The social networks have prospered with a destructive model of social identity. New innovations in generative coding and web3 could change all that.
Tech leaders now openly admit the digital social paradigm has supercharged a degradation of our commons.
In simple terms, the instruments of digital influence are amplifiers of a market paradigm: which atomizes and makes competitors of its citizens.
But this isn’t some new phenomenon. These are long-understood features of a political system which requires mechanisms, explains filmmaker Adam Curtis in his masterpiece Century of the Self, “to control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” Indeed, as the documentary lays bare: at its most ingenious level, the market connected personal freedom and political rebellion to consumption, thereby re-directing potential insurgencies back into consumerism.
Once the internet was established, the next stage was to go immersive. And so with web 2, we saw the construction of a Pavlovian stockade in which human behaviors are engineered toward algorithmically predictable outcomes, ushering in the final phase of market authority: surveillance capitalism.
There have been many expositions and deconstructions of these dynamics; the most prevalent of which was the film The Social Dilemma, which featured two of the more articulate thinkers in this category, CHT co-founders Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin.
In one of their podcasts, the boys listened to Sapiens author Yuval Harari paint the grim picture of a world where governments and corporations have deployed 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 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, 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.”
Be thankful he’s not building the metaverse.
The future is begging us to re-engineer the digital social identity paradigm around people who are actively and verifiably doing things to course-correct our disaster-capitalist society and move people toward 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 and into something even more engaging and immersive.
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.
So its not ironic that a new kind of reflective technology has put us at the threshold of a technological surge that will dwarf the social transformations of the glass mirror.
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 experience where peoples’ moment-to-moment status is generated programmatically and expressed in avatarial objects that grow, evolve, and complexify as a function of personal data inputs.
Like a plant, or a pet. Or a human.
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 Art of Identity
The innovation of generative design has created a whole new category of technologist who is both system architect and data visualization artist. 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.
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’.
It’s no different with the generative identity, offering its agents immediate feedback and even suggested alterations to optimize their ‘digital embodiment’.
It’s illustrative that one of the leaders in this field is the geneticist turned computational designer Dr. Peter Crnokrak.
Up until now, the applications for data-driven generative code have mostly been studio sci-fi films (Tron and Prometheus, for example) and commercial design. Medical and financial dashboards are the current frontier.
With the move to develop and colonize the metaverse, generative identity (g-id) opens up a vast new opportunity for the expression of unique identity.
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.
[For 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. We are seeing such systems being developed now.]
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. And with all of the privacy and security we expect from the decentralized frameworks, and their future iterations.
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. (Or as we know them: agents.)
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 agent and its signal.
The early winners in (g-id) will create apps and portals where people can build up their agents. The potentials for customization and bespoke design are endless. Think designer kicks or tricked-out Teslas.
But what we love: is that (g-id) has the potential to engineer the drivers for status away from rigid, market-determined values (genetics, wealth, clicks, followers, brand partnerships) to a more dimensional paradigm.
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 agent 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 agent 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.
Yet this is also where people start to cringe at the vast dystopia that awaits. Yes, there will be many gods in the new metaverse. 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.
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?