While I present myself to others on the Net through the aliases and descriptors I choose and the connections these aliases and descriptors establish, I also construct those others and they simultaneously construct me. (Different keystrokes for different folks.) But the process of mutual construction usually gives very little away. Because communication takes place without my bodily presence or the sound of my voice, others who "know" me quite well may not realize how I look or how I present myself in person, and thus may be unable to make the usual inferences from that. 9 (I am not inevitably subject to placement and displacement like Eliza Doolittle.) I can very easily conceal, leave carefully ambiguous, or falsely signal gender, race, age, body shape, and economic status. My representation on the Net is not an inevitability of biology, birth, and social circumstance, but a highly manipulable, completely disembodied intellectual fabrication; electronic cross-dressing is an easy and seductive game. 10 Conversely, I have found that it can be a jarring, dislocating experience actually to meet somebody I have long known through network interactions and for whom I have, by virtue of these interactions, presumptively devised a persona. 11 There are games of constructing electronic closets, and moments for coming out of them. 12
On the Net I must present my password rather than my person whenever I want to identify myself-to show that it's really me. It follows that, if I can somehow obtain somebody else's password, I can, like an Invasion of the Body Snatchers alien pod, extinguish that poor soul from the scene and falsely assume his or her identity. (That person could do the same to firstname.lastname@example.org, of course.) Footsy with gender and social marking, and with the integrity of personal identity, need not stop here; I can create as many network identities as I want for myself, and others will have no way of knowing that these software-conjured zombies all belong to me. Try deconstructing Invasion not as campy allegory on cold-war commies but as a resistant glimpse into a world of unstable identities, ambiguously located intentions, and concealed control, and it looks very prescient.
My software surrogates can potentially do much more than provide origins and destinations for messages; when appropriately programmed, they can serve as my semiautonomous agents by tirelessly performing standard tasks that I have delegated to them and even by making simple decisions on my behalf. 13 (As the citizens of the polis relied upon their helots, so the users of the Net will increasingly depend upon their programmed agents.) It is a hacker's no-brainer, for example, to create a software receptionist-less politely known as a Bozo filter -that screens incoming electronic mail by checking the origin addresses, throwing away junk items, and sorting the rest in priority order. A slightly smarter agent might automatically contact other agents to reconcile diaries and arrange needed meetings at convenient times. (My agent will call your agent.) Another might sleeplessly monitor the stock markets for me, buying and selling according to some programmed strategy. Yet another might continually scan the wire service news to pick out items likely to interest me, and it might have the capacity tointerrupt and alert me immediately when something really important shows up. And a more maliciously conceived one might be programmed to roam the digital highways and byways looking for trouble-for opportunities to corrupt the files of my enemies, to plunder valuable information, to eliminate rival agents, or to replicate itself endlessly and choke the system. Fritz Lang got it wrong: the robots in our future are not metallic Madonnas clanking around Metropolis, but soft cyborgs slinking silently through the Net. The neuromans of William Gibson are a lot closer to the mark.
While the Net disembodies human subjects, it can artificially embody these software go-betweens. It is a fairly straightforward matter of graphic interface design to represent an agent as an animated cartoon figure that appears at appropriate moments (like a well-trained waiter) to ask for instructions, reports back with a smile when it has successfully completed some mission, and appears with a frown when it has bad news. If its "emotions" seem appropriate, you will probably like it better and trust it more. 14 And if cartoon characters do not appeal, you might almost as easily have digital movies of actors playing cute receptionists, slick stockbrokers, dignified butlers, responsive librarians, cunning secret agents, or whatever personifications tickle your fancy. 15
How do you know who or what stands behind the aliases and masks that present themselves? 16 Can you always tell whether you are dealing directly with real human beings or with their cleverly programmed agents? Was that politely phrased e-mail request for a meeting from email@example.com originated by the flesh-and-blood William J. Mitchell or was it generated autonomously by one of his made-to-order minions? (That, of course, was Turing's famous question. He thought that indistinguishability would demonstrate machine intelligence. But it might equally well follow from a human being playing dumb or engaging in discourses that do not require any smarts.) Does the logic of network existence entail radical schizophrenia-a shattering of the integral subject into an assemblage of aliases and agents? Could we hack immortality by storing our aliases and agents permanently on disk, to outlast our bodies? (William Gibson's cyberpunk antiheroes nonchalantly shuck their slow, obsolescent, high-maintenance meat machines as they port their psychic software to newer generations of hardware.) 17 Does resurrection reduce to restoration from backup? 18