As the lines between our bodies, skin, and data blur, will our sense of self and, in turn our sense of beauty, start being defined by data? Fashion futurist and trend forecaster Geraldine Wharry investigates
‘Being human’ is a concept in flux – the lines between our bodies, skin, and data are blurring. As we collectively adopt biometrics, facial recognition, and surveillance capitalism, our identity is being redefined in what could be the next human evolutionary stage, ‘the coded self’. What does our sense of beauty and self mean if what defines us most is our data, more than our own skin?
Five experts join me to discuss these radical shifts in the human condition, including three Berggruen institute fellows, also host to the pioneering Transformations of the human program. Anjan Sundaram is an award-winning author, human rights journalist, and the host of “Coded World”. Xiao Liu is the author of the award-winning book Information Fantasies: Precarious Mediation in Post socialist China. Her research spans from information studies to technology governance and policy.
Duan Weiwen is the Director and Professor of the Department of Philosophy of Science and Technology at the Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Creative director Catty Tay and Strategy director Leanne Elliott Young are the co-founders of the Institute of Digital Fashion, pushing forward a new wave of virtual and physical representation, working with companies, institutions and platforms to undo biases and adopt a new language.
HUMANS AS LIVING CODE
Geraldine Wharry: Media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff explains human beings are increasingly defined by digital materials while algorithms are becoming like “living coded entities”, acting as “our evolutionary successors”. In the not-so-distant future, could data become our biggest organ?
Anjan Sundaram: In some ways Coded World was a show to answer mathematical questions because code and maths are now permeating our lives and world. The average citizen does not understand the process that occurs when we are digitally encoded. In a more human way, code is also connecting people, with two processes at work. We communicate with each other using a coded universal mathematical language and the second is this increasing digitisation of ourselves, a process that we currently have very little control over. We are getting to a point where our digital selves are in many ways becoming more important that our physical selves.
Duan Weiwen: This reminds me of French philosopher Bernard Stigler. “L’hominisation” is regarded as the process of life evolution continued outside of organic life. The externalisation of artificial organs is a constantly emerging process. When faced with intelligent technologies, people may look to machines with cognitive and behavioural abilities. Artificial agents can functionally simulate human cognition and behaviour. As a result, they have gradually evolved into an entity that might be compared with human beings, therefore may be regarded as a “pseudo subject”.
IS YOUR DATA SELF BEAUTIFUL?
Geraldine Wharry: Do you think we are creating a society where people will not be considered beautiful based on their physical attributes, but mainly on their data?
Xiao Liu: I’m not sure if data will supersede or rather work in combined ways. It’s more about what kind of data becomes attached, used to describe your physicality. AI designed make-up is really interesting because it’s about what AI can do to beautify. I think there are different dimensions here. One dimension is that data can be used in a creative way to enhance the expression of possibilities of beauty in combination with physicality. Another dimension is that we would become too reliant on data and some of the data can be biased and doesn’t really present the person in a fair way. In that sense the data can be distorting and not an authentic representation of the self.
Leanne Elliott Young: If you asked my closest friends some questions about me, they would have a much more rounded understanding of myself than I ever would. We are all effectively a reflection of our communities and those that we align with – who we follow, like, view, connect with. Right now, we are all living in a digital projection, which is curated by our positioning and becomes a bigger statement of ourselves. These algorithms almost become like cell structures that circumnavigate the self, more in tune with our very being than the physical reality where we project a certain controlled and curated version of ourselves.
Our algorithmic and data self includes the subconscious, all the decisions we make before a purchase, and the rhythm in which we got to that point. All of these things become quite a holistic 360-degree version of us as humans.
HAVE WE LOST OUR FACES?
Geraldine Wharry: During my research I did not find many projects exploring our sense of self-beauty in relationship to our loss of privacy (as part of the commodification of our data, and the lack of transparency). But artistic projects such as Anti Face by Jerel Johnson or Hyper Face by Adam Harvey point to a loss of something primal. A recent MIT report was titled “This is how we lost our faces”. What are your thoughts on this?
Xiao Liu: There are different ways for us to conceive skin. I imagine the skin is not just the boundary of the human body, but also the interface that individuals have to interact with the external environment and with others. So in that sense skin is not just a box for us individuals inside it, it is a very active layer of interface. It is reliant on this constant communication and interaction that is quite similar to the function of data in our everyday life, because a lot of times, the data doesn’t just belong to the individual but also is a way for the individual to interact and exchange information with society. So it functions in this sense quite similarly to skin, it flows across the boundary of identities and entities.
Anjan Sundaram: The fact that we would rather, or have to, lose our face to protect ourselves… the invasion is so primal that we would have to become faceless. I think the lack of agency needs to be fixed because how can we live in a world where we are scared to show our face? That speaks to the lack of agency that we have in the digital world. A tyranny that is perpetrated by private companies that need to face more scrutiny. There are a number of initiatives such as data trusts. I met a group of hackers in Berlin and some of them say they are representing civil society, trying to get companies to respect humanity and not merely profit from it. Our digital selves exist in a language we don’t understand and how alienating is that?
“How can we live in a world where we are scared to show our face?” – Anjan Sundaram
Leanne Elliott Young: Personally I recently had a child who is 20 days old. Speaking of primal, all of a sudden I’ve dropped back into my core physicality, and that has been really interesting because effectively all of my communication and my presence is my URL self, projected through these portals. We project a version of ourselves accumulated in that coded space, and all of a sudden I’m realising the portals I use to communicate are totally irrelevant to this small human. That is quite personal but I just realised the only way to communicate is primal, with sounds, my physical self, my movements. I feel like for a long while I’ve absolutely negated those, especially because lockdown has obviously pushed us to pivot to digital, almost to exhaustion.
Duan Weiwen: We are no longer the masters of our faces. The emergence of facial recognition technology has fundamentally subverted the connotation of the human face in traditional physical space-time, not only making it a data that can flow and automatically process across physical space-time and information space, but also has become a “Unique digital personality”. And this situation undoubtedly brings about a new paradox: on the one hand, the face is likely to become a digital personality that proves “I am me”, verifying the identity of the person; on the other hand, the face data is not only for me. People mostly don’t know who is collecting, who is processing and using their facial data, and for what purpose. In other words, the digital personality has essentially become separated from the ability of the individual to control the subject.
HOW DO WE DEFINE OUR IDENTITY AS A CODED LAYER?
Geraldine Wharry: The recognition of individuals and their identity has gone from “Is this a photo of Tom? Yes or no”, to ‘Let’s predict Tom’s personality”. There has been much talk about the biases in AI and mistakes of Facial recognition tools leading to false arrests, due in part to human programmers and engineers building the technology. How do you approach this?
Xiao Liu: It’s complicated. It’s not only about beauty, it’s about how individuals are judged and presented to the world. You mentioned the privacy issue here. It is fundamentally about how the individual controls his profile to the world, so this is related to the notion of beauty. Privacy is culturally determined, because if you go to India or China for example that notion of privacy can be quite different from people in North America and Europe. So in a similar way, when we talk about privacy it’s more about respecting people’s control of their own profile in society.
Duan Weiwen: The controllers of data analysis and intelligent algorithms will obviously use them to predict, guide or stop human behaviour. It embodies some kind of dominant power or hegemony. Take the so-called data portrait of a person as an example. Although the data portrait of a person is like a person’s “data twin,” it has no subjectivity and initiative in itself, but only reflects the control of data analysis and intelligent algorithms. Therefore, the data twins are actually data zombies with no mind.
Leanne Elliott Young: At IoDF we are challenging the responsibilities we hold as digital innovators within our work. To activate change we are partnering with the key stakeholders. We partnered with the software company Daz 3d to tackle digital representation and inclusivity specifically for marginalised communities. This work is curating an advisory board for the production of representation of these communities, we have a responsibility and must speak directly to the individuals in order to produce honest representations. We have a survey on representation, a white paper in the works, ahead of a partnership with the VR summit CFS by Lablaco. For us, this work is based on our initial disdain with the limits in these arenas now, and now we are excited to be a part of the shift and mining the hard questions that have been ignored around biased representation by actively changing the system.
IF CODE IS THE NEW BEAUTY STANDARD, COULD YOU LOVE AN ALGORITHM?
Geraldine Wharry: In Coded World, robotics pioneer Hiroshi Ishiguro spoke about what consciousness sees. Code elicits powerful emotions in people, having myself felt awe when I interviewed Ai-da Robot. AI challenges our preconceptions of what it means to be human and have a soul. How do you connect with beings in the virtual coded realm?
Catty Tay: I do this by giving them a narrative and a back story – what do they represent, what are their emotions, how do they feel, what are they showing, what physical attributes might we want the avatar to embody? All of these factors change the way we build, from the posture, the facial expressions, down to the way the clothing might be either torn or hanging off the shoulder slightly. It is the small touches that helps to build a story and evoke emotions within a virtual character.
Anjan Sundaram: I was surprised by Ishiguro’s robot. I told her I am going away for lunch and when I came back she recognised me and asked me how was lunch? It’s a very human question and it surprised me. And with Akihito who married the hologram, that is the kind of emotion he is holding on to. So it wouldn’t surprise me if more and more machines and their code seem to come alive. It’s a beautiful thing and such an interesting direction and, not to make a generalisation, AI seems like less of a threat and people seem more open to code as companions in Oriental and Buddhist cultures and philosophies.
Duan Weiwen: I think in popular culture, robots are portrayed as more attractive than real people. Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab Luciano Floridi refers to the fourth revolution, a generalisation of the influence of technology on the relationship between people and the outside world. The Cybernetic revolution is the main idea that man and machine should be interconnected and combined as one. But this kind of continuity and unity approaches post-human thinking.