The Mask is the Face: Self-Design in the Age of the Algorithm 

Modern scarification

We wear our souls in here.

Second Life resident

Biology’s offspring is culture, but culture feels little allegiance to its heritage. It has become rabid, turns back to devour its father. But culture is a Cronus, a middle way, a transitory stage. Culture in turn gives birth to the algorithm, but the algorithm feels little allegiance to its heritage; it has become rabid, turns back to devour its father. So the algorithm lives cannibalistically off the calories of the human body.

Biological evolution begets cultural evolution begets algorithmic evolution. Data points the way to fulfillment. First nature shaped our bodies, then we adorned and modified them with culture: tattoos, neck rings, body ideals, body piercings, shorn hair, clipped nails, ritual scars, labor, trade, and craft. These practices have inevitably migrated to the Internet. The most ephemeral, abstracted “site” in our lives, analogized popularly as a cloud, exerts increasing influence on our physical bodies. Energy in means energy out; our “feeds,” populated by the cyber self-representations of others, shape our development, while integrated technologies bring into question traditional boundaries of the body. We exist now in stretched forms across the web, loosely held together across countless subcontainerizations on any platform that will have us. 

(And yet culture and algorithm cannot ignore their origins in DNA: in order to mold bodies, they must engineer games to counter the evolved laziness, or exploit the evolved thrill-seeking, of their human hosts; in order to sell products, they must predict hormone cycles, trajectorize fertility.) 

The body has always been a vehicle for the expression of the self. The heart breaks, the eyes cry. Wrinkles are a testimony to time lived; experience leaves scars. 

But the body has also acted as a vehicle for the realization for the self, undergone through processes of ongoing material modification. In Christian worldview, the soul was clothed by the surface of the body, and visible only to God. Design, humble and human-oriented, was free to focus on trappings and ornament instead. As Christian ideas withdrew in the 20th century, design became a way of sensing someone’s soul second-hand. A person could be at least partially understood through appearances, but there was always a process of reverse-engineering, of knowledge through proxy.

Now we are inside an era in which not just mind-body or surface-soul dualisms, but boundaries or borders of any kind, are under scrutiny. There are the emerging concepts of embodied and extended thinking, which run against not just Cartesian preconceptions but the very idea of an autonomous thinking individual. “Context” myths of success are replacing “genius” myths of success. Entire platforms are dedicated to networking seemingly distinct ideas and objects. Concepts of ambient meaning are blossoming out of the fertile compost of gestalt theory. Binaries of gender and attraction are bleeding into spectrums. Maps act on territories through reinforcing feedback loops, and a cultural constructionist, ev-psych synthesis looms. The inside information is that [the idea of] yourself as “just little me” who “came into this world” and lives temporarily in a bag of skin is a hoax and a fake. 

The modern soul, then, is not merely made legible by proxy, by observing a subject’s conscious, mediated actions (both on its body and its surrounding landscape). The soul itself is inside these actions, these externalities, externalities which go far beyond the physical body and into digital and analog technologies alike. It is constructed across avatars and web profiles which are not just “evidence” of the soul but part and parcel to it. The soul’s very existence is predicated on the an external world, so that what we colloquially call personal branding is, acts on, and is acted upon by the soul all at once. Design of one’s “external” form is more important than ever: while present-day cultural correctness entails the conscientious disavowal of body-based prejudice, the rest of social ideology and techno progress pushes the opposite direction. 


Abbey Lee in the #mycalvins campaign 

Sometimes this embodied, extended, and virtualized soul occupies closed, safe communities; other times it is “public” on the web and theoretically visible to all. Before, identities were largely inherited: trades passed from father to son, domestic life reserved to women, class basically fixed. In small communities, people adopted the identities of their trades: doctor, shaman, chieftain, cobbler. The almost inconceivable expansion of personal mobility and network size in the 21st century brought with it the growing anxieties of identity: the anxieties of opportunity and possibility, indeterminacy and “what if”; the anxieties of layered cultural and subcultural affiliations, of navigating simultaneous ingratiations. ​Personal identity is the solution to a high-dimensional problem, the overlapping Venn diagram zone of varied cultural constraints. 

Think of a joke, then check on Twitter to make sure no one’s made it yet. “All human knowledge gathered and linked, hyper-linked… World without end, amen” (D. DeLillo, Underworld). Digital originality looks suddenly one in 3.8 billion. The upside is that digital networks also mean endless sources of inspiration, unprecedented source material for endless unique recombinations. Follow your idols, and merge your favorite attributes. The image feed acts as mood board for the mind and body. 

The two primary identity responses to the crises of networked culture have been consolidation and diversification. ​Modernist café society had its third spaces — informal social environments outside the home and workplace — where a third self could emerge inside bistros, barrooms, and Cotton Clubs. ​21st century society has led to nth spaces, where nth selves can grow out of containerized, sub-network communities. ​While Facebook connects the entirety of a person’s IRL socialspace, ​subnetworks — Finstas, Twitters, Tumblrs, Reddit accounts, Second Lives, 4chan anonymity, IRC infamy — are where users can be someone specifically oriented and specifically situated, catering to a curated audience often known only through URLs. The selves presented on these subnetworks are no less mediated, no less constrained, but they take on a certain reality in amalgam: different audiences come with different rules of acceptability, different aims and functions and social pressures. “Real” elements of the self which are stifled in one context are revealed in another, so that many users see subnetwork spaces as outlets into their “authentic” selves: “Finstas are used to publicise the real us. Rather that being illegal behaviour, [we’re] just posting what we really think about others,” says Windell. “They kind of are our opposites of our real profiles. Ironic.” 

A primary response to network culture has been the consolidation and diversification of selves. If bundling and unbundling technology has been the major driver of capital creation over the last twenty years, technologies to bundle and unbundle identities may very well be the major driver of identity creation over the next twenty. 

Self-design is inherently performative and transactional, exchanging time, money, and physical suffering to bring the body into agreement with the idealized soul. ​But the performance is not purely outward-facing: ​self-design is also a means of creating internal coherence, of combating cognitive dissonance between body and values. In Brooklyn, Poncho Martinez leads a team of left-leaning powerlifters committed to honing their bodies into fascist-fighting machines. The stated purpose might be physical self-defense, but the actual function is less pragmatic and more identity-bound: “[Conservatives] think we’re weak, we’re snowflakes, we’re hiding in our safe spaces. That’s not the case.” In tattoo parlors, a not insignificant number of customers pay to undergo ritualized, socially acceptable pain — self-design as alternative to self-harm — where the resulting body art serves as visible testimony to hidden hurt. Self-modification becomes an exercise of autonomy, a form of self-assurance which proves to a subject his control over his body. 

We are shifting away from a conception of identity as “who you are” — fixed and immutable — towards “how you do it.” What you add to, or subtract from, your body, how you conceptualize and frame the self, is becoming more important than what was “ there to begin with.” In other words, how you do it is the body, how you do it is the brand, and how you do it is the soul. 

Platforms like Second Life give users full autonomy (with respect to a finite set of customization options) over their physical appearance. In the physical world of 2017, only the body’s margins can only proxy for the soul: the ten percent of alterable qualities is tasked with representing values, beliefs, and feelings. In the digital world of 2017, every element of the self is chosen. The soul — insofar as we understand it as taste, a set of preferences, attitudes, experiences, beliefs and longings — becomes extended into the digital self, acts as the digital self’s very basis. In the same way we talk about art or literature as an extension of its creator’s soul, so we can understand the virtual body. This shared expressive ground goes part-ways toward explaining why so many Instagram influencers and amateur models run side projects in music, or describe modeling as their “art.” 

When these virtual selves are monetized and commodified, when they appeal to lowest common denominators, they pick up the language of commercial creative practice. Instagram influencers have been compared by Bloomberg to miniature magazines, serially releasing professional photographs, product recommendations, and politicized editorials. 

If the physical body has been described as a canvas, then digital bodies, to those who occupy them, are a form of fictionalized autobiography, a fabrication more real than reality. Bridgette McNeal, a Second Life-using mother in Atlanta, sports a blonde, fit avatar named Gidge Uriza, an alternate self she describes as “her” if she’d “never eaten sugar or had children.” Twenty-somethings on talk about actualizing into the men they’re biologically “supposed” to be — fit, bulked up, dominant. The mentality carries through onto digital platforms, where more radical and less labor-intensive transformation is possible. Whether its building blocks are proteins or pixels, musculature is a projection of (self-perceived) inner strength. The digitally slimmed waistlines of Instagram stand in for an inner discipline stymied by daily trials, but no less “real” or central to the self-slimmer. Digital bodies becomes an interface for transforming belief into reality; the digital self becomes a lie we tell in order to tell the truth, at least our version of it. 

Recent lines from our popular culture: “I’m not myself when I’m hungry.” “I’m not myself when I’m depressed.” “I’m not myself when I’m stressed out.” “I’m not myself when I’m anxious.” 

“Authentic self” is a ready-branded stand-in for “best self” so long as no one is willing to admit self-absorption, gossipping, binge eating, or alcoholism are parts of their “inner being.” It is a self-flattering substitution where “true self” slips into “best self,” an epistemic shoddiness by design. We subscribe to a Rousseauian models of a fallen angel, inscribing the Biblical story of Adam and Eve onto our own personal teleologies. Our true, inner selves were pure. We were corrupted by society. We must reclaim the authentic inner self who would have flourished. 

Some have argued that virtuality has rendered the body inconsequential. Cyberspace is certainly diminishing the relative importance of flesh-and-body anatomy, and some users of IRL-anonymous web platforms certainly roleplay (or “actualize”) as races, genders, body types, and ages other than their own. But for every instance of this phenomenon a dozen counterexamples are at hand: the overwhelming majority of such users maintain a strong, discernable correlation between what their bodies look like in cyberspace and what they look like in meatspace. Farsighted gamers adorn their avatar alter-egos with glasses, despite a lack of in-world visual impairment. McNeal may have shed pounds in her online transition, but has preserved the rest of her physical body in simulacrum. Social behavior, speech style, and other manifestations of selfhood similarly transfer: Role-playing quickly becomes old, limited, the role-player feels stifled at the inherent boundaries of inhabiting a stereotype. Inevitably, players default to “being themselves,” which means striking a balance between living as an idealized self and minimizing the work required to maintain the idealization. 

Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But the type of image, the category of reflection, has changed. Literal mirrors — dynamic but not manipulable, presenting a single authoritative image — are being replaced as reflectors of self by a network of altered images, frozen nanoseconds atemporally linked. The “plandid” image — a portmanteau of “planned” and “candid” — becomes the default emblem of self, while narcissistic scrolls through personal profiles reinforce a self-flattering self-image, based on manipulations initially (or purportedly) meant for others. Product loyalty and the weight of branding can only become more important in this new identity landscape. Increases in purchasing power mean increased consumption choice and agency; increased consumption choice and agency mean more power and legitimacy lent to “superficial” judgments. Is it fair to judge “tall skinny blondes” in a simulation where users self-design their bodies? The model of marketing will be the same as it’s ever been — enough idealization to flatter, enough accuracy to be believed. Self-design is the high-brow steelman of self-care, with the courage to admit its inherent narcissism and the aesthete sophistication to imagine everything as surface (or everything as soul). “When I step into [Second Life], I’m afforded the luxury of being selfish,” one resident confesses. Self-care aficcionados, meanwhile, cloak nine-dollar organic gelato purchases in appeals to mental health.^ 

Where self-care treats the body as all too human and inherently fragile, self-design treats the body as cyborg, antifragile, constantly expanding and ripe for optimization. One story replaces another; the mask becomes the face; happiness is born of costuming. 

“The fourth advantage I see in the word ‘design,’ is that it is never a process that begins from scratch: to design is always to redesign. There is always something that exists first as a given, as an issue, as a problem.” 

Bruno Latour 

We have been cyborgs as long as we have been human. All technologies which extend the body — hand tools, clothing garments, weaponry — are part of our cyborg heritage. But our degree of cyborgism is rapidly accelerating, past heart valves into brain chips, calling for a discourse which has thus far been largely limited to cybernetics and academic feminism. 

To understand the cyborg, or cybernetic organism, requires a shift in conceptualization. There is no longer a distinct boundary where the human ends and the tool begins. The central human element in the cyborg is not the specificities of anatomy but, as the Biennial contends, the act of design, which makes the algorithmic future of autodidactic AI all the more existentially uncertain. The arbitrariness of the body as “soul container” gives way to technologically extended

selfhoods. A Twitter account is not a disembodied self but a bodily techno-extension. It only looks disembodied from the outside. 

“Grinding,” a techie, cyborgic self-modification subculture, can be seen as a brave forsaking of future nausea in the name of exploration — or else as yet another subculture basing its membership around the technological modification and extension of the body. Grinders must undergo ritualized pain themselves in order to participate, inserting foreign objects like RFID chips and magnets under the skin through amateur surgery, often resulting in infection. Central to grinding culture is a communal belief in abstracted “science,” but it is a fetishized, cargoculted value more than a central tenant to grinder practice. The augmented selves which are produced by grinding — at least in theory — are here a variation on the “best self”/”true self” conflation seen across body modification practices. 

Hearing Color Through A Cyborg
Neil Harbisson, famed cyborg artist 

There are downsides to digital embodiment, to unlimited choosing, to avatar as identity, to an ease of self-design and self-customization. One is anxiety — the flipside of choice is always the panic of choosing wrong. Another is the avatar’s disconnect from a the subject’s experience. 

We are our own protagonists, and we mark our presence in the world by our exertion on it and its exertion on us. Physical self-transformation, from fashion to body art to surgery, is an abstracted, higher-dimension, costly-signaled equivalent of the prison tally mark. It is a testimony to not just a life lived but to the conditions of the living — material, social, historical, political.

Without real-world correspondence, physical appearance becomes at once infinitely meaningful and entirely meaningless. If the wrinkle, the scar, the muscle are products and evidence of living, then airbrushed skin and electronically induced muscle reflects nothing other than (ephemeral) inner desire. The avatar is both essential and arbitrary. 

First, we build emoticons which stand-in symbolically for our emotions. Then, we use emotions to stand-in symbolically for our emoticons. Facial expression are already associative, meaning-carrying vessels. But they do so with a debt to biology: tears are tied to trauma; smiles to oxytocin. If expressions become untethered, malleable, consciously pre-determined, they sever this tie. 

The ability to fully engineer your own body entails also the ability for others to control it. All the artifacts of external being — image, voice, facial expression — can and have been manipulated. The easier it becomes to become ourselves, the easier it becomes for us to become others, and others to become us. 

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