Mistake in Identity
The social networks have prospered with a destructive model of social identity. A new innovation could change all that.
We all know it’s coming. The inevitable reckoning that comes for a society which knows it is locked in a strange loop of an extinction algorithm. But is incapable, or unwilling, to shake itself free.
Yeah, the digital social networks.
No amount of public (or private) handwringing, mea culpas, or superficial behavioral re-directs are going to transmute these platforms from the dysfunctional surveillance ops they have become. Especially given that the current infrastructure for our global commons has been designed (and vastly capitalized) to service the Orwellian alliance of state, market, and tech.
But we know all that.
As someone who is working on providing practical solutions for overcoming the grip of the big platforms, I want to focus on their mainline dopamine drip. Which we have come to understand as a highly addictive simulation of ‘social identity’ that builds status for those most successful at FOMO (IG), tribalism (twitter), mass distraction (tiktok), cult dynamics (clubhouse), and market-obedience (LI).
For a way-too-large number of people, these are the aspirational maxims that drive most of their digital social activity. And that entire thing needs to change.
Pretty hard to imagine actually. But the silver lining is that a new paradigm in digital-social identity is emerging that I think can decisively challenge the centralized model of the social hegemons.
I am talking about ‘generative identity’ — or, as I will abbreviate it for the purposes of this piece: (g-id) — which applies the field of generative art to social identity, and creates a new platform where peoples’ moment-to-moment status is generated programmatically and expressed in avatarial objects that grow, evolve, and complexify as a function of data inputs.
Like a plant, or a pet. Or a human.
With (g-id), the data can flow from anywhere; like biometrics, voice patterns, or actions that are registered in the blockchain. Making each person’s uniquely generated (g-id) a ‘living’ NFT and a shapeshifting wallet that is capable of signaling more intrinsic categories of ‘social value’ moment-to-moment.
This shift will be critical as we are entering a break-up of the centralized digital social authority and a move to decentralized federations.
Where trust is the premier commodity.
With federations, which resemble the anarchic but entangled universes of Burning Man, people will need to build some kind of portable and widely recognized reputational ‘currency’ that will give them frictionless access to new communities and their economies.
That’s why (g-id)s are designed to be both representational and transactional. So that people can port into any community and be recognized immediately for who, and most importantly, what they are.
But the superfun part of (g-id) will be the creation of worlds where people can engage in a system (or context of actions) and build a very complex and ‘native’ generative identity. Eventually, more ‘embodied’ computational objects will become digital proxies for our actual selves.
Think Avatar. (But let’s call them dopplegangers for fun.)
So imagine, in the (g-id) paradigm, the aim of digital social shifts from coming back to the same old corporate message boards to adventuring into new worlds, accumulating experiences which can add value to our doppelganger and its signal.
The early winners in (g-id) will create apps and portals where people can build up their dopplegangers. The potentials for customization and bespoke design are endless. Think designer kicks or tricked-out Teslas.
But what I love: is that (g-id) has the potential to engineer the drivers for status away from market-determined values (genetics, wealth, clicks, followers, brand partnerships) to a more dimensional paradigm.
It’s time to exit Flatland people. The long-awaited immersive realms of Snowcrash and RP1 are waiting at the next station. The only question is, are you ready to get off?
For those looking for the headline, that was it. You can DM me if you want to hear more in terms of the pure business and code mechanics.
For the rest of you who know me, or who want a little more meat on the bone, I will be presenting this exciting new shift in the context of a massive disruption not only of the embarrassingly retrograde social nets, but of the market-paradigm which birthed them. So, be warned, there is jargon ahead.
A poison pill
Geographic expansions of unitary political systems are made possible through the emergence of new technologies for mass-scale communication. We are experiencing the thrust of one such expansion right now.
With the launch of clubhouse — and the advent of synchronous global chat — the world has now reached a technological threshold in which a critical mass of the population will have access to a spectrum of digital social networks which effectively power a multi-contextual, connected, collaborative worldwide community.
It could not have come at a more critical time.
Our species faces imminent existential threats which can only be countered by a degree of international cooperation — and ecosystem governance — that has previously been impossible.
However, instead of providing comms instruments that catalyze human efforts to SURFACE and SOLVE vastly complex challenges, as well as to TRACK our progress against the threats — features a threatened species would presumably integrate in all their global comms — the social platforms have mired us in identity cults, cultural conflicts, and dopamine drips that reward virtue signaling over verifiable impact.
It’s become a tired mantra to bemoan the digital social economy that is monetizing the degradation and devolution of our social, political, ecological, and conscious development. But while tech leaders now openly admit to the nature of the beasts they are riding, none of them has the will, creativity, or frankly, incentive to change the game.
This is not surprising since the dominant social platforms have a poison pill at the foundational level of their codebase. They are rooted in the reductionist market paradigm, which atomizes society by assigning value to human capital and engineers false competition between individuals who are forced to sell themselves into the market at prices far below their value. It also deploys ‘deep psychological’ mechanisms, as Adam Curtis clarifies in his seminal Century of the Self, that tie social identity to market-obedience to “control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” At its most genius level, the market connects freedom and rebellion to consumption, thereby re-directing actual insurgencies back into consumerism.
As creatives, coders, system designers — and marketers — we have literally and functionally co-designed a Pavlovian stockade in which human behaviors are guided and engineered toward algorithmically predictable outcomes, ushering in the final phase of market authority: surveillance capitalism.
There have been so many expositions and deconstructions of these dynamics that I think we’re all sufficiently entrained in the concept. The most viral of these was The Social Dilemma, which features two of the more articulate thinkers in this category, CHT co-founders Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin.
In one of their recent podcasts, the boys ascended to the civilizational rung to discuss the dystopian panorama with Sapiens author Yuval Harari. Naturally, they painted a pretty grim picture of a world where governments and corporations have deployed the most pernicious of technologies to hack human emotions and engineer (social) disharmony and (market) consent at a time when we are facing challenges of an existential scale.
Or, as Tristan put it, it is a paradigm where:
“ technology is manipulating human feelings into narrower and narrower cult factories, self-reinforcing systems of beliefs, rumors, gossip, and outrage that build upon layer after layer into a certain view.”
And he’s right. Whichever ‘side’ you’re on, that ‘certain view’ is binary, exclusionary, and triumphalist. And you can be sure that no broad-based threat to the market paradigm, of any scale, will emerge from that.
This was no conspiracy. It happened organically, even evolutionarily.
As Yuval explained during the podcast, we “aggressively built political systems that orbit around human feelings and choice”. Once the keystone of the humanist enterprise, which granted unprecedented agency to individual self-interest, the market paradigm has subverted that freedom. By unleashing behavioral algorithms in the new platform technologies, human feelings can be hacked and redirected toward beliefs and choices that have little to do with self or interest. More, the zero-sum games of politics and capitalism have incentivized (economic, state, military/intelligence) elites to entrain the masses with false narratives that, when piped into digital psychographic echo chambers, have shredded our shared sense of reality.
But when it came to offering any creative solution to the problem, as Yuval admitted, “this is something that I have been trying to think about for a long time and I just can’t. Cause when I really try to imagine how it looks, my imagination breaks down.”
Don’t worry Yuval, I got you.
Welcome to the club
I was excited when clubhouse launched. I hung out in rooms across the platform contexts and experienced some profound moments of real-time human connectivity; dialoguing important, complex topics from cities — and cars, trains, and buses — around the world.
But, without going into a full critique let’s just say: it was not designed to facilitate even the most basic level of conflict resolution, nor to capture the wisdom and knowledge aggregates generated by the community. More critically, no thought was put into providing clubs with features that power solution-implementation based on their interactions.
But then, the goal is conversation, not action conversion.
In its quest for network effect, as Sam Lessin wrote in The Information, clubhouse has deployed a platform model that is frictionless and ultimately harnesses “the movement toward cults and away from communities on the internet.” These dynamics are coded into the baseline of the platform nomenclature where speakers and their anointed ‘follows’ sit on elevated ‘stages’ in front of the lower-ranked ‘followers’. This incentivizes all sorts of tactics to get more followers including — and this is something they openly admit to — going to sleep in chats where they are on stage in the hope that their presence will gain them more followers.
But being an influencer on any burgeoning social app can mean big business (clubhouse recently launched sponsorship marketplace to monetize Clubhouse influencers by having brands sponsor their chats). And the first thing people look at when they scan a person’s clubhouse profile is that follower count. It is their representational identity and indicates their social capital on the platform: the authority that grants people ascendance and agency to address the commons.
A self-enforcing loop.
So again — at this extremely critical stage of our planetary existence — we are now watching the vast capitalization of yet another platform where social and financial capital are given to the influencers most proficient at gathering large passive followings to, at worst, distract them from any actual behavior change and best, channel conventional market wisdom.
To quote my seven-year old: not a good situation.
The future is begging us to re-engineer the influencer marketplace around people who are actively and verifiably doing things — besides selling crap— to course-correct our disaster-capitalist society and move people on a moment-to-moment basis to actions that directly shift us closer to species survival.
But to do that we are going to have to pull very influential and highly-rewarded influencers, and their massive followings, away from the black mirror of market-driven identity. Of course, this reference contains a now-clichéd hyperlink to “Nosedive”, the chilling reputational dystopia conjured in the Season 3 opener of the UK futurist anthology, Black Mirror.
But as it turns out, mirror are more than just a solid metaphor for the dystopian version of identity that social networks have unleashed on the world.
Before the (1835) invention of the mirrors we know today, humans used polished stone and, later, pieces of glass that showed a version of a reflection, but distorted — much like the mirrors in convenience stores and funhouses. But those were only for the wealthy, who also regularly commissioned portraits of themselves; more aspirational than accurate.
In the pre-mirror world, writes Charlie Sorrel, “the concept of individual identity didn’t exist. We thought of our ourselves as a part of a community. Our identity was tied up with the people we knew, the place we lived in.”
This new mirror tech completely transformed the self-perception of individuals that extended to their place in society. They began to see themselves as unique and distinct from the collective and no longer as “drones in a hive of humans”.
Thinking back on Adam Curtis’ thesis for Century of the Self, the advent of mirrors probably had a lot to do with the rise of consumerism and (ironically, with hidden camera technologies that could be embedded in ‘mirrors’) the surveillance capitalism that has captured us.
With generative identity we are at the threshold of a technological surge that will dwarf the social transformations of the glass mirror. For the first time humans will be able to create, see, and, if they so choose, transmit vastly more dimensional representations of themselves — their inner being and values and outer behaviors and actions — than what they have been given in the form of inherited DNA, or the money that allows them to ‘improve’ it artificially.
The innovation of generative design has created a whole new category of technologist who is both system architect and data visualization designer. Their craft is to originate and then codify a system that powers objects to grow and mutate algorithmically based on a predetermined set of inputs.
No different than the most successful system designer of all, Mother Nature.
Think of the information contained in the seed of a lotus flower. As it receives moisture, nutrients, sunlight, proper temperature, and air (inputs), the flower will grow. When an experienced botanist observes the edges of the petals wilting or brown spots appearing on the stem, they can quickly determine what deficiencies are occurring and correct those at the level of input. Essentially generating different outputs of that ‘object’.
Up until now, the applications for data-driven generative code have mostly been commercial/industrial and medical. I am lucky to work with one of the leaders in this field, the geneticist turned computational designer Dr. Peter Crnokrak. At our company ORA, we have been innovating generative objects for the last decade. (You can play with one, here.)
But with the move to generative identity (g-id), a vast new landscape opens up. Designers — akin to genetic engineers — are writing baseline code (think of it as DNA) which generate objects that grow and beautify and complexify based on the flow of input data provided by its ‘owner’. Think of it in terms of a narrative that is created for the object. As each milestone or evolutionary threshold is reached, the object grows closer to its optimal expression. The milestones that drive the generative growth can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s all up to the architect.
[As an example, there has long been talk in the medical field of developing a new health phenotype — or identity — that evolves the current 2D Electronic Health Record, which contains the medical and treatment history of a patient. In the generative paradigm, this could be a 3D object which is both a database and a visual representation of the historical and momentary health of the person. So that physicians can make at-a-glance evaluations instead of reading through an entire biography. I have seen such systems being developed.]
Getting back to the mirror analogy, the more intrinsic and incorporeal the data inputs, the more the object can tell the person who is signaling into it. An example of this is a very basic application of the HALO, which signals a person’s emotional vibration based on a spectrum of passive and active inputs that flow from the person.
Or, a more advanced mirror: the data selfie. Where distortion and animation dynamics visualize the success of the user in moving towards integration of desirable feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. In this schema, each pixel is generative and responds directly to the values coded into the architecture.
But with the new innovations occurring in the field of (g-id), we are beginning to see the inhabited immersive worlds that previously been only the fantasy of cyber-punks and tech visionaries. Early attempts like Second Life were void of the generative features that are critical for the doppleganger to have any authentic value, both in terms of identity or economics. They also lacked the most important of all integrations, the AI sidekick —also called digital companions by our good friends at maslo.ai — which become the ‘personality’ of the doppleganger and guide the owner to those behaviors which will optimize their internal and external selves.
Once you grasp the whole picture, generative schemas like these will start to turn on all sorts of lights.
I know this is where people start to cringe at the vast dystopia that awaits. Yes, there will be many gods in the new multi-verse. We’ve always known that was coming. But like all fields of innovation, there will be humanist applications and there will be… well, human-exploitive applications. The key is for the right people to get rolling before the centurions of the market-paradigm can build their immersive stockades to power a new meta-genetics race for the perfect influencer.
We need to be very proactive about hacking back the model of social identity which has been weaponized against us.
We do that by building new systems that connect individual identity relationally to how we actively contribute to personal development, ecosystem resilience, and planetary well-being.
To be continued…