pixelated personality disorder

again, some unexpected pipe tune

in an age where we are “forced” to digitize ourselves, i’ve chosen to name a disorder that is starting to emerge from the interaction with logic machines such as computers. i call it pixelated personality disorder. to describe it, let’s go through the process of signing up for a service. i will use a web service as an example but this works for any kind of service.

when we sign up for anything, we are presented with a form. this is especially obvious online, with forms being a standard interface element that we’ve grown accustomed to. this form is designed by one or more workers with a specific, usually business oriented, goal. so to fulfill it, they provide us with several fields with closed or open fields.

what is a field? it is some personal attribute A with value V, where V can be anything (open) or only some specified values (closed). note that if someone gives you a text field, you can still only choose words to fill it out (making it more closed than open). you can’t doodle a dick in it. that’s a big plus of paper forms.

so first of all, once a form is designed, it is purposefully limiting whatever information it will receive, by desire of the maker of the form. so we, as users, are already limited to a pixelated version of ourselves. 255 words, male/female, nationality, age. these are interpolations of a continuous reality that is a human being.

but by giving us a discrete version of a continuous reality, we might be unable to properly represent ourselves. for example, let’s say you were born in pakistan, lived there for 10 years, and then moved to chile, where you’ve been for the past 10 years and got married. are you pakistani? chilean? the two? none? if the form requests that you fill out your country, which would you choose? by choosing either, you will be creating a distorted picture of yourself, a quantized version that is not entirely accurate. this data will then be used to do all kinds of statistics and metrics on that website, ignoring quantization error when dealing with personal information.

but this is not what i am discussing. we all have some kind of instinct that understands what i described above. what i am writing about is when pixelation is voluntary. i’ll give you an example of something that’s becoming trendy and is a good example of pixelated personality disorder. there is a major movement to abolish the drop down boxes that say “male” “female” in websites and replace them with neutral text fields. this is promoted by, among others, people who define themselves as “genderqueer”, claiming they do not identify with the two available values for the field. how can we formalize this?

field A (gender) has values V = { male, female }, i.e., two possible values. by demanding another field, through a lot of activism, V then becomes { male, female, other }, or, if we are dealing with the idealized gender definition of “genderqueer”, the field would be replaced with a text field, making V = { .* }, i.e., any combination of letters/numbers/symbols/etc.

but this does not solve the pixelated personality problem, in fact, it makes it worse. by increasing the number of possible categories, we force individuals to interpolate themselves using more specific, and therefore, more incomplete terms. if one’s gender identity is a continuous variable that can take any continuous value, let’s say, in [0,1], what we are doing is, instead of having x < 0.5 male, x >= 0.5, female, is splitting the line into x/n categories, each becoming infinitely small. this means that we force people to not only categorize themselves, but actually categorize themselves into a very narrow part of the gender spectrum.

why the disorder term? the problem is that we end up, through positive feedback, with people that identify themselves with a progressively narrower categorization of human experience. people that identify themselves as “neo-classical heavy metal guitarists” cannot be understood in a big picture as easily as “guitarists”. and though it might seem that we are gaining in “granularity”, in fact what we are losing is the big picture. someone that has pixelated personality disorder is someone that cannot distinguish their own unique and continuous identity from the highly specific categories they were forced to become part of due to informatics.

someone who has pixelated personality disorder will feel compelled to say “i am this, i am that” where “this” and “that” are pixels of a low resolution portrait of a beautiful human landscape. and they will not understand that there is a landscape behind the pixels, confusing the landscape with the pixelated image itself.

what do i propose instead? no field at all. if gender is not important, remove it. if age is not important, remove it. when we do not ask someone what category they fit in, they potentially can fit in any category. and that individual can go on being themselves without any concern about whether they fit in the male pixel or female pixel.

and though this might seem silly, check out this post, regarding the facebook alternative diaspora.

just a small note from a non-pixelated individual, and this might sound contradictory given the name of this website, but hey, i had to pixelate something to register the domain anyway. computers can’t parse continuous just yet.

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