There’s a song on the 1997 Chemical Brothers album Dig Your Own Hole that reminds one of your authors of driving far too fast with a too-close friend through a flat summer nowhere on a teenage afternoon (windows down, volume up). It’s called “Where Do I Begin,” and the lyric that fades out repeating as digital sounds swell asks: Where do I start? Where do I begin?*

Where do we start, or begin–and also, where do we stop? What and where is the dividing line between “you” and “not you,” and how can you tell? This is the first of a series of posts in which we will try to answer these sorts of questions by developing a theory of subjectivity specific to life within augmented reality.

As a thought experiment, consider the following: Your hand is a part of “you,” but what if you had a prosthetic hand? Are your tattoos, piercings, braces, implants, or other modifications part of “you”? What about your Twitter feed, or your Facebook profile? If the words that come from your mouth in face-to-face conversation (or from your hands, if you sign) are “yours,” are the words you put on your Facebook profile equally yours? Does holding a smartphone in your hand change the nature of what you understand to be possible, or the nature of “you” yourself? Theorists such as Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, Bruno Latour, and others have asked similar questions with regard to a range of different technologies. Here, however, we want to think specifically about what it means to be a subject in an age of mobile computing and increasingly ubiquitous access to digital information.


The Augmented World

Credit: Shirin Rezaee

Both as a dream and as a subsequently realized ambition, the Web has curiously been characterized as constituting a discrete world or reality that is somehow separate from the reality we all inhabit. (We use Nathan Jurgenson’s term “digital dualists” to describe people who characterise the Web thusly.) Early dualist fiction writers imagined that the Web would be an immersive, full sensory experience; perhaps similarly, contemporary dualists see “kids lost in their cell phones,” and bemoan those kids’ lack of presence.

Contemporary dualists love to treat the fantasy “worlds” of massive multiplayer online games such World of Warcraft as if they are microcosms of the Web as whole. They also love to cite fantasy role-playing cum social networking site Second Life–which is probably the most tortured and exhausted case study of online interaction available–to argue (or worse, merely intimate) that the Web really, really is a whole separate world. (If you’re a digital dualist, it’s easier just to ignore the fact that Second Life boasts 1/1000th as many active monthly users as does Facebook.) Needless to say, we do not find such arguments convincing.

Over the past decade, theorists and commentators alike have responded to digital dualism by offering competing accounts of how atoms and bits come together in one single reality rather than in two separate ones. This single reality has alternately been termed “mixed,” “blended,” “dual,” or “augmented,” but one thing all of these newer theories emphasize is that–far from existing in two separate worlds–atoms and bits are now increasingly enmeshed. (Tune in next week for a lit review of these various descriptive models.) These enmeshed conceptualizations of reality raise fundamental questions, however, about the nature of reality’s inhabitants. If physical beings lived in the older physical world (and did they?), who lives in the enmeshed world? How do we understand the digitally-enmeshed subject?


Who Inhabits the Augmented World?

In Neuromancer, William Gibson famously imagined “cyberspace” to be the domain of a small and rugged contingent of “console cowboys.” As the Web transitioned from fantasy to fact, similar ideas persisted in our cultural imaginary. As Virginia Eubanks describes in her excellent essay on “The Mythography of the New Frontier”:

We don’t have to look far to see the internet conceptualized as the “new frontier.” Examples abound: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and its “Pioneer Awards;” books like High Noon on the Electronic Frontier and Civilizing Cyberspace; high tech corporations like Frontier-Global-Center; the Wild, Wild Web; John Perry Barlow’s “homestead on the web.”

Eubanks argues that the early “pioneers” of the Web celebrated it as a new, Utopian space in which to realize both their ambitions of conquest and their (neoliberal) ideals of flexibility, democracy, and individuality (something Fred Turner explores in depth in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture).

In practice, however, the cyberspace “frontier” proves to be a rather lousy metaphor, because it obscures the fact that long-standing social structures and forces–what a self-styled “pioneer” might call “civilization”–are in fact reproduced on the Web. (After all, if Science and Technology Studies has taught us anything, it is that neither science nor technology emerges in a vacuum.) The pioneer/frontier metaphor of the Web is therefore fundamentally dualist, in that it imagines the Web as a blank, unsettled space separate from the rest of society. Such dualism is dangerous, because it blinds us to the ways that power operates in constructing both the Web and its users.

Credit: Marco Papale

The mirror is, arguably, a better metaphor for the Web, in that it does capture the ways in which existing social structures and categories are reproduced online. In contrast to the Utopian dream of the Web as a new and separate space, the mirror creates what Michel Foucault calls a “heterotopia”:

The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia insofar as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.

For Foucault, the mirror is interesting because what it displays is both connected to (and determined by) the world, yet also set apart from the world. This simultaneous connection/disconnection allows the person who stands in front of the mirror to relate to the world in new ways. The mirror provides a new way of relating to things in the world, but it does not create a new space or a new reality.

To infants and birds, certainly, it may appear as though there is a world “through the looking glass,” but that world is just an illusion. When we get out of the shower and look into the mirror, for instance, what we are looking into is not an exciting, unknown frontier; rather, it is our same banal bathroom, and our same banal reality. Nor do we encounter a “second self” in looking; rather, we meet our own bleary-eyed gaze.

Of course, reflections of our world do not look exactly like our world itself. At minimum, when we are dressed and re-enter the bathroom, we notice that the band name or clever slogan on our t-shirt appears backwards in the mirror, whereas it is not printed backwards in the bathroom. If the mirror is foggy, or very old, or cracked, or a shaving mirror, that mirror will produce reflections that look even more different; it may appear that Salvador Dalí has reshaped our head, or that someone has thrown an Instagram filter over our face.

Similarly, the world reflected in the Web does not always look exactly like the world we inhabit. Much as the mirror-bathroom and the world-bathroom both have fixtures, walls, and that awful fluorescent light, both the online and offline social worlds do have everything from friendship and social support to racism and misogyny. But much as a Claude glass reflects a more beautiful vista than the one in the world behind you, social media often reflects people and lives that are more beautiful than their analogue counterparts.

Accordingly, mirrors are not inert. As the tale of Narcissus and Echo makes plain, a mirror can shape the behavior of the subject who stands before it. A mirror has certain affordances, and these affordances change depending on where the mirror is placed, or on who comes to stand in front of it. Insofar as “the mirror” serves as a metaphor for social media in particular, it may constitute a subject who has both what Jurgenson calls “documentary vision” (or a “Facebook eye”) and what Whitney Erin Boesel calls “documentary consciousness.”

The constitution of the subject in a dialectical relationship with her own reflection is by no means a new concept. In fact, Hegel acknowledges in Phenomenology of Spirit (translated in Rockmore) that when we see our own labor reflected and objectified in the things we produce, we become self-conscious in new ways: “Through work [the subject] comes to know himself [sic].” In other words, everything we invest labor into (including, say, social media profiles) become a sort of mirror for reflecting upon our own consciousness.

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(Plato’s cave analogy in cartoon form.)

For all of its advantages over the “frontier” metaphor, however, the mirror metaphor does have some major limitations. The idea of a mirror makes it too easy to dismiss that which is reflected as “not real,” à la Plato and the shadows on his cave wall–whereas we remain committed to the idea that “the online” is no more or less real than “the offline.”

In fact, if we take seriously the theory of affordances, “realness” is not a quality with which things are intrinsically imbued; rather, “realness”  is an emergent property of the things in our environment that we find useful and that we express our agency on or against. It therefore follows that, to the extent that we can act on and through bits, they are no less real to us than are atoms. Both bits and atoms act on our consciousness, and also on each other.

An additional weakness of the mirror metaphor is that, while you can always leave your bathroom and walk away from the mirror, you cannot so easily escape the Web (even if you walk away from your screen). The mirror metaphor therefore obscures two fundamental aspects of the environment (we’ll adopt the term “augmented reality”) experienced by what we will now term the augmented subject:

1. The co-production of the physical and the digital

2. The non-optionality of physical/digital enmeshment


Co-production of The Physical and The Digital

Much as information–both oral and textual–came to co-produce physical matter in earlier historical epochs, the physical and the digital can now no longer be separated. Not only are that which we think of as “the physical” and “the digital” inextricably enmeshed; they also shape and create each other. This type of mutual, reciprocal creation that results in two things that cannot be separated from each other is what Sheila Jasanoff calls co-production, and it describes the present-day relationship between the physical and the digital.

Taken together, the physical, the digital, and the interactions between them constitute what Jurgenson terms augmented reality, and it is the only reality we inhabit. Just as we inhabit but one single, augmented reality, we are each ourselves but one single, augmented subject. There is no Turklean second self; rather, the augmented subject is both her “self” and her so-called “second self.” The augmented subject is an assemblage of atoms and bits, produced through interactions within and between both physical and digital environments.


Non-optionality of Physical/Digital Enmeshment

From financial transactions, to the transmission of cultural memes, to the organization of bodies in space for both parties and protests, the character of the social world is increasingly shaped by interactions between both atoms and bits. Even if one refuses direct interaction with digital information, its fingerprints are ubiquitous across the realm of atoms. We are shaped by our interactions with digital information; we are also affected by others’ interactions with digital information, even if we attempt to avoid direct interaction ourselves. Though op-ed writers might lead one to believe otherwise, it is not possible to “log off,” “disconnect,” or otherwise separate one’s self from digital enmeshment.

Augmented reality is what Haraway describes as a “non-optional” system. In other words, nowhere can physical matter–which includes you, and us–escape the causal influence of the Web’s digital information; nor can the Web escape the causal influence of physical matter. Assemblage theory is instructive here: We can think of augmented reality as an assemblage of atoms and bits, through which subjects are causally linked on multiple levels, both directly and indirectly.

If we all now non-optionally inhabit a reality in which the digital and the physical co-produce and co-construct one another, then our subjectivities come to reflect this enmeshment regardless of whether we engage with digital technologies directly ourselves. After all, subjectivities are neither physical nor digital; they are the products of interactions with both the physical and the digital, and subjects express their agency (whether directly or indirectly) through both the physical and the digital as well.

In discussing prostheses, Allucquére Rosanne Stone interrogates our privileging of the natural body as a site of agency, and deconstructs such assumptions through a series of accounts of “disembodied agency.” One example of disembodied agency that Stone gives is a crowd of people gathering to see Stephen Hawking deliver a “live” presentation by playing a recording from his talking device. Of course, Hawking’s disembodied agency is also, simultaneously, an embodied agency. Hawking’s agency and subjecthood reside both in his body and in his machine. Thus, the “real” Hawking and the “live” experience of Hawking exist in the performance of the interaction between human and machine.

Stone suggests that “virtual [read: digital] systems are [perceived as] dangerous because the agency/body coupling so diligently fostered by every facet of our society is in danger of becoming irrelevant.” Like Stone’s description of Hawking, Haraway’s cyborg, or Hayles’s posthuman construction of embodiment, what we describe as the augmented subject moves beyond Englightenment notions of a discrete subject in that we understand the subject to embody an assemblage of fluid exchanges between atoms and bits. As Amanda Todd and so-called “cyber-bullying” have taught us, violence against bits is not any less real; such violence remains violence against the whole.

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(Start at 17:00)

We do not wish to suggest, however, that the physical and the digital do not have different affordances; were this not the case, we would not bother to distinguish between them. The augmented subject accordingly expresses agency differently through her presence in a Twitter stream (for example) than she does through her presence in a face-to-face conversation. Equally, the unique characteristics of physical and digital media mean that they both impose upon and construct the subject in different ways. We will return this idea in coming weeks.

In summary, the augmented subject is constituted in an environment where atoms and bits co-produce one another. She recognizes herself in, and expresses her agency through, both atoms and bits. She is always-already an assemblage of atoms and bits, as is the world around her; because her enmeshed reality is a non-optional system, she can neither escape nor refuse it. She is a synthetic subject for a synthetic world.

*Alternatively, this lyric may well be, “Where do I stop? Where do I begin?”–though Internet consensus seems to indicate otherwise.