One of the most intriguing aspects of our augmented futures is how we will experience new social paradigms attached to bodily representation and identification. Digital and virtual space provide infinite possibilities for developing alternative manifestations and tools to express personal and social selves, but how we imagine these opportunities versus what we actually create are often two different things. There are two roadblocks to achieving such a transcendental experience. The first relates to existing gender-role cultures and biases, while the second is whether we will be able to let go of the intrepid role the body plays as an identity-defining-space.
“Who am I?” is the fundamental question we ask as human beings. One of the most intriguing aspects of our augmented futures is how we will experience new social paradigms attached to digital bodily representation and identities. Digital and virtual space provide infinite possibilities for developing alternative manifestations and tools to express personal and social selves, but how we imagine these opportunities and what we actually create are often very different. There are two roadblocks on our path to achieving a transcendental experience amid our imagined and our embodied identities: the first relates to existing cultural biases and gender roles, while the second relates to the intrepid role that our physical body plays as an identity-defining space.
Virtuality and Presence
Our attachment to physical presence is not unfounded. Physical space is where we are biologically programmed to determine our sense of “being” and reality. Our bodies are the first interface we have to understand the boundaries of the world around us; and we have been working relentlessly to alter and overcome the boundaries of our existence. After all, aren’t most technological tools created by humans—from the wheel to automation and computational systems—aimed at overcoming our physical and cognitive shortcomings? We create technological tools that can alter, overcome, and surpass the human condition so we can survive as a species, thrive as individuals, and dominate our future by bending the predetermined rules of the physical world around us.
Beyond our attempts to tinker with the world around us, humanity has used various means to alter and elevate our embodied presence, from cosmetics to fashion, corrective sensory and movement function devices, surgery, and biohacking, all in an attempt to modify physiological qualities and conform to desired social function, gender roles, and identities. Those physical procedures might be effective but can also be costly, painful, short-lived, invasive, and unhealthy, and are constrained by physiological and biological limitations.
In comparison to physical body modifications, the premise of digital virtualization and augmentation of humanity into transhuman and posthuman expression seems boundless and pain free. Digital space is painted as an area that can liberate us from the constraints of physical reality. We are nearing an exhilarating time when we will be able to seamlessly cross over and blend physical and digital spaces. But before we cross that chasm, we might want to see what “embodied baggage” we bring with us—and ask ourselves, Can we truly make that passage in a successful, positive, and viable way?
Our Cyber Selves
Humans have truly constructed—as Jacques Ellul ( 1964) framed it—a technological civilization. Our systems, economies, politics, societies, and identities are all tech infused. Technology is a resource we depend on, an everyday common. Everything around you and everyone you have interacted with today has been touched by a human-made process or innovation. Technology’s impact on our lives is undeniable and oftentimes irreversible. Being “disconnected” used to mean being disconnected from reality. Nowadays, having digital visibility means to be socially seen (albeit not necessarily accepted); a digital disconnect is the equivalent of stepping outside the social and cultural reality. For many, being digitally disconnected creates anxiety, while for others, including Silicon Valley tech leaders, it is a lifestyle luxury (Bowles 2018). With that, our current digital shared selves have become more than tools for self-expression; they are a direct representation of our social participation. And with the ability to easily edit our digital social selves, we need to create socially approved versions of ourselves. An added challenge, once our digital self is “published,” will be to retain editorial control of our digital representation. This depends on our own and our social peers’ “tech capital” in understanding digital representation and norms. This will also determine our agency and ability to edit, curate, and control the digital presence we have created. Our digital selves (and, as a result, our physical selves) can be vulnerable to those who have digital and economic supremacy over our data. As our digital footprint expands, our ability to defend ourselves from commercial and governmental prying eyes, common trolls, malicious hackers, prospective employers, potential lovers, and nosy relatives diminishes.
It’s no surprise that tech-infused industries and practices are fueled by image-driven content, the “lowest-hanging social fruits”—visual honey traps. Just consider that despite Facebook’s current “bringing the world closer together” mission statement, the company started as a “hot or not” female rating system for college boys. Unaware, but most likely unconcerned by their biases, tech platforms and tools keep embedding a narrow perspective of the world to frame cultural and digital systems and interactions. But if we want technology to be the universal tool it is meant to be, it is time to step out of the Silicon Valley tree house and change the tools created inside it.
Digital platforms play a role in exploring and expanding our identity and presence. They enable individuals to manifest, share, and create a representation of themselves, their points of view, and their values. The accessibility, ease of creation, and ease of consumption created by digital mediums means that we also get to entrench new voices, faces, and cultures. Digital sociologist Lisa Talia Moretti (2020) shared with me her perspective on the potential of digital media to extend our sense of self: “Digital media allows the ‘self’ to become playful, and identity to become playful, seen through traditional gender and sex roles.” But with this freedom comes a price. The digital attention economy is unforgiving to those who dare neglect their digital identities and interactions, creating conditioning algorithms and engagement mechanisms that reward users for frequent usage and active participants with greater exposure of their posts while concealing the content of less active participants. And so, if you digitally snooze, your feed is guaranteed to lose traction.
Such digital platforms (and social media in particular) use a variety of mechanisms to ensure that our digital selves remain an imperative feature in our everyday lives, on- and offline. From the embedding of cultural and social norms around the necessity of participating in digital platforms, through the creation of digital ecosystems aimed at moderating not only our leisure but also our civic and professional interactions, and peppering us with dopamine-inducing engagement mechanisms, we are guaranteed to constantly participate and remain in digital realms. The ultimate goal is to keep us within a digital mirror world, built within a socially competitive feedback loop, where we pursue an idealized perception of our lives, our status, and our selves. As we become more digitally intertwined, we are exhausted by trying to keep up with the digital images of others and (worse) with our own constructed “best self” image, which often leaves us with a deep sense of isolation and a deflated sense of self.
This gap between our desired self and our actual self has been leaking back into the physical sense of identity, Moretti (2020) adds: “we are starting to see people that take these ideas of how they’ve represented themselves online and appropriate these intrinsic dimensions to their physical forms.” But this has also spurred a sense of anxiety related to the digitally unenhanced self, encouraging users to beautify and even conduct surgical procedures to match up with the feature-enhancing digital filters. This new mental disorder is referred to as “selfie dysmorphia.”1
Most tech platforms prey on our mental and cognitive weaknesses even further by investing vast amounts of capital to develop advanced behavioral nudging and habit-forming interactions. Major tech companies recruit squads of neuroscientists and behavioral engineers (McBride and Vance 2019; Griffin 2017) in an attempt to further their hold on the human neural setup. Devices and whole smart environments now incorporate biometric capturing systems to merge computation and human cognition. Such systems can capture and analyze in real time our microexpressions, iris movement, and complex behavioral patterns. Our bodies and cognition became a lucrative data mine, and the art of digital persuasion evolved into a realm that bakes in our future cognitive submission.
Another aspect of our digital agency and representation relates to the current role that digital mediums play on a sociocultural and sociopolitical level. The accessibility of digital mediums and tools broadens our ability to represent once hidden cultural affiliation, values, and identities. Digital platforms play a dominant role in igniting cross-cultural solidarity and granting global visibility to previously “invisible” groups and causes, sometimes acting as the core catalyst for social change. This encompasses the broadcasting of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and the Black Lives Matter protests and movement in North America, which advocate against racially motivated violence and marginalization of Black people.
Using digital platforms allows such groups to expose and advocate against biases, aggression, and oppression within physical space, but also to protest and resist discrimination in other areas related to gender and bodily representation. Social media and digital tools became a core component in calling out discriminative and biased mindsets; a recent example is the #MeToo movement that flagged the issue of systematic sexual harassment and assaults in neoliberal societies and industries. Body shaming and the repression of “out of norm” aesthetics bubbled up within platforms that elevated a perfected, filtered, and digitally altered appearance. As a response, body positivity movements called out online and offline media platforms, role models, and influencers for setting up unrealistic standards through a manipulated representation of their selves via the use of digital means (Hu 2012). A great example is the “Real/Unreal” campaign, which posted retouched imagery versus the original images, side by side, in order to showcase the extent of the manipulation within the beautified image (see http://realunreal.com/#media).
We can now see a wider representation of bodily aesthetics, but there is one thing we are still unable to see in the digital realm: the true clear-and-present danger to society, the female nipple. The “Free the Nipple” movement advocates for granting women the right to display their nipples in public without being criminalized, censored, or sexualized. Free the Nipple events protested the legal and cultural taboos around the display of the female nipple. In 2013, after filmmaker Lina Esco posted a clip for her film Free the Nipple on social media (with the hashtag #FreeTheNipple), a digital ban of female nipples was induced by popular social media platforms (such as Facebook and Instagram) (Jacobs 2019) and evoked numerous “social media nipple posting hacks,” including the use of physical and digital stickers or effects to cover the nipples, or digital replacement of female nipples with “approved” male ones (Mangiaracina 2017). The movement started to call out the elimination of social media posts containing female nipples, even when displayed in a nonsexual context or as part of iconic art and photography pieces, and sparked more protests (Paul 2019) and a digital campaign2 using the #FreeTheNipple hashtag. In this instance, bodily social constraints leaked from our physical space into the digital “boundless” and “disembodied” space.
As we move toward more multifaceted and digitally fluid representations of selves, our challenge will be to explore gender and identity representations that layer more complex facets of the self that break societal archetypes altogether. Perhaps the two-dimensional digital realm is too limited and cannot compete with the physical world and identity biases. Surely if we were able to create a three-dimensional alternate representation of ourselves, we could regenerate a new notion of self… right? Yes. And no. In theory we should be able to, but in practice we seem to migrate physical-world bodily hang-ups into the virtual realm. Recently, something curious happened on Fortnite: the rapper Travis displayed an exhilarating new route for content delivery, creating a purely virtual concert performance that was viewed by millions. However, one of the most discussed issues around the performance was that his avatar had no nipples. I decided to perform a little experiment. My goal was to examine the approach of augmented reality social platforms toward nipple representation. I created two fun AR filters aimed at testing the approach toward disembodied and digitally manipulated nipples on AR social media platforms. The first one (Free the Nipple) allowed users to “liberate the nipple” by shooting augmented, pixelated nipple clusters out of their mouths; the second (NippleHead) allowed users to swap their face with an augmented nipple to “empower” nipples to “have a voice.” Both filters presented disembodied nipples and offered a range of nipple shapes and colors (to ensure multiracial and multigender representation). They were nothing but harmless fun. Or so I thought. The experiment was a partial success: although the first filter, Free the Nipple, survived in the wilderness of virtual space for approximately three months, the second, NippleHead, was banned immediately. I was left wondering: will we ever be able to free ourselves from both our physical and our virtual nipple fixation?
Video games have embedded three-dimensional digital representations of the self for decades and could have been a transformational tool for exploring alternate realities and digital selves. However, video games were infected early on by a dominant male culture and traditional gender paradigms (Cote 2020). From characters and story lines to game play, this culture entrenched a specific representation of gender roles and behaviors. The male-dominant game developer community created fantasy worlds where gender roles strongly echoed the grim, misogynistic culture of the physical world. Male characters were the lead roles, playing action-based narratives, while females were mostly cast as “babes” and “princesses”; it was often required to pay an extra fee to play as a female lead character (Messer 2015), and you still have to pay game engines (like Unreal) to create 3D female mannequins. According to Statista’s “U.S. Video Gamer Gender Statistics” report, females represent an almost equal user base in gaming, with a 48 percent female gamer presence in the United States in 2014; this number has dropped and currently stands at 41 percent (Gough 2020). The 2014 Gamergate scandal, where a group of male gamers organized targeted bullying including death and rape threats (Scimeca 2020) against female gamers and developers, exposed the underlying bias against female presence and representation within the virtual space. Even though the last few years have shown a more robust representation of female game developers, gamers, and leading (kick-ass) characters in the gaming industry, female gamers are still bullied, harassed, and threatened online. Websites such as Fat, Ugly or Slutty (2011) were created to document female gamers’ experiences in receiving lewd comments, images, and threats for daring to game, and gamers admit they avoid assuming female identities in online gaming and e-sport leagues (Clarke 2019).
The path to bias-free technology is winding, and one must wonder if it can ever be achieved. Perhaps we should focus on value-embedded tech, or at least a state of affairs where the playing field is more level. Amy LaMeyer, a managing partner of the WXR venture fund,3 indicates a glimpse of hope for a near future where presence of women and people of color (POC) in gaming, tech leadership, and start-ups can lead to more equitable interactions. She states: “I notice more active female presence in XR platforms and startups, and the community behind it is amazing, on business context as well as via a supportive online and offline community” (LaMeyer 2020). Part of the diversity portrayed in this industry has to do with the fact that immersive tech has reemerged amid a wave of community-endorsed business-making within a cultural wave that supports equality and a fluid expression of the self. LaMeyer points out that it is also likely that immersive technologies themselves entice “an empathy machine” and attract less traditional (or previously masculinity-driven) practices.
We also see more indie and mainstream games that offer progressive approaches to gender and sexual representation. The sandbox game Fortnite introduced a simple and impactful mechanic to emancipate the virtual identity from the physical one: the user is simply assigned a random avatar (or “skin”), male, female, or nonhuman. This minor adjustment seeds a powerful concept: your participation in a virtual realm is not dependent on a “correct” or “biological” representation of yourself. Cyberpunk 2077, on the other hand, incorporates a gender slider, so the player can choose their avatar’s sexual orientation on a spectrum, versus the traditional binary option. However, the game does provide extensive options to craft avatar genitalia, including organ size, shape, color, and the landscaping of the avatar’s pubic hair (I doubt whether this was the update all digital beings had been waiting for since the invention of cyberspace).
We are nearing a point in time where we can enable a universal network that renders, in real time, a hyperrealistic, superimposed digital layer onto (and within) the physical world. As spatial computing moves from science fiction to science fact, we need to figure out whether the new hybrid space will enable us to experiment with a sense of “becoming” or make us more attached to our bodily blueprint.
But just because we can envision a disembodied identity, it does not mean that we are comfortable doing so. Moving through the world with our physical bodies and with defined sensory input has been the predominant tool in defining our social and physical space throughout the majority of human development.
While social media is still a (curated) representation of our physical selves, we are seeing the emergence of human/corporate digital avatars, mostly created as digital twins with some resemblance to their creators, and a new type of virtual beings—completely fabricated digital beings, with a unique appearance, bio, and personality. With millions of followers on social media platforms, those virtual beings step outside the social media bubble and into other cultural facets. They occupy media spots, headline music festival performances, have their own talent agencies, land fashion campaigns and appear on fashion magazine covers, and even launch their own clothing and lifestyle brands. Lil Miquela, the first social media virtual influencer, has more than 2.5 million followers (dubbed “Miquelites”) on Instagram and earns an estimate of £8,960,000 per year, according to digital marketplace OnBuy; The Cut reported that she recently broke up with her human boyfriend (Lampen 2020).
But what about the “independent” digital beings, who are theoretically unbound from bodily representation of a physical human but are not liberated from gender and bodily aesthetic constraints? Virtual beings serve human masters, bound by code and contract—they perform for us. Their virtual three-dimensionality does not liberate them but instead binds them to specific bodily aesthetics that comply with our current “ideal” representation and gender features. Even the Kentucky Fried Chicken virtual influencer probably had to cut down on its fried chicken bucket and join a virtual gym. Far from the fuller, more mature iconic image of the chain’s founder, the virtual avatar is a slim, silver hipster who jets around the world rocking tattoos and killer abs. We might find the idea of letting our virtual beings have a truly independent existence intriguing, but would we appreciate a virtual space where we no longer set the presence and embodied rules?
The fantastic potential for creating exploratory virtual and augmented selves can become a more probable future when we resolve the inevitable conflicts that will emerge from the evolution of alternate digital selves. Rather than leaving digital representation in malicious or negligent hands, aiming to benefit from fragmented identities and societies, we should start considering the new cultural, ethical, and legal implications that the existing and the new types of digital presence will carry. For example, what are the economic and societal landscapes for digital beings? Who is accountable for digital beings’ “actions” once they gain digital independence as machine intelligence rises and gains cognition? What would privacy, agency, and consent look like if we can duplicate and animate anyone’s physical appearance and create their digital twin? Will we be able to escape our inherited biases toward social and individual archetypes and surpass our attachment to gender, race, and the notion of (human) embodied presence?
I hope we will explore alternate methods of self-expression and use them to figure out what we are without our bodies. Are we able to “be” as we walk down the street as a fluffy cloud? We are more likely to go through a phase where, obsessed with external confirmation of our identity and aesthetics, we will end up applying conventional norms of aesthetics, perhaps even copying and pasting desired features from friends and strangers and stitching them together for an idealized sense of self. This will make the new hybrid reality into the ultimate echo chamber of the self. With virtual assets already being traded in gaming and other digital platforms, a new economy of digital presence is looming. If a CryptoKitty—a collectible digital asset creating a unique cartoonlike digital cat—was sold for a whopping US$170,000, what does it mean for the future value of digital beings, modeled after real or imaginary humans?
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that, even in religious scriptures, the creation of the human form was made in God’s image, or imago dei. Perhaps it is a cultural indication of the fact that even as we step into a new role as “digital gods,” we are bound to create replicas of the human embodied self.
Being trapped by the obsession to simulate an accurate representation of ourselves might seem like the expansion of new technological horizons, but it merely echoes the divisive nature of the physical realm and recreates it as a virtually simulated replica.
Injecting biases into digital realms and avatars might be unavoidable, but when entities and organizations deliberately target human insecurities and apply persuasive technology for behavioral change, through the creation of superficial aspirations for specific lifestyles and features, we are guaranteed to take a big leap… backwards. The virtual realm will not solve fundamental problems deeply rooted in societal biases without questioning the existing sense of representation and helping to shape better ones.
Even if we make sure that a limited group of developers don’t write only themselves (or their concept of ideal bodies) into the code, we need to challenge the wider perceptions of identity-via-embodiment. This is why independent studios and practitioners are vital for the future of virtual embodiment—creating a digital playground that is both safe and experimental, outside technology’s dull, standardized, and self-celebrating monetization loop.
Alice Roberts is an anatomist, a medical doctor, and a writer. In her “Making the Perfect Body” project (Roberts 2018), she imagines an alternate, post-human ideal of the body. Roberts imagines elevating sensory abilities by reversing the retina receptors and creating feline-shaped ears and new airway systems. She envisions rearranging and reshaping internal organs and bone structures and solving the tricky childbirth mechanism with a kangaroo-like skin pouch. Another example is the digital artist Georgie Pinn, who explores new self-expression and connections to alternate selves via her immersive installations. Her award-winning ECHO installation (Pinn 2017a) morphs and merges the image of the spectator with other individuals in the audience, creating a hybrid identity. Pinn also works with kids, enabling them to explore their ideas of embodiment and presence via a collage-style interactive avatar, made from found objects and old technology, such as in her Electric Puppet (Pinn 2017b) interactive installation. Her exploration aims to create a less binary, postcorporal experience, free from time, gender, and age. In a conversation we had for this article, she frames her perspective toward our virtual representation, stating that she aims to develop through her work “avatars that are adaptable, and narratives people can be a part of. A space where the experience can be truly shaped by the user” (Pinn 2020).
We can deliver new self-representations and broader virtual horizons, expanding the boundaries of the physical with the endless possibilities the virtual space provides. The virtual will fulfill its promise to liberate us (from ourselves) if we ensure that it encapsulates the following:
A cultural reboot—Keep dismantling the biases embedded in our culture and manifested in media and tech platforms.
Design for change—Approach digital realities and selves with a universal design lens, so we can develop digital tools with varied aesthetics, body, gender, race, and sexual paradigm.
Space exploration—Create experiences that allow us to explore deeper existing facets and new possibilities of self, without them being based on comparative, competitive, or monetary mechanisms.
(Experimental) Digital becoming—It is time to be less concerned with what we look like in digital space and ask ourselves who (or what) we can become without the constraints of the body and all the cultural load and bias it brings.
If we follow these guidelines, we will be rewarded with an incredible opportunity to fix broken paradigms as well as spark a new cultural evolution.
I challenge you to use technology as a force for progress. Let us create better tools that build the virtual futures that we all deserve.
It’s time to break free.
It’s time to free the virtual nipple.
Galit Ariel is a technofuturist, author, and creative who explores the wild and imaginative side of immersive technologies and their impact on our cultures, behaviors, and interactions. She is the founder of Future Memory Inc., a speculative design agency; the author of Augmenting Alice: The Future of Identity, Experience and Reality; and a sought-after speaker featured at global conferences such as TED, The Next Web, SXSW, Fifteen Seconds, Slush Tokyo, FITC, The European Union, Bell Labs, and many more. Galit earned a BA in product design from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design and an MA in design management and innovation from Savannah College of Art & Design, and is currently a PhD student at York University, researching the intersection between technology and imagination. She is a graduate research fellow in York’s Sensorium Centre for Digital Arts and Technology, an RSA (Royal Society of Arts) fellow, an IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) fellow, and a contributor to several think tanks such as THE150 (which produced the Copenhagen Catalog: 150 principles for a new direction in tech).
Special thanks to Lisa Talia Moretti, Georgie Pinn, Nancy Baker Cahill, and Amy LaMeyer for sharing with me their brilliant experiences, work, and minds for this piece.
Previously dubbed “Snapchat dysmorphia,” but since such filters are now common across many social media platforms, the term changed to “Selfie dysmorphia.” Meanwhile, Snap Inc. limited the creation of AR beatifying filters. See Chiu 2018; Ritschel 2018.
For more information and activity, follow Free the Nipple on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/freethenipple/.
The fund invests specifically in companies developing artificial intelligence and in virtual and augmented reality–focused start-ups.