Enormous resources are being put toward designing online spaces
that could potentially form large communities that will regularly
log on to interact, exchange ideas, or spend cybercash. What seems
to be neglected in the development of these spaces are the personalities
that form these very communities and the issues of privacy and freedom
of expression being integrated into the technologies allowing these
exchanges. The author proposes development of an Information Personae
that incorporates disembodied information on the Web and reembodies
it through the data, links, and community it becomes connected to.
Agents, Avatars, Identity, Cybercash, Intellectual Capital,
Knowledge Networking, Privacy, Encryption, Search, Data Bodies,
Corporate Bodies, Information Personae
According to James Hillman, economics is the only effective syncretistic
cult remaining in the world today, our world's only ecumenical faith.
It provides the daily ritual, uniting Christian, Hindu, Mormon,
atheist, Buddhist, Sikh, Adventist, animist, evangelist, Muslim,
Jew, fundamentalist and New Ager in one common temple, admitting
all alike. (Hillman, 1995) As information replaces working capital,
so intellectual assets replace physical ones--the World Wide Web
becomes the electronic marketplace where ideas are shared, exchanged,
bought and sold. It is an ideal environment for two most very different
participants--conceptual artists and multinational corporations.
At the core of conceptualist aspirations is a move away from the
object toward establishing the primacy of the idea, while multinational
corporations always defied borders and have moved from physical
product to intellectual capital.
Intellectual capital, as defined by Thomas Stewart, is--knowledge,
information, intellectual property and experience--that can be
put to use to create wealth. It is collective brainpower. Knowledge
has become the preeminent economic resource--more important than
raw material; more important, often, than money. (Stewart, 1997)
With this in mind, I propose development of an Information Personae,
a mixture of agent and avatar technologies, engineered to address
the following questions: If knowledge and communication are fast
becoming a primary economic asset, what are the implications for
creative communities working on the World Wide Web? How does collective
knowledge manifest itself when not directly related to corporate
structure, specifically in relation to creative communities? Can
we become conscious of how information that represents us travels?
If artwork is no longer constrained by physical space, objecthood
and gallery systems, what forms may creative knowledge assume? How
is creative knowledge positioned in the world of electronic commerce?
And finally, building on the heritage of conceptual artists and
contemporary philosophers who question authorship, institutions
and the role of commerce in the arts, how do creative concepts figure
in electronic economies?
The Intangible Web
What is still commonly referred to as an "intangible" realm becomes very tangible and real when we invest vast mental energies into it. This seems to have been the downfall of conceptual artists who claimed to have shunned the "object". By declaring the physical object tangible and expecting "pure concept" to be somehow removed from commerce, conceptualists further reinforced the body/machine duality the West just can't seem to shake. Just as traditional economics based on management of physical ownership are challenged by intellectual capitalists, so are the art world's notions of the art and object. The world of ubiquitous computing is final proof that these are not separate realities, and soon the same issues that seem to be somehow relevant only for "cyberspace" will be equally important in the physical realm. After all, the "virtual" needs a very physical box (hardware) to run through as well as a flesh and blood human to maintain and operate the system. What may move this process forward is the work being done with "intelligent" software agents on the Web.
The push towards more "human-like" avatars 
and developing intelligent ways of information storage and retrieval
has moved developers to give research on artificial life renewed
importance. Software agents are computational systems that inhabit
the world of computer networks. This technology is being used in
research and development of intelligent systems that help us manage
the overwhelming information overload on the Internet. Software
agents are made possible by a machine that is the pinnacle of 'rationalist'
engineering, yet aspects of Artificial Life and related studies
such as fractal geometry, non-linear dynamics and complexity theory
challenge basic premises of the scientific method so related to
the rationalist approach.(Penny, 1996) Some of the most advanced
work in this area is pursued by Pattie Maes and her team at MIT
Media Lab. She believes that agents radically change the current
user experience, and talks about this through the metaphor that
an agent can act as a "personal assistant." The agent acquires its
competence by learning from the user as well as from agents assisting
other users. Several prototypes have been built, including agents
that provide personalized assistance with meeting scheduling, electronic
mail handling, electronic news filtering and selection of entertainment.
Enormous resources are being put toward designing online spaces that successfully utilize, text, visuals and sound while being commercially profitable. Digital libraries, sponsored by large companies and government agencies, online trading, soap operas, and role playing games are examples of how information is being constructed into intellectual capital. In other words, attention by investors is placed on any space that could potentially form large communities that will regularly log on to communicate, exchange ideas or spend cybercash. What seems to be neglected in the development of these spaces are the personalities that form these very communities.
The I_Personae incorporates the disembodied information on the Web and defines itself by the data, links, and community it is connected to. The I-Personae searches for data bodies who have similar interests, and functions as an extension of our physical "selves" while participating in member's collective brain power. In other words, information is collected, stored and defined public or private by the I-Personae, while community is formed by like-minded individuals connecting and further extending their space on the Web. As an extension, the I_Personae functions while we are sleeping and busy doing other tasks. It is designed to behave autonomously--sitting in front of a screen for endless hours will no longer be necessary. We are updated and notified of conversations, contacts, events and any information we have asked for through a number of devices.
Information Personae and Freedom of Expression
How and where our information travels from banks, credit cards
and social security offices is mostly a mystery to us. Every time
we buy something, subscribe to a magazine or pay our taxes, the
information goes somewhere. All these documents could be linked
into life dossiers with our entire financial and medical history,
with details of what we buy and who we communicate with. Rather
then encouraging unprecedented scrutiny and control, the Information
Personae aspires towards a secure parity between individuals and
organizations. It will automatically record who has accessed it's
body and for what purpose. This is not only in service of paranoid
thoughts of invisible control, but also for active participation
in building like-minded communities. For this reason, developments
in encryption technologies such as the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy)
program developed by Phil Zimmerman, are an important piece of the
Zimmerman, an anti-authoritarian agitator and academic, designed an affordable military strength encryption program and made it available publicly. He was motivated by the belief that intelligence agencies, big arms and drug traffickers, the defense companies, oil companies and other corporate giants have access to good cryptographic technology while ordinary people, and grassroots political organizations don't. Soon after the release of the software, the federal prosecutors threatened him with possible 52 months of imprisonment for export of "munitions." Zimmerman fought a widely publicized battle with the US government and rallied a large segment of the Internet community along with the civil rights advocates who came to his aid. Three years later, the case was dropped while the software remains publicly available. To impose physical borders on the Internet is an impossible task, and it is just as difficult to stop the spread of an idea on the net. The government had to come to terms with the fact that the meme, a contagious idea that replicates like a virus, passed from mind to mind, is impossible to pin down and control. Our ability to lock or unlock the door to our information body is critical in the development of the I_Personae society.
Standardized Avatars and Information Overload
Research and development into online social spaces would not be
taking place with such dizzying speed if the WWW were a text only
environment. Although text based MOOs and MUDs 
are still very active communities, and there will probably always
be a place for them, investment in Web based communities really
only started with the introduction of graphical user interfaces.
Avatar filled chat rooms seem to be where most entrepreneurs are
placing their bets. By the year 2000, chats are expected to generate
7.9 billion hours of online use, with $1 billion in advertising
revenue. (Clelan, 1996) Makers of virtual environments predict that
scrolling text for chat rooms will soon be entirely replaced with
2-D and 3-D graphical environments, while marketers are busily exploring
ways to exploit new technology for advertising.
For quite awhile now, online interactive games have been the first testbeds for formation of online communities that spend cybercash for use of a collaborative space. Most recently, Rocket Science Games, a maker of interactive entertainment software, and CyberCash, a company that handles payment transactions on the Internet, are forming a partnership to develop a virtual video game arcade on the World Wide Web. Payments will come out of an "electronic wallet" that users could replenish by transferring money from their bank accounts. (Einstein, 1996)
Most recent software developments center around two major problems--creating community and management of information overload. The entertainment industry is putting enormous resources into development of more "human-like" avatars, and the business and research communities are investing equally large resources into management of databases. The problem is that identity, and its representation is being addressed separately from organization of information into knowledge. A somewhat disturbing trend is the effort to create standards, in service of information management or better ability to profile or track down the "users." This, of course is in service of electronic commerce which is hindered by the decentralized and diverse nature of the present state of the Internet.
In October '96, at the Earth to Avatar Conference in San Francisco, architects of 3D graphical interfaces on the Web met to discuss the lack of avatar standards. When former Apple Computer Chairman John Sculley gave his analysis of the future of cyberspace at the conference, he said that once the technology is shown to work and standards are agreed, the big league players will move into cyberspace. As avatars become members of self-organizing groups, Sculley sees them as "a driving force shaping the economics of this industry." (Wilcox, 1997) The software industry's debate on avatars is really about object interactions passing between a variety of servers in real-time. Talking about avatars personalizes the discussion and brings up issues having to do with the nature of identity, security, interpersonal relations, and societies of the Internet.
Universal Avatar Standards (UAS) group's aim is to focus on the nature of avatars with regard to such issues as gender representation, ID authentication, personal expression versus social constraints, and communication of emotion. The proposal provides an architecture for managing thousands of geographically distant users simultaneously, with interactive behaviors, voice, 3-D graphics and localized audio. The proposal discusses creation of a link to a user profile, coded in HTML and containing data the user wishes to be known about the fantasy or true identity and the user's history of actions on the net. Avatar history could be with reference to games, for example, wizard status in a Role Playing Game (RPG), or it could hold marketing information about purchases made by credit card. The issue raised with the concept of the avatar in cyberspace, as it stands now, is that it stops at the idea of visual (or descriptive) representation of a "self" on the net. No thought is given to the "user's" ability to access their own online history and make decisions of what is made public or private. The Information Personae essentially utilizes similar technologies, with one important difference--the representation is aware of the information (content) of the body. In other words, it does not perpetuate the machine/body dichotomy and allows a conscious connection to the collective brain.
The problem with the current trend of development in avatar technology is that it is designed to chat, meet people, attend events and purchase products. It is conceived as an empty shell and serves as a throughput of simple communication exchange. The graphic representation is what we are supposed to be concerned with, while the embedded database remains hidden from us and we are given very little flexibility for customized self-programming. The Information Personae reverses this by foregrounding the information it carries and our awareness of how it moves as meme. Representation of ourselves on the net is indeed connected to the information we collect, and it is especially compelling to think of ourselves as "embodying" the links we make on and offline. While the avatar is primarily seen as a "puppet", and the agent as a "servant"--the Information Personae is neither --- it is a malleable extension of our "selves"--diverse and decentralized.
I am grateful to Robert Nideffer for working closely with me on conceptualizing and articulating the concept of the Information Personae. We will be collaborating on developing the I_Personae technology this year through a Research Across Disciplines grant awarded through the Office of Research at UCSB.
Thanks to Lorne Falk who gave me excellent editorial critique as well as generating inspiring discussion regarding the Information Personae.
1. PGP--Pretty Good Privacy Program can be downloaded from
the International PGP Home Page: www.ifi.uio.no/pgp
2. I recently completed a more complete analysis
of etymology and current use of the term "avatar". See "Avatar's in
Cyberspace: Marketing the Descent" in Ars Electronica '97 Proceedings
or Intelligent Agent Newsletter, September '97. [back]
3. MOO, technically means MUD-Object Oriented. MUD
is a Multiple-User Dungeon (or Dimension). MUDs started as interactive
adventure games similar to Dungeons and Dragons for the computer--
but a version that participants could play over the Internet. MUDs
and MOOs have expanded to other sorts of games and social uses.
Clelan, K. August 5, 1996. "Chat Gives Marketers Something to Talk About" Advertising Age.
Hillman, J. 1995. Kinds of Power: A Guide to its Intelligent Uses, New York:Doubleday Publishing Group.
Stewart, T. 1997. Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations, New York:Doubleday Publishing Group
Maes, P. July 1994. "Agents that Reduce Work and Information Overload", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 37, No. 7, pp 38-40, ACM Press
Penny, S. Autumn, 1996. "The Darwin Machine: Artificial Life and Interactive Art", Technoscience, number 29
Platt, C. July, 1997. "Plotting Away in Margaretville", Wired, pp 140-144
Reidman,P. September, 1996. Avatars Build Character on 3D chat sites, Advertising Age
Einstein, D. February 13, 1996.Virtual Arcade Games Play the Classics on the Internet, San Francisco Chronicle, p. C3
Wilcox, S. 1996. "Bringing Behaviours to VRML: Making sense of the
Zimmerman, P. 1994 "Why Do You Need PGP?",