Transhumanism

The furry identity can be seen as a kind of voluntary psychological experiment. We are disconnecting the idea of ‘self’ from the reality of our physical forms.

All people do this to some extent. Furries, at least those who socialise through the guise of an animal-person avatar, are a special case. The disconnection is more clear, and more extreme.

Collectively, we may be experimenting with identity on a scale that has no comparison in human history.

The loose connection between our human bodies and our furry identities is fascinating from a psychological point of view. There is a fledgling discipline related to our behaviour—transhumanism—which researches both the virtualization of identity (such as the furry identity), and the integration of technological augmentation (more on that later).

Let’s take an extreme example: a furry who engages with society entirely through a furry identity, and who thinks of herself as an animal-person ‘on the inside’. Her identity is expressed entirely through her furry avatar, and her human self is just a biological mechanism. Let’s call her Furry Zero.

Most furries are like Zero in some ways; she is simply at the extreme end. Those furries who don’t have a furry alter-ego are at the other extreme, and the rest of us are somewhere in between. Some people are further along the spectrum than others.

It’s different for everyone: the reader may wish to consider themselves as an example.

I’m going to use myself as an example: I have a virtual furry identity. I’m not an edge case like Zero, but I’m pretty far along the spectrum. Internally I prefer to think of myself as JM, animal-person, but my identity is partly associated with the human biological organism named Matt.

For Zero, her human body is a purely physical entity; her furry identity is purely mental.

In case this all makes me, or Zero, sound a bit fruity, it’s worth mentioning that all people do this to a degree. There are always differences between each person’s physical form and mental identity.

For starters, let’s look at how parts of the body are sometimes considered critical to identity, and sometimes considered irrelevant. Starting at the irrelevant end, consider fingernails. It’s rare for people to feel any loss of identity when they trim their nails, but it does happen (ref). Moving into more relevant body parts, the fingers are important to identity for more people, and so the loss of one is more likely to be personal. And more people will be affected by the loss of an arm, and so forth.

The biological items most often important to identity tend to either be identifying features (such as a face), or those that allow us to fulfil basic human functions (such as legs or genitalia). The point here is that each person’s identity only includes a subset of their physical body.

Zero has no association between her physical body and her identity. So she feels no loss when she cuts her fingernails, and if she lost an arm she would feel pain and be inconvenienced but would not feel any loss of identity.

The difference between each person’s physical form and mental identity extends beyond personally ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ body parts. There are also aspects of identity that exist outside of physical form.

This process is called virtualization of identity, a path well-trod by furries (led by Zero), and is becoming common in the modern world. People are living more of their lives online, creating virtual identities that are different from their physical selves. This is happening mostly in small and subtle ways, but it represents a big shift in the way humans interact with each other, and the way humans perceive themselves.

The shift towards online identity has created some wonderful opportunities and improved the lives of countless people. (Not least is the ability for physically disabled people to interact in a way where their disability is irrelevant.) It has created some problems too, and these problems are what interest psychologists (and editors of tabloid newspapers) the most.

Inhabitants of the world are rapidly moving online, with internet penetration exceeding 40% of the world’s population (ref). People are exploring differences between ‘online’ identity and ‘real world’ identity. The first steps towards separation of these two identities is typically modest, but is already causing societal change.

A whimsical example can be seen in the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem (summarized here). In a simple ruling by the Court in the salad days of the mid-1990s, it was determined that ‘virtual’ sin is not ‘real’ sin. The decision was made over a crude augmented reality technology, which was designed to give the experience of eating pork: the user would eat baked tofu while being exposed to a virtual reality that invoked the look and smell of real pork. They judged:

“In our view virtual pork is totally permissible, has nothing to do with real pigs, and thus can be enjoyed by Jews.”

 

This apparently common-sense ruling was (predictably) cited as precedent a couple of years later after someone engaged in virtual adultery. In considering virtual pork, the Court failed to guess how virtual experiences can be real, and how they can inform identity just as much as something that happens in meatspace.

Zero, and the rest of us furries, are several steps ahead on the journey towards virtualization of identity. We experienced the challenges of online relationships long before mainstream society or the Rabbinical Court, and we continue to lead the way into deeper water. The experiences created by our collective transhumanism provide clues to changes that society might expect in the future: social groups may grow with less reference to geography; people may become less class-oriented; society may see more diversity in sexual behaviour, sexual orientation, and gender.

Virtualization of identity is a kind of transhumanism driven by modern technology, but it’s not the only kind. A second change in the way humans create identity is driven by technological augmentation. This is where people look for technological solutions to mental problems. We can see the first steps in this direction with on-board vehicle technologies such as collision detection or ABS (which will overrule the human driver), and wearable technology like smartwatches or Google Glass.

Technological augmentation becomes useful for what researchers call ‘high bandwidth’ problems. The human brain is very good at activities like pattern matching, but cannot process large amounts of data. High bandwidth problems are those that require a lot of information from the outside world, information that would normally overload an individual’s processing capability.

The human/Darwinian response to high bandwidth problems is a kind of mental ‘tunnel-vision’, where we focus on important data in a way that cuts out a lot of background information. An example of this is the psychological phenomenon know as ‘flow’, where a person becomes immersed in a complex problem, becoming less aware of his surroundings. He will put more mental resources towards solving the problem, but will receive less information about his ambient environment.

That extra information can be important. Technological augmentation can gather this information to help us: either by overruling our actions, or by summarizing that information in a manageable form. Such augmentation is most advanced in modern combat environments (background info from Psychology Today here), although we are starting to see it appear in some of today’s consumer goods.

The societal response to transhumanism—both virtualization of identity and human augmentation with technology—is, to date, lacking sophistication. Most commentators could broadly be classified as either Luddites or Libertarians. These two groups of opinion, the techno-pessimists and techno-optimists respectively, are considered by experts to be simplistic and fundamentally flawed (ref).

Experience shows that, when technological augmentation is available, then people will enhance. Zero will certainly take advantage of technological enhancements to her physical self, because she doesn’t have any personal attachment to her human body beyond its biological function. So why not upgrade?

We furries are transhumanists. We adopt virtual identities that uncouple our selves from our physical forms, and we are inclined to explore augmentative technologies like Oculus Rift or FaceRig.

There is little doubt that the growth of transhumanism will bring huge changes on human society. Many of these changes will have unpredictable effects, just as with previous technological revolutions. But societal upheaval is rarely a bad thing: human society has been changing rapidly since the Industrial Revolution, a time that (for all its ups and downs) has seen massive improvements in worldwide literacy and life expectancy.

As human society continues to change, it’s reasonable to expect that things will broadly continue in a positive direction. And we humble furries are, at least when it comes to transhumanism, the vanguard.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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6 thoughts on “Transhumanism

  1. So it’s entirely possible that this process of virtualization – of becoming entities in control of technology – is also a two way street. As you said in your article, our information that we come to understand is in a sort of tunnel. As we become infused inside digital reality, we fill out the spaces that we are allowed within it.

    “social groups may grow with less reference to geography; people may become less class-oriented; society may see more diversity in sexual behavior, sexual orientation, and gender.”

    Transhumanism can offer us a radical rethinking of our identities, though as a criticism, I’d say that we are a tad dependent on our bodies as platforms of identification. The technorevolution can only become a positive liberating force if precaution is taken to avoid destroying humans. I feel humanity needs a physicality to exist. As a Singularitarian, a radical futurist, I believe that virtual platforms independent from our “meatspace” bodies will become our primary mode of interaction, that we will forget any physical failing, but we need to engender virtual-reality selves and settings for us to exist in. I may place my identity inside a fursona, but a fursona has a body with function. Virtual bodies are real bodies, but we can’t just say that our identities don’t have a home. Furries may be vangaurd, but what do we want of a virtualized future?

    1. I think you approach this in the same way I do. The idea of a fully virtual self – a Lawnmower Man, say – seems several steps beyond what seems plausible or desirable.

      I like the idea that virtual selves help make physical ‘failings’ irrelevant or at least less important. It reminds me of the near-future technology in Inifinite Jest: Wallace imagines a kind of videophone technology that is simultaneously incredibly useful (because it allows for non-verbal communication) but unreasonably intrusive (because people must be always-ready for videochat). The problems of the technology is solved with a new technology: virtual avatars that hide the actual user, a bit like digital formalwear, or Facerig.

      I think it’s this sort of direction where furries are leading the way, for better or for worse.

  2. A nice read, thank you :)

    A tangential thought popped up while I was reading this. One major problem with the early Google Plus was that it insisted on real names and photos. It’s obvious why Google did this: like Facebook their business model is to profile individuals in order to sell targeted advertising. But in doing so they fail to respect our need for some level of separation between the many sub-identities we construct to interact with the various groups of people in our lives. The difference between furries and non-furries here is the degree to which some of those aspects of ourselves are intentionally designed rather than accidental.

    Oh, and please tell me the virtual pork world was called “meatspace” too.

    1. Cheers. And thanks for appreciating the meatspace joke, and extra thanks for reading the article closely enough to realise that the meatspace joke didn’t really quite work.

      Great comment. Here is a relevant quote by Mark Zuckerberg that I came across while researching the topic, but I decided to trim from the final piece:

      “You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

      (The quote is from a book called The Facebook Effect, I yoinked it from an article: http://venturebeat.com/2010/05/13/zuckerberg-privacy/)

      I understand that Facebook and G+ are trying to position themselves as places that can provide a de facto ‘proof of identity’, a feature that would elevate them from optional technologies to bureaucratic necessities. The first steps of that exist with the new (welcom, in my opinion), “log in with Facebook/G+/Twitter/etc” options that are starting to appear as an alternative to creating a new account on a third party site.

      I don’t think that Facebook or G+ are trying to force people to show an online identity. I also don’t think that anyone takes Zuckerberg seriously when he starts philosophising about identity and integrity, which is why I didn’t quote him. (Similarly, I also wouldn’t quote Heston Blumenthal on quantum physics.) But it’s interesting that there is a conflict developing between the way that people choose present themselves in the virtual environment of the internet, and the meatspace need for personal identification.

      I think it’s unlikely that people are going to look to translate the identity-freedom offered by the internet into the offline world en masse, like a Stalking Cat or a McLovin. But the restrictions of the real world do, in part, translate online, and that’s an ongoing battle.

      Technology being what it is, I’m sure an elegant solution will appear, and I’m pretty sure that G+ isn’t it. Facebook may be: perhaps it’s the place where our real-world self exists in the virtual world, much like furry conventions are where our virtual selves exist in the real world.

  3. See, it doesn’t surprise me at all that Zuckerberg thinks that, and it’s probably no surprise that (like you) I think that’s horseshit. The Psychology of Cyberspace explains better (and at greater length) the value of pseudonymity online than I ever could, but it’s not just an online phenomenon, and it’s absolutely not about integrity or honesty. If anything, communicating via a designed persona reveals more about you than your physical real-world profile. Zuckerberg’s beliefs are wholly in support of his business model, where people are the product sold to advertisers.

    You hardly need convincing, but consider these:
    First, while I’m sure *some* people are exceptionally dull or shallow and can therefore be the same person to everyone they meet, try inviting your colleagues, your poker night friends, your family, and your banker to the same function and many (most?) people will struggle to present the same face to all four groups. It’s not being dishonest to any of them, but they all habitually see different aspects of you, and that’s no bad thing.

    Secondly, it’s notable that in the UK you aren’t legally required to use your birth name, you can (though it’s becoming increasingly difficult) call yourself whatever you like, even own a bank account under any name. Charmingly, a deed poll is (as I understand it) technically a contract with *yourself* (as opposed to with, say, the government) agreeing to use a given name. I think it’s quite possible and legal to have multiple identities in real life. It’s pretty rare, but I’m sure you can imagine instances where it’s either desirable or even necessary.

    Moving on, you say “But it’s interesting that there is a conflict developing between the way that people choose present themselves in the virtual environment of the internet, and the meatspace need for personal identification.”

    I think that this conflict is largely artificial. There are specialised instances where establishing a single physical identity is an important necessity: voting, for instance, but largely when people online want to know who you are, what they really want is something that physical identity only really acts as a proxy for, such as:

    1. do your relationships with others speak well of you,
    2. can you be trusted to honour an agreement (such as payment in return for products or services), and,
    3. are you the same YOLOMcLovin420 as the person with that name last week or on site Y?

    If I want to sign up to Forum X, shopping site Y, or music site Z, they have no legitimate interest in what my name is and where I live – what they want to know is am I the same person between logins, if I turn out to be a douche, can they block me, and how can they contact me, deliver goods to me, or extract money from me if they need to?

    It’s perfectly possible to establish these facts without knowing, profiling, or revealing a physical meatspace individual. And computers do this kind of stuff to each other all the time. OpenID is interesting because the *only* thing it asserts is that you’re the same person between logins, and you yourself can be the identity provider with only minimal effort. In fact both a web of trust and a mutually trusted third party can support *anonymous* interaction while maintaining a reliable and repeatable identity, which is a much bigger ask than letting me meow at some friends and woof at others.

    So I don’t believe that G+ and Facebook have any interests other than their own when they seek to establish and merge your various identities into one, or offer login services to other sites. And I don’t accept that the identity service they provide is becoming a bureaucratic necessity (except where others buy into their claims and exclude other methods). Facebook could just as easily be a mutually-trusted third party which asserts your chosen and/or anonymous identity to others without requiring or revealing your physical identity. Twitter basically do this – I didn’t have to give any details about myself to Twitter when I signed up, but I can still use that as a verifiable and trustable online identity.

    The benefits and problems about having thousands of web accounts vs login via facebook/G+ is a whole other diatribe, and one that I’m involved with on a professional level, so I’d love to natter with you about it and find out what you think.

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