Excerpts from the book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology by Stephen Wilson

Chapters focused on the body

Compiled by Stephen Wilson, Professor, CIA Program , Art Dept, San Francisco State University
###Note these links are part of the research for Wilson's  book Informati on Arts (MIT Press,2002). Please see the book for more details about the artists, organizations, and texts listed in these links and for extended analysis of the relationship of art and research.  Feel free to use these resources but please attribute source. Copyright, 1999-2002 Stephen Wilson, MIT Press

For links to artists, texts, organizations etc see Artists' Work 


Chapter 2.5 Body and Medicine

Introduction: Bodies, Technology, and Theory Science and technology have profoundly affected our abilities to observe, transform, and manipulate bodily functions and our concepts of the body. Research in fields such as pharmacology, brain physiology, reproductive technology, disease, prostheses, and bionics raise cultural questions far beyond their technical borders. Old distinctions become increasingly blurred - male/female, live/dead, natural/unnatural, body/nonbody, self/other, autonomous/controlled, organic/nonorganic. The body is a "contested" site where many of the culture's discourses are played out. The times are exciting and confusing.

Artists have long focused on the body in painting and sculpture. Theatre and dance have used the body as their principal expressive medium. Photography, film, and video regularly explore contemporary themes inspired by changing cultural perspectives on the body - for example, new vistas in gender or identity. Every live performance is in some ways body art. It is impossible here to analyze this expanse of work. Many performance artists of the 60's, 70's, and 80's prefigured the focus on the body including artists such as Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneeman, and Chris Burden This section focuses however on artists who work directly with body transformation or observing technologies or body modification.

Artistic experiments and theoretical speculation discussed in other chapters also explore issues in body and technology. The shadow of the organic body hovers in every virtual reality or telecommunications based experience. What is the relationship of the flesh self and flesh other when one experiences cyberspace. What is the status of conventional organic categories such as skin, sex, body, death, time, etc.? Later chapters revisit the organic in discussions on telecommunications, nanotechnology , body sensing and surveillance.

The development of information technologies, body based biological research, and medical science has put the body up for grabs in cultural discourse and artistic experimentation. In some ways the body seems so "real" and grounded. We each are a body and phenomenologically experience its states everyday - for example, pain, pleasure, hunger, sexual excitement, fatigue, disease. We can look at others and in a mirror and see bounded entities commonly referred to as bodies.

Cultural theorists suggest, however, that even these "givens" are somewhat illusory. Much of what we perceive and experience is socially constructed - our sexual identities, what constitutes pleasure and pain, what are the boundaries of the self. For example, anthropological explorations of pain demonstrate that some experiences perceived as intense pain in one culture might not even be noticed in another culture. The disciplining and shaping of body experiences are a major function of cultural institutions. Advertising and media representation have a profound effect on body experience.

New technologies erode the boundaries even more. What is the reality of birth when both the sperm and the egg are donated, the embryo starts its life in a test tube, and is implanted in the womb of another woman? What is the natural limit of the body when the mood, strength, sexual level, and intelligence can all be manipulated by drugs? What are the boundaries of the body when one uses plastic surgery, hearing aid, glasses, baboon's heart, pacemaker, artificial hips....?This chapter briefly reviews theorists who consider themes such as the love/hate relationships with the physical body and the allure of transcendance.

In "From Virtual Cyborgs to Biological Time Bombs: Technocriticsm and the Material Body" Kathleen Woodward proposes that cultural theorists have overly focused on communication and cybernetic technologies at the expense of biotechnologies. She suggests that gender is an important issue in the imbalance and the desire to transcend the body is an critical part of the story.

Over hundreds of thousand of years the body, with the aid of various tools and technologies, has multiplied its strength and increased its capacities to extend itself in space and over time. According to this logic, the process culminates in the very immateriality of the body itself. In this view technology serves fundamentally as a prosthesis of the human body, one that ultimately displaces the material body, transmitting instead its image around the globe and preserving that image over time.

It is paradoxical-seductively so-that while the new communications and cybernetic networks permit increased visual access to far-flung parts of the world as well as to the inner recesses of the human body, they are based on technologies that are "unseen." There is a beguiling, almost mesmerizing relationship between the progressive vanishing of the body, as it were, and the hypervisuality of both the postmodern society of the spectacle (Virilio) and the psychic world of cyberspace.... From a psychological, if not psychoanalytic perspective, then, the possibility of an invulnerable thus immortal body is our greatest technological illusion - that is to say, delusion.

She sees biotechnology as potentially more revolutionary than the computer and communications revolution. Biotechnologies often impact women - for example, reproductive technologies and thus attract less critical attention. She also suggests that ageism is implicit in much of the discourse with the focus excessively on newness and youth. This revolution entails not the mere extension of the body and its images, but more fundamentally, the saturation, replication, alteration, and creation of the organic processes of the body-if not the very body itself-by technoscience. Margaret Morse covers some related ground in her article "What Do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society". Using the metaphor of eating and being eaten she investigates cultural perspectives on the organic body in a cybernetic age - what she calls "body loathing and machine desire". She includes consideration of developments such as cyborgs, prostheses, smart drugs, non-food(such as vitamins), nd telepresenting. For couch potatoes, video game addicts, and surrogate travelers of cyberspace alike, an organic body just gets in the way. The culinary discourses of a culture undergoing transformation into an information society will have to confront not only the problems of a much depleted earth but also a growing desire to disengage from the human condition. Travelers on the virtual highways of an information society have, in fact, at least one body too many-the one now largely sedentary carbon-based body at the control console that suffers hunger, corpulency, illness, old age, and ultimately death. The other body, a silicon-based surrogate jacked into immaterial realms of data, has superpowers, albeit virtually, and is immortal-or, rather, the chosen body, an electronic avatar "decoupled" from the physical body, is a program capable of enduring endless deaths. How can organically embodied beings, given these physical handicaps, enter an electronic future? For example, she notes that the fantasy of mind downloading, as represented in Moravic's Mind Children, can be seen as being eaten by the machine. She likens it to a yearning to be melded with the primal information space. In another section she analyzes "Post-culinary Defense Mechanisms." Reactions to food and the processes of eating can reflect on more general cultural attitudes. She sees many high technologies playing out these old fantasies.

Fig 2.5.1 Hans Moravic. Cover from Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendant Mind

The negation of the organic body, its nourishment, and all that the body stands for can occur in many different cultural fields and adopt many different means - for instance, forms of psychic defense such as repudiation, denial or disavowal. In "Theoretical Appropriation for Somatic Intervention" Victoria Vesna draws on phenomenology to examine the fantasies of body control imminent in cyberspace narrative. According to phenomenology, in the everyday world we do not normally experience our bodies, nor our pain, as objects ... it is when we try to pay attention to pain or to talk about it, to "make sense" of it, that we objectify it... [We] often experience the body as an alien environment in which our body appears as something over which we do not have control. She also notes that biotechnology and body imaging technologies open the body up for unprecedented surveillance and public access. Biotechnology also stimulates the "redefinition of the subject" .She asks what are the implications of this visualization of what used to be private. Similarly, one result of the new non-invasive imaging technologies in the area of medicine is the capability of turning a person inside out ... It conjures up foreboding visions of an all-powerful observer who has instant visual access to the anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology of a patient. Computer tomography x-ray imaging (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasound now probe noninvasively, but publicly, formerly private regions and occluded and secluded recesses. It remains to be determined, however, just what are the social or political dimensions and the ethical implications of this generalized somatic visualization of the invisible. Fig 2.5.2 Victoria Vesna, Bodies Incorporated. Viewers can construct their fantasy bodies.

Some artists and theorists see technology as potentially enhancing the experience of body. For example, we can build devices that will offer new experiences of sexuality and sensuality. We can free ourselves from standard definitions of gender and limitations of the physical body. Other theorists suggest that this escape is not so easy. For example, in her paper "We Sing the Body Electric: Imagining the Body in Electronic Art" Josephen Anstey analyzes some darker trends implicit in the artistic/technological manipulation of the body and the desire for freedom from the physical body.

In "Male Fantasies", Klaus Theweleit examined the psychology of fascism and found a trend of fear that circled ideas of the wet, the feminine, the masses, and chaos against which the male soldier stood erect and hard. It is easy to see how, at one level, the cyborg fantasy replays the fascist fantasy quest for order and security, against chaos, femininity, wetness....

The possibility of electrical augmentation of the body and of having virtual bodies attached to our real bodies suggests the freedom to transgress the normal limits of the body; limits of time and space, of appearance and fixed gender, of a unitary self, of self and other. What limits the cyber body - and the less we acknowledge it the more it limits - is a blindness to the existing structures that exert control, and control definition, of the body; what it is, how it can be used, what gender is, what sexuality is, what acceptable sexuality is. In the words of Judith Butler, no realm of fantasy or representation is, "a domain of psychic free play."

Artists plop themselves in the middle of the multidimensional puzzle space. What does the body mean in an era of virtual communication and cyberspace? Is cybersex a perversion or expansion of human possibilities? What can and should be done with the increasing power of technology and science to control organic processes? What are the narratives being enacted in the research and the responses to it? What about the limits of transending the body such as AIDS? Some artists celebrate corporeality; some seek to deny it; and some do both at the same time. Some are eager to unravel the cultural opportunities, challenges, and enigma posed by the new technologies and scientific perspectives. Extropian and Post Human Approaches World wide movements called "Extropian" and "Post-human" have gathered adherents around the world. These movements believe that science, technology, and cultural history have brought us to the point where we will become "post-human". The utopian wing of the movement believe we should exploit the new technologies - drugs, surgery, genetic engineering, bionics, cybernetics, psychological self-help, whatever - to create the next kind of superior human. We should be willing to experiment at many levels - atoms, cells, the body, the psyche, the community - to bring on our new selves and the new world.

The extropian movement has an active Web presence. Here is one statement on "What is an Extroprian".

Extropians seek to use technology intelligently to overcome genetic, biological, psychological, cultural, and neurological limits to the pursuit of life, liberty, and boundless achievement. An extropian is an optimist, a neophile, an explorer....An extropian questions and experiments. An extropian does not rely on authorities as the final word.

Extropians tend to advocate technologies that seem a little weird to many nonextropians, or technological solutions to problems that many people don't even think of as problems. Just a few examples are space development, cryonics, artifical intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and alternative energy sources.

Another more dystopian wing of the movement is not so sure the changes are positive. They foresee profound disruptions in identity and community and suggest that maybe the new technologies should not be embraced and used only with careful oversight. Other analysts such as Harraway and Morse suggest that the cultural trends are complex and not easily relegated to old binary categories. New technologies often play out old cultural themes and surface meanings hide many layers. Artists enter into this tension of exploring the post human.

In 1992 a Post Human show was organized in New York which ultimately traveled throughout Europe. Jeffrey Deitch's book, Post Human, which accompanied the show, reveals some of the themes of interest to the arts.

The advances in biotechnology and computer science and the accompanying changes in social behavior are challenging the boundaries of where the old human ends and the Post Human begins....The emerging world of easy plastic surgery, genetic reconstruction, and computer-chip brain implants may soon be adding a new stage to Darwinian human evolution. These technological innovations will also begin to radically alter the structure of social interaction....Does the art presented in this book and the exhibition warn of a world from humanity has been drained? Or, on the contrary, does it celebrate a world where one will have unprecedented freedom to reinvent oneself? It is quite unclear whether the post-human future will be better, or worse, or whether it will even be post human at all. For artists the impact of the technologies on identity and concepts of self are of prime concern. Critical theory had already started to question old notions of a natural or essential self. It had shown how media and other cultural institutions shaped what we each considered our real self. The new biologically oriented technologies continued that assault by making even the material "givens" subject to modification. Concepts of the self would have to change and become more fluid. Dietch traces the history of self discovery and self modification technologies through the 60s and 70s. People were encouraged to change their appearance and behavior in many ways. He proposes that television has already prepared us for multiplicity and for the expectation of self modificational power. He suggests we have passed through self discover to self hlep to "post-human" reconstitution of the self. The new construction of self is conceptual rather than natural. A key element of the emerging consciousness of personality is that an individual need not be tied to his or her "natural" looks, "natural" abilities, or the ghosts of his or her family history (dietch 33-35)

The decentered television reality that we experience, with its fragmentation, multiplicity, and simulateneity, is helping to deepen the sense that there is no absolutely "correct" or "true" model of the self...There is less need to psychologically interpret or "discover" oneself and more of a feeling that the self can be altered and reinvented. Self-identity is becoming much more dependent on how one is perceived by others, as opposed to a deeply rooted sense of inner direction

As body modification technologies develop, their use becomes more accepted. Deitch sees a future of ever expanding, non-medical uses of these technologies. Approaches that integrate art and science will be necessary for elaborating the possibilities and helping guide the new found capability of creating artificial bodies. It is assumed that the average person can and should alter his or her body through rigourous diet and exercise. The virtues of mind exercise and even of mind-altering drugs have also achieved wide acceptance. Plastic surgery is not only accepted and encouraged by many of our social role models but is enthusiastically shown off. As more powerful technology becomes accessible, the next logical step might be for members of the post-Jane Fonda generation to want to create a genetically improved child who would already incorporate the enhanced physical endownment that years of exercise, liposuction, and implant surgery had accomplished....

As the organic, naturally evolving model of human life is replaced by the artificial evolution into the Post Human, art is likely to assume a much more central role. Art may have to fuse with science as computerization and biotechnolgy create further "improvements" on the human form. Many of the decisions that will accompany the applications of computerized virtual reality and of genetic engineering will be related to aesthetics. Technology will make it possible to remodel our bodies and superchange our minds, but art will have to help provide the inspiration for what our bodies should look like and what our minds should be doing.

Arthur and Marilousie Kroker offer a somewhat more intricate vision of what is going on in this cultural development in their concept of "mimetic flesh." They paint it as a post-modern mixture of research, play, rebellion, and art in their recounting of experiences with biotechnology researchers, artists, and punk body modifiers in San Francisco. Memetic flesh as a floating outlaw zone where memes fold into genes, where the delirious spectacle of cyber-culture reconfigures the future of the molecular body. In Ars California, mimetic flesh is neither future nor history, but the molecular present. Pure California Gening....Neither technoutopian nor technophobic, mimetic art in the streets of SF is always dirty, always rubbing memes against genes, always clicking into (our) memetic flesh. The sculpture of the future might well consist of technology mediated modifications of our psyches and physical bodies. But this line of analysis does pose some paradoxes. With a dissolving self, who makes the decisions about future modifications? What elements of a person? What are the sources of the ideas about what actions would be interesting or desirable? Haraway warns about the dilusional discourse of "choice". Is there really any role for art or will these choices about bodies be absorbed into the fashion-advertising-media complex that governs other choices now. "Go to the store to pick a new gender, face, genitals, muscles, mood, sexual pleasure, intellect.... " just as people go now to pick cola, shirts or shoes.

Chapter 7.1 Research Agendas and Theoretical Overview

Are Bodies and Physical Space Relevant? Radical analysis suggests that the physical body and physical space are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Digital technologies such as virtual reality allow people to inhabit simulated worlds of their own arbitrary design using synthetic bodies. These virtual creations can model physical reality or freely improvise from the imagination. Digital communications and telepresence allow people to perceive and act at a distance, disregarding the old constraints of physical space. As people spend more time in digitally produced environments, these worlds become more realistic, and these worlds increase in their significance in people's lives, the body and physical space may decrease in importance.

Historical Precedents: Speculation about the relationship of virtuality and physicality is not new. Some of the Greeks wondered if they should ban theatre because audiences became so involved in the artificial realities that they seemed to become oblivious to everyday physical reality. Over time similar concerns were expressed by the power of novels, cinema, and television to kidnap participants outside of everyday life.

The tendency to deprecate the physical body has other precedents in Western traditions of mind body dualism and distrust of the flesh. For example, Plato felt the body was imperfect and distant from the essential forms which were the most important aspect of the universe. Christian traditions saw the flesh as a distraction from attending to more important spiritual concerns and saw the sojourn on earth in body and physical space as an unfortunate detour on the way to a more ethereal heaven. In the enlightenment, the mind was seen as much more important than the body. It is easy to see contemporary ascendancy of virtual bodies and places as a continuation of these themes.

The perfectionism does not need to be expressed in religious terms. Rotzer reflects on the technoutopian dreams of downloading consciousness. The body is seen as an imperfect vessel. Ultimately some hope to bypass the body by intervening directly with the brain. Frances Dyson deconstructs the great variety of narratives underlying the interest in virtuality and its expression of the desires for new kinds of sociality and metaphysical experience.

The cultural imaginary propelling virtuality inhabits a curiously sophisticated rhetorical landscape, shaped by the endless permutations of futuristic, libertarian, psychedelic, cybernetic, anarchistic, subcultural, utopian, mystical and science-fiction mythologies permeating late-twentieth-century culture. The nature of the virtual experience: Marcus Novak's "Transarchitecture" attempts to prepare for the ascendancy of virtual space as our principal architecture. He notes that the "alien" used to be experiences that were outside; the ability of virtual reality to spatially manifest our ideas means that "we will discover the alien that is so near as to be outlandish. We will become citizens in the spaces of our varied consciousnesses." N..Katherine Hayles describes the phenomenon as the ascendancy of pattern over presence. She describes the posthuman as a "coupling so intense and multifaceted that it is no longer possible to distinguish meaningfully between the biological organism and the information circuits in which it is enmeshed." (Hayles, p 266). Frances Dyson explores aurality and the phenomenology of sound as a tool for understanding virtual reality's interest in immersion. Like sound, VR enables consideration of non dualistic, non-Cartesian modes of experience. Like virtuality, the phenomenal invisibility, intangibility, multiplicity, and existential flux of sound challenges an understanding of the real based upon the visible, material, and enduring object. Sound cannot be held for close examination, nor can it be separated from the aural continuum and given a singular identity. In a constant state of becoming, sound comes into and goes out of existence in a manner that confounds ontological representation. Similarly, being both heard outside and felt within, sound blurs the distinction between the interior and exterior of the body, annihilating the distance between subject and object, self and other. ) Doubts about liberation from body and space: Debate rages about the possibilities of the new technologies to experientially explore postmodern concepts of body and space. Some are hopeful; some are doubtful. VR provides some illusion of body awareness. Typically VR travelers are imaged by body representations in the virtual worlds. Also body suits full of sensors translate body actions into actions in the virtual world. Simon Penny notes, however, that the real body is abandoned and that VR reaffirms traditional notions of space and dualism in spite of its rhetoric. One leaves it at the door while the mind goes wandering, unhindered by a physical body, inhabiting an ethereal virtual body in pristine virtual space, itself a "Pure" Platonic space, free of farts, dirt, and untidy bodily fluids....it is a clear continuation of the rationalist dream of disembodied mind, part of the long Western tradition of denial of the body. This reaffirms the Cartesian duality, reifying it in code and hardware. Arriving at a similar conclusion, Frances Dyson observes forces within technoculture that try to restrain VR's exploratory tendencies and draw it back into traditional conceptualizations of Cartesian space populated with rigidly boundarized entities. Rather than entering a "free-space," subjectivity is recontextualized within the programmatic grid of technology, and embedded in this grid are all those elements that drive the fixed and rigid reality, the prescribed subjectivity one might, through VR, be trying to escape. Causality , linearity, hierarchy, the discrete unit, the id one," the individual-all are situated within a teleology geared towards increasing control over systems of representation. The Political Underlife of the Interest in Virtual Bodies and Virtual Places: The emphasis on disembodiment and cyberspace also can be seen as the manifestation of political narratives. In "Code Warriors" Arthur and Marylouise Kroker describe the process of withdrawal induced by the cyberworld. They see the emergence of a "virtual class "that uses the fascination with cyberworlds to discredit independent sensual experience and ease the path to domination. They describe the "bunker self" which dumbs down its participation: "Privileging information while exterminating meaning, surfing without engagement, digital reality provides a new virtual playing field for tuning out and turning off. ". Physical place also becomes a shell. Florian Rotzer describes cities as holding places for data communication.

In "The Information War" Hakim Bey draws parallels between the anti materialist bias of both religion and science. He sees the growing etherialization as helping support the evolution of the control and image manipulation potentials of the modern state.

the state now consists of no more than the management of images. It is no longer a force but a disembodied patterning of information....the Media serves a religious or priestly role, appearing to offer us a way out of the body by redefining spirit as information. Bey notes that money and media have already consumed the first world in abstractions. He warns that this view has lost touch with the physical base of life and its reliance on others to do the physical work. Americans and other "First World" types seem particularly susceptible to the rhetoric of a "metaphysical economy" because we can no longer see (or feel or smell) around us very much evidence of a physical world. Our architecture has become symbolic....we spend our leisure largely engrossed in Media rather than in direct experience of material reality. The material world for us has come to symbolize catastrophe....And yet, this "FirstWorld" economy is not self-sufficient. It depends for its position (top of the pyramid) on a vast substructure of old-fashioned material production. (Bey,372) Artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena questions the typical presentation of cyberspace as a politically neutral/raceless/genderiess/classless "territo " open to all comers. He suggests the sanitization of cybersapce from ethnic and other physical references serves to distract attention from important physical world phenomena. Kevin Robins wonders about the implications of the dream of virtual reality on the "real" world. He worries about the severance of social relationships.

War, historically a very physical event, becomes a testing ground for the attempted escape from physicality. In analyzing the Gulf War, Frances Dyson notes that digital smart weapons obscure the consequences of actions in virtuality.

hi-tech weaponry eliminates the "Vietnam syndrome" by sanitizing the body through technology. The body of the victor sparkles in its metal jacket, while the body of the victim disappears without a trace. With virtuality, the circuit is completed: floating above the carnage, the pilot initiates actions, the consequences of which are seen only via the snow of signal termination. According to some analysts even those few remnants of life where the flesh in unexpendable will be brought under the discipline of digital infomatics. Bill Nichols describes the impulse to control reproduction. As one expert in the engineering of human prototypes put it, reproduction in the laboratory is willed, chosen, purposed, and controlled, and is, therefore, more human than coitus with all its vagaries and elements of chance....These opportunities shift reproduction from family life, private space, and, domestic relations to the realm of production itself by means of the medical expert, clinical space, and commodity relations. Optimism about liberation from body and space: Others praise the liberatory possibilities. Gravity and time can be defied. One can explore fantasies that are impossible in the biological and material world. One can break free from the Cartesian box. One can encounter other people in unprecedented ways. One can transform one's identity in countless ways.

Florian Rotzer sees the technology offering a new kind of imagination experience if it is developed in appropriate ways that avoid deterministic tendencies. Some artists and theorists coming from a cyberfeminist perspective propose that the technologies might provide an intriguing counterpoint to traditional modernist ideas of mind/body split and a unitary self. For example, Catherine Richards suggests VR may move against traditional ego boundaries.

I saw in such technologies as VR a site to try out and try on the projects reoccupying postmodern debate: the project of inventing new images of the body where it could be seen as a threshold, a field of intensities rather than half of the mind/body dualism; and the feminist project of redesigning female subjectivity. Referring to Elain Scarry's research on pain, Diana Gromala proposes that pain provides a test case for VR. It offers an intense body based experience that is difficult to share with others. Gromala proposed to undertake a project to explore the limits of VR to deal with subjectivity and experiences such as pain. The disembodied experience, combined with qualities of VR that seemingly do not replicate "reality," serves to upset notions in our relationship to the symbolic realm, as, well as binary mind/body, subject/object, and material/immaterial distinctions. ( Digital Technology and Identity Postmodern thought challenges traditional concepts of identity. From the Enlightenment on, Western culture fought to establish the individual as a unitary, volitional entity with powers of perception and action. Its literature glorified the individual's metamorphosis and acts of self assertion and identity. Critical theory suggests a less romantic, more complex view. An individual's identity is fluid, shaped by circulating narratives of gender, class, nation, history, media, and situation. Digital technology accelerates the process and provides a laboratory for experiments in identity. The digitalization of information provides great flexibility in representation. Telecommunications and online environments sever the connection between physical persons and their communications. Theorists have sought to elaborate these new views of identity and to analyze the impact of digital technologies.

Bill Nichols sees the self as a potentially outdated concept. The old unitary self may have lost its relevance in a world dominated by digital representation and interdependency.

Liberation from any literal referent beyond the simulation, like liberation from a cultural tradition bound to aura and ritual, brings the actual process of constructing meaning, and social reality, into sharper focus. This liberation also undercuts the Renaissance concept of the individual. "Clear and distinct" people may be a prerequisite for an industrial economy based on the sale of labor power, but mutually dependent cyborgs may be a higher priority for a postindustrial postmodern economy. In the essay "Digital Apparition" Flusser draws an analogy between modern physics and identity in the digital world. He notes that personal identity can be viewed as confluent densities of information just as physical reality can be viewed as density of matter points. Frances Dyson suggests that the virtual body acting in virtual space transgresses traditional notions of physical body boundaries and location. In this fluidity it more radically challenges the basic western notions of dualistic demarcations, which underlie some concepts of identity.

Virtual online communities invite experimentation with identity. These worlds are often constructed on the fly by participants and allow people to present themselves in any way they want. They are freed from the physical body cues of gender, age, appearance to enact various personas. Anonymity allows for people to try out idealized or negative identities, to cross genders, or to manifest as multiple identities. Commentators draw parallels between online and physical life. Sandy Stone, well known for her writing and creative work related to identify experimentation, describes the experimental possibilities of on line representation: "They learn how to manipulate those personalities-take them out of the box, dust them, run them, put them back in the box, put them away, take out another one."

In her books The Second Self and Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle investigates the anthropology and implications of online activities. She sees online communities functioning as places to experiment with identity, much like psychotherapy. She draws a connection between the online experiments with multiplicity and contemporary notions of the fluid postmodern self.

Virtual personas are objects-to-think-with. When people adopt an online persona, they cross a boundary into highly charged territory. Some feel an uncomfortable sense of fragmentation, some a sense of relief. Some sense the possibilities for self-discovery, even self-transformation....many manifestations of multiplicity in our culture, including the adoption of online personae, are contributing to a general reconsideration of traditional, unitary notions of identity. Contemporary psychology is being challenged to conceptualize healthy selves which are not unitary but which have flexible aspects to their many aspects. Sigfreid Zielinksi proposes that multiplicity is built into the structure of digital communications, not just a feature of special online communities. The speed and rapid reconfigurations of networks makes it difficult to maintain old style identities: "The Net is thus an impossible place...it is not a suitable place for intentionally acting subjects to stay, not even temporarily."