The Web, Digital Prostheses, and Augmented Subjectivity

The Web, Digital Prostheses, and
Augmented Subjectivity
PJ Rey and Whitney Erin Boesel
The turn of the twenty-first century has been called "the Digital
"and not without reason.
In (post-)industrial nations, most young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 cannot remember a time when computers, cell phones, and the Web were not common features of their
cultural landscape. Today we have profoundly intimate relationships not just th rou:zJ1 these newer
digital technologies, but with them as well. Because we use digital technologies both to
communicate and to represent ourselves across tin1e and across space, we express our agency
through those technologies; at times, we may even
our Facebook profiles or our
smartphones as parts of ourselves. The way we interpret these subjective
has social
and political consequences, however, and it is those consequences that we seek to interrogate
in this chapter.
We begin with a quick overview of the sociological understanding of subjectivity and two
of its key elements: embodiment and the social conditions of subjectification. We argue that
contemporary subjects are embodied simultaneously by organic flesh and by digital prostheses,
while, at the same time, contemporary society maintains a conceptual boundary between "the
online" and "the oflline" that artificially separates and devalues digitally mediated experiences.
Because we collectively cling to the online/ offline binary, the online aspects both of ourselves
and of our being in the world are consequently diminished and discounted. The culturally
dominant tendency to see "online" and "oflline" as categories that are separate, opposed, and
even zero-sum is what Nathan Jurgenson (2011, 2012a) terms
dualism, and it leads us to
erroneously identify digital technologies themselves as the primary causal agents behind what
are, in
complex social problems.
In our final section, we use so-called "cyberbullying" as an example of how digital dualist
frames fail to capture the ways that subjects experience being in our present socio-technological milieu. We argue that the impact of "cyberbullying" violence stems not from the
(purported) malignant exceptionality of the online, but from the very unexceptional continuity of the subject's experience across both online and offiine interaction. At best, digital dualist
frames obscure the causal mechanisms behind instances of "cyberbullying"; at worst, digital
dualist frames may work to potentiate those mechanisms and magnify their harms. For these
reasons, we develop the concept of augrnented
as an alternative framework for interpreting our subjective
ofbeing in the world.The augmented subjectivity framework
is grounded in two
assumptions: (1) that the categories "online" and "offiine" are coproduced, and (2) that contemporary subjects experience both "the online" and "the offline" as
one single, unified reality.
Dimensions of subjectivity: social conditions and embodiment
To begin, we need to be clear both about what we mean
"subjectivity" and about our
understanding of the relationships between subjectivity, the body, and technology. ~p,eaJ<an2:
broadly, subjectivity describes the experience of a conscious
who is self-aware and who
recognizes her 1 ability to act upon objects in the world. The concept has foundations in classical philosophy, but is deeply tied to the mind/body problem in the philosophy of the
Enlightenment i.e., the question of how an immaterial mind or soul could influence a material body. While some Enlightenment philosophers examined the material origins of the
subject, idealist philosophers and Western religions alike tended to view subjectivity as a transcendent feature of our
they believed that the mind or soul is the essence of a person,
and could
even after that person's body died. This quasi-mystical separation of the
subject from her own body and experience was typified by Rene Descartes, who famously
observed, "I think, therefore I am" (1641 [1993]). Near the end of the Enlightenment, however
- and especially following the work of Immanuel Kant - philosophy began to abandon the idea
the way for the
that it had to privilege either of mind or matter over the other. This
modern understanding of subjectivity as a synthesis of both body and mind.
Western understandings of subjectivity continued to evolve over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and philosophers came to understand subjectivity as historically situated. They
also began to
that different bodies experience the world in radically different ways.
These points are critical to our argument, so we expand on both.
First, we consider subjectivity to be historically situated or, in other words, that the nature
of subjectivity is fundamentally shaped by the subject's particular time and
For example,
the range of objects available to be acted upon - and thus the range of
- available
thousands of years ago most certainly differed from the range of objects availto human
able to human beings in modern consumer society. We trace this understanding of subjectivity
as historically situated back to the work of G.FW
who observes in Phenomenology tf
Spirit that self-awareness - and, therefore, subjectivity - does not emerge in a vacuum; instead,
our subjectivity arises from our interactions with both other conscious
and the objects
in our environment (1804 [1977]). Since both the objects and the other individuals in an environment will vary based on historical circumstance, it follows that the nature of subjectivity
by those objects and individuals will be particular to that historical moment as well. 2
Our notions of the subject's historical specificity are further reinforced by the work of
Michel Foucault, who focuses on the critical role that power plays in the socially controlled
process of "subjection" or "subjectification" that produces subjects (Butler 1997, Davies
Foucault argues that modern institutions arrange bodies in ways that render them "docile" and
use "disciplinary power" to produce and shape subjectivity in ways that best promote those
institutions' own goals (1975 [1995]). He further argues that, because modern prisons and
prison-like institutions act on the body in different ways than did their medieval counterparts,
they are, therefore, different in how they control the ways that populations think and act. To
illustrate: in medieval Europe, monarchs and religious authorities used public torture and
execution of individuals (such as
the Inquisition) as a tool for controlling the behavior
of the
as a whole. In contrast, an example of modern disciplinary power (e11~an11r:Led
by Jaita Talukdar in this
is present-day India, where a liberalizing state with a burgeon174
The Web, digital prostheses, and augmented subjectivity
pharmaceutical and
sector has encouraged its urban elite to adopt "biotechnological sciences as a style of thought," and to discipline their bodies by adopting new styles
Talukdar explains that members of India's new middle classes who focus on
consumption and individual self-improvement in pursuit of more efficient bodies are simultaneously embracing neoliberal ideologies - and in so doing, reshaping their subjectivities in ways
that benefit the multinational corporations that are starting new business ventures in India.
Needless to say, the experience of adopting an inward, "scientific" gaze in order to cultivate a
more "efficient" body is very different from the experience of adopting docile, submissive
behavior in order to avoid being accused of witchcraft (and thereafter,
burned at the
stake). Different techniques of social control therefore create different kinds of subjects - and
as do people and objects, the techniques of social control that subject
will vary
according to her historical time and place.
Second, we consider subjectivity to be embodied - or, in other words, that the nature of
subjectivity is fundamentally shaped by the idiosyncrasies of the subject's body. For example,
being a subject with a young, Black, typically-abled, masculine body is not like being a subject
with a young, white, disabled, feminine body, and neither is like being a subject with a midcllebrown, typically-a bled, gender-non-conforming body. This probably seems intuitive. Yet
in the mid-twentieth century, the field of cybernetics transformed popular understandings of
human subjectivity by suggesting that subjectivity is simply a pattern of information - and that,
at least theoretically, subjectivity could therefore be transferred from one
(human/robot/ animal/ computer) body to another without any fundamental transformation
(Hayles 1999). The cybernetic take on subjectivity turns up in popular works of fiction such as
William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), in which one character is the mind of a deceased hacker
who resides in "cyberspace" after his brain is recorded to a hard drive. More
in the
television show "Dollhouse" (2009-2010), writer and director Joss Whedon imagines a world
in which minds are recorded to hard drives and swapped between bod,ies.
If you had a body that was very different from the one you have now, would you still experience
in the world in the same
As we write this chapter, the United States is
reacting to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin; as article
after article discusses the color and respective size of both Zimmerman's and Martin's bodies,
as well as the color and sex of the six jurors' bodies, and the role that these bodily attributes
played both in Martin's murder and in Zimmerman's acquittal, it seems impossible to believe
that bodies do not play a critical role in shaping subjectivity, even in the Digital Age.
We follow N. Katherine Hayles in arguing that bodies still play a crucial role in subjecti£caof subjectivity-as-information leads to a
tion. She observes that the cybernetic
devaluation cf
and embodiment" (1999: 48, emphasis in
She asks rhetorically
1), "How could anyone think that consciousness in an entirely different medium would
remain unchanged, as if it had no connection with embodiment?" She then counters by stating
that, "for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium," and moreover, that
information will
take on characteristics specific to its medium (1999: 13).
is building on the phenomenological observations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
who argues that knowledge of the world and, ultimately, the experience of one's own subjectivity is mediated through the body. As he explains, "in so far as we are in the world through
our body ... we
the world with our body" (Merleau-Ponty 1945 [2012]:
Information is neither formed nor processed the same way in metal bodies as in flesh-andblood bodies, nor in female bodies as in male bodies, nor in black bodies as in white bodies,
nor in typical bodies as in disabled bodies, and so on. Even if we believe that subjectivity is
reducible to patterns ;f information, information itself is medium-specific; subjectivity is
therefore embodied, or "sensory-inscribed" (Farman 2011). Because computer sensors or other
devices for perceiving the world are vastly different from the human body, it follows that, if a
computer were to become conscious, it would have a very different kind of subjectivity than
do human beings of any body type.
If we pull all these pieces together, we can start to get an idea of what subjectivity is and
where it comes from. Put loosely, subjectivity is the experience of being in and being able to
that are available for you to
act upon the world. This sense is shaped by the people and
act both with and upon, and by the institutions and agents that act upon you, all of which are
specific to your particular time and place.Your body is how you act both in and on the world,
as well as the medium through which you experience the world and through which everything
in the world acts upon you in return. Because the kind of body you have has such a profound
impact in terms of both how you can act and how you are acted upon, it plays a critical role
in shaping your subjectivity. Accordingly, we conclude that, for our purposes, subjectivity has
two key aspects: historical conditions and embodiment.
If we are to understand contemporary subjectivity (or any particular subjectivity, for that
matter), we must therefore examine both the contemporary subject's embodiment and her
with her embodiment.
present-day historical conditions. We
Embodiment: "split" subjectivity and digital prostheses
Your embodiment comprises "you," but what exactly are its boundaries? Where do "things
which are part of you" stop, and "things which are not part of you" begin? As a thought experhad a prosthetic
iment, consider the following: Your hand is a part of"you," but what
hand? Are your tattoos, piercings, braces, implants, or other modifications part of"you"? What
about your Twitter feed, or your Facebook profile? If the words that come from your mouth
in face-to-face conversation (or from your hands, if you speak
language) are "yours," are
the words you put on your Facebook profile equally yours? Does holding a smartphone in your
hand change the nature of what you understand to be possible, or the nature of "you" yourself? When something happens on your Facebook profile, does it happen to you? If someone
sends you a nasty reply on Twitter, or hacks your account, do you feel attacked?
Back when Descartes was thinking and (supposedly) therefore being, what did and did not
constitute embodiment seemed pretty clear. The body was a "mortal coil" that thing made of
organic flesh that each of us has, that bleeds when cut and that decomposes after we die; it was
merely a vessel for the "mind" or "soul," depending on one's ideological proclivities. Philosophy's
move away from
priority to either the mind or the body, however, necessarily complicated conceptions of embodiment. Over time, our bodies became not just mortal coils, but parts
of" ourselves" as well. This conceptualization manifested, for example, in certain feminist
as hegemonic
discourses that claim men's and women's desires are irreconcilably
different based on how sexual differences between male and female bodies construct experience.
Such perspectives might hold, for example, that women are biologically prone to be ca1:eg1ve~rs.
while m.en are biologically prone to be
and violent.While these naturalistic discourses
recognize the significance of the body in shaping subjectivity, they make a grave error in portraying the body as ahistorical (and thereby fall into biological determinism).
Judith Butler contests the idea that the body, and especially the sexual body, is ahistorical
(1988). Citing Merleau-Ponty, she argues that the body is "a historical idea" rather than a "natural
species." Butler explains that the material body is not an inert thing that simply shapes our
consciousness, but rather something that is peiformed. This is because the materiality of the body
is both shaped and expressed through the activity of the conscious subject. As Butler explains:
The Web, digital prostheses, and augmented subjectivity
The body is not a self-identical or merely factic materiality; it is a materiality that bears
""·"'-''Ll"i"-' if nothing
and the manner of this bearing is fundamentally dramatic. By
dramatic I mean only that the body is not merely matter but a continual and incessant
m.ateriau:zmo of possibilities. One is not simply a body, but in some very key sense, one does
one's body and, indeed, one does one's body differently from one's contemporaries and
one's embodied predecessors and successors as well.
It is the fluidity of embodiment, as Butler describes it
that we are most interested in. Our
perceptions of an essential or natural body (for example, the idea of a "real" man or woman)
are social constructs, and as such represent the reification of certain performances of embodiment that serve to reinforce dominant social structures.This is why trans* 4 bodies
are seen as so threatening, and a likely reason why trans* people are subject to such intense
violence: because trans* bodies disrupt, rather than reinforce,
ideals of masculinity
and femininity.
Following Butler, we understand subjectivity to have a dynamic relationship to embodiment: both the composition of bodies (embodiment) and the way we perform those bodies
(part of subjectivity) are subject to
both over an individual subject's life course and
throughout history. Given the fluid relationship between subjectivity and embodiment, it is
especially important to avoid succumbing to the fallacy of naturalism (which would lead us to
privilege the so-called "natural body" when we think about embodiment).
Recall from the first section, above, that our embodiment is both that through which we
experience being in the world and that through which we act upon the world. Next, consider
that our agency (our ability to act) is increasingly decoupled from the confines of our organic
bodies because, through prosthetics - which may be extended to include certain "ready-athand" tools (Heidegger 1927 [2008]) and also computers, we are able to extend our agency
beyond our "natural bodies" both spatially and temporally. Allucqufae Rosanne Stone argues
that our subjectivity is therefore "disembodied" from our flesh, and that the attendant extension of human subjectivity through multiple media results in a "split subject" (1994). The
subject is split in the sense that her subjectivity is no longer confined to a single medium (her
organic body), but rather exists across and through the interactions of multiple media.
Stone interrogates our privileging of the "natural body" as a site of agency, and elaborates
on the term "split subject," through accounts of what she terms disembodied agency (1994). In
one such account, a crowd of people
to see Nobel laureate physicist Stephen Hawking
(who has motor neurone disease) deliver a live presentation by playing a recording from his
talking device. Although Hawking does not produce the speech sounds with his mouth, the
crowd considers Hawking to be speaking; similarly, they consider the words he speaks to be his
own, not the computer's. Implicitly, the crowd understands that Hawking is extending his
agency through the device. Of course, Hawking's disembodied agency tl1rough the talking
device is also, simultaneously, an embodied agency; Hawking has not been "uploaded" into
"cyberspace," and his
body is very much present in the wheelchair on the stage.
Hawking's agency and subjecthood,
reside both in his body and in his machine, while
both the "real" Hawking and the "live" experience of Hawking exist in the interactions
performed between human and machine. This is why Stone uses the term "split subjects" to
describe cases where agency is performed through multiple media: because the subject's agency
is split across multiple media, so too is her subjectivity.
Stone refers to Hawking's computerized talking device as a prosthesis "an extension of[his]
the world
will, of [his] instrumentality" (1994: 17 4) .Just as Hawking acts upon and
through both his organic body and his prostheses (his various devices), the contemporary
subject acts upon and experiences the world through her organic body, through her prostheses, and through what we will call her digital prostheses. Persistent communication via digital
technologies is no longer confined to exceptional circumstances such as Hawking's; in fact, it
has become the default in many (post-)industrial nations. SMS (text messaging) technologies,
smartphones, social media platforms (such as Facebook or Twitter), and now even wearable
computing devices (such as Google Glass) extend our agency across both time and space.
Digital technologies are pervasive in (post-)industrial societies, and our interactions with and
through such technologies are constantly shaping our choices of which actions to take. In addition to conventional prostheses (for example, a walker or an artificial limb), the contemporary
subject uses both tangible digital prostheses (such as desktop computers, laptop computers,
tablets, smartphones) and intangible digital prostheses (such as social media platforms, blogs,
email, text messaging, even the Web most generally) to interact with the people and institutions
in her environment. Similarly, she experiences her own beingness through her organic body,
her conventional prostheses, and her digital prostheses alike.
Again, to us - and perhaps to you, too - these ideas seem obvious. Yet as we elaborate further
in the following section, there is still a good deal of resistance to the idea that interactions
through digital media count as part of "real life." Why is this? In part, Stone suggests that
"virtual [read: digital] systems are [perceived as] dangerous because the agency/body coupling
so diligently fostered by every facet of our society is in danger of becoming irrelevant" (1994:
188). The contemporary subject moves beyond Enlightenment notions of a discrete subject
because her embodiment is the combination of her organic body, her conventional prostheses,
and her digital prostheses. In other words, your hand is a part of you, your prostheses are parts
of you, and your online presences - which are just some of your many digital prostheses - are
parts of you, too.
The contemporary subject is therefore an embodied subject, one whose materiality resides
not in any one distinct and separate medium (organic body, conventional prostheses, or digital
prostheses), but which is performed both within and across multiple media. In order to fully
understand what the implications of such an embodiment are for the contemporary subject,
however, we must turn to examining the historical conditions that shape her. We pay particular attention to how digital technology, especially the Web, is conceptualized in our present
social milieu.
Historical conditions: co-production of "online" and "offline"
In (post-)industrial societies, many of us live in a conceptually divided world - a world split
between "the online" and "the offline." We argue, however, that the categories "online" and
"offline" are co-produced, and so are created simultaneously as the result of one particular attempt
to order and understand the world (aka, the drawing of the boundary between them) Gasanoff
2004, Latour 1993). As such, the categories "online" and "offiine" reflect an ongoing process of
collective meaning-making that has accompanied the advent of digital technologies, but they
do not reflect our world in itself. We further argue that all of our experiences - whether they
are "online,'"'ofiline," or a combination of both - are equally real, and that they take place not
within two separate spheres or worlds, but within one augn1ented reality. In order to understand
the significance of digital technologies within our present historical context, we must explore
the social construction of"online" and "offline," as well as augmented reality itself.
It has become commonplace for writers (for example: Carr 2013, Sacasas 2013) to describe
the world that existed before the advent of the Internet as being "offline." In the version of
The Web, digital prostheses, and augmented subjectivity
history that such narratives imply, the world came into being in an "offline" state and then
stayed that way until about 1993, when parts of the world began to gain the ability to go
"online" and access the Web. But this line of thinking is fondamentally flawed. No one could
conceptualize being "offline" before there was an "online"; indeed, the very notion of "offlineness" necessarily references an "online-ness." Historical figures such as (say) WE.B. DuBois,
Joan of Arc, or Plato could not have been "offline," because that concept did not exist during
their lifetimes - and similarly, it is anachronistic to describe previous historical epochs as being
"offline," because to do so is to reference and derive meaning from a historical construct that
did not yet exist. In short, there can be no offline without online (nor online without offline);
these two linked concepts are socially constructed in tandem and depend upon each other for
The issue with configuring previous historical epochs as "offline" is that doing so presents
the socially constructed concept of "offline" as a natural, primordial state of being. Accordingly,
the concept of" online" is necessarily presented as an unnatural and perverted state of being.
This is the fallacy of naturalism, and it poses two significant problems.
The first problem is that, the more we naturalize the conceptual division between online
and offline, the more we encourage normative value judgments based upon it. It would be
naive to assume that socially constructed categories are arbitrary. As Jacques Derrida suggests,
the ultimate purpose of constructing such binary categories is to make value judgments. He
explains that, "In a classical philosophical opposition [such as the online/ offline pair] we are not
dealing with a peaceful coexistence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy" (1982:
41). In this case, the value judgments we make about "online" and "ofiline" often lead us to
denigrate or dismiss digitally mediated interaction, such as when we engage in digital dualism
by referring to our "Facebook friends" as something separate from our "real friends," or by
discounting online political activity as "slacktivism" Qurgenson 2011, 2012a). Our experience
of digitally mediated interaction may certainly be different from our exp~rience of interaction
mediated in other ways, but this does not mean that online intera ction is somehow separate
from or inferior to what we think of as "offline" interaction. Rather, if we think more highly
of "offline" interaction, it is because the very advent of digital mediation has led us to value
other forms of mediation more highly than we did in the past. For example, in an age of mp3s,
e-readers, text messages, and smartphones, we have developed an at-times obsessive concern
with vinyl records, paper books, in-person conversations, and escapes into wilderness areas
where we are "off the grid." This tendency both to elevate older media as symbols of the
primacy of "the ofiline," and also to obsess over escaping the supposed inferiority of "the
online,'' is what Jurgenson calls "the IRL [in real life] fetish" (2012b).
The second problem that follows from the naturalistic fallacy is the framing of "online" and
"offline" as zero-sum, which obscures how deeply interrelated the things we place into each
category really are. Most Facebook users, for instance, use Facebook to interact with people
they also know in offline contexts (Hampton et al. 2011). Do we believe that we have two
distinct, separate relationships with each person whom we are friends with on Facebook, and
that only one of those relationships is "real"? Or is it more likely that both our "online" and
"offline" interactions with each person are part of the same relationship, and that we have one
friendship per friend? Similarly, when people use Twitter to plan a protest and to communicate
during a political action, are there really two separate protests going on, one on Twitter and one
in Tahrir Square or Zuccotti park? Just as digital information and our physical environment
reciprocally influence each other, and therefore cannot be examined in isolation, so too must
we look simultaneously at both "the online" and "the offline" if we want to make sense of
If the conceptual division between "online" and "offline" does not reflect the world of our
lived experiences, then how are we to describe that world? In the previous section, we argued
that the contemporary subject is embodied by a fluid assemblage of organic flesh, conventional
prostheses, and digital prostheses. It likely will not come as a surprise, then, that the contemporary subject's world is similarly manifest in both analog and digital formats
in both
"wetware" and software - and that no one format has a monopoly on being her "reality." Just
as the subject exists both within and across the various media that embody her, so too does her
world exist both within and across the various media through which her experiences take place.
Following Jurgenson, we characterize this state of affairs as augmented reality (2011, 2012a).
Why do we use the term "augmented reality" to describe the single reality in which
"online" and "offiine" are co-produced, and in which information mediated by organic bodies
is co-implicated with information mediated by digital technology? After all,
designers of digital technologies have developed a range of models for describing the enmeshment and overlap of "reality as we experience directly through our bodies" and "reality that is
mediated or wholly constructed by digital technologies." Some of those conceptual models
include: "mediated reality" (Naimark 1991); "mixed reality" (Milgram and Kishino 1994);
"augmented reality" (Drascic and Milgram 1996, Azuma 1997); "blended reality" (Ressler et al.
2001, Johnson 2002); and later, "dual reality" (Lifton and Paradiso 2009). "Mediated reality;'
however, problematically implies that there is an unmediated reality - whereas all information is
mediated by something, because information cannot exist outside of a medium. "Mixed reality," "blended reality," and "dual reality," on the other hand, all imply two separate realities
which now interact, and we reject the digital dualism inherent in such assumptions; recall, too,
that "online" and "offiine'; are co-produced categories, and as such have always-already been
ine21..'tricably interrelated. "Augmented reality" alone emphasizes a single reality, though one in
which information is mediated both by digital technologies and by the fleshy media of our
brain and sensory organs. Moreover, "augmented reality" is already in common use, and already
invokes a blurring of the distinction between online and offiine.
Thus, rather than invent a new term, we suggest furthering the sociological turn that is
already taking place in common use of the term "augmented reality" (c.f.Jurgenson 2011, Rey
2011,Jurgenson 2012a, 2012c, Boesel 2012b, Boesel and Rey 2013, Banks 2013a, Boesel 2013).
We use the term "augmented reality" to capture not only the ways in which digital information is overlaid onto a person's sensory experience of her physical environment, but also the
ways in which those things we think about as being "online" and "offiine" reciprocally influence and co-constitute one another. Such total enmeshment of the online and ofiline not only
means that we cannot escape one "world" or "reality" by entering the other; it also means that
in our one world, there is simply no way to avoid the influence either of our organic bodies
(for example, by transporting oneself to "cyberspace"; see Rey 2012a) or of digitally mediated
information and interaction (for example, by "disconnecting" or "unplugging"; see Rey 2012b,
Boesel 2012a).
Augmented reality encompasses a unitary world that includes both physical matter (such as
organic bodies and tangible objects) and digital information (particularly - though not
exclusively - information conveyed via the Web), and it is within this world that the contemporary subject acts, interacts, and comes to understand her own being. In today's techno-social
landscape, our experiences are mediated not only by organic bodies, but also by conventional
and digital prostheses each of which is a means through which we act upon the world and
through which other people and social institutions act upon us in return. In this way, the
rise to a new form of subjechistorical conditions we have described as augmented reality
tivity (as we will elaborate upon in the final section).
The Web, digital prostheses, and augmented subjectivity
Before we explain why a new conceptual frame for subjective experience in the Digital Age
is necessary, recall that in this section we have explored how our
conceptually divides
world into two separate
even as the
the contemporary
body, convenmaterial embodiment of her subjectivity is
tional prostheses, and digital prostheses). This observation invites us to ask: What does it mean
for us, as contemporary subjects, that the dominant cultural
holds son1e aspects of our
being to be less "real" than others? What happens when we conceptually amputate parts of
ourselves and of our experiences, and what follows when some expressions of our agency are
deJru12:rat:ed or discounted? We argue that
the ways in which augmented
has affected contemporary subjectivity has grave social and political consequences, as
the case study in our final section.
"Cyberbullying": a case study in augmented subjectivity
In October 2012, a 15-year-old
from British Columbia, Canada, named Amanda Todd
committed suicide after several years of bullying and harassment. Todd's death gained international attention, both because a video she'd made and posted to YouTube a month earlier went
viral after her death, and because subsequent press coverage frequently centered on so-called
"cyberbullying" - i.e., the fact that Todd had been
mediated interaction in addition to other, more "conventional" methods of abuse.
Figure 10.1
A screenshot of Amanda Todd's 2012 You Tube video, "My story: struggling,
bullying, suicide, self-harm"
Todd never speaks in her video (which she titles, "My story: struggling, bullying, suicide, self
harm"), but nonetheless tells a heartbreaking story across nine minutes of cue cards that she
turns in time to music. During her seventh grade year, Todd and her friends would "go on
webcam" to meet new people and have conversations with them. Through these interactions,
she met a man who flattered and complimented her - and who later coerced her into briefly
showing him her breasts via her webcam ("flashing"). A year later, the man had somehow
tracked her down on Facebook ("don't know how he knew me"), and - after demonstrating
that he now knew her name, her address, the name of her school, and the names of her friends
and family members - he threatened to circulate a screen-captured image ofTodd showing her
breasts through the webcam if she did not "put on a show" for him (a type of blackmail
commonly referred to as "sextortion"). Todd refused to be intimidated, however, and told the
man no. Not long thereafter, the local police came to her family's home to inform them that
"the photo" (as Todd refers to it) had been "sent to everyone."
Trauh1atized, and ostracized by her classmates at school, Todd developed clinical depression,
as well as anxiety and panic disorders; she started using drugs and alcohol in an attempt to selfmedicate. She moved, and changed schools. But a year later, the man returned. This time he
created a Facebook profile, used the image of Todd's breasts as its profile picture, and got the
attention of Todd's new friends and classmates by sending them Facebook "friend requests"
from that profile, claiming to be a new student starting at their school. Todd's classmates at her
second school were as ruthless as those at her first; exiled and verbally abused, she began cutting
herself and changed schools once again. Although she was still isolated and friendless at her
third school, Todd says that things were "getting better" - until she had casual sex with "an old
guy friend" (another teenager) who had recently gotten back in touch with her. In an eerie
echo of the original webcam interaction, Todd's friend seemed to offer the promise of kindness
and affection in exchange for sex ("I thought he liked me," she says repeatedly). Instead, the
boy subsequently arrived outside Todd's school with a crowd of other teenagers, and merely
looked on as his girlfriend physically assaulted Todd. The other teens cheered, encouraged the
boy's girlfriend to punch Todd, and recorded video of the assault with their phones. After her
father picked her up from school, Todd attempted to commit suicide by drinking bleach; when
she came home from the hospital, she found Facebook posts that said, "She deserved it," and "I
hope she's dead."
Todd moved out of her father's house and into her mother's, in order to change schools and
towns once again. Six months later, she says, people were posting pictures of bleach on
Facebook and tagging them as her. As Todd explains across two cards, "I was doing a lot better
too ... They said ... She should try a different bleach. I hope she dies this time and isn't so stupid.
They said I hope she sees this and kills herself." "Why do I get this?" she asks. "I messed up but
why follow me ... I left your guys city... Im constantly crying now... Everyday I think why am
I still here?" Todd goes on to explain that her mental health has worsened; that she feels "stuck";
that she is now getting counseling and taking anti-depressants, but that she also tried to commit
suicide by "overdosing" and spent two days in the hospital. "Nothing stops," she says. "I have
nobody... I need someone," followed by a line drawing of a frowning face. The last card reads,
"My name is Amanda Todd ..." and Todd reaches forward to turn off the webcam. The last few
seconds of the video are an image of a cut forearm bleeding (with a kitchen knife on a carpeted
floor in the background), followed by a quick flash of the word "hope" written across a bandaged wrist, and then finally a forearm tattooed with the words "Stay strong" and a small heart.
Todd hanged herself at home in a closet one month and three days after she posted the video;
her 12-year-old sister found her body.
Todd's suicide sparked a surge of interest in so-called "cyberbullying," and yet the term
The Web, digital prostheses, and augmented subjectivity
ov~~rsnnplrt:.ies both what an unknown number of people did to Todd
did such
in the first place. As
and in multiple contexts) and why those
danah boyd (2007), Nathan Fisk
David A. Banks
and others argue, the term
"cyberbullying" deflects attention away from harassment and abuse ("-bullying"), and redirects
that attention toward digital media ("cyber-"). In so doing, the term "cyberbullying" allows
digital media to be framed as causes of such bullying, rather than simply the newest type of
which kids
adults) are able to harass and abuse one another. "The
Internet" and "social media" may be convenient scapegoats, but to focus so
on one
set of media through which bullying sometimes takes place is to obscure the underlying causes
of bullying, which are much larger and much more complicated than simply the invention of
new technologies like the Web. Such underlying causes include (to name
a few): teens' lack
adult involvement and mentorship (boyd
the contemporary conception of
childhood as
for a competitive adult workforce, and the attendant emphasis on
managing, planning, and scheduling children's lives (Fisk 2012); a culture of hyper-individualism that rewards mean-spirited attacks, and that values "free speech" more highly than "respect"
(boyd 2007); sexism,
2013b). When we characterize
tally mediated harassment and abuse as "cyberbullying," we sidestep confronting (or even
acknowledging) any and all of these issues.
While recent conversations about "cyberbullying" have been beneficial insofar as
brought more attention to the fact that some adolescents (almost always
nonconforming boys) are
tormented by their peers, these conversations have
how disconnected popular ideas about the Web,
media, and
simultaneously revealed
human agency are from the contemporary conditions that shape human subjectivity. One
concluded, for example, that cyberbullying is "an overrated phenomenon," because most bullies
do not exclusively harass their victims online (Olweus
That study was flawed in its
assumption that online harassment (" cyberbullying") and offiine harassment ("traditional bullyare
exclusive and must occur independently (in other words, that they are
made headlines by
that, "cyberbullying is
zero-sum). Another study (LeBlanc
rarely the
reason teens commit
"and that, "[rn]ost suicide cases also involve realAgain, it is only the flawed concc:~prua1
world bullying as well as depression" (Gowan
division between the "online" and the "real world" (or "offiine") that allows such conclusions
the obvious." Moreover, the term "cyberbullying" has no
to be "findings" rather than
resonance with the people who supposedly experience it: Marwick and boyd (2011) and Fisk
find that teenagers do not make such sharp divisions between online and offiine harassment, and that teens
resist both the term" cyberbullying" and the rigid frameworks that
the term implies.
As we have
and as recent public discourse about "cyberbullying" illustrates, our present-day culture separates digitally mediated experiences into a separate, unequal category, and
often goes so far as to imply that
mediated experiences are somehow "less ~eal." The
contemporary subject is a split subject, one whose embodiment and expressions of agency alike
span multiple media simultaneously and some of those media are digital media. What does it
mean when some parts of our lived experience are treated as disconnected from, and less real
other parts of our lived experience? "Online" and "offiine" may be co-produced conceptual
rather than actual ontological states, but the hierarchy embedded in the
online/ offline binary wields significant social power. As a result, we accord
to some
aspects of the contemporary subject's embodiment and experience (generally, those most
closely associated with her offiine presence), and we denigrate or discount other aspects of her
embodiment and experience (generally, those most closely associated with her online presence). As such privileging and devaluing is never neutral, this means that contemporary
subjectivity is "split" across media that are neither equally valued nor even given equal ontological priority by contemporary society.
In an attempt to counter the devaluation of those aspects of our subjectivity that are
expressed and embodied through digital media, we offer an alternative framework that we call
augrnented subjectivity - so named because it is subjectivity shaped by the historic conditions of
augmented reality. Augmented subjectivity recalls Stone's notion of split subjectivity, in that it
recognizes human experience and agency to be embodied across multiple media (1994).
However, the augmented subjectivity framework emerges from our recognition of the
online/ offiine binary as a historically specific, co-produced social construction, and so emphasizes the continuity of the subject's experience (as opposed to its "split" -ness), even as the subject
extends her agency and embodiment across multiple media. This is not to suggest, of course,
that digital technologies and organic flesh have identical properties or affordances. Rather, we
seek to recognize - and to emphasize - that neither the experiences mediated by the subject's
organic body nor those mediated by her digital prostheses can ever be isolated from her experience as a whole. All of the subject's experiences, regardless of how they are mediated, are
always-already inextricably enmeshed.
Amanda Todd's story perfectly (and tragically) illustrates how bot~ "online" and "offiine"
experiences are integrated parts of the augmented subject's being, and demonstrates as well
the problems that follow from trying to interpret such integrated experiences through a digital-dualist frame. Todd very clearly experienced her world through her digital prostheses as
well as through her organic body; the pain she experienced from reading, "I hope she's dead,"
was not lessened because she read those words on a social media platform rather than heard
them spoken face-to-face (in that particular instance). Nor was her pain lessened because the
comments were conveyed via pixels on a screen rather than by ink on paper. Neither were
Todd's experiences mediated through her Facebook profile somehow separate from her experiences more directly mediated through the sensory organs of her organic body: another girl
physically assaulting Todd, mediated through smartphones, became digital video; digitally- and
materially-mediated words, remediated by Todd's organic body, became her affective experience of pain, which became cuts in her flesh, and which - mediated again by several digital
devices and platforms - became a still image in a digital video. The digital image of Todd's
breasts that strangers and classmates alike kept circulating was always-already intimately linked
to Todd's organic body.Neither Todd's beingness nor her experience of being can be localized
to one medium alone.
Similarly, both Todd and her tormentors are able to express their agency through multiple
media. Todd's harassers were able to continue harassing her across both spatial and temporal
distance; the man who made the screen-captured image of her breasts, and then repeatedly
distributed that image, understood precisely the power he had to affect not just Todd, but also
the other teenagers who tormented Todd after seeing the photo.
It is important to note that bullying is not the only type of social interaction that we
experience fluidly across online and offline contexts. Support, too, transcends this
constructed boundary, as a significant number of scholars have argued (for example: Turner
2006, Chayko 2008, Gray 2009, Baym 2010,Jurgenson and Rey 2010, Davis 2012, Rainie
and Wellman 2012, Wanenchak 2012). Todd and her seventh grade friends understood that
they could extend themselves through their webcams, and so were able to view webcam sites
The Web, digital prostheses, and augmented subjectivity
as ways to connect with other
of her reasons for making the video she posted to
YouTube, Todd writes, "I hope I can show you guys that everyone has a story, and everyones
future will be
one day, you
gotta pull
" Here, Todd clearly understands
that she can act upon future viewers of her video, and she
that she will do so in a
tive, beneficial way.
The characteristic continuity of the augmented subject's online and offline
clearly illustrated
and yet - with respect to teen-on-teen harassment that continuity
becomes markedly less apparent if we fixate on the digitally mediated aspects of such harassment as "cyberbullying." If we look past the reified division between "online" and "offline"
however, it becomes clear
that each of us living within augmented
1s a
human subject, and that each of us has one continuous
of being in the world.
Digital prostheses do have different properties and do afford different ranges
do their conventional or organic counterparts, but we should not focus on the properties
type of media to the detriment of our focus on the actions and moral responsibilities of human
agents. Focusing on one particular means through which
enact violence against each
other (for
through digitally mediated
will never solve the problem of
violence; as
argues, bullying will continue to occur through whatever the newest medium
of communication is, because bullying is not nor has it ever been unique to any
available medium (2007).
Rather than hold digital media
or even as
we need to
digitally mediated
and interactions are simply part of the day-to-day world in
which we live. Digital media are a distinctive part of our cultural moment, and they are part of
ourselves. When we view contemporary experience through the frame of augmented subjecrecognize the inextricable enmeshment of online and ofiline
and, in so
it is clear that what happens to our digital prostheses happens to us. For this
reason, we state unequivocally that moral regard must be extended to these digital prostheses.
Similarly, each action we take through our digital prostheses is an
of our agency and,
as such, is something for which we must take responsibility. That said, your authors are not
cyberneticists; we do not believe that subjectivity can or ever will transcend the organic body,
or that deleting someone's digital prosthesis is the same thing as killing that person in the flesh.
Although contemporary subjectivity is augmented
digital technology, organic bodies are still
an essential and inseparable dimension of human "''"''""'r"""r'""'
Information depends critically on the medium in which it is instantiated.
essential that we acknowledge all of the media that comprise the augmented
tal prostheses, her conventional prostheses, and her
flesh. Rather than trade digital
denialism for flesh
we argue that subjectivity is irreducible to a11y one medium.
Instead, we must
that contemporary subjectivity is augmented, and we must grant all
aspects of the subject's
equal countenance.
This paper could not have taken the form that it did without ongoing inspiration and support
from a vibrant
community. In particular, the authors would like to
blog: David A. Banks, Jenny L. Davis, Robin James, Nathan
Jurgenson, and Sarah Wanenchak. Conversations with
Antley, Tyler Bickford, Jason
Farman, and Tanya Lokot have also provided the authors with valuable insight.
We refer to the
subject as "her" (rather than "they" or "him") for purposes of clarity and readability, and have chosen to use the feminine pronoun "her" in order to counter the earlier tradition of
using generalized masculine pronouns.
This observation was foundational to Karl Marx's understanding of ideology and theory of historical
materialism, and to the discipline of sociology more broadly.
It is useful to distinguish the socio-historical nature of subjectivity from the concept of the self (even
if the two are often used interchangeably in practice). Nick Mansfield (2000: 2-3) cautions:"Although
the two are sometimes used interchangeably, the word 'self' does not capture the sense of social and
cultural entanglement that is implicit in the word 'subject': the way our immediate
life is always
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