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10/7/1999 Touch my homunculus

Who you are online has become a popular conversation piece and commodity these days. Web sites require you to fill in personal information to get free things, your email address is filled in places in order to get access to your "personalized" webspace, and you interact as yourself, or someone else, or a hybrid of the above, depending on "where" (in a cyberspace sense) you are at the time and what you are interacting with.

The proper term for who you "are" online is an avatar. The theory is that when you use a terminal of some sort to interact with the online world, you are transposed into cyberspace as a moving, sentient being who traverses through cyberspace in the similar way as you walking through a mall. You stop one place, decide to go someplace else, move there, interact with whatever is there, get a lead to someplace else, head there, and continue in that linear, congruent way. The biggest problem here is that cyberspace and it's manifestations are not 3 dimentional, or even linear, worlds. You cannot interact with them in the real-world sense. There are some correlations, such as reading chronological posts in a chat area or bulletin board, but the rest of cyberspace exists in a multidementional, polymorphous form where one point in space can lead to any number of other points, and the distance between any two points is both infinitely large and infinitely small (which you can realize when looking for a single thing on a large website and just can't find it).

OK, things are getting pretty deep there. But, where you need to stop and look is how you interact with this electronic subworld that exists within ours. Cyberspace isn't just the internet -- it is the line of characters across the bottom of your checks, it is the security badge which you have to swipe to get into work, it is your social security number that has also become your school ID number, your driver's license number, and the way your bank identifies you when you call them. You interact with cyberspace every time you type in your PIN number at the ATM or call someone collect. You are constantly manipulating computers, and the computers are constantly keeping track of what you are doing.

Here is what we are reaching towards, our society of statistics and market research and simplicity and ease of use has bred the panoptic sort. This is a complex issue, better described by any number of papers by the greatest minds today, but the jist of it is that every one of us interacts with a all-knowing system of information, while being isolated from others and their interaction with that same system. If all is working right, you are the only person who knows how to get at your email, can get into your checking account, and can get into work with your identification badge, but the larger entities which control these identifying features of you have the ability to communicate the information between themselves.

However, unlike the original Panopticon, which assumes that each person within it is a single person and can be isolated, the cyberspace of today allows for more than this. The multitude of forms that your interaction with online systems takes on is the savior in this. Where, 100 years ago, you were identified by the personal knowledge people had of you, by your look, by your famiy, your only way to break free from that was to move someplace where noone knew you, and begin a new identity. You were not one thing to the bank and another to the post office, and another to your employer. Today, the Social Security number is relied on only because it is nearly guaranteed to be unique to each person, which is the same reason that organizations requiring higher levels of security are relying un unalterable characteristics of a person (retina, fingerprint, etc.) for identification. The ability to mold yourself in relation to computers is almost immeasurable.

There is, however, a level of usage which is required. Some people have no wish to be "tracked" by anything online. These people transact in cash, they either do not use the internet or use means to cover their tracks, they receive mail at PO Boxes, and they keep their SSN a secret from all but the deserving places. This, however, reduces your ability to use anything within cyberspace; you cannot receive messages instantly from your friends and relatives, you cannot use credit for large purchases, or protect yourself against theft by replacing your cash with a debit card. You make it hard for people to find you, and that makes it difficult for you to interact with the world that we live in today. Becoming a cyberspace "hermit" is just as isolating today as living the life of a 9th century hermit on the top of a remote mountain was a thousand years ago.

Other people create an online presence which is very close to their human existence, in the true "avatar" sense. They have one email address, they have one phone number, they have one bank account, and one credit card. Online, they always identify themselves as themselves, with no qualifiers or changes. They use their one email address ehenever it is required, their mailing address is always the same, and they don't mind. It makes the complexity of being online manageable, and it is a good lifestyle for the non-technosavvy people. And, it is the exact lifestyle that a panopticon relies on -- it makes you easy to identify, you become a line in a database which corresponds with other lines in order databases (from your credit report to your online resume to your medical records), and that information can be used for multiple purposes, some good, some bad. Primarily, the purposes are good, because bad things are often unprofitable or illegal, although immorality is still found amongst the good purposes.

After interacting within cyberspace over time, you begin to realize the negative results of being trackable and becoming predictable. Spam finds it's way to you without you knowing it's origin, your bank raises the fees on your checking account because your credit reports shows you've been late twice in paying your credit card, and work notices that there's a lot of personal email originating from your computer on the days that you are at work. These can be the downside of falling into the panoptic sort -- you begin to be classified and reacted to based on trends, and not based on your actions. You become predictable, and the more predictable you are, the more people & entities within cyberspace look further into the future to consider your actions, in the hopes that they can be a step ahead of you in the system of things. If your bank believes that you may overdraft your checking account based on your credit card history (compared to the other people with similar backgrounds and habits), they will consider you a higher risk and treat you accordingly. The other people at work do not have time to watch over your shoulder all day, because a human costs at least minimum-wage every hour to be there. A network-monitoring computer costs pennies per hour, operates 24 hours a day, and bases it's results on probabilities. If there are a lot of e-mail messages leaving your computer for non-local servers, and you are logged in the only times that it happens, then probability leads your supervisors to believe that you may be using your computer access for improper things. There are plenty of things that you do not take for granted, which are important but nearly imperceptible. Computers rely entirely on detail for their existence -- every digit has the same importance, all processes are completed exactly according to the instructions, and these are why entites with responsbility rely on computers. A computer can keep track of far more things than any human could do, and it does it faster and cheaper and far more accurately.

It doesn't take long after realizing the influence your online actions have over your real-world interactions. At this point, you begin to diversify your identity. You open multiple bank accounts. You change banks altogether, to hide your prediction based "past". You open multiple email accounts on different servers, each specialized for a different purpose. You develop "dummy" identites with which you register your software & fill into online forms to hide your identity from people who don't neccesarily need it. Slowly, Where once you started from within yourself and created an online entity around you, how you assemble an online presence which envelops you. None of it is outright deceptive; you check all your email accounts regularly, your multiple websites stay updated, and your email, chat, and BBS messages are all written from your own point of view, regardless of the name used.

This man-made entity made up of outside sources, this frankenstein, is what I call the Homunculus. Online avatars are clean, specific, and well defined. It is simple, easy to define, and easy to track, and it is what makes the individual trapped within their online existence. You become manipulated and anticipated by the organizations which make use of historical information, and it reduces the personal freedom to interact with the online world in a productive way. The online homunculus, however, can be similar in size (size, in an online sense) as an avatar, indistinguishable from the individual, or it can me very large, spanning servers, software, and geographical boundaries, all simultaneously, being a singular entity but without being defined sinularly.

There are several definitions to what a homunculus is; I am not identifying this online homunculus specifically with any one ideal definition of the word. One definition has to do with the alchemical homunculus. A sorcerer took parts of human anatomy, parts of animal anatomy, and using magical powers, formed a new human from the scraps. Another definion is of the "ghost in the machine", that a homunculus is the diminutive proto-human within all of us which gives us our personality, our drive, our direction, and in this sense the user is the homunculus. Combining these two descriptions, we reach the whole cyborg entity of the homunculus. The online homunculus isn't just an electronic representation of you; it is the mix of the you that exists in the real world and the you that exists in the virtual world. All are one in the same, but none is represented in the same way. This polymorphous representation of who an online user is protects the user from being treated according to the electronic definition of who they are, based on historical actions and reacted to with preemptive responses. The information is collected, but no individual source has the whole story -- this isn't fraud, there is no misrepresentation of anyone here. The multitude of aspects that can be created online give an infinite combinations of personal characteristics of the homunculus, making it such that no one can look at the same online entity and see the same thing.

What can be forseen is not a world where people "jack in" and become a VR representation of themselves. The online world is not set up that way; physical location, source, purpose, interface, and destination all affect the way the online world is interacted with. On top of that, cyberspace cannot be represented in a 3-dimentional, navagable sense. The future will result in people taking their freedom into their own hands, and creating their own representation of themselves, with as much simplicity or as much complexity as they need in order to live the lives that they want to in the "wired world". The online avatar may still be around, but more than likely it will become part of the manifestation of the homunculus. A person will not identify themselves as the avatar, but instead use the avatar as a puppet, to interact within a certain situation in a certain way. Once that avatar has lost it's use, it will be saved and put aside for use at a later date. With the immense capabilities of forms of interaction, people will have a web of communication facets around their person, creating something much larger than any person; they will create this homunculus in order to be themselves, without fear of being treated as just bits of information.

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