Brands, Prosthetic Identities and the Batman

Posted by on November 24th, 2010

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.

Batman, Inc. is the idea that we can all be Batman, if we want to.

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…)

Post-Privacy and the democratization of celebr1ty

Posted by on April 6th, 2010

It is with much interest that I have observed the rapid popularity of This is an extremely powerful service that simply let’s the user:

Create a box where friends can ask questions anonymously.

So not only are people microblogging their life, replying to each other and retweeting; now they can hold their own Press Conferences.

Now, to help understand this, let’s go back to danah boyd’s seminal piece on Super Publics:

A reporter recently asked me why kids today have no shame. I told her it was her fault. Media is obsessed with revealing the backstage of people in the public eye – celebrities, politicians, etc. More recently, they’ve created a public eye to put people into – Survivor, Real World, etc. Open digital expression systems coupled with global networks took it one step farther by saying that anyone could operate as media and expose anyone else. What’s juicy is what people want to hide and thus, the media (all media) goes after this like hawks. Add the post-9/11 attitude that if you hide something, you are clearly a terrorist. Should it surprise anyone that teenagers have responded by exposing everything with pride? What better way to react to a super public where everyone is working as paparazzi? There’s nothing juicy about exposing what’s already exposed. Do it yourself and you have nothing to worry about. These are the kinds of things that are emerging as people face life in super publics.

What’s the difference between micro-celebrity (let’s say anyone with a few thousand followers on Twitter) and the sub-lebrities Joan Collins is bitching about? Nothing! They are just two of the ways we are entertaining each other to death, waiting for the world to end. One is for Hipsters and the other is for Chavs; that’s the only difference.

In fact, can it be that the only reason celebrity biographies are so popular is that we are data-mining them for content and clues?

This is the democratization of celebr1ty.. a new Golden Age.. when anyone that is entertaining enough and has an internet connection can develop a Cult following.

In the spirit of this, Ask Us Anything!

We Live In Public

Posted by on February 3rd, 2009

We Live In Public TRAILER from We Live in Public on Vimeo.

A trailer for the new Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning documentary about Josh Harris, the founder of  late 90′s “internet TV channel” PSEUDO.COM as well as the father of a series of exercises in Living on the Internet back when there was still novelty in that sort of thing.    (His most notorious piece was probably the epic art installation “Quiet: We Live in Public.”)


Artist Wants Webcam Eye – Grinders Needed

Posted by on November 17th, 2008

A one-eyed San Francisco artist wants to replace her missing eye with a Web cam – and tech experts say it’s possible.

“I’d always given thought to using cameras to restore sight to the blind,” said Dr. William Danz, whose patient, Tanya Vlach, wants the groundbreaking device. “This is a little different, more like James Bondstuff.”

Vlach, who lost her eye in a 2005 car accident, wears a realistic acrylic prosthesis, but she’s issued a challenge to engineers on her blog: build an “eye cam” for her prosthesis that can dilate with changes of light and allow her to blink to control its zoom, focus, and on/off switch.

“There have been all sorts of cyborgs in science fiction for a long time, and I’m sort of a sci-fi geek,” said Vlach, 35. “With the advancement of technology, I thought, ‘Why not?’”

So, what she’s asking for is not that impossible a hack, right?  Her actual Blog and her original request for help are right here.  So here’s my stone cold serious question to all of you Grinders out there:  

Do we have anyone in the audience who could help her?   I know there’s a lot of engeneering, MAKE-o-philes and body modders who read this site.   There are a lot of Grinders on this site, more importantly.  Anyone out there have any ideas for her?


IBM’s PENSIEVE – Next-Gen searchable outboard memory

Posted by on July 29th, 2008

This is the PENSIEVE user interface (click through for high-resolution):


This is IBM’s promo video for it:

YouTube Preview Image

This is ganked from PhysOrg:

“This is like having a personal assistant for your memory,” said Dr. Yaakov Navon, the lead researcher and image processing expert from IBM’s Haifa Research Lab. “Our daily routines are overflowing with situations where we gain new information through meetings, advertisements, conferences, events, surfing the web, or even window shopping. Instead of going home and using a general web search to find that information, PENSIEVE helps the brain recall those everyday things you might normally forget.”

…By simply typing the person’s name into PENSIEVE, you can recall when and where you met them, and any related information garnered at that time. You could even browse forwards or backwards in time to find out what events transpired before or after the initial meeting.

Another use of this technology is in reconstructing and sharing an experience or memory. If enough media-rich data was collected about a particular event, it can be used to build a more complex visual associative representation of the experience.

“This is where the real power of collaboration kicks in,” said Eran Belinsky, research team leader and a specialist in collaboration. “You can recall the name of the person you met right before you entered a meeting by traversing a timeline of your experiences, or share a business trip with colleagues by creating a mashup that shows a map with an animation of your trail and the pictures you took in every location.”

This is the corporate future and it is only just starting to get messy. Let us just say I would be very careful now about using any company property for personal reasons.

Obviously this is awesome technology for personal use though, but I would want to be controlling the database. In a secure location. (According to CSI) Police already take people’s mobile phones in the event of emergency or tragedy. Would you want to hand over an indexed/tagged, searchable lifestream?

That being said, how rad would it be if it pulled-in CCTV images of you walking around?

Philip K Dick :- becoming more a prophet of the modern condition every second.

The Naked Generation – Authenticity and Transparency

Posted by on May 9th, 2008

There’s a good post over here regarding Authenticity, Transparency and the so called “Naked Generation”. (Or alternately, “Generation Facebook” or “The Participatory Panopticon”.)   It touches on a few interesting bits, such as Authenticity vs. Transparency and alternate ways for networking sites to link users outside of pre-existing social networks.

Anonymity is one of the pillars of online communication. The ability to become someone else, mask some part of yourself, or lurk in the shadows increases paths to participation. The dark side of anonymity is irresponsibility, and we have already witnessed other social networks tackle Jon Swift problems by censoring their own communities to strengthen legitimacy. Even as we collectively accumulate personal profile pages that express our real identities, however, there are initiatives emphasizing anonymous disclosures. The Experience Project is designed around anonymity, asking members of the two-year-old community to connect through their experiences rather than extending existing social circles. In the end, though, this approach is about lowering barriers for people who could not otherwise participate in discussions. The impact of what is shared is dependent on the relationships we form with the identities we assign to ourselves and others.

The consequence of self-disclosure centers around the resilience of information.

Twitter, a microblogging service that exploded to a million members in about a year, uses the SMS constraint of 140 characters to lower the barriers to entry for potential authors. It is much easier to conceive of sharing a simple sentence or two than several paragraphs. The custom nature of the personal information stream (everyone can decide whose content they want to follow) implies a sense of control. However, the reality of Twitter is that the content is public. Even with private streams—where a member can require a mutual handshake before someone else can see their posts—the act of sharing content with anyone exponentially increases the likelihood that information will reach a public audience. The age of the intelligent web is here, and innocuous posts made in a semi-protected context one day can give rise to unexpected revelations in the future.

This has implications on future career paths, as comments in a Web Worker Daily article last September attest. Tim O’Reilly expects a Web 2.0 backlash and a return to private data. Perhaps. At the start of the year, Duncan Riley published a poll asking, should some things remain private in the age of lifestreaming. The nature of that flawed question led to a predictable response—less than 10% of respondents said “No”—and false evidence that we disclose too much about ourselves. A more relevant line of questioning would be what kinds of information should be private, for ourselves and from others.

That many of us in the wired world are living on the edges of a transparent society is not new, but there are still a lot of questions to be deal with regarding how much of our lives we share and where we draw that line.  Given how public I am about facets of my personal life on the web, and how I don’t try to hide my identity, this is a situation that’s usually on my mind.