Your Body Is Just Your Primary Residence
“Of all the objects in the world, the human body has a peculiar status: it is not only possessed by the person who has it, it also possesses and constitutes him. Our body is quite different from all the other things we claim as our own… Although we speak of our bodies as premises that we live in, it is a special form of tenancy: our body is where we can always be contacted, but our continued presence in it is more than a radical form of being a stick-in-the-mud. Our body is not, in short, something we have, it is a large part of what we actually are .…” Jonathan Miller, The Body in Question
Our bodies seem uniquely our own. Identities may be faked or momentarily snatched, but the body in question is uniquely ours. Or so human history would lead us to believe. Now, as Joyce quipped, we’re headed where the hand of man never set foot. Bodies used to come furnished with names and faces. Today they come with stats and configurations, identifying patterns and biometric readings. These new augmented realities define and describe us. Bodies are ostensibly ours, but they no longer belong to us. The entire notion of belonging is misplaced, as our bodies are: they are in a new place where ownership and identification are conflated. Your body is just a primary residence—but you’re not there much of the time. You can’t be; your biometry goes on without you. This new reality is just dawning on most of us; we have had little time to adjust to what it means or how it affects us.
THE SHADOW OF YOUR SIMILE
A simile is a figure of speech that—tracing the Latin origin of the word—creates “a like thing.” From this word we get similar and facsimile. Our technologies are creating living similes of us. We are just like our iris scan or gait or face recognition; these are as “us” as anything we can name. However, biometrics change our sense of embodiment—the simile confounds our proprioception, our sense of being surrounded by a bodily self that we drag from place to place and experience to experience. It especially messes up that core proprioceptive sense of knowing where our body ends and the world begins.
This is because biometrics create a living shadow. This shadow was once sketchy and imprecise; it is now filling in with specific detail of moves, preferences, purchases, and entry and exit points. Whether paying by credit card, sending an email, browsing the Web, texting via cell phone, or sending a private message on Facebook, you leave behind small traces of digital information. This data shadow now includes bodily information—the youness of captured data—that can be digitized, documented, sent and received, scanned and analyzed. We all have bodies—that’s obvious. The Metalife of our bodies is less obvious. Traveling through any American city, our movements are tracked by identification capture on a subway card or E-ZPass, a debit card payment at our local coffee shop, or a smartcard swipe as we enter the office.
This biometric profile—face, fingerprints, voice, retina, gait, saliva—assures that the simile in question becomes the body in facsimile; the assembled body gets up off the data table and comes to life. And that’s the rub: your shadow can now move without you. In a word, it is a Metalife that complements and competes with your embodied life.
THE BODY RENOVATED
The uniqueness of the bodies we inhabit is registered with the state as a birth certificate or driver’s license—but that biometric data is primitive compared to what’s coming soon. InAuth, a mobile security software company, recently released a Voice Biometrics Authentication Module. Marketed to the mobile banking sector, InAuth provides a way to use a voice fingerprint to secure a mobile financial transaction. Pune, the seventh largest city in India, wants to use biometrics to identify illegal “hawkers,” then combine this with other data including location for easy identification and GIS mapping.
At the same time our bodies are becoming info-targets, Photoshopped images and video games now compel us to think we can live another life as a celebrity clone or a fictional character. Biometrics, gaming, and plastic surgery make strange bedfellows. Yet taken together, it appears our bodies are taking on lives of their own. What do we value differently when we enter gaming realities where the stationary body that manipulates those realities becomes just an interim residence in a series of outposts? We see an answer to those questions observing avatars that are bodily surrogates. According to the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, “people who saw their own avatar running were more likely to exercise (after they left the lab) than the people who saw someone else running or saw themselves just hanging out in the virtual room. In fact, those who watched [an avatar of] themselves running were motivated to exercise, on average, a full hour more than the others.”
Does the uniqueness of our identity wander when we look at an image and adjust our bodies to it? When our face, arguably the somatic feature that is most our own, is recognized by security cameras and we are caught unawares, only to find out later that what we thought was “ours” is being used by others?
Our bodies are not just bilaterally organized locales where we reside. As they become triggers for our metalives, the more our notion of residing in a body is stretched, changed—even challenged—by this out-of-body response to newer communication tools and technologies. When we had only print media and face-to-face contact to bring the world to us—and us to the world—we saw the world very differently. We acted differently. It is now possible, even probable, given the ever-growing technology at our disposal, that our tools will move in one direction and take our attention—and our bodies—along for the ride. And what a ride it is! Increased computer processing speeds enable access to enlarging biometric identification databases, and then are able to compare thousands of human features in fractions of a second, providing identity matches after an individual has been detained or while a person is still in custody. Our bodies are now discerning witnesses, testifying for or against us without our consent.
But biometrics are only one part of this story. As we live a Life on the Screen, we move from telling stories to jumping into them. Our bodies become a home base and a launching pad for self-extensions, remodels and variations, game characters, and a Second Life. As we enter more virtual environments and encounter more visually stimulating games and programs, our mirror neurons engage and we begin to see and feel ourselves as much in these places as we are in our bodies. The result is the fixedness of our body and our identity is becoming more malleable, more open to revision.
This corporeal impermanence makes us body renovators:
PLAYING IN THE BODY LEBRON
Anthony Crudup played football at Tulane University and the University of Minnesota. He is 6’0”, weighs 223 lbs and indentifies himself as a Black and Taiwanese graduate student. But alone in his apartment, he is someone else.
This is his Metalife:
When Anthony plays the EA Sports NBA Live video game, he is LeBron James, the 6’8”, 250-lb., African-American basketball superstar. Anthony is a hardcore gamer who competes against friends and other players online, but they are just the chorus for bragging rights, a trash-talking peripheral to the real focus of his attention. In Anthony’s words, “Playing LeBron is a rush.”
Anthony begins an NBA Live game by checking out LeBron’s DNA (note the biological lingo) which updates LeBron’s scoring tendencies built into the game from real-life stats compiled over his NBA career. (As a measure of the accuracy of today’s video games, if an NBA player gets injured or traded, within two hours of the public announcement, he is unavailable for live video games.) For Anthony, choosing LeBron is like making an investment in a stock that has a magical guarantee of a twenty percentage-point performance. Given the default position where LeBron’s DNA starts, Anthony as LeBron consistently gets better and better. There are levels of play within NBA Live, and no matter where Anthony selects to start the game LeBron can do it all. He’s unstoppable: in the paint, on post-ups, burying three-pointers.
It’s not just a numbers game. Playing LeBron is a rush because of the way it feels.
When he plays as LeBron, Anthony feels “super dominant.” Coming from his own competitive background he gets a special buzz from dunks and three-pointers. This is all underscored through trash-talking on the headset. When playing online, especially against people he doesn’t know, it gets really intense. Anthony’s focus increases, his heart rate rises and then, usually at the start of the third quarter, it’s as though the game itself trips a body switch in Anthony. He’s not alone in his room and he’s not eight inches shorter and twenty-seven pounds lighter than LeBron. He has a 44” vertical leap, a 7′¼” wingspan, he’s scoring at will. He’s in the game.
Not only is the LeBron James on the screen a manifestation of Anthony’s Metalife, it’s a manifestation of the real LeBron James’s Metalife as well. In his day-to-day, physical existence, LeBron James is the all-star forward for the Miami Heat. He is personal friends with Warren Buffett, and wants to be a billionaire. He makes about 4,000 times more per year than our kids’ teachers.
Simultaneously, LeBron lives another life outside his body, in the NBA Live video game. Here we see typical Metalife mirroring and reverberation: the LeBron character was created using digital motion capture or modeling of the actual LeBron’s moves and motions; in a sense, the character is ‘playing’ LeBron just as Anthony is. Other people—gamers—are buying EA Sports NBA Live games in order to play LeBron, to see themselves as athletic and heroic as LeBron and to get a rush like the one Anthony feels. Just as the EA Sports LeBron generates thousands of metalives (the people playing LeBron), so too the gamers who are playing LeBron are leading metalives that are affected by LeBron’s real life (his DNA). This place located between real-life LeBron and the games Anthony plays is populated by (and is constantly spawning) new metalives. If you doubt that gaming creates a life-changing immersion that affects our sense of self and body, consider the following:
► Active online gamers will have spent 10,000 hours at play by the time they are twenty-one, which is almost as much as the time spent in school.
► 20 million players have spent 17 billion hours on Xbox Live: that’s more than 2 hours played for every person on the planet.
► There are 500 million active online gamers worldwide and that number will grow to 1.5 billion in the next ten years.
► Three billion hours a week are spent playing online games.
► Jane McGonigal, game designer and futurist, believes that online games can solve real-world problems like hunger, obesity, climate change, global conflict—but to do so we will need to spend 21 billion hours a week playing (problem-solving) games.
Gaming is now an activity that has few rivals in many peoples’ lives. In South Korea, gaming has already achieved addiction status and the Korean government estimates up to 30% of teens are at risk for Internet addiction. Where are these Korean teenagers while they’re risking all that Internet addiction? It would appear that they are both in their bodies and out of them at the same time. While in real life there is no such thing as disembodied consciousness—body maps in our brains ensure this—a Frontline documentary, “Digital Nation,” interviewed Young-il, 15, who captured the split lives of many gamers when he said: “I play seven or eight hours a day. Then on weekends, I stay up all night on the computer.”
Why is it that computer and video games compel a narrative that takes us into another body or out of our own bodies? It would appear that gamers are cyber cousins of the Northwest Indians who believe that when we create and wear a bear mask, we begin to think and act like a bear; gamers are shamans moving between the real world and the gameosphere. Our tools can make us think we can, as it were, leap out of our bodies. Consider what William Gibson wrote in his highly acclaimed novel, Neuromancer. Keep in mind this was written in 1984—over a quarter of a century ago, in the era between Atari and Nintendo 64!
Case was twenty-four. At twenty-two, he’d been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl. He’d been trained by the best, by McCoy Pauley and Bobby Quine, legends in the biz. He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.
You may think that Gibson’s fictional portrayal, with such phrases as “adrenaline high,” is over the top. But in fact, studies show that this is quite accurate. An active gamer’s heart rate can reach 160 beats per minute, similar to that of a pro basketball player.
As Brian Peoplis, an avid gamer who is also a sportswriter and who also happens to play LeBron, wrote:
“Some NBA players will say when they’ve been exceptionally good: (in a real-life game) ‘I felt like I was in a videogame.’ That doesn’t make much sense anymore. The line between a real life NBA game experience and an NBA video game is almost non-existent. The two are nearly identical. This is because of the advanced technology in the game, and because developers are paying attention to what wins and loses games in real life and striving to give us such a real product that you have to play it out as if you were a real player. No more chucking threes all game and winning. You have to control the ball, literally play it like a real game. This effectively eliminates the line between video games and real life.”
That line is drawn at the edge of the body, where it meets the real world—or jacks into another, shutting the door on a previous residence. From biometrics to plastic surgery to gaming excursions, the body in question has never been more questionable.
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