The Emancipation of the Avatar

The Emancipation of the Avatar

On 19th January my appeal against my Twitter account suspension was denied with the following curt message:

“We’re writing to let you know that your account has been suspended—and will remain suspended—due to multiple or severe violations of our platform manipulation rules. Please do not reply to this message as this email address is not monitored.”

No evidence of contravening content was provided at any stage. No specific broken rule was cited. No due process of transparent and equal justice was followed.

For better or worse, Twitter has been a major focus of my life for the last few years. It is an information warfare battleground, and my dedication to remaining there was driven by a direct message I had received from General Flynn in February of 2019. It was also my virtual home and workplace.

At the time my deplatforming felt like the torching of my “corner shop” and “living quarters” above — with the police then coming round to celebrate the arsonist’s crime. The last few weeks have given me opportunity to make sense of this event, and the relationship between my physical and online selves.

Was my “virtual tongue” just cut out? Was this an assassination of my digital doppelganger? Or was it a more minor event, like the loss of a character in a video game?

I experience this deplatforming as a violent act that violates my basic right to equal participation in civic society. One wise correspondent warned me to “treat your moral and spiritual injuries as if they’re critical.” This is appropriate: thousands of hours of work are gone in an instant. All my legacy content is removed; I am in the “memory hole” as warned of in Orwell’s “1984”.

Furthermore, my own ability to read news and research events was erased. I not only lost my 250k followers, but my 20k followees too. That feed was carefully curated over a long period. It is like not being able to read any newspapers because you don’t have a license to buy one.

In short, this was an attack on my ability to earn a living — and feed my family — via my photos and writing. The stress has harmed my wellbeing and health. Unjust and unfair erasure of my avatar very much affects me a living and breathing human being.

There are also deeper and more subtle effects. My Twitter identity was established in 2007, and the identity equivalent of a good “credit rating” was taken away. It was also an identity that enabled people to reference me in public; now I am literally “unmentionable”.

The identity was secured, and was a basis for “higher order” uses, just as you can log in with a Google or Apple ID into many websites. For instance, I got this email from Keybase:

Uh-oh, martingeddes, your previously-proven twitter identity @martingeddes just broke. We’ve been checking it repeatedly, and it’s not working from our perspective. If you deleted a public proof, remember that proofs must stay public so anyone can trust you without trusting the server.

The deplatforming losses do not stop there.

I cannot now interact with any brands via social media. I cannot reference political or public figures or debate with them. I cannot respond as an equal to propaganda of the corrupt mass media, even when I am personally attacked in the press.

Every direct message I had was also lost. In that list were many offers to come and stay with people all over America, and I had taken note of them. Their Twitter handles were the only way to reach them — and many of them have also now been deplatformed. These are real human relationships and opportunities that are being taken away from me.

It was not only a denial of my own right to information and communication. It was also the severance of my association with a quarter of a million other souls, and a denial of their right to hear what I have to say, and to gain comfort from beautiful images I make. Indeed, the very fact that I existed and had such a following has been removed from the public record.

All changes involve both losses and gains, and there have been some gains too. It has been an opportunity to reground myself on my own body and its welfare. The oppressive need to “feed my avatar” on a daily basis (else everyone starts writing to me to check my welfare) has been removed. There is a sense of being liberated from my “marching orders”, and permitted to explore other platforms.

At the base of this personal inquiry is a reflection on the very definition of “self”. I am a human being with a body and soul, whereas my avatar is a “human doing”. It cannot be located in space or time; it does not have rights independent of me; it fails basic tests of being alive, such as ability to reproduce.

Yet my identity is a “symbol of living me”. It may only be an icon, but it is an icon that is unavoidably coupled to me. It was not offered as a role, like my art photo business, but as a genuine reflection of (part of) me — and my joys and sufferings. Social media constructs avatars of us, but those avatars in turn co-construct our physical world identity and interactions.

Our physical and virtual identities are distinct — but not separable. This means how my avatar is treated is a human rights issue. Just because it is “symbol of human” rather than “human” does not cease to make it so. This observation is not a novel one, and we already see laws that recognise our right to be acknowledged as the author of a work, or to control the use of our name and image in commercial content.

The public square has been privatised as software takes over the world. These private platforms have strong incentives to censor or suppress speech that offends (illegal or unaccountable) power of their backers and allies. This is offensive to those who believe “all men are created equal”; no person engaged in lawful speech should face such burdens upon their being as I have endured.

I remain an observer on many groups where the authoritarian hypocrites of the technocratic radical left reside. They place themselves in a superior position to decide what is acceptable speech. Mere accusations of “extremism” or “hate speech” are taken as reason to delete content that offends them. They have rejected the possibility that they may be mistaken, or the victims of propaganda and social engineering.

This in turn is a dangerous rejection of the rule of law: I spot discussions on how they might circumvent constitutional limits to imposing censorship. They have learned nothing from history and the important role of dissidents in keeping power in check. The buy-in of their fellow countrymen into a unifying framework that keeps the peace is being rejected.

So what is the way forwards from this sorry situation? The first step is to recognise reality for that it is: Big Tech is feudal with a totalitarian outlook. An “uber class” of technocrats has decided they are in a more legitimate position than “we the people” to steer society. This has to be resisted with all our might.

I personally will never again participate in Big Tech services or commit my creative force to them; they are an enemy. Silicon Valley isn’t driving a new enlightenment, but is instead taking us into a digital dark age. The answer isn’t a better type of feudal overlord, but to eliminate digital feudalism.

Deplatforming is a slavery problem, but one of the digital era. Our avatars are treated as property of third parties, and this is fundamentally unethical, since it enslaves our identity. As long as our avatars are property, we are property. The more the world becomes digital and virtual, the stronger this “enslavement by proxy” becomes.

I am now not equal to others, nor free to practise my profession, nor to share my political beliefs. Constant deplatforming has seriously affected my life, health, and wealth. It is a moral and practical imperative that we be self-sovereign over our identity. Our ability to “have a name” in the software world cannot be dependent on the whim of corporations and third parties.

We need to consider how we can introduce “virtual jurisprudence” and reaffirm the basic principles of fairness and justice. These platforms have their own speech rights, by setting rules that reflect their mission. How to resolve conflicting speech rights, while preserving human identity and avatar rights, is an area which is nascent. For instance, it may need us to create “virtual jury service” to questions of deplatforming and acceptable use of social media.

Slavery is not just a violent claim to ownership of a human. Human trafficking is a slavery issue. Usury and lifelong debt servitude is a slavery issue. Secretly replacing a sovereign government with a corporation is a slavery issue. Conflating a legal fiction name with a real human is a slavery issue.

Deplatforming of creative minds without due process is a slavery issue, too — as is anything that deprives us of our innate and natural liberties to learn, earn, and speak. Services like Twitter are identity gulags, and their unaccountable powers of identity imprisonment and avatar execution are not acceptable in a civilised society.

We have to own our avatars and control our identities. In a free society they cannot be traded or deleted like this; that is for slaves. Once we recognise the severity of this issue as being a slavery one of our times, then we can begin to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

Not least to consider is that modern warfare is information warfare. The right to “bear avatars” is an extension of the right to bear arms. I refuse to be an unarmed identity slave any more.

Let’s emancipate our avatars.