frozen depiction of a person Agre was and ideas he had at some point along the course of his natural life. Now – all digital identities are, in my opinion, sources of identity and not its sum. The same goes for a living body and mind. They are rich generators of person and selfhood, but you can’t place a body and mind in a box and say “there – I’ve captured it, the whole identity, the whole person – it’s here in this box!” You’d be missing important parts. With a digital identity, and this is something that I think Agre’s case makes apparent, it is the associated physical person who is primarily responsible for the evolution and maintenance of their digital self - until they die. After that, the great distribution begins. Tributes, summaries, remembrances, retrospective exhibitions, the exhaustion of copyrights, and tales of daring and intrigue that can only be published on the event of death[7] – the significance of the physical end gives such energy to the proliferation and transformation of digital self.

At the moment, the internet seems to be waiting for Agre’s return to the helm of his own digital identity. Amongst the modest, semi-obscure collections of Agre’s work, I sense a potential reluctance from the authors to publish pre-emptive eulogies. I speculate that Agre’s former colleagues and students may reach for the mantle of evolving his digital self, only for their hand to be checked by a vision of Agre’s body appearing in living flesh with a mouth that says “What are you doing? Did you think I was dead? No – I was merely on a decade of sabbatical learning how to speak whale and explaining the concept of the ocean to them. It’s much more relevant to AI studies than you might think”. [8]

If Philip Agre should ever read this article, then let me thank you for your work on Computation and Human Experience. The idea about whale language is rhetorical – although the topic has fascinating potential for grappling with ways to understand and challenge perception. Let me know if you’d like to go for a walk in a park somewhere and discuss.

In the event that Agre’s own physical eyes never alight on these words – let this article be part of his identity lifeline, keeping his concept that little bit more known and his name more afloat in the internet’s indexable, searchable, crawlable depths.

Digital Patriots

On the inauguration day of Joe Biden, 46th President of the United States, confused posts appeared on a message board website called The Great Awakening. “Umm…guys?” one headline began, “I feel sick”, “Could the mods explain why Joe Biden hasn’t been arrested yet?” “Why doesn’t the military step in?” These posts were written by people with physical fingers and physical heads in which they store their carbon-based brains – brains that seem to believe, as fervently as any religious evangelist, that former presidents, senior Democrats, The Dalai Lama, the Pope, Ellen De Generes and basically all other rich, famous, and powerful persons are collectively engaged in a Satantic paedophilia ‘cabal’ that includes farming children in basements and drinking their blood. Donald Trump is the fated saviour of the imperilled children and the rest of the non-satanic, non-children-farming world, as indicated by his much-tweeted campaign to oppose the Deep State. The persona who revealed the plot and posts erratic, cryptic hints to followers is ‘Q’ and these visceral fictions are the core tenants of their followers – the QAnon conspiracy group.

Q is a constructed digital identity of murky origins. It dates back to November 2017, when a series of cryptic political-themed posts on 4chan were picked up by moderators and sent for comment and analysis to American right-wing Youtubers. Q, the author of the posts, claimed to be a high-ranking intelligence officer, with privileged information about the workings of government.[9] This identity claim was foundational to the constructed authority of the posts themselves, and from the early days of the growing Q trend, promoters did their best to maintain the notion that the digital identity of Q corresponded to a singular, physical person. There are two major problems with this – a security problem and a reality problem. The security problem was that Q used a tripcode, or digital signature, to authenticate their identity online, and the password for this tripcode proved quite easy to crack. Multiple Qs started appearing online with copy-cat messages of comparable garble.  Each time the password was cracked, Q had to make a new account – and it was only the administrators of the message boards who could confirm whether the new accounts were real by comparing the IP address of the computers making the requests. Luckily, Q never changed computers. This system leads to the reality problem. Far from being a single human person with top ranking security clearance, the digital identity of Q was likely co-created by multiple human persons, none of whom have ever worked for the US government. The most likely candidates for members of the Q Construction Committee are indeed the administrators for the various message boards on which Q posts have appeared. There is evidence that each of these people (men – they are all men) have authored posts from Q. And yet Q’s followers cling to the fiction of Q as a singular, physical, high-ranking official. Some quick examples: Coleman Rogers, 4chan administrator and founder of a Youtube channel dedicated to ‘interpreting’ messages from Q, was livestreaming one such session, when he seemed to log into the message board with Q’s credentials. How did he happen to have these details? Well – he must be one of the Q charlatans, misappropriating Q’s identity for himself! Could Rogers, a prophet of Q, be Q himself? Blasphamy![10] A little later, Jerry and Ron Watkins, the father and son who own 8chan, claimed that Q had made a new account on a message board that only they controlled. This was a very convenient arrangement for the Watkins, as it kept Q’s followers hooked to their site. Yet the QAnon community, as a whole, refused to be side-tracked by allegations of corporate agendas.[11]  Q was out there! They were real! Indeed, as I’ve browsed through posts on Q forums and Reddit, I’ve noticed that while it seems important to followers that the digital identity of Q maps neatly to a singular person, the specific identity of this person does not seem to matter at all. I’ve found speculations and “gut-feelings”from Q followers that the physical person behind Q is Michael Flynn, Donald Trump, Eric Trump (but not Ivanka Trump), a high-ranking political adviser, Mike Pompeo, Edward Snowden, Melania Trump, or 14 year old Baron Trump time-travelling to today’s present from somewhen in the future. It is commonly accepted that Donald Trump has access to a time machine.

The relevance of Q to this article on digital self is that Q has become more than a singular persona. It is an identity that hundreds of thousands of people have adopted. There is an online community, ready-made with tempting offers of exclusive access to world-changing information, secret missions and purpose to each child-saving day. Those who believe become heroes, selves posted and commented into existence, trading in upvotes, and accumulating message board scores. The appeal of such a self can be great enough for alternative identities, as parents, spouses, children, and employees, to be set aside. There is evidence of this in the testimonies of a Reddit support group for people who have lost loved ones to the cult of Q. The Reddit group has 28,000 members.[12] A note-worthy aspect of the QAnon community is that many are reportedly older Americans – people of the ‘Boomer’ generation, foreigners to digital landscapes who flew in on a mistaken Google search or a video sent on Messenger.[13] They may not have the eye for unverified information or doctored images; they may not know the cultural history of message boards. Q is a creature of the digital age but I speculate that some of Q’s missionaries heed the call precisely because they themselves are not.

So what does this tell us, about digital identity? That those who grip tightest to digital selves may not be ‘digital natives’ but self-described ‘patriots’, people whose life experiences are hostile to border blurring and nation-dissolving – those so-called liberal ideals which were once a noticeable flavour of identities birthed online. QAnon also casts into stark relief the possible physical end-points of digital selfhood. Many of the armed and violent protestors who stormed the US Capitol on January 6th are QAnon adherents. [14] In another instance, a Q follower shot and killed reputed mob boss Francesco Cali on account of his being part of the Deep State.[15] Yet another adherent launched an armed, one-man invasion of a D.C. Pizza Restaurant to investigate its (non-existent) basement and the children he believed were being abused there.[16] The self-belief that QAnon breeds is online extremism, of sufficient potency to be a cause of death.

Finally – in devouring Reddit forums and Q sites and following reporting about the rise of the movement,I’ve found evidence that the resilience of this specific digital identity can meet its limits through the force of reality. Not for everyone. As the inauguration went on, posts appeared on the public Q site urging continued faith in Q’s ‘plan’. A theory of growing popularity to explain why the inauguration took place at all is that Trump has stolen Biden’s face and is masquerading as the 46th president in his stead.[17] But for others, the irrefutable fact that democrats and celebrities remain free, that Trump left Washington and the nuclear football is now chained to the arm of someone in Biden’s team, has proved enough to break belief. It is enough to break their sense of self. One person on whom reality is pressing hard is Ron Watkins, 4chan administrator and suspected component of the Q persona. On inauguration day, he wrote to his followers on Telegam: “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able…as we enter into the new administration, please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years”.[18]

This was one man’s farewell to a form of digital self that has driven families apart, inspired violence, and leeched into hundreds of thousands of minds images of horrific abuse and satanic evil. Happy memories may be stretching it a bit.

Digital Death

My father died a few years ago. Before he died, we used to talk on Facebook and when his death certificate had been printed and sent, I uploaded a copy to Facebook’s in memoriam request form and turned his profile into a memory site. I use it now to send him messages on his birthday, or when something happens in my life that I think he’d like to know about. It is a portal of communication to the soul of one I have lost, carried on the eyes of those who remain here, on earth, physically bound.

Digital Death is a practical concern. Facebook wouldn’t memorialise the page without government-certified evidence that my father had in fact died. To log into his other accounts, I leafed through a blue planner and guessed the current password from pages of crossed-out scribbles. When I managed to gain access to his Google Drive, I shared with myself all his folders of photos and the contents of his desktop, which I uploaded to the cloud. The majority of his accounts: his emails, Twitter, Myspace (I know), government gateways, banking, and so many others that I expect are tied to his name but which I never asked about (who asks their parents if they’ve ever signed up to Reddit?) for the majority of these accounts I did nothing at all. It didn’t occur to me at the time.  Two years on it seems like too much work for too little gain. Instead, I gain comfort from the thought that he has inboxes still pinging and red notifications flashing, that there is a physical, manipulable reality in some server farm somewhere storing messages from my dad, fragments of thought, fragments of self. The comfort lies in the concept of his own digital mark, a statement that he’s still out there, “I am (digitally) here”.

Preparing for digital death is becoming a numbered to-do point when writing your will. There are at least two social enterprises with social legacy kits and platforms you can use to record messages for when you die. If you have yet to encounter such services, my non-scientific assessment is that demand across the industry seems a little moribund.[19] Willing houses and funds is a process that people with such assets are (I’m guessing) motivated to think about, for the good of their families. But willing social accounts cuts close to the bone. Social accounts are intimate. They are quotidian, constant. They capture thought, emotion, and moment; they are records of our lives. It is hard to think about the future of such vivacious records. What good could they do, what could such artefacts possibly become?

What about a chat-bot? It’s a tested idea. The first application known to type with the syntax of the dead was Replika, trained on emails and messages from software developers and start-up founder Roman Mazurenko. Initial reviews from Roman’s close ones suggested that the machine-learnt network sent messages near-indistinguishable from the living man.[20] Replika isn’t a proxy for Roman, but the chat-bot wouldn’t exist without him and is now generating new content in a similar way that his living brain would. Roman and Replika overlap somewhat in identity space. In 2016, academic and data scientist Hossein Rahama trademarked Augmented Eternity. Over the course of their lifetimes, each person on the internet today could generate a trillion gigabytes of data. Could this be the material for a digital self? In one theoretical use-case, Rahama speculates that you could rent the digital avatar of an IP lawyer and avoid paying their $500 per-hour in-person consultation fee. In another, the digital selves of all the people you know became a suit of boutique Siris – ask one avatar for advice on pizza, another for advice on talking to men.[21]

I wonder what digital avatars will be. Will they be property – owned in parts by the software company that generates and hosts them and the living body who provides the training data? Will managing my Digital Death become a matter of willing on my augmented self? Could digital avatars gain the legal status of persons? Companies are persons. Some rivers too.[22] Practical immortality seems a bit closer with the thought of an avatar ordering flowers for your birthday and then messaging your sister, potentially even using your voice, as such replication is now technically feasible.

I do admit that when I imagine exactly this, there is a churning in my gut – a fear-based reaction to the uncanny valley of the digital self. And yet, the awareness that such technical possibilities may unfold many decades (in all luck) before my own death, has motivated me to exist online with more of myself. I am a weird person. I expect most people are. I talk to my vacuum cleaner and pretend to be a houseplant while sitting under tables. Sometimes, the urge to share such weirdness comes upon me and I reach for my phone – only to be stopped by an internal rubber band of constraint, “don’t be weird on the internet”. Why ever not? Any machine-learnt digital avatar of me will be all the poorer for not knowing my pet vacuum’s name (it’s Biscuit). I want my mimicry of houseplants and inanimate objects to be engraved on silicon disks in a deep-sea server farm, as permanent a contribution to the past and machine-learnt future of human society. This is the vision I have of a possible digital self – and if it’s ever going to exist with some semblance of the presence that physical reality naturally commands, I’m going to have to post better, record more truthfully, and use some kind of pastel-colored service to bequeath my account logins to someone when I die.

[1] See https://www.spudart.org/comic/digital-meaning/ for the whole story, and if a source called ‘Spud Art’ seems of questionable veracity, you can confirm the tale of etymology through this blog from the Oxford English Dictionary: https://public.oed.com/blog/word-stories-digital/

[2] A local news story, from 2009, about Agre’s disappearance: https://www.chronicle.com/article/friends-and-colleagues-mount-a-search-for-a-missing-scholar-philip-agre/

[3] The NPR story is here: https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2010/01/missing_internet_pioneer_phil.html

[4] Here is the description of Inge Hoonte’s project, titled ‘Dear Philip. E. Agre’, https://ihoonte.hotglue.me/dear_philip_e_agre

[5] See this compilation of Agre’s works and reflections on his legacy: https://wtf.tw/ref/agre.html and this discussion on the Hacker News forum: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21809610

[6] Here is a list of the oldest living people current and ever. The record for oldest human is a French woman named Jeanne Louise Calment, who died when she was 122 years and 164 days old. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2020/10/the-worlds-oldest-people-and-their-secrets-to-a-long-life-632895

[7] Neil Sheehan, the American reporter who obtained The Pentagon Papers (US government reports about the failures and futility of the Vietnam war) finally gave up the tale of how he acquired the documents – but instructed that the information not be published until after his death. He died in January 2021 and the story of his journalistic daring and determination was published: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/jan/10/after-50-years-the-pentagon-papers-give-up-their-final-secrets

[8] Agre once wrote that explaining the inherited discursive form of AI to AI engineers was like trying to explain the ocean to a fish - see https://wtf.tw/ref/agre.html. Also, see https://www.earthspecies.org/ for a project from a group of AI engineers who are actually trying to speak whale.

[9] For extra reading: https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/how-three-conspiracy-theorists-took-q-sparked-qanon-n900531, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210117-swiss-text-sleuths-unpick-mystery-of-qanon-origins and for listening: https://gimletmedia.com/shows/reply-all/llhe5nm

[10] See https://tech.slashdot.org/story/20/11/29/0122244/conspiracy-theorists-whod-first-popularized-qanon-now-accused-of-financial-motives

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/09/14/qanon-families-support-group/

[12] https://www.reddit.com/r/QAnonCasualties/

[13] See 11 – that story covers this well

[14] https://abcnews.go.com/US/qanon-emerges-recurring-theme-criminal-cases-tied-us/story?id=75347445 and https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/15/trump-rioters-planned-to-kill-congress-members-fed-probe.html

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/nyregion/gambino-shooting-anthony-comello-qanon.html

[16] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/22/533941689/pizzagate-gunman-sentenced-to-4-years-in-prison

[17] Posts detailing these ideas can be found on The Great Awakening site (which I’m not going to link to – it gets enough hyperlinked significance as it is) or you can see screenshots and testimonials on the QAnonCausalities subreddit, from footnote 12.

[18] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/technology/qanon-inauguration.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur or just Google the quote if you can’t access the article from behind the paywall.

[19] http://deadsocial.org/about and https://www.digitaldeath.com/

[20] https://www.wired.com/story/replika-open-source/

[21] Hossein Rahama did not suggest exactly that digital persons of your friends could be developed to help you talk to men. He just spoke of personalized Siris in general – see here https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/augmented-eternity/overview/

[22] If this sentence intrigues you, check out https://www.npr.org/2019/08/03/740604142/should-rivers-have-same-legal-rights-as-humans-a-growing-number-of-voices-say-ye