Anti-Negroponte: Cybernetic Subjectivity in Digital Being and Time

Anti-Negroponte: Cybernetic Subjectivity in Digital Being and Time

1996-12-30
Being Digital
Nicholas Negroponte
Knopf, 1995.

Timothy Luke reviews Nicholas Negroponte and takes a second look at ‘digital subjectivity.’

As the key overseer at MIT’s Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte has used his best-selling book, Being Digital, as the trailer for a transnational road trip on which he touts the exciting new online world as it is being invented in his digital workshops. Yet Negroponte’s enthusiasm about these possibilities leads him away from raising other, more interesting, questions about digital being, particularly those having to do with the kind of subjectivity that becomes possible in cybernetic spaces. Save for his somewhat overdrawn exhalations over the shift from “atoms” to “bits” as the wave of the future (a shift that was first noticed 15 years ago by the Tofflers in The Third Wave), he too sticks with the usual interpretive conceit: namely, that such new (wo)man/machine interfaces at the computer will simply reposition existing material styles and structures of social agency in a new cybernetic register, making everything more or less the same there (in “bits”) as it is here (in “atoms”), only maybe more so, meaning essentially quicker, better, closer, sharper, etc. For such views, see Robert W. Lucky, Silicon Dreams: Information, Man, and Machine (New York: St. Martin’s, 1989), 1-35. Also see Alvin and Heidi Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam, 1980). Most practices and values will be as they are now, but in synchronous, material co-location; they will happen on-line as we realize how our net connections are creating a digital planet, new digital neighborhoods, a digital culture, flexible digital communities. I question Negroponte’s assumptions about cybernetic subjectivity. When one looks at personal agency, social community, cultural dynamics, or power effects, things appear not at all as they do in the current computer interface. Consequently, I want to unwire Negroponte’s positions about being digital in order to re-evaluate what differences are emerging, and then ask how we might reconsider these various new forms of digital being.

I: Some Varieties of Digital Being
   A. Digital Being: First Form
   B. Digital Being: Second Form
   C. Digital Being: Third Form
II. The Coevolution of Digital Beings

I. Some Varieties of Digital Being

Prefigurations of digital being perhaps already exist where any system of disciplined governmentality has constructed its own systems of subjectivity from the inscriptions of power/knowledge codes upon large populations of individual human beings. In such settings, one might witness the evolution of digital being in the shape of statistical populations (large pools of data) and statistical persons (individual data packets) of various magnitudes and dimensions. The best analysis of this practice can be found in Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87-104. In the ancient mainframe days of interfacing with the machine’s CPU through mechanical card readers, popular wisdom summed up this sense of digital being in directing everyone not to bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate anyone. As subjectivities that can be variably configured out of data streams, which are forming, in turn, from the divergent discourses of their statistical manufacture, these digital beings are fabricated as operational traces within disciplinary force-fields in order to be managed as consumers, citizens, or clients by the bureaucratic apparatuses which become fused, or perhaps (con)fused, with them in all of their (wo)man/machine interactions. For a serious acceptance of this sort of digital being, see Michael J. Weiss, The Clustering of America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988). Here “digital being” essentially becomes a type of “being normalization” as the statistical person is essentially reduced to a site for numerical command, control, and communication. Voters are imagined as machinic bundles of stable pre-formed preferences inclined to make choices in predictable, transitive, rational decisions. One only must find their “hot buttons,” and then push them in political campaigns to get sufficient numbers of these digital beings to decide definitively on election day to favor or disfavor arrays of choices with a vote. Their lived reality for party campaigners is not a flesh-and-blood existence; it is instead merely a digital decision domain full of statistical traits, combining with this or that intense propensity to pull or not pull the voting lever with favor or disfavor. See Roderick P. Hart, Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion - Our Social Skin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); and, Susan Herbst, Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling Has Shaped American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

As Foucault suggests, these digital beings are now deeply embedded life forms, created by and for those disciplinary institutions that generate power over and knowledge of them by meshing groups of people in vectors of influence coursing through complex statistical spaces. Such digital beings have only indirect capabilities to control their identity and agency as subjects, because they tend to be captured inside of dedicated institutional domains built to exercise action at a distance in the service of government bureaucracies, partisan organizations, or corporate enterprises. Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992), 1-21. Perhaps such digital beings really are more “plant-like” in these manifestations, surviving as strange creatures inside the specialized, immobile, and fixed cyberbiomes of pooled data ecologies or focus group streams. In many ways, such statistical persons also are merely analog agencies set into motion by a technics of/for motorization, and their statistical surveillance by large formal organizations simply tries to model how and why they move and then manipulate where and when they will attain motion. Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 84-145.

The digital being that the technics of computerization elicit, on the other hand, may be much more “animal-like.” Digitalization transmogrifies simple analog agents into very complex beings with serious possibilities for independent motion, location, activity, and understanding beyond those analogies contained by ordinary material culture. Physiocentric currents of thinking fixate upon naive notions of Nature and the embodied practices of wetware (organic human beings), in an attempt to understand any human being’s natural existence in everyday life. Here, precybernetic categories of (meta)physics parcel up the world in the tired conventional bundles of Nature/Culture, Humanity/Technology, History/Society, Being/Time. Hardware (computers or telecom networks) and software (code constructs or packaged routines) are nothing more than inanimate objects, or “technology,” that people, or “humanity,” use as tools. As Negroponte senses, all inquiries into cybernetic subjectivity must challenge this physiocentrism of contemporary human beings as “atoms,” inviting instead an openness to other realms of dimensionality, temporality, and activity that may be unfolding in hyperrealities as “bits” beyond the physiocentric space. See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (London: Harvester Wheatsleaf, 1993), 1-6.

As we listen to the cybertouts and infoprophets pound their forecasting drums in incessant punditry, we cannot help but notice that their sense of the cultural consequences of digital being is fairly unclear. So let us move beyond Negroponte, the Tofflers, George Gilder, and Douglas Rushkoff by distinguishing between three types of digital being, which allow us in turn to reason provisionally through some cybernetic actualities as well as to contemplate speculatively some telematic potentialities.

A. Digital Being: First Form

First, and still foremost in many discussions, digital being emerges out of actual human beings, whose analog/atomic actualities might be our way of experiencing the new cybernetic agency of working on and off line with complex computational and telecommunication networks. The fusion, or confusion, of (wo)man/machine in computer applications creates many new positionalizations of subjectivity as hardware-based (or is it perhaps “hardworn”?): calculator, reader, viewer, writer, composer, designer, communicator. The new subject positions may also be software-driven (or “softworn”): worker, voter, debater, inventor, observer. Without desktop video to visualize the actual operator’s physical body, these forms of digital being now permit anyone to assume his/her/its own virtual personae, hyperembodiments, and agencies in various telematic contexts, as either bursts of pure electronic writing or displays of playful graphical ideogylphs.

The telecommuter, the lurker, the hacker, the web surfer, the newbie, the flamer, the sysop, or the hot chatterer all constitute new posts in/of existence. These positionalizations of individual agency are more than minor variants of conventional tool usage; they provide new social roles to invent and/or evade, as telepresences or as cyberagents, a dramaturgy of collective cultural activity. The cultural implications for deploying different rhetorics as well as rationalities in the representation of digital being are discussed in Michael Heim, Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of World Processing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); and, Gregory Ulmer, Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (New York: Routledge, 1989). The bandwidth constraining most network communications now more or less dictates that such digital beings represent themselves and deal with others through a textual interface. While some symbolic refunctioning of keyword orthography exists, digital beings exist on-line through point-to-point, many-to-many exchanges of spare prose that rarely fill one entire VDT screen. Graphics, scanned photos, voice, and desktop video can change the sociologies of this digital being, but most interactions still occur now within bursts of electronic writing. These mediations of one’s identity as a digital being, in turn, delimit how such telepresence or hyperembodiment is experienced as a meaningful variety of personal existence. Interestingly enough, these forms of digital being are being widely used in various forms of cybercenotaphs. Using web sites, friends and relatives of the dead are digitizing the deceased in images, text, and audio, giving the now dead-and-gone an on-line resurrection.

This vision of digital being often veers back and forth between states of existence defined either by serious work roles or fantastic play roles. Highly mobile, symbolic-analyst workers, for example, envision telecommuting, usually seen best in slick telecom or modem advertisements, as liberation from office politics, bureaucratic drudgery, or fixed careers, because their laptops and modems link them into their physical workplaces as they perform new types of free, self-guided, pleasant labor at the beach or in the mountains. Digital being in this view is a liberated subjectivity able to go anywhere anytime anyway and still stay in productive, efficient work relations. Telecommuting, however, also can assume the more common form of off-shore, low-wage sweatshops where female data-entry or wordprocessing specialists move raw data or text by the keystroke through satellite switches to major corporations in Los Angeles, London, or Lyons. Sure, cybersexual subjectivity can be fantastic and playful. Because physical bodies often do not appear in the interface, digital sexual beings can choose to be male, female, young, old, heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, etc. even if they are not. Virtual identity varies widely in cybersex, allowing anyone to do anything anytime anyway with anyone or anything.

Digital being allows one to invent varying identities for work or play that can be adapted to different real and hyperreal contexts. Work contracts solicited over the Internet may be won by bidders who disguise their age/gender/race in virtual identities to compete more openly with bigger, different, richer competitors; sexual liaisons may occur between two digital beings invented, on the one hand, by a duo of bored junior female bankers and, on the other, by a group of male transvestites who simply enjoy playing vicariously the virtual parlor games of their digital beings. The liberating possibilities of these activities, however, cut more than one way. As the current controversy over cyberporn on the Internet indicates, digital being also can electronically mediate dark, violent urges from the nonvirtual world, as cyberporn is accessed by children, pedophiles find young victims in some BBS chat session, or murder is plotted in snuff stories for an adult MUD. Cybersex is not necessarily just play.

This kind of digital being as a significant positionalization of cybersubjectivity is becoming more interesting morally, politically, and socially, because so many real moves in human ethics presume face-to-face personal contact (like virtuous gestures or criminal acts) or materially embodied synchronous colocation (like politics or sex). Digital beings can create cybersubjective interactions that apparently satisfy their initiators in screen-to-screen “non-contact” or virtually disembodied asynchronous “dis-location.” Libertarians assert we should be free to do anything in our own private sphere as long as it does not harm others. Do digital subjects inhabit personal spheres that conform to such ordinary notions of privacy? In the realm of digital being, what is harmed and how is it harmed? In virtual reality, what new legal, political, and cultural rules should guide hyperreal behavior? Might not digital beings of this sort be encouraged, for example, to press for teledemocracy in cybernetic referenda? Would voters approach it seriously, like real embodied civic voting, or mostly as play, like hyperreal on-line cybersex? Should digital beings who simply indulge in imagining acts of murder, rape, torture, or dismemberment to other digital beings in some kinky MUD be sanctioned somehow for their sociopathological digital acts? Would only new digital laws pertain here or would old laws need to be mapped over? And then who would promulgate and enforce them? As Negroponte suggests, telepresence is and is not like a material presence. But should not digital beings expect similar ethical outcomes as “bits” from “atomic” categorical imperatives to operate in cyberspace? Will the moralities of material being fit digital being poorly, or will they finally complete themselves there?

B. Digital Being: Second Form

A second and much less prominent variety of digital being is emerging out of software assemblies as computer designers push for “intelligent agency” by designing new personal services into hardware and code structures. Programming design has advanced quite significantly as new bioemulations or artificial lifeforms are being created to coevolve with people. This sort of digital being has developed with considerable rapidity and real diversity alongside computer machineries and networks. Looking at real computer systems, for example, one finds thousands of artificially generated organisms, like computer viruses, which essentially are digital parasites living off the hyperbiotic resources provided by computer hardware. Whether the environment is a diskette, a hard disk, a mainframe CPU, or a network server, these digital beings typically are self-reproducing pests whose life-forms depend upon adapting to data niches in the cyberenvironments of real computers. At the same time, artificial life designers create “virtual computers” within real computers, as a type of bioisolation lab, to generate new virtual organisms that will occupy only the virtual environments emulated by these isolation chambers. Here, digital being takes many forms: cellular automata, pattern machines, game artifacts, or genetic algorithms. Their vitalistic properties, in turn, can be controlled to prevent them from becoming viral parasites in real computer systems.

These digital beings are only made out of computer code, but increasingly they have many conventional accepted signs of life: intelligence, sentience, agency, prudence, creativity. What are these digital beings that now are beginning to thrive purely in cyberspaces? The (con)fusion of labor/machine in crude software packages such as “Bob” or “Wildfire” is creating post-zoological agents with many new locations of subjectivity: receptionist, mail sorter, batman, personal assistant, chamberlain, travel planner, executive secretary, research assistant, data analyst, pattern detector, symbolic analyst, communications operator, calendar keeper, life master. As these and other more advanced packages become individually customized by their users in particular cultural, familial, and historical practices, and as they perhaps become more sapient in their intelligence and liberated in their agency, one must ask what these digital beings are qua being? Are they purely dead, functional appliances, or does their intelligent agency somehow make them alive?

Such personal digital assistants (PDAs) may be much more than a gizmo, like Apple’s Newton, but much less than a zoological lifeform, like a seeing-eye dog. Either way, as they evolve, they could indeed become a vital and permanent presence in many of our lives. In fact, as digital recorders with total omniscience, they could become the definitive chroniclers and masters of our lives inasmuch as their digital being mediates between us and other beings of all types. How will these digital beings be created, who will introduce them into our existence, what protections will they have, which ones will be empowered to do what in service of which ends, and when will they be terminated? When one’s intelligent agent is directed to meet and negotiate with another’s intelligent agent in a context of some moral and legal force (as envoys, dealmakers, and decisiontakers) will the digital being of those agents be regarded:

1) as dumb extensions of their owners, like servants, slaves, or animals

2) as purely private property of their owners, again like slaves or animals

3) as quasi-autonomous subjects of employment by their owners, like bondsmen or apprentices

4) or, as in-house chattel of computer networks, like voicemail systems or menu routines in software packages?

Are they virtual representatives with some modicum of their own preauthorized discretion, actual representatives carrying only our direct brief, or are they physical representatives simply standing in for remotely positioned human beings? Empowered to protect and serve their users/owners in cyberspace, will these intelligent agents be forced to give witness, endanger information, disclose secrets, reveal decisions, or provide access against their instructions? What rules would hold then: are they truly conversant, intelligent agents with some sort of legal protection? If so, what sort of rights might be extended to them and why? Or are they essentially dumb, dead boxes available for inspection at any time by anyone?

Musing about such cybernetic subjects may seem silly, because, after all, as Claus Emmeche argues, the intelligent agents generated by computational biology or cyberbioengineering can only be slaves to their masters. Claus Emmeche, The Garden in the Machine: The Emerging Science of Artificial Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), 39-42, 114-117. Yet, is this entirely fair? Some cybernetic visionaries foresee a human life beyond the body, and here they are not talking about some future biomechanical resurrection of a human being’s zoological wetware from a cryogenic deep freeze. As Hans Moravec at Carnegie-Mellon University dreams, why not transfer all of a living human being’s memories, intelligence, agency, knowledge, and experience as sophisticated computer code onto chips or into software, recording perhaps even the living person’s actual voice on a sound chip? Hans Moravec, Mind Children (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). In such a case, does a living human being become another kind of PDA - a personified digital agency, a postbionic demonic avatar, or a previously-embodied digital angel? What would these humanoid digital beings be: merely bizarre simulacra of once zoological forms, or truly intelligent human agencies? A “brain death” in the body could be sublated by a new “brain life” on the net, creating unbelievable dilemmas for such cyberbiota betwixt and between postzoological notions of life and death, agency and property, identity and power, being and time.

While living beings cannot now migrate from carbon-based to silicon-based bodies, a kind of Jurassic Park-like resurrection of the once dead from the still crypts of an analog grave occurs everyday as morphing magic pulls bits of code from the amber suspension of old celluloid film stock, plastic LP records, or oxide audio tape. Mixed in morphing programs, simulated by sampling routines, colorized from chromatic computations, the crisp images of real bodies or rich echoes of actual voices long ago lost to real-time analog death return in Coca Cola commercials or Forest Gump-eries as golems ground together out of gigabytes of digital dust. See my “Political Economy of Colorization: Reel Rehab,” Telos (Fall 1988), 127-138. Now smart movies can cast living-dead digital actors in new supporting roles speaking in sampled voices and moving within morphed bodies alongside real actors. Smart recording studios can record music allowing us all to listen to Hanks Williams, Sr., Hank Williams, Jr., and maybe a Hank Williams, III sing a new digital ballad, just as Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole or John Lennon and the still-living Beatles all sing in real-time from cyberspace in hyperreal arrangements. New problems will arise here: who gets the royalties, where will the Oscar be mailed, and how can Betty Ford clinics survive when only cybercelebrities make movies or records?

C. Digital Being: Third Form

Least prominent in many discussions, a third kind of digital being is developing within smart machines as engineers attempt to androidize hitherto dumb/mute machines, transforming them into smart/talking digital beings. In this third form of digital being, computerized applications of intelligent agency are being substantively integrated into cybernetic and noncybernetic technical objects, giving many such artifacts most of the key classical traits of human life: consciousness, intelligence, personality, memory, speech, agency, or experience. (Negroponte envisions a voice-activated interface with such appartuses in Being Digital 206-218.) The (con)fusion of the living being and the dead machine in a fabricated artifact generates another sort of parabionic agent with many new significant positionalizations of subjectivity: talking car, smart house, electronic wallet, knobotic terminal, autopiloting boat, prudent drone, brilliant munition, aware apartment, surveillant store, intelligent toilet. In other words, some of Negroponte’s “bits” now occupy, or even animate, “atoms” in some very new and interesting ways.

Increasingly, one finds hitherto dumb mechanisms, which were once totally controlled by direct human manipulations of mechanical control surfaces built into machineries as manually-activated interfaces (like steering wheels, keyboards, push buttons, or handles) being given the powers of voice and/or speech recognition. Digital control plus digital speech synthesis and voice recognition are animating once dumb objects, permitting them to be voice-activated varieties of smart subjects. Unable to speak to first nature, human beings are combining elements from second and third nature into a new kind of digital being with embodied, active, and intelligent capabilities. Thus, entire new species of these digital beings can coevolve with human beings in quasi-objective/quasi-subjective networks which essentially provide the first formative ecologies for an android subjectivity in cyborg environments.

Clearly, these beings are neither data from Star Trek: The Next Generation nor even Star War’s C3PO with all of their highly anthropomorphic representations of digital being. Instead they are more like the Starship Enterprise itself in old Star Trek Classic episodes, in which the space vehicle itself, with all of its on-board computer systems, human and nonhuman life supports, and sensing arrays, was an intelligent digital being with distributed intelligence built into its own machinic structure. With enough conscious agency to organize its own baseline guidance, and with a conversant consciousness and general analytic problem-solving powers all engineered into its own cybernetic systems, the Enterprise represents how complex a voice-activated tool can be. Such forms of digital being are beginning to coevolve with humans as unique new species. The closest approximation to this kind of intelligent technology today undoubtedly can be found in the decentralized, adaptative, flexible, collaborative, distributed, and expert systems in the network of networks composing the Internet structure.

This form of digital being is not science fiction; precursors already exist in many concrete prefigurations as intelligent materials, smart weapons, voice activated mechanisms, expert systems, or robotic complexes. Even without contact with human cybernetic subjectivity of the first type, these beings would have qualities of digital life with their strong emulations of consciousness, sentience, prudence, agency or personality in each of their cybermechanical structures. An excellent discussion of these digital beings can be found in Manuel De Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 179-231. As they exist in greater numbers more widely, we must consider all of the implications of coexisting with such digital beings. When genetic algorithms are coupled with robotic factories to turn out new generations of conversant computers, intelligent materials, or expert tools, then a truly new phylum of digital beings might well begin evolving quite apart from any direct human intervention.

Stealth warplanes, because of their intrinsically anti-aerodynamic designs, already must fly themselves “by wire,” apart from their pilot’s manipulations, to maintain any semblance of stability and lift, and their designers are testing whole new associated families of brilliant munitions that will decide on their own the specifics of when, what, who, why, and how to destroy without much, or any, direct human control from “friendly sides.” Once brilliant weapons move beyond the ordinary smartness of “fire and forget” to an extraordinary brilliance in “find, figure, fix, finalize, fire, and then forget,” then many civilian spin-offs will follow. Brilliant automobiles driven on smart roads to intelligent houses constructed for info-cities will begin to do everything they are told on their own initiative once empowered to act by their owners. The technological assumptions about becoming a digital being, as they are built into autonomous weapons systems like PROWLER (Programmable Robot Observer with Logical Enemy Response) or Brilliant Pebbles (a Star Wars ABM system), plainly will make other forms of autonomous artifacts, expert systems, or smart devices far more common coinhabitants with us in our social spaces. (DeLanda 160-78.)

II. The Coevolution of Digital Beings

Being telepresent has its costs, including an open acceptance of other telepresent interactions that makes a cybernetic receptionist almost essential. More and more digital socialization by human beings as digital im-personaters invites further and further elaboration of new digital networks of interaction, which, in turn, necessitates the creation of the second form of digital being to handle the traffic of the first form’s digital existence. Intelligent agents evolve to cope with the human challenges of becoming and remaining a digital being; otherwise, much too much time is to be lost simply in sorting through network traffic and returning them in kind as first form digital beings.

Obviously, all of these digital beings are hybrids of human and nonhuman, subject and object, (wo)man and machine, consciousness and corporeality in a new cybernetic register. Without the networks of software and hardware that actually enable the forms of digital being projected by telecommuting or cybersex, this sort of cybersubjectivity could not emerge. Without routinized task serving codes or network links, the digital being of intelligent agents would have no environment in which to adapt themselves as a new form of existence. And, without the command/control/communication packages embedded into industrial artifacts to empower them with consciousness, voice, and memory, the digital being of smart artifacts would have no agency to evince. Nonetheless, whether they are hybrids or not, these digital beings all are coexisting with us in our modes of being and time, and our subjectivity is being enhanced and constrained by the qualities of our many interactions with them. Essentially, digital beings invite us again to amend Latour’s ontological constitution as we uphold its various traditional articles for defining how human and nonhuman, agent and structure, subject and object might confederate in our Nature/Culture contracts. (See Latour, We Have Never Been Modern 125-132.)

Once all of these digital beings are seen as existing per se, how will they be treated as beings? On a cultural plane, what legal status, political identity, economic agency, cultural structure, theological meaning will they have? [For Mark Amerika in Notes from the Digital Overground, “Being Digital is Being Networked and Being Networked is the most efficient and clever way of Being Marketed” -eds.] They might represent monstrous beings living on the margins, surviving at the edge, adapting to the infrastructures inside and outside of material and virtual reality. With digital gills and analog lungs, virtual fins and material legs, these amphibious agencies now are rapidly coevolving with humanity. Will they reproduce as separate species? Or will even more fascinating hybrids emerge as telepresent human beings (first form) couple with smart space probes (third form) to explore extraterrestrial sites with remotely switched intelligent agents (second form)? Will material human beings nearing biological death (zero form) clone their personalities into software intelligent agents (second form) to take a hardline against real people virtually in the material world? Or will they, as with Moravec’s software immortals (second form), really migrate into a smart house, talking car, or intelligent material (third form) to find new historical embodiments? Even more problematically, will any of these digital lifeforms clone themselves, combine with viruses, or commingle as code to create virtual mutations in unexpected reproductive lineages of an unanticipated artificial life in a purely postbionic zoology?

To think about digital being, we must begin (contra Negroponte) by redirecting our attention to what a subject is, where agency begins, how intelligence is understood, why memory counts, when speech matters, and who/what actually is a being of “bits” or “atoms.” The Loebner Prize Competitions in Artificial Intelligence solicit artificial intelligence programs to pass the Turing test, which, as proposed by computer pioneer Alan Turing, asks a computer to impersonate a human being in a “conversation” conducted through text messages. If the computer convincingly emulated a human being, then it might be regarded as “intelligent.” In one sense, one could argue that all three forms of these digital beings as quasi-objects/quasi-subjects are not really intelligent beings or even credible subjectivities, because the technologies are just not there yet to pass the Turing test. From another perspective, however, one can assert equally well that each of them already is indeed approaching a discrete type of subjectivity, maybe even a strange kind of inhuman intelligent being.

When they’re not indulging the glib techno-optimism of Negroponte’s Wired commentary, most existing cultural appraisals of digital being fail to improve upon Victorian monster fantasies about cyborg robots or demonic golems threatening some mystical human essence. Current political analyses of digital being cannot even figure out how to apply existing criminal codes to Internet MUDs, or intellectual property laws to ordinary software piracy. Historical awareness of digital beings, even if one adopts the omnipresent pose of De Landa’s robot historian, clearly pales next to their anonymous proliferation in the workings of informational society. Perhaps some future historical preservationists will unpack the hard drives of old PCs to chronicle the doings of digital beings as telecommuting, cybersexed, hyperreal-estated lifeforms. Perhaps they will work to save the codes of some major personage’s PDA as his or her biotronic Boswell still accidentally hums along on-line as a digital being years after the wetware who owned it dies. Perhaps they will struggle to restore the successive generations of intelligent agency activating a 1990s-era smart house after many generations of “human subjects” and “house subjects” digitally and materially coevolve together within its walls. Perhaps then, and only then, will the postanthropocentric, polymorphous potentials of these various digital beings be appreciated apart from our anthropomorphic fixations upon humans simply being digital.

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