One of the key themes of Utopium is how disposable and fluid our identity could be in the future. If current trends in augmented and virtualised reality continue it looks more than plausible that we will one day be able to project whatever version of ourselves we like into the ‘real’ world or at least into the minds of anyone who looks at us.
There are already people embedding the tech currently confined to phones inside their bodies and experimenting with creating entirely new senses. If we can plug our minds directly into the internet via embedded wifi (or its successor) and we can augment our senses, either peripherally through sensory implants or centrally through direct interception and manipulation of sensory information within the brain, then we could conceivably alter how others see us through their augmented senses.
As the social media giants mine more and more data from us, our profiles could one day contain highly detailed information about the version of ourselves we want to project – an avatar that we pipe directly into the minds of others. So if I want you to see me as a woman instead of a man I would alter the avatar that I project to be more feminine, and then whenever someone looks at me my profile information augments their raw sensory data so they see me how I want them to see me. No need for surgery. And if tomorrow I want to be a man again, no big deal – just update my profile and I’m male. Or maybe I want to be a cat. Or a tree. Or a potato. Anything will be possible once we can manipulate sensory data and once we can do that it will usher in an era of disposable identity. The biggest challenge is understanding the neurophysiology that underlies our perception, and being able to map, translate and interface digital information onto neural networks – but much work is being done in this field and it more a matter of when, rather than if. Worlds like Second Lifealready show how elaborate and diverse our identities can become once we are freed from the shackles of our underlying biology there is no telling how we will evolve – beyond the flesh.
But who are we if we can be anything? If I’ve only ever seen you as a woman and one day you present yourself as a man, or a completely new gender, will that change how I treat you? Will it change who you are? Of course – we are more than how we look, but how we look and how others perceive us and treat us inevitably changes how we feel about and perceive ourselves. Are these notions of gender and identity really just outdated concepts that need consigning to the societal bin? Does it matter who we are? Is identity important? How do we define ourselves? Where do we get our sense of permanence? Perhaps it is our memories? Or our achievements? Do these things need to be fixed at all? Currently an unstable personality is treated as a symptom of mental illness, but in a future of fluid identity, could personality become as transient and disposable as the identity it is attached to?
The emergence of fluid identity could be a liberating and equalising force, breaking down racial barriers and ending sexual discrimination, or it could be another nail in the coffin for reality, rendering us no longer able to trust our senses, lost in our narcissism and vulnerable to those who would hide behind the smokescreen of our uncertainty. Whatever happens, one day, how we define ourselves is going to change – possibly on a daily or hourly basis.