Digital Identities, Cybernated Realities

I can almost remember the novelty of getting a home internet connection in the late 1990s—dial-up, Netscape and all—and can almost reconcile it with the present refrigerator hum of connectivity that permeates almost all communication and consumption.

Questions of how we can critically consider where we are now, and where we could be going, are both worth vital reflection.

As part of its conversation series with The Globe and Mail, Concordia hosted a talk on “Digital Life, Digital Identity” with Vancouver-based science fiction author William Gibson and Communications Professor Fenwick McKelvey on Thursday.

For the audience, there was a common active memory which stretches a significant transitional divide in media and technology. To this end, there was no one better to invite than Gibson.

Gibson coined “cyberspace” before there was an Internet, provided the original architecture for the entire genre (and eventually aesthetic) of cyberpunk and first anticipated the anxieties of interacting in shared digital spaces over thirty years ago. Over his career Gibson has set himself apart by not only writing about near futures which were visionary, but were also already tangible, lived-in, a little dirty and worn.

Questions asked by The Globe and Mail writer Erin Anderssen, the moderator for the evening, consisted of loose prompts for shallow think-pieces on contemporary technology and were essentially dismissed as irrelevant.

Gibson projected that the distinction between digital identity and “real life” would soon be antiquated, never mind even worth worrying about, and that the concern with shallow consumption of information in the internet age was “not particularly convincing.” Gibson and McKelvey were both able to overcome the given framework to provide insight on more interesting matters.

Loss—of technologies, of ways of life—permeated the discussion. Gibson compared the impossibility of trying to understand the effect of technology on oneself to the anthropological adage that one can never understand one’s own culture.

In a thought experiment, like how music could exist before recorded media, the conception will always break down when trying to imagine a “previous mode of existence.” McKelvey later reflected that in order for the “future to occur”—especially within the current context of capitalism and accelerated development—something else has to be relegated to the past.

And no matter how essential a current tool or medium is to present life, its relevance is fragile and will eventually fade away. Gibson spoke of once asking about the content of archived audio wires and learning that any possible information was no longer accessible and could never be known.

In terms of the future, there was no forecasting what kind of technology will emerge, or what kind of importance a given technology will take on.

Gibson refers to the standbys of futurism, particularly artificial intelligence, as “folk concepts,” constructs that anticipate what’s coming on the horizon but which always fall short because of their dependence on what’s familiar in the present.

Even in the age of venture capital-driven innovation, it was stressed that “the street has its own use for things,” which will define a tool above the intended motives of developers. The example of the use of pagers in drug deals was brought up, and Gibson and McKelvey riffed on how Uber could soon be co-opted along similar lines.

In order to write realistic, fictional technology, Gibson explained that the balancing act is between making the tools of future fantastic for the audience and entirely mundane for the user-character.

The mundane of today has to be conceptualised to be seen as fantastic. McKelvey elaborated that in designating our competencies and parts of our memories to devices, by definition “we’re all basically cyborg.”

And Gibson noted that what was once a throwaway line about “media-fasting” in his 1996 novel Idoru has, in less than two decades, become used in earnest as disassociation from the media landscape turned into a deliberate undertaking.

However, even an event seeking to contextualise the current paradigm of constant digital interaction couldn’t be removed from it. The evening began with a reminder to the audience that though phones were to be muted, online conversation through designated hashtags was encouraged to compliment the “meatspace” conversation at the front of the room.

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