I’m going to start with the Batman – since he’s close to the beginning of the alphabet and as an entry-point into any topic, he’s near and dear to my heart. Recently in the pages of DC/Warner’s Batman titles, Bruce Wayne (recently returned from a prolonged absence) publicly announced that he and Wayne Enterprises had been the bankroll behind Batman and that he was going to expand the scope of this operation, globally. In doing so, he was not only embracing the idea of Batman as a brand but also setting up the basis for a whole group of crimefighters and super-heroes under the Batman roof – multiple Batmen, specialized Batmen, opt-in superheroism.
I’m going to leave the fictional fallout, predecessors, and implications of this idea to the comics blogs and stick to what it means to you and I in the here-and-now in the non-four colour world. I use Batman because I speak superheroes, and because for me he provides a window into a few concepts I want to explore.
Restructuring the mission statement of Batman as the idea of Batman versus Evil, instead of a one-man war on crime creates a massive amount of operational freedom in how Batman can fight crime/injustice/evil and all of that. Are you the best person for the job? Are you on-site or able to do the right thing, when needed? Congratulations, you’re Batman! Warren Ellis did something similar and less corporatist with his Global Frequency – an organization that had 1000 experts and 1 rotating specialist slot and tried to diffuse disasters that traditional hierarchies didn’t have the resources or ability to deal with. Do you have a specialty - no matter how obscure? Then perhaps, in a crisis, the Global Frequency will call on you.
In doing this, Batman and the Global Frequency could respond to countless situations with expert knowledge and fast reactions. Now this isn’t a new idea by any means – in either the realms of fiction or the real world. Batman’s stated objective has long been to “become more than a man” except now he’s taken the logical step of following through on that. In a way, Batman has become the tights and laser-gorillas version of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Just as the idea of MEND draws strength from the ability of non-related groups to take up its flag operationally, the idea of Batman as anti-Evil and fast-reacting draws power from the ability of Batman to operate in the absence of any previously acknowledged Batman presence.
I want to return to this – the ability of self-identified ideological groups to act as fast responders in the absence of pre-established infrastructure – in a bit. But for now I want to talk about the potential empowerment of brands.
Bruce Wayne and the others under his banner are using Batman as a prosthetic. Dick Grayson (former Robin, current Batman) + the Bat Symbol brings the weight of the Batman brand with it. The Batman is an interface for all sorts of fictional folks to interact with the world around them – it is an encapsulation of brand not just as a symbol of belonging or allegiance but also of interface with and exploring the environment.
You know, like Kanye West.
Robin Sloan’s brilliant piece on Kanye West: Media Cyborg explores the idea that West and other celebrities are media cyborgs – leveraging the media as prosthetics.
Media lets you clone pieces of yourself and send them out into the world to have conversations on your behalf. Even while you’re sleeping, your media —your books, your blog posts, your tweets—is on the march. It’s out there trying to making connections. Mostly it’s failing, but that’s okay: these days, copies are cheap. We’re all Jamie Madrox now.
Okay, let’s keep things in perspective. For most of us, even the blogotronic twitternauts of the Snarkmatrix, this platoon of posts is a relatively small part of who we are. But I’d argue that for an exceptional set of folks—the Kanyes, the Gagas, the Obamas—it is a crucial, even central, component.
Maybe that sounds dehumanizing, but I don’t think it ought to be. We’re already pretty sure that the mind is not a single coherent will but rather a crazy committee whose deliberations get smoothed out into the thing we call consciousness or identity or whatever. Use your imagination: what if some of that committee operates remotely? If 99.99% of the world will only ever encounter Kanye West through the bright arc of media that he produces—isn’t that media, in some important way, Kanye?
By becoming a transmedia brand, the Batman gains the ability to clone itself and sent out its conceptual mind-babies out into the world, doing the work of Batman even in the actual absence of Batman. Many people “know” Kanye via his body of work and his carefully sculpted public persona – a persona so information rich and media saturated that it can spawn its own meta-narratives. Kanye West is the puppet of the Illuminati, and we can prove it! He’s brilliant! He’s insane! He’s… He’s a story. The Kanye that 99% of the people reading this know is a story about a man who makes music – a narrative crafted largely BY the man who makes that music. Its is a story with granularity and richness enough to allow many points of entry and engagement, spin-offs, theories and supposition. The Kanye West we “know” is a prosthetic identity – an interface program that uses media as its computational substrate that exists between “us” the audience and the “real” Kanye (and his PR team) who operate the prosthetic.
That’s all well and good, but we don’t have access to that particular interface. You and I, reading this, can’t “jack in” to Kanye West in the same way that say, someone in the fictional DC Universe could jack into “Batman” right? Yes and no. Kanye’s media identity isn’t keyed in such a way as you and I could start producing ideologically-aligned art as “Kanye West” but that sort of closed system is not a universal trait of prosthetic identities. There’s the film version of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and the Anonymous movement/open source prosthetic identity that it inspired as well as other examples of open and accessible identities such as Luther Blissett, Buddha and even Captain Swing – the open source figurehead of the Swing riots in rual England in the 1830′s.
But a lot of those historical open identities didn’t have the media saturation and complexity to really operate with the degree of pseudo-independence that contemporary prosthetic identities operate with. Closer to the mark we have the Living God of Partying: Andrew W.K. who may or may not be a persona-by-committee. But you or I can’t just start being “Andrew W.K.” without soon having his lawyers carving out our chest cavities and making comfortable homes there. Maybe, if the rumors are true that superstar street artist Banksy is actually the result of one or more art collectives, that’d be closer still.
Failing to find a high-profile, complex, media-enriched, identity prosthetic accessible to most of us, we move to the things we DO have available – the prosthetic identities many of us have access to in the form of social media. I hate writing about Facebook. I really do. But in this case it’s pretty applicable – being one of the most direct and efficient means I have at my disposal to create an identity prosthetic and use it to explore the environment semi-autonomously.
The Kevin Lovelace (not my birth name) on Facebook is the result of my entering in lots of data – both in the form of straight data-entry as well as pictures, postings, updates, likes and dislikes and connections. It’s not me, but a reflection of myself – an extension of the data cloud and strange loops that make up “me”. However, after it acquired a certain mass of information it began to function with a shambling form of semi-autonomy. I can walk away from my digital life for a week and come in to discover it has acquired more information, it has tried to find people I would like to talk to and things I would like to know about. It has even – in its own way – started conversations for me. I’ll log into Facebook and find that someone wants to talk to me about something and the conversation has already bypassed the introduction and setup because the mass of information available is complex enough and the algorithms that organize it are smart enough that in essence my Facebook profile has started the conversation for me. For better or worse, my Facebook profile is an incredibly limited smart agent modeled after myself and sent out in the world to generate connections and have knowledge of them on my behalf. Via Facebook, I have cloned myself… extremely imperfectly.
This is what social media does – it democratizes the process by which Kanye West becomes a cyborg at play in the fields of the media and gives it to anyone who has the time and computer access. Social media platforms create a more engaging agent than just blogging or writing or videoblogging or any single-method means of broadcasting the self because the image they create is jagged and full of holes and mini-narratives and angles of entry and engagement. It’s complex and messy and that’s why its so frighteningly effective. No, we can’t be “Kayne West”, but we can make our own hyper-complex media homunculi and send them out to make friends on our behalf. Like attention-starved, developmentally-challenged Huginns and Muninns our Facebook profiles fly out into the media landscape and bring us back wisdom. Or Farmville. Or dating website ads. It’s not a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination.
So, to bring things back to Batman – if Bruce Wayne has turned the identity of Batman into a Kanye West-ian prosthetic identity – something that can enact change in its media environment and engage others simply due to its narrative structure where does that leave us? The statement that we can all “be” Batman is hyperbole, right? We can’t “be” Kanye, we can’t “be” Gaga and we can’t “be” Batman.
But what if we could?
“I will become a bat.”
(To be continued…)