Adaptive Dissociation in Cyberspace

A composite avatar in LegionWorld

As a test bed for my ideas, I have created a 3D VRML Avatar Virtual World, LegionWorld. The idea of distributed subjectivity is made functionally explicit in this world by the use of composite avatars, which are more like small gangs or swarms, than like the monolithic entities usually encountered as avatars. The LegionWorld web site has further resources on this subject, including a more detailed treatment than the summary at left.

I have developed a theory of distributed subjectivity in cyberspace, based on Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly and more popularly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. I maintain that the very nature of cyberspace acts as a kind of "solvent" to tease apart the strands of personality that we tend to bind tightly in everyday life, yielding a fluid and multivalent identity, which is capable of distributed and parallel operations. Such distributed subjectivity amounts to a sort of "personality cloning", which will enable individuals to engage in multiple interactions simultaneously.

I am using DID as my model, because it readily allows for such personality splitting and provides a conceptual framework for how and why this can be accomplished. By de-emphasizing the "Disorder" in DID, I believe that we have a tool to describe the nature of subjectivity in cyberspace, as well as to predict how we might evolve capabilities uniquely suited to life in that domain.

Dissociation can be defined simply as the opposite of association. When psychic elements are in a dynamic relation to each other, they can be said to be associated; likewise when such psychic elements are relatively isolated and separate, we can say they are dissociated.

Dissociation is an important factor in normal psychological functioning, allowing for a degree of mutability and adaptability which would be difficult without it. It is probably best to think of dissociation on a continuum, from ordinary daydreaming, through such phenomena as forgetting where you are going on the freeway, to the particularly florid manifestations of dissociation that are commonly labeled as Multiple Personalities. Although the phenomenon is usually thought of as purely psychological in nature, it can actually be either biological (amnesia from a blow to the head) or psychological (amnesia for incest).

The key to using this concept for subjectivity in cyberspace is the notion that DID is actually an adaptive response to a severe trauma which cannot be escaped.. All children are naturally adept at dissociation and they sometimes use this talent when confronted with an abusive situation, by splitting off parts of personality into discrete subunits, or alters. These become in some sense separate personalities, which endure the pain or shame, or which even identify with and idolize the abuser. Key here is the fact that none of these alters has access to the whole story, and this produces a fragmented and distributed self. The pathology of this situation lies in the fact that the alters are often completely unaware of each other, and are totally baffled when, for instance, a different sexed alter restocks the closet.

I propose that the "corrosive" nature of cyberspace, which enables and encourages monolithic self to fracture and flow, derives from this: In our long evolution as a sentient species we have until very recently dealt with an information flow which was basically serial in nature, and of limited bandwidth. Our new information technologies, however, present us with multiple parallel inputs of very high bandwidth. This is perceived at some level of our psyche as a form of unavoidable trauma, and we use whatever abilities for dissociation we can muster to help us cope.

Given that subjectivity in cyberspace can be fluid and distributed, what does DID tell us about how we might cope with, or even derive advantage from this situation? Although the goal of most DID therapy has been to fuse the various alters into one single personality, there have been exceptions, and these exceptions provide some very interesting alternatives. Some treatments have ended with the various alters in a state more resembling a confederation than a monarchy. In such examples, pathology is reduced by the fact that the alters are aware of each other, and communicate and negotiate to maintain the biological organism's place in the world. It is my contention that such a state may actually have adaptive advantages for the information-drenched realm of cyberspace.

Such advantages will be realized through the application of intelligent agent techniques to our distributed, cyberspatial selves. In much the same way that a DID patient can have an alter which functions only to handle pain or one which does nothing but drive a car, we can likewise have discrete cyber-selves. Such selves can be organized functionally, such as to handle email or data mining, or they may go out on their own to interact in highly abstract ways with other such selves. In either case, the experience would ultimately be related to the core personality in some way that would make sense, an example of distributed self. If several such processes are carried out simultaneously, then we could quite possibly see the kind of parallel subjectivity and "personality cloning" that I am suggesting.

Of course, much work must be done to enable the kinds of experience I have outlined above. The parallel-to-serial conversions necessary to ultimately convey such experiences to the core personality will be particularly tricky. Nevertheless, I believe that DID provides a viable model for a way to thrive, and even flourish, in an information domain characterized by massive overloads.

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