Hackstock: Body Vs Identity in a Virtual Reality World Dialogue
Sci-fi, virtual reality, dialogues and pop-up talk shows, what do all of these have in common? #HACKSTOCK, a 4 day immersive technology event collaboration between SCI-FI-LONDON and PSYCHFI, that I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to speak on a panel at to discuss the topic of Body & Identity.
The event itself is one of the first of its kind in London, combining all things Sci-fiction which are now becoming reality such as holograms, virtual reality, mind control, 360 social video and wearable technology, bringing these mind-blowing, sensory stimulating experiences to audiences first hand.
As the event was part of the Sci-Fi London film festival it had a strong focus on showcasing the latest virtual reality films which inevitably leads to a room of people donning VR headsets and losing complete contact with the real world around them. However, there were plenty of opportunities to engage in the real world as well through dialogue discussions, workshops and performances.
The panel which I was invited to speak on was led by Jugular, a cross-disciplinary salon that encourages creative dialogue between science, art, technology, ethics and politics. This discussion on “Body and Identity, are the same or different?” was an opportunity for a multi-faceted perspective – from biologists, neuroscientists, virtual reality film pioneers and a wearable technology consultants like me to share their personal views on this broad societal question.
Keeping with the Sci-Fi theme, this wasn’t your typical row of chairs panel, instead it took place around a bespoke glowing UFO shaped round table brought in by Talkaoke, providing a spontaneous pop-up talk show and participant-led discussion platform.
A key theme that emerged throughout was “Can Virtual Reality allow people to explore new visual representations of their identity through virtual means?” Gender and identity were recognised as one of the main paradigms that may be shifting as gender fluidity becomes the norm. It was discussed that mediums such as Virtual Social Worlds may help to allow people to explore other genders, body types or body/style modifications that may not be acceptable due to societal constraints.
Furthermore, the idea that perhaps Virtual Reality experiences could be used as a tool to help develop empathy by allowing viewers to have an emotive experience of “what it’s like to live someone else’s life inside their body” was explored. This idea is interesting, as someone who may have had a prior prejudice could now have a first person perspective of other experiences thereby enabling them to be shaped by circumstances outside their own. Would this new experience have any influence on their compassion towards others?
Participants riffed off each other, citing studies that female and male brains are exactly the same and that only hormones affect one’s gender. Jazz (who’s conducted extensive studies on hundreds of men and women as to their propensity for creativity) argued that while our brains are the same, the way that different parts of the brain communicate with each other are different in the genders. All seemed to agree that our bodies, DNA and minds can all be changed by our environment and experiences and thus you could perhaps “think yourself into a new identify” and to some extent modify your body in the real world (scarification, cosmetic surgery, cyborgs) or completely inhabit a new body in the virtual world.
The conversation concluded on the topic of love and where does your identity and body come into play when the world starts to become less reliant on physical proximity and new types of consciousness such as artificial intelligence become more commonplace. I mentioned how while in Japan I saw a film of a man marrying his real sex doll (robot woman with AI) and the emotion he felt for her, as he had tears running down his face showing his sincere attachment to her.
As the IoT (internet of things) evolves, we’ll soon be confronted with more Smart devices, some with Artificial Intelligence but do these objects have an identity even without a genuine human body?
Is this the next evolution of mankind, are we going to evolve beyond the need for physical bodies and will we ever reach a point where our identities can continue in either virtual worlds or by inhabiting other non-human forms? As futurist Ray Kurzweil has said,
“Our ability to create models–virtual realities–in our brains, combined with our modest-looking thumbs, has been sufficient to usher in another form of evolution: technology. That development enabled the persistence of the accelerating pace that started with biological evolution. It will continue until the entire universe is at our fingertips.”
While these questions can’t be answered in just one afternoon of dialogue, with recent innovations in Virtual and Augmented reality (Google glass, Oculus Rift, Microsoft Hololens) the lenses through which we see the world are about to be altered more than ever. What are the implications for our identity and will it be tied to our physical body?
What do you think? Let’s keep the dialogue going in the comments below, you can watch the talk in the video above and join in. After all, we are no longer constrained to communicate with each other by the physical & time limitations, so share your thoughts!