TagAmber Case

Mindful Cyborgs: Cyborg Anthropology 101 with Amber Case

Mindful Cyborg

This week Alex Williams filled in for my usual co-host Chris Dancy. We talked with cyborg anthropologist Amber Case. Here’s a taste:

I sat down with a kid who wasn’t really doing well in school. He wasn’t talking to his dad and I asked his dad I was like “Well, how do you hang out with your kid?” and he says “Well, I don’t really know.” So, I saw the kid on a laptop and I said, “Hey, what are you doing?” and he said, “Well, I’m playing a game” and I said “What game?” and he said, “Club Penguin”. So, I logged on to Club Penguin on my laptop, got myself an account and I said “What’s your username?” and I literally just went in and joined the game with him. And of course I couldn’t show that I never played the game before so I had to catch on really quick. So, initially, what the kid did was, he didn’t really necessarily want to show me around. He just wanted to show me that he was really fast in it and kind of leave me in the dust, so I had to catch up.

And so I caught up and I got control of my virtual self so to speak and then I was comfortable and then at that point I had proven myself and then he started showing me around. He said hey, let’s go over here and let’s do this and then we started doing all these activities together like sliding down a mountain or mining for gold, for instance. We could get upgrades which was difficult for me to watch and also participating.

All these different things we ended up doing and then after a while he started telling me about school that day and how frustrated he was with students and just started spilling everything, just everything came out. It was the equivalent of me in the past being his dad and throwing a softball, a baseball to him. Doing something where you’re walking with somebody. You’re doing something tangential and suddenly all the information comes out.

I later sat down and told his dad. I was like, he’s having trouble in school. Here’s why. If you want to hang out with him . . . you’re in computer software you should be able to figure out how to play Club Penguin.

Full Episode, Notes and Transcript: Mindful Cyborgs Episode 13: Always/Already, and Becoming More Still – Cyborg Anthro 101

See also:

My interview with Amber from 2010

Our dossier on Amber

3 New Dossiers: Process Church of the Final Judgement, Amber Case, David Cronenberg

Three new dossiers are up:

The Process Church of The Final Judgement, the 60s cult.

Amber Case, the cyborg anthropologist.

David Cronenberg, the body horror film director.

New Interview with Cyborg Anthropologist Amber Case

Cyborg Annthropology

Cyborganthropology.com, Cases website dedicated to the subject, identifies three categories of human-machine combo: “cybernetic organism”; “hybrid of machine and organism”; and “creature of both fiction and lived social reality.

“Case believes its the increasingly mobile internet and its ability to act as an extension of the brain—to store and share unique information with increasing automation and independence—thats turning more and more people cyborg. As Case says, shes not talking about Terminator, shes talking about the Facebook wall and the Twitter stream; how these technologies give us the ability to create an external version of our personalities with which others can interact in our physical absence.

She borrows the term “second self,” originally coined by sociologist Sherry Turkle, to describe this unique digital existence.”When people first went online, they had avatars and fake names and silly pictures and would play around with… multiple identities and it wasnt a big deal,” explains Case. “It was fun, it was play. Now, peoples identities are tied. You sign up to Facebook with your real name.

“Not only does the modern internet user create a second self thats more closely related to the person behind the machine, but their relationships with their computing devices are becoming more intimate. An integral aspect of Cases cyborg studies is to track these changes.

Portland Mercury: I, Cyborg

My interview with Amber is here.

Grinding Interviews Cyborg Anthropologist Amber Case

Amber Case

Grinding interviews cyborg anthropologist, and one of the most influential women in tech, Amber Case:

Reality is boring. Waiting in line at the DMV suck. Real life takes time. Digital life is more instantaneous. In real life, the time and space between goals and accomplishments is often large. For some, it is physically impossible to achieve certain things, like purchasing a Ferrari or rising above middle management in their career path. Online gaming, especially sites like Farmville step in to take care of that void. Whereas one doesn’t have the money, time or room for a real garden, Farmville provides one without the back aching labor. All reality is replaced by small icons, and time is compressed so that goals and accomplishments are right next to one another. Everything has a point value and a reward. When real life takes so long to reward someone, online gaming is often a better and more enjoyable alternative.

In the future, hybrid reality, or life which is both a game and real, might blot out the mild dystopia that we all live in. Or it will make us more intolerable of the space between reality. And for those who spend a lot of time in reality, Foursquare is a good add-on for making the mundane exciting. To be crass, one might say that Foursquare is kind of like dogs pissing on fire hydrants and having other dogs come along and sniff them to see who’s been there. The dog with the most potent urine is mayor of the fire hydrant.

Grinding: Talking with Amber Case

See also:

Here’s my interview with Amber

Here’s our conversation on hypersigils

John Robb’s response to Jane McGonigal’s TED talk

New Hearing Aid Uses Your Tooth To Transmit Sound

Hypersigils reconsidered

Lain

Above: a still from Serial Experiments Lain

I’ve been thinking recently about Grant Morrison‘s “hypersigil” concept, but considering as not an occult/magical practice, but as as a cybernetic phenomena.*

It started as a conversation between my friends Nabil Maynard and Amber Case on Twitter on the subject of Serial Experiments Lain (which I haven’t seen). Amber said:

There were a ton of parallels between that show and my life, especially now, where my online presence affects offline interactions. [1]

My online presence actually creates who I am. It’s a machine that produces my identity and exists outside of me. [2]

That reminded me of hypersigils. Morrison explained hypersigils thusly:

The “hypersigil” or “supersigil” develops the sigil concept beyond the static image and incorporates elements such as characterization, drama, and plot. The hypersigil is a sigil extended through the fourth dimension. My own comic book series The Invisibles was a six-year long sigil in the form of an occult adventure story which consumed and recreated my life during the period of its composition and execution. The hypersigil is an immensely powerful and sometimes dangerous method for actually altering reality in accordance with intent. Results can be remarkable and shocking.

Experiment:

After becoming familiar with the traditional sigil method, see if you can create your own hypersigil. The hypersigil can take the form of a poem, a story, a song, a dance, or any other extended artistic activity you wish to try. This is a newly developed technology so the parameters remain to be explored. It is important to become utterly absorbed in the hypersigil as it unfolds; this requires a high degree of absorption and concentration (which can lead to obsession but so what? You can always banish at the end) like most works of art. The hypersigil is a dynamic miniature model of the magician’s universe, a hologram, microcosm, or “voodoo doll” which can be manipulated in real time to produce changes in the macrocosmic environment of “real” life.

-“Pop Magic” by Grant Morrison from The Disinfo Book of Lies, pg. 20. (For more information, listen to Morrison’s talk from DisinfoCon (also available on DVD)

Invisibles

Above: an image from The Invisibles. The character in the center wearing a suit is King Mob, the character from Invisibles that Morrison identified himself with. Below: a photograph of Grant Morrison from his web site.

grant morrison

There has been extended internet-drama on occult sites regarding what does and does not count as a hypersigil. I think Morrison is clear that the hypersigil takes the form of a serial narrative – whether that be a comic series, a movie trilogy, a series of songs or albums, or what have you. But others have made a compelling argument that the definition needn’t be so limited. Nick Pell, in his essay “Beyond the Sigil: Creating YR own Mind Viruses” in Magic on the Edge, makes a compelling case for this, using Shepard Fairley‘s “Andre the Giant has a Posse” and “Obey Giant” campaigns as examples of other types of extended, non-static sigils.

However, for purposes of this essay, I’m only going to consider “hypersigils” as narrative works- but I do want to consider narrative beyond strictly fictional narratives. For example, one can create a narrative in a personal blog or Live Journal or their Twitter or Facebook updates.

After suggesting a connection between hypersigils and cybernetics, Nabil replied:

The number of ways that hypersigilism applies to the internet/cybernetics is kind of staggering when you think on it. [1]

Think about something as basic as a myspace/facebook profile, the choices we make defining the online persona [2] which creates a manifest change in the offline world. [3].

The things we choose to place on the internet reflect and magnify the awareness of self to ourselves and those around us. [4]

hypersigil feedback

Above: a diagram I made illustrating feedback loops of perception in hypersigils

The way I see it, the online persona, fictional self, or avatar one creates can create feedback loops to reinforce behaviors and perceptions and have a create significant “real world” changes in a person’s life over time. In the case of Grant Morrison, he was also shaping his persona in the letters column of The Invisibles, in interviews he gave, and his public persona at comic conventions.

Nabil says: “I know of one person who used net-anonymity to explore gender before pursuing changing gender IRL.” [1]. I suspect that’s rather common. Also, to go back to my interview with Amber from last week, in which she gives advice to liberal arts majors looking to establish a career outside academia:

Create an online presence that is ubiquitous and enjoyable to interface with. Let it be known who you want to be. Put that on your business card and on your social profiles.

Which, of course, is exactly how she came to be a “cyborg anthropologist.”

So I find myself wondering: what is and isn’t hypersigilic activity online (and off?) Is creating an avatar on an MMORG? If so, what about playing a character in a pen and paper role playing game?

I think it depends on the role of online and offline feedback involved – if playing a character (online or off) changes the way you think of yourself and *especially* if changes the way OTHER people think about you, then yes – I think it does.

*There was some discussions on cybernetics and complex adaptive systems and the occult at Esozone: The Other Tomorrow lead by Joseph Thiebes, deadletter b, Wes Unruh, and Edward Wilson but I missed them. I suspect the overlaps have been discussed elsewhere, if the curious reader wishes to look.

See Also:

The Other Tomorrow Manifesto

Hypersigil, Hyperstition, or Simply Interesting Living?

Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case, the Technoccult interview

Amber Case

Photo by Kris Krug

Amber Case is a cyborg anthropologist and the co-founder and co-organizer of Cyborg Camp. You can find out more about her and her work in our dossier on her.

Klint Finley: Please tell us what you mean by “cyborg anthropology” and explain what it is that you do on a day-to-day basis.

Amber Case: Cyborg anthropology is the study of human and non-human interaction, especially tools and networks that are formed by networks of human and non human objects.

My work relates to tracing the history of tool use and how it has affected culture over time.

For instance, one can look at a hammer and notice that over the last 300 years the design and function of the hammer has not changed very much.

The shape and form and function are still similar but when one looks at the first computers, which were large machines running on vacuum tubes, and computers now — one sees that the computer’s overall look and function and shape and size has drastically changed.

So then one must look at the idea of the hammer or knife. An animal must evolve a better tooth, or sharp edge in which to capture and kill prey. If a tooth breaks, or is not sharp enough, or the animal is not fast enough, that animal dies and cannot reproduce.

But the human has externalized the evolution by making a tool outside of their mouths. The knife is an extension of the tooth that can be thrown. The speed and excellence of the knife depends on the worker or the person who has power enough to have a worker who can create that tool.

Once we externalized objects and processes, we externalized evolution.

But the computer is different. Tool use has been physical for most of human evolution. Now we see computers as an interface not to the physical self, but to the mental self.

The mental self is an internal space, which is unseen, and a lot of what we see on a computer is unseen unless we look at it through an interface or portal.

So what I do in cyborg anthropology is consider how people upload their bodies into hyperspace, and how humanness is produced through machines and machines through humanness.

I also consider online presence, cell phones and the technosocial self.

Amber Case

Photo by Andrew Hyde

What methodology do you employ? What is a day in the life of a cyborg anthropologist like?

My methodology is mainly qualitative analysis, ethnography and participant observation.

What I mean by that is that I use the anthropological method of ethnography to collect observations through participating in groups of people involved in tool use or digital networks and see how they work, play, communicate, and what their values are.

Part of my work is letting people know that they’ve always been part human and part machine. Donna Haraway talked about everyone being a low tech cyborg. That for some part of every day people are connected to a machine.

In my recent study of Facebook, I’ve combed through user stories and behavior and placed people into general groups of interaction. I’ve also studied how the interface – or the participation architecture of the site influences how people act as people begin to move online – and live out a great deal of their lives there, the shape of an interface really affects how people move so a lot of my day is spent combing through the internet looking at that sort of behavior and jotting it down into a digital field journal of sorts.

The other part is looking for new developments. Things that break the norms. Those are harbingers of new trends and systemic shifts.

maxtor file pile

What are some of your most interesting recent findings?

Some of my favorite things have been mistakes. For instance, when a middle aged woman thinks that she’s sending a private message to someone she’s been seeing, and in reality she posted on her wall for everyone to see.

Yahoo Answers are amazing. It’s where a lot of very young kids ask each other ridiculous questions – and young kids answer back.

Also, looking at people’s signatures. Not their handwritten ones, but their digital ones. How they compose sentences and where they use capitalization. How they respond to things, etc. It really tells a lot about who they are.

The other thing I like to discover is digital artifacts. There are some digital archeologists and historians who try to keep data alive and in circulation. When one considers it, and Stewart Brand has mentioned this quite a bit… data is very fragile.

When one considers the pyramids and symbols carved into stone, that data is still around today. It’s been thousands of years and we still have it vs. Twitter, where data is regularly dumped and not saved.

One of the problems is that machines don’t get heavier when we put data into them. Which seems strange, because information has weight in real life.

Jason Scott is a great data archivist. he runs textfiles.com. He saves BBS forums and stuff from the 80s that might have been erased over time.

It’s funny that you say that. Sometimes when I delete a lot off stuff from my laptop, I actually feel like my laptop is lighter. I know it isn’t, but it just seems like it is.

It’s interesting how you say that- it’s a sign that your senses are tied to a machine – that your machine has become an external brain of sorts.

The first time my computer crashed I felt I had lost half my brain.

Here is a conversation I had with @strangeways about weight.

@caseorganic: My old computer is being reformatted. I can feel the files being deleted. It’s a strange feeling, like re-writing memories.

@strangeways: I think it is completely possible. I’ve felt it many times before. There’s a transition from physical effects to mental ones.

@strangeways Physical storage came first, then mental storage. I bet mental phantom neuron syndrome will become more prevalent.

@caseorganic Sort of feels like amputation, doesn’t it? I wonder if one can experience phantom limb with a virtual body part.

There was a campaign for Maxtor about data. It becomes increasingly easy to put data into a system, but the data, once in the system, has an escape velocity like a black hole. The computer is beginning to liquefy objects around it, like a black hole. Especially the iPhone – taking physical objects like compasses, games, cameras, notebooks, date books and address books and digitizing them, centralizing them into one device.

What sorts of tools do you find most useful in your work?

I use Yahoo! Pipes, Netvibes, search.twitter.com, and TextEdit.

I use a lot of TextEdit. I copy and paste things in, label them, and then name the file with descriptive words. That way my computer becomes a search engine for my research.

But the best tool is SKITCH and Flickr. Skitch can take a screenshot and upload it automatically to my Flickr account. It’s my external brain. So I used Skitch and Flickr symbiotically to take a quick screenshot of whatever I’m working on.

A random sample from Amber Case's Flickr stream

A random example from Amber’s Flickr stream

I use Moodle for private notes to myself, and I have some Pbwiki accounts. But Flickr is really the best. It allows sources, timestamps, tagging, and searching. And it allows comments, so my digital journal becomes a living creation.

You don’t have a Phd or other post-graduate degree, is that correct?

I do not have a PhD.

And you work in the private sector as a consultant?

Yes.

Why did you decide to go into the private sector instead of continuing in academia? Do you think you will ever go back to academia?

I went to the private sector first because I just got out of college. I wrote a thesis on mobile phones and their technosocial sites of interaction. I got a degree in sociology and anthropology.

I was told to work two years in the “real world” before going back to academia, going straight to grad school would leave me at a disadvantage. First, I wouldn’t know what the real world needed, and secondly, I wouldn’t know anything else except for academia.

My favorite conference was MIT’s futures of entertainment, which I spoke at in November 2008. I liked the conference because it was a hybrid event. It brought together people from industry and academia. Industry can beneif a lot from academia, but not from 200 page reports. And academia can benefit a lot from industry, but not from silly marketing statements.

So I wanted both perspectives. Someone has to be able to translate between the two. Its useful, else a lot of miscommunication happens and redundancies occur.

What advice would you give to liberal arts majors looking to make a career outside of academia?

Network. Network a whole lot.

Don’t network in a silly way. Network honestly. Find people who inspire and invigorate you, who make you work on things harder than ever before.

Create an online presence that is ubiquitous and enjoyable to interface with. Let it be known who you want to be. Put that on your business card and on your social profiles.

Be uniform in your focus. Set goals for who you want to meet.

Become a resource for people. Connect them. Have a blog or set of resources that aggregates and disperses useful information in your area of interest.

Attend local conferences. Speak at events. Volunteer at conferences.

Speaking is the easiest way to meet everyone in the room. Volunteering is the easiest way to meet all of the registrants, especially ones you might be too afraid to talk to.

Don’t be afraid to find the smartest person in the room and ask them how they got there.

Fail daily. Fail a whole bunch. Challenge yourself and don’t worry if you have no supporters. Be the first one there.

… That sounds like a promotional book, lol.

cyborgcamp

And speaking of conferences – you were a founder and organizer of CyborgCamp, and the second one is coming up in a few months. Could you tell us about the impetus of that event?

The idea behind CyborgCamp was to have a forum for the discussion of the past, present, and future. The conference was also livestreamed so that it would be accessible to anyone in the world. It was seen in over 50 countries.

The conference was not really created by me, but by a community that sprang up suddenly on Twitter. Within 3 hours, CyborgCamp had a website, a wiki, a sponsor, and 9 volunteers.

It wasn’t a choice for me. I knew I had to make the conference, and I strove to make it an invigorating experience. I found some great speakers, like Ward Cunningham, inventor of the Wiki.

A typical conversation at CyborgCamp

Above: a typical conversation at CyborgCamp. Photo by Mark Coleman from the CyborgCamp photoset.

The unconference part allowed the attendees to discuss what was really on their minds. We discussed everything. From agriculture to technoculture, to insulin pumps, to connectivity and the digital device, to strategy and the future. It was a cocreated event, and it was amazing to be a part of it.

A number of people in Brasil watched the conference and there will be a
CyborgCamp Brasil in May 2010.

The next domestic one will be in Portland in October.

See Also

Hypersigils Reconsidered

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