The Panoptic Self

Keynote address for "Earth to Avatars"
26 October 1996

Mark Pesce

Part One: A Brief History of the Virtual Word

What is interesting is that weíve never envisioned cyberspace as anything but a social space.

Gibsonís Matrix was filled with users - legal and illegal - AIís and, when it changed, the Loa of Voudon.

Gibson dreams his tech but Stephenson has it down cold; so everything in the Matrix is perfect, while The Street, populated with barbies and low-rez avatars gave us a real direction, a real vision. In my own work on WebEarth I have attempted to articulate one dimension of that vision; you creating the human presence in cyberspace, articulate another. And perhaps we soon converge.

The success of The Palace and Alphaworld - which must be admitted as immature technologies - proves the existence of a powerful drive to connect.

Because connection is the only thing in that space is real, the only thing that persists after the servers go down and the networks jam up.

An avatar, then, serves one purpose above all - as a vehicle of communication.

Part Two: Self in Cyberspace

What does this digital incarnation of the self communicate?

Remember the cartoon from a 1994 New Yorker:

but add to this, Mitch Kaporís corollary:

Hereís one of the unique qualities of cyberspace - the only thing that fist through the keyhole - into the Ether - is your self.

Your interactions in this virtual world possess their own persistent qualities - call it karma if you like, or, as I prefer, a morphogenetic field - that accrue through time. Your avatar is inevitably shaped by the force of your own actions, but not in any sense that is digital; rather in the memories of the avatars you have communicated with.

Cyberspace: First Steps. Central essay: Cyberspace: Some Proposals by Michael Benedikt.

Benediktís Principle of Indifference: "Absence from Cyberspace has a cost."

Corollary: "Actions in Cyberspace leave a mark."

A mark both persistent and cumulative.

Part Three: The Dossier

The French philosopher Michel Foucault spent many years investigating the phenomenon of persistence in social institutions - but he focused his own studies on the beginnings of modern medicine in early 19th century Paris.

In his epochal text, Birth of the Clinic, Foucalt noted that the patient, upon entering the clinic, is a tabula rasa - nothing known about them. The institution - to preserve its own memory of the patient - establishes a dossier, a file recording the patientís journey through the organs of the clinic. This dossier becomes the "official" reference point for the patient; every journey through the clinic causes it to accrete collective memory. The officials in the clinic refer to the dossier when deciding upon a course of treatment, and these reflections upon the dossier are fed back into it, further extending its "reality". In a very short time the physical body of the patient can be ignored - the dossier has become the patient, has acquired its own reality by robbing the patient of his - through the power of the institution to declare what is "real", a reality that the patient possessed only at the precise moment at which he entered the institution.

While only a single example, it is easy to see how this effect extends itself across all social institutions.

Cyberspace - as the modern incarnation of the social institution - suffers from the same tragic flaw, but infinitely extended. That which could counter this process - the gnosis of direct experience - is precisely that which is mediated away by cyberspace.

I tell you, we are already avatars.

Our avatars know no ground, and the more our avatars interact with cyberspace the less it becomes our own avatar-as-itself, the more it builds toward a dossier which it inexorably defines.

So remember - as you construct your avatar protocols - that you are building us all into a prison of information which must inevitably trap us all.

Part Four: The Panoptic Self

Foucault also uncovered another quality we need to examine, in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

In 1784 a London architect and social theorist by the name of Jeremy Bentham devised a new type of prison. This prison was constructed as an octagonal building, hollow throughout the middle, into which all of the cells faced. At the center of this prison stood a tower - containing a single guard - able to survey all of the prison cells - none of which could see into any other.

Bentham called this device the Panopticon, and envisoned it as a general solution to a wide range of social institutions - first as prison, then workhouse and school. Bentham intuited that the ability to behold - to observe - would induce moral qualities in those observed. He took himself very seriously in that respect, so much so that Bentham, upon his death in 1815, had himself stuffed, mounted in a chair, and placed in the boardroom of London University, with instructions to be placed at the end of the table during meetings of that board. He hoped that would keep them honest.

Cyberspace is the ultimate panoptic environment - Iíll cover one specific part of that in my panel a bit later - but for now it is enough to say that any point in cyberspace can see the whole.

Curiously - and this is an inversion typical of Cyberspace - the whole can also see any point, and further, can be any point. To look into cyberspace is to look through someoneís eyes - but those eyes may not be your own.

The existence of the avatar somehow makes the impossibility of ego refiguring or exchange somehow plausible. The play-acting within MOOs is more than drama - it is ritual, religion in the Latin sense of the word - it "binds" us to a specific construction of the self.

Where we are heading - indeed this event shows that we are almost there - we find ourselves exchanging ego identities almost as easily as we might change our avatarís looks. We see the world through anotherís eyes, walk a mile in their moccasins, and feel as they feel.

Edmund Spencer, author of The Faierie Queen, wrote:

"Oh woulde some gifte a giddie gie us, To see ourselfes as others see usÖ"

This refiguring of Ontos - that is, being - erodes the tidy boundaries between "self" and "other" - but this Cartesian convention has been under attack from the time a woman looked up from the plains of Africa and sung the first word. The first world.

And spread by a voice or by a string or by bits splayed into the ether, this Logos articulates all we are, here and in cyberspace.

In the beginning was the Word
And we shall and as words -
not in isolation, but rather,
strung together in poetry so metered
that were the smallest syllable displaced
it would sound less like us.

October 1996,
Santa Monica and San Francisco