Media Studies 110 Electronic Coursebook for Students
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17. Personness, Identity, and Gender


From its inception the computer has raised very deep questions about the nature of our selves. This is due in some part to the ways in which computers engage in cognitive activities that are like those performed by human beings (which is part of what drove Alan Turing to conceive of his Imitation Game), but it is also due to our tendency to see in our creations and technologies reflections of ourselves. Modernity puts a special premium on "new" or "revolutionary" views of the self, and at the same time reinforces a particularly narrow and mechanized view of person that seems generally static. Though computers help us to see problematic fissures in the unitary, modern conception of the self as a whole and indivisible object, they also reinforce a disembodied view of the self-as-master that has a troubling place in Western history.

Some of the ways in which computers influence the shaping of the contemporary self are beginning to be identifiable, but many of them remain to be discovered and just as importantly to be shaped by us in our interactions with and developments of future computers. Games and virtual playspaces offer users ways to model and roleplay relations in the real world, but it is not clear if these environments themselves lead to full or highly limited human interactions. Computers seem in some ways to provide liberating possibilities for "playing with" gender, but also seem to enable a great deal of troubling behavior by men toward women and their representations, and in this sense they both resist and reinforce gender stereotypes. Finally, the discrete nature of computer representations lead them to make quantitative formalizations of persons, essentially financial profiles that are now exploited in what has come to be called "identity theft."


Personness and Technology (Definitions of Personhood; Technologies and the Self; The Computerization of the Self); Gaming Identities; Gender and the Machine; Identity Theft

Personness and Technology

Definitions of Personhood

Technologies and Self-Definition

The Computerization of the Self

Gaming Identities

Gender and the Machine

Identity Theft

Study Questions

  1. What are some ways in which different kinds of persons and identities might be described? What constitutes a person in various societies and time periods?
  2. What is the "paper doll" model of identity and what are some examples of it in the contemporary computer environment?
  3. What does identity mean in the study of formal logic and philosophy? How is this concept related to computer science?
  4. What are some of the ways in which identity is portrayed in computer environments like chat rooms, instant messaging, and multiplayer online games?

Synthesis Questions

  1. One arguable effect of television, photography and film on the formation of the self is an increased emphasis on the visual and on physical appearance of a very physical nature. Computers are extremely visual, although currently these visualizations tend toward the animated rather than the photographic. What influence is the computer having on the contemporary definition of the person in visual terms? What does a person look like, and has that changed during the advent of the computer?
  2. What is the contemporary legal doctrine of corporate person and how does it relate to discussions of intellectual property on the Internet?
  3. Are people enjoying themselves when they use The Sims or another simulation game to perform a task that they find unpleasant and time-consuming in real life?
  4. Does a computer have a gender? If a computer were to "become intelligent" in the Star Trek, inutional sense we see in most movies, would it have a gender? What would its gender depend on?

Reading for Monday