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Version of 11 May 2005
Prepared as Background Information for an Invited Presentation to the Ars Electronica 2005 Symposium on Hybrid - Living in Paradox, Linz, Austria, 2-3 September 2005
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A digital persona is a model of an identity, which is established through the collection, storage and analysis of data about that identity. The concept was introduced in Clarke (1994).
Various categories of digital persona need to be distinguished:
Another distinction is between:
In Clarke (2005), an examination is undertaken of human-artefact hybridisation. This encompasses prosthetics to replace lost functions, orthoses to extend human functions, and other aspects of emergent cyborgism. It also considers the influences of robotics, artificial intelligence research and experiments in the area of artificial life.
The emergence of human-artefact hybrids gives rise to a number of prospects. The purpose of this brief paper is to briefly consider the impact of human-artefact hybridisation on projected and imposed digital personae.
The Internet affords humans many opportunities to project themselves, variously accurately, honestly, fancifully and criminally dishonestly. The scope arises from the absence from the Internet protocol suite of any intrinsic authentication of identities and locations, and the ability for a person to influence the information that appears to decribe them. For example, the From: entry in an email, the IP-address from which a message is sent, the IP-address to which a response appears to be returned, and the name and address of a domain-name owner, are all manipulable.
Needless to day, these potentials can be applied to good (such as anonymous political speech and whistle-blowing), to harm (e.g. masquerade for fraudulent and other criminal purposes), and a great deal in-between (varying from a humorous trick, to mischief, and trouble-making).
In some circumstances, a person may be able to provide profile information, or may be required to do so. Examples include a declaration to an age-restricted web-site that the user is over 18, basic demographics associated with an account with an ePublisher, consumer preferences declared to an Internet merchant or eCommerce intermediary, and life-stories and interests with a self-styled 'social networking service'. Once again, there is little scope for authentication of such data, and it ranges from honest, via imaginary, to dishonest, to fraudulent.
A further opportunity arises from contributions that a person makes within fora such as email-lists, chat-rooms and blogs. An identity establishes a reputation based on perceptions by the relevant community of consistencies of a philosophical or stylistic nature. These consistencies may be genuine, or contrived. Instances have been documented of members of serious-minded communities being aghast when masquerade is discovered (e.g. a women's list inflitrated by a male posing as a female psychologist).
Further opportunities for an individual to establish identities are provided by role-playing games (RPGs). Many of these are specific to highly imaginary situations in obviously artificial settings. The technique is applicable much more broadly, however. For example, it can be applied to business games, and to scenario-building in organisational decision support contexts. Network-mediated human communication is well-known to enable many people to lose some of the inhibitions that limit their performance in face-to-face situations, and hence creativity is capable of being effectively harnessed in this way.
Another layer of opportunity arises from avatars (Wikipedia entry). At the most 'real' extremity, visual representations of a role might be a photograph of the participant, perhaps captured by the person's own workstation camera at the time of the interaction, but possibly selected from among a set; but it is more commonly an icon, image, cartoon or modified photograph intended by the individual to convey particular characteristics.
Although originating in the context of online games, avatars are readily applicable in much more serious and workmanlike settings, such as electronically-facilitated or -enhanced meetings. In addition, it is entirely feasible for still images to be replaced by video, and for pseudo-3D effects to be built into the avatar. Multi-player action games increasingly involve active avatars, with the avatars of the player and their opponent being depicted as performing the actions, under the players' control.
Features can be provided by physical artefacts, such that hybridised individuals could more effectively project aspects of digital personae. The cyberpunk sci-fi genre has investigated this, with the character Molly in Gibson's 'Neuromancer' (1984), who has "has extensive body modifications, most notably blades under her fingernails which can be used like claws, an optimized reflex system and implanted lenses covering her eyesockets with added optical enhancements" (Wikipedia entry).
Although those particular hybrid features appear to have been intended primarily for physical use and physical effect, the digital projection of such features could reasonably be expected to convey a great deal of digital persona information to participants in virtual spaces.
Data concerning individuals may be generated by outside agents. Alternatively, data may be interfered with by outside agents. Where this is done with a purpose in mind, this results in a digital persona being imposed on the individual concerned.
One example is a consumer profile developed by corporations with a view to increasing the accuracy of their marketing decisions about how, when and what to advertise to whom.
In the Internet context, this is assisted by data gathered about the behaviour of network identities, through such means as click-trails (legitimate), cookies (variously legitimate and not so), and spyware (illegitimate).
The email-logs and web-cache entries maintained by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are a potentially rich source of such data. A mini-case study in this area is Google WebAccelerator. This is an attempt to attract consumers to use a proxy-server / intermediary so that the company can capture vast quantities of search-terms, web-behaviour and cookies, and associate them with net-identities. The payback for the company is a comprehensive profile for each user, which enables the selling of more precisely targeted advertising, and hence the generation of substantial revenues.
There are of course various forms of countermeasure available to net-consumers. Refusing cookies is inconvenient, so it can be more effective to provide data when it's requested. Tools exist to enable automated filling out of web-forms with data that is plausible, but that may or may not bear any relationship to the actual user. A more sophisticated approach is to arrange for multiple individuals to use the same net-identity. This results in a composite digital persona, which relates to no specific human being (although the risk remains that the corporation might impose it on someone).
Beyond the purely digital is the prospect of the manipulation of artefacts that are inserted into humans. For example, individuals who have heart pacemakers or door-opening chips inserted may discover that various parties are capable of reading data from them, or changing data in them. If the artefact has an effector component (such as logic-driven release of a chemical into the blood-stream), their behaviour would be subject to manipulation by any party that knew how to manipulate that 'endo-prosthesis'.
An even more substantial interference with hybrids would arise from the imposition of artefacts on humans. The institutionalised are already becoming subject to anklets and wristlets containing chips, and mobile phones are becoming locateable with a high degree of accuracy. It is a small further step for identification chips to be inserted into people, as they already are into pet dogs and livestock.
Proposals have already been made for two categories of people: at one extreme, senile dementia patients (for whom consent is meaningless anyway) and prisoners; and at the other extreme, affluent frequent flyers (who are being offered incentives such as faster passage through borders). The chips would quickly migrate into the community by means of prisoner release, parole and day-release schemes; and through imposition on people convicted of recidivist crimes, particularly paedophilia.
Clarke R. (1994) 'The Digital Persona and Its Application to Data Surveillance' The Information Society 10,2 (June 1994), at http://www.rogerclarke.com/DV/DigPersona.html
Clarke R. (2005) 'Human-Artefact Hybridisation: Forms and Consequences' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, May 2005, at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/HAH0505.html
Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, Visiting Professor in the Baker & McKenzie Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.
The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.
From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.
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Created: 7 May 2005 - Last Amended: 11 May 2005 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
This document is at www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/HAHDP0505.html