Originally published by The Center for Digital Ethics & Policy (2012).
Have you ever wished you could instantly change your body shape, height, skin color or even gender? On the popular virtual world Second Life, wishful thinking becomes virtual reality. The Second Life Marketplace features a massive assortment of shapes, skins, eyes and other body components, from the “Luscious Lanae” shape to “Irresistible Looking Eyelashes” to “Afro Male Ethnic Skin,” all for purchase to create your avatar.
Second Life promotes these choices as a form of self-expression, a chance to “dress up and design a new 3D you.” At first glance, these choices seems to epitomize Princeton English professor Mark Hansen’s 2004 description of an online world that “affords an unprecedented freedom to the digital author who is therewith able to invent herself subject only to the constraints of the on-line medium.” It is a world where users can transcend the limitations of race, gender, class and age which attach themselves to our bodily existence. Users are free to create new identities and perhaps even new forms of community.
Hansen was, however, imagining a text-based digital community, not the dazzling world of YouTube clips, video chatting, Facebook and Second Life, which form the bulk of today’s digital interactions. As these modes make abundantly clear, bodies are very much present online. The new possibilities for bodily re-presentation and even re-creation stir up a haze of ethical dilemmas, but one thing is clear: digital bodies are vitally important.
Elaine Scarry, author of The Body in Pain, has remarked that our bodies are the medium through which we engage with and understand ourselves in the world. Since the Internet and other digital media profoundly restructure how we understand bodily experience, a closer look at our digital bodies can shed new light on emerging understandings of self and society.
What possibilities are there for re-presenting and re-creating our bodies in digital form? What Faustian bargains (recall the legend of Johann Faust who traded his soul with the devil in exchange for power and knowledge) do we unwittingly make as we digitize and upload our bodies?
Opportunities for Bodily Re-Presentation and Re-Creation
Second Life is an extreme example of the detachment from physical reality that digital technologies offer. Your avatar and virtual neighborhood do not need to have any resemblance to real life. On the other end of the spectrum, live video-chatting is perhaps the closest we have gotten to simulating actual physical presence. Even then, you can choose to show only part of yourself. In between the poles lies a spectrum of digital bodies with more or less congruence to real life, from selectively chosen LinkedIn profile photos, to edited video and sound clips, to snapshots from 10 years ago that “pass” for our online presence today.
There is also pure text which, while a narrow medium, can still be used to constitute digital bodies. Rodney Jones, for example, studied how users of online gay chat rooms moved from text-based chats to multi-modal forms of communication. Users began interaction by writing their bodies into digital existence, giving statistics such as “22, 173 cm, 136 lbs” or using descriptors such as “stocky fit tanned smooth.” Users relied on their encounters with text-based digital bodies to determine whether to transition into image-based interactions.
What remains consistent across all these digital media is the greater control users have in how they represent their bodies. Sociologist Erving Goffman observed that social interactions involve information that is “given” – intentional – and “given off” – unintentional. Because information channels are fewer and narrower online than in face-to-face interaction, users can focus their attention on carefully controlling what gets sent through these channels. We upload the most flattering pictures of ourselves to Facebook and carefully tailor self-descriptions on profile pages, for example.
But even as aspects of digital media allow users more leeway to control what is “given” about our bodies, these same functions also set the stage for the viral spread of information that we did not intend, exponentially widening the scope of what could be “given off.” Former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s “sexting scandal” is a sobering example of “sharing” functions gone awry. Even though Weiner intentionally shared with several women over Twitter and Facebook the images which led to his downfall, the multiplying effect of social media broadcast his digital body to a much larger audience than he intended.
In other cases, we don’t even generate our own digital bodies. It’s been popular lately among my friends to post funny and rather embarrassing photos from high school on Facebook. These images of me posing as a Charlie’s Angel or baring my teeth for a frightening smile make their rounds long before I have a chance to distance myself from a digital body that was not my choice to upload by removing the tag or asking the photo to be taken down.
Ironically, even as digital technologies give us more control of how our bodies come across, in some ways we are left with less control, less privacy and less authorship than we anticipated.
Digital Bodies Give
As with any Faustian bargain, the opportunities for bodily re-presentation and re-creation are a give and take. The freedom to selectively represent our bodies and in some cases completely bypass any grounding in physical reality can sometimes be harmful. In other cases, it can be beneficial.
Anthropologist Denise Carter documents that many inhabitants of the virtual world “Cybercity” (a pseudonym) celebrated the absence of physical bodies, describing their online relationships as more pure and intimate than those in real life. One user remarked, “Just being online eliminates the physical entanglement that comes with having the extra physical side to deal with . . . we want to be with each other for who we are not what we look like.” For this user and others like her, digital technology provides an opportunity to be more authentic and true to oneself.
If physical bodies put individuals at some disadvantage (namely, being discriminated based on race, sex, age, or appearance), the absence of bodies in the digital realm might be a boon not just for building friendships, but also for other online interactions, such as job searching, making business deals or dating.
Escaping the constraints of physical appearance along with all the snap judgments that go along with them could also benefit society at large. If we could encounter each other outside of the stereotypical categories such as “woman,” “Black” or “teenager,” in which our physical bodies are immediately slotted, perhaps social barriers could be bridged and new solutions to pressing social issues could emerge.
Digital Bodies Take Away
While some social progress may be happening online, in many cases stereotypes are simply being reinforced. Many of today’s digital interactions start with images, not with text. On dating websites, a quick glance at a photo determines whether a match-seeker will pursue further interaction. On the professional network LinkedIn, uploading a profile photo is crucial to establishing credibility, but at the same time makes a job seeker vulnerable to discrimination based on their race, gender, age, or appearance.
In a digital sphere where image is indeed everything, substantial content that engages both the mind and heart takes the back seat to visual displays which impress the eyes. When this is the case, our digital bodies might lead not to deeper connection with other people, but to disconnection from and exploitation of them.
Pornography and online sexual predation are extreme examples of how the distance between physical and virtual reality creates dangerous gaps into which many vulnerable people fall. Because of the computer-mediated distance and anonymity, people don’t have to behave the same way they do online as offline.
Whereas in a face-to-face encounter, you see another person’s body at the same time as you are seen, online interactions often lack that reciprocal quality. You can be seen without seeing back, and you can see other bodies, sometimes intimately, without being seen. This leaves many feeling exposed and vulnerable. Georg Simmel’s insight that, “The eye has a uniquely sociological function. The union and interaction of individuals is based upon mutual glances” doesn’t apply in a digital world where glances often lack a response.
In these one-way glances, the social fabric deteriorates. While being more “connected” through digital pathways, we can experience greater distance from each other. Furthermore, as we create digital bodies which are incongruent with our physical selves or act online in ways that we would never act in our physical bodies, we also experience internal disconnection, a fragmentation of the self.
Digital Bodies as a Reflection of Self and Society
So was the Faustian bargain worth it? Have we gained more than we lost? Perhaps it is still too early to tell. A few things can be noted, however, regarding how our digital bodies are reshaping our understandings of self and society.
Digital bodies lead to a greater tolerance for plurality. As we are exposed to more images and have greater capacity to re-present and re-create our digital bodies (as well as our physical bodies), we depart from an understanding that our physical bodies are the singular base upon which our selves are built. We get used to the fact that our bodies and our selves can be tweaked, upgraded and re-made in multiple forms.
The flip side of plurality, however, is duality. If we know that our digital bodies do not always correspond to our physical bodies, which one do we trust? Are we being manipulated, deceived, scammed? “Is this what they really look like, or was this photo taken 15 years earlier and 15 pounds lighter?” becomes a common question. As bases for truth fluctuate, social trust suffers as a result.
Perhaps, though, as earlier bases for discerning authenticity become untenable, we simultaneously develop more sophisticated mechanisms for testing sincerity and authenticity online. Rodney Jones (who researched online gay chat rooms), for example, reports that his informants used clues such as conversational style and even English proficiency to assess their chat partners.
As technology gives us a greater sense of control over the presentation and creation of our digital bodies, this also leads to less tolerance for limitations. If we can recreate our bodies online and leave behind that which lacks visual appeal, why would we be satisfied with our physical bodies (or our physical lives), which are so often messy, unseemly and uncooperative?
Theology professor Beth Felker Jones discusses this repercussion in her article on Pinterest and porn. The Pinterest images of gorgeous bodies (that no one in our everyday circles possesses) and picture-perfect meals (made with ingredients not found in any ordinary kitchen) function much like porn, which “may threaten my enjoyment of and attention to real life,” Felker writes.
Furthermore, being able to so easily alter online what we are not satisfied with in real life can actually stifle creativity rather than foster it. If we can create alternative bodies and alternative worlds instead of working with what we have, we may flee into the realm of fantasy instead of appreciating and creatively making do with what we have been given. This is detrimental not only to our ability to solve real-world problems, but also to our ability to be grateful and content with our limits. As essayist Wendell Berry so eloquently expresses in his poem “The Real Work,” “The impeded stream is the one that sings.”