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? 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.
Timothy W. Luke teaches in the Department of Political Science at the
Virginia Polytechnic Institute
and State University
in Blacksburg, Virginia. His research deals with contemporary social theory, the
politics of informational society, and critical cultural analysis.
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