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Essay of the Day: Exploring the Emergence of the Cyberhero Archetype

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
17th March 2012


* Article: The Hero and the Internet: Exploring the Emergence of the Cyberhero Archetype. Dana Klisanin.

In this article, Dana asks:

the total number of people engaging in acts of digital altruism and other forms of pro-social digital activism exceeds 100 million (Klisanin, 2011). Who are these people?

Excerpts:

“It is not surprising then, that as our sphere of concern expands (i.e., from the personal to the global-planetary) we are creating technological means through which to address those concerns. Transception, described as, “Internet technologies fused with moral concerns,” is one embodiment of that evolution (Klisanin, 2005; 2007). Transception enables digital altruism, for example through websites designed to support caring and sharing behaviors, i.e., the ability to add content to informational sites such as Wikipedia (2011); the ability to contribute to charity through viewing advertisements via “click-to-donate” formats such as available at Care2.com (2011); the ability to help solve complex problems through donating unused (idle) computer time to scientific research, for example, through the World Community Grid (2011). Transception enables individuals to reach beyond the confines of the physical body not simply to act, but to act compassionately on behalf of other sentient beings.

Carl Jung (1968) described “archetypes” as “collective patterns, . . . a typos [imprint], a definite grouping of archaic characters containing, in form as well as in meaning, mythological motifs.” Jung explained these motifs as “appear[ing] in pure form in fairytales, myths, legends, and folklore” and cited “the Hero, the Redeemer, the Dragon,” as some of the most well-known (p. 41). In 1938, the hero took on another form: the “superhero.” Packer (2010) describes superheroes as “secularized forms of supernatural beings that populate folklore and legend and religious literature” (p. 23). As humanity blends moral action with digital technology, another variant of the hero, i.e., the cyberhero, is emerging. Interestingly, this merger enables certain characteristics of the superhero to find embodiment in the phenomenal world.

Positive psychologists are beginning to explore the character strengths and virtues associated with heroism, however we currently have few measures of this construct (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Although understudied, heroism has been traditionally associated with courage, valor, and bravery: heroes are considered to be those individuals willing to risk their lives on behalf of others (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006). Researchers examining the social construction of heroism have, however, identified additional elements of heroism including benefiting others and acting selflessly (Rankin & Eagly, 2008, p. 416).

Individuals using the Internet to act on behalf of other people are not risking their lives, however in some instances, websites that support digital altruism are designed such that the visitor confronts, not one, not two, not three, but a seemingly endless number of challenges in the form of “causes” that need urgent attention (see Care2.com, 2011). From poverty to global warming to the threat of mass extinctions, these challenges are not easily solved, thus the individual seeking to bring them to an end, certainly faces some degree of psychological angst. Importantly, rather than turning away from these challenges, or pretending they do not exist, individuals who actively engage in digital altruism are confronting these challenges with the new tools that have become available to them.

To engage in this manner, the cyberhero archetype is embracing paradox. Traditionally, the hero is reactive, i.e., acting when the need to act arises. The cyberhero however, arising as it does from our globally interconnected “wired” world, is both reactive and proactive. It is “reactive” in that reaches beyond physical boundaries to address existing problems (e.g., clicking-to-donate food), and it is “proactive” in trying to prevent the worst consequence of social inequality (i.e., starvation, disease, death) and environmental destruction (global warming, loss of habitat, extinction of species). The individual embodying the cyberhero archetype chooses to act all the while recognizing a certain futility in his or her singular act. To overcome this frustration, the cyberhero must posit individual action and collective action in simultaneity. The cyberhero knows he or she will not save the whales from extinction alone, but recognizes that we?an active community of like-minded individuals?may well succeed.

The cyberhero archetype appears to recognize global threats to social and ecological wellbeing as personal threats. Rather than requiring a personal confrontation with immediate danger, the cyberhero archetype requires a personal and collective psychological confrontation with current and/or impending species-wide dangers. Rather than setting out on an epic adventure to far away lands and encountering life-threatening dangers, as in the traditional heroic narrative (Campbell, 1949/1972), the cyberhero, paradoxically, both stays at home and sets off–into cyberspace with the goal of benefiting others.

The elements of heroism identified by Rankin and Eagly (2008), “benefiting others and acting selflessly” provide a solid foundation for the hero aspect of the cyberhero archetype, however additional characteristics, such as universal compassion, dual-persona, shape-shifting, and speed, can be said to mimic characteristics common to superheroes. Superheroes represent society’s vision of men and women endowed with extraordinary abilities. They emerged at that onset of World War II, largely from the pen of Jewish writers in response to Hitler’s persecution of the Jewish people (Packer, 2010). This was an unparallel time in history, a time when the agrarian way of life was ending and value systems associated with agrarianism, such as equality and community were in direct opposition to the value systems of industrial capitalism: individualism, self-fulfillment, and competitiveness (Connor, 1980). From the psychoanalytic perspective, the superhero, through the use of mask and costume, symbolized the “split between the egalitarian common man and the individualistic, self-reliant, achievement-motivated superhero” (Connor, 1980, p. 339). While it is beyond the scope of this exploration, Packer (2010) has also explored the mask and costume of the superhero in terms of the Jungian concepts of the persona and the shadow.

Because the Internet is the modus operandi of the cyberhero, s/he is able to imitate the dual persona, shape shifting, and speed of the superhero archetype. Dual persona and shape shifting are enabled through the use of an avatar, i.e., self-selected digital persona; and speed via the Internet’s rapid transfer of data. When an individual uses the Internet, or a gamer sits down to play a video game, he selects a digital representation of himself, i.e., an “avatar”. The individual is free to select his sexual identity, race, hair color, as well as a variety of other features; depending on the choices available he may choose to “shape-shift,” identifying, for example, as a mythological creature or a Jedi knight. This ability to create a new identity for oneself, while in reality remaining the same person, mimics the dual-persona and shape-shifting characteristics of the superhero. Unlike the superhero, however, the cyberhero does not require an avatar in order to act on behalf of others, thus it cannot be said to inherit the psychic split posited of the superhero. Through embodying individual action in tandem with collective action, the cyberhero overcomes the split between communal and individual value systems.

While the hero archetype speaks to moral action, heroes are often associated with acting on behalf of a specific in-group (e.g., one’s neighbors, community, or nation), the superhero, as originally conceived (e.g., Superman), embodies universal compassion and magnanimity (Packer, 2010). In using the Internet to act globally, on behalf of individuals of all religions, ethnicities, and nationalities, as well as animals and imperiled environments, the cyberhero appears to be embodying these ideal qualities. The cyberhero archetype provides an avenue through which a number of the superhero’s characteristics are finding expression in the phenomenal world, albeit in a radically different form. In this regard, the archetype appears to be acting as a bridge, or conduit between the physical and imaginal worlds.

The psychological profile described above may represent an embodiment of the “transmodern psyche,” characterized by O’Hara (1997) as a psyche that: “Lives, thinks and acts locally and globally; embraces spiritual yearnings; tolerates ambiguity and difference; . . . empathic with others; ethics based on right action over fixed principles; assumes personal and social accountability; . . . reasons abstractly and normatively; . . . respects non-rational ways of knowing; collaborates and competes in the service of the whole” (1997, p. 5). The transmodern psyche is one in which the subject is capable of transpersonal identification with the other. Such identification enables the individual to empathize with all sentient beings. Importantly, the transmodern psyche welcomes paradox: instead of necessitating “either/or” thinking, it allows for the exploration of “both/and” thinking. It is considered to “combine intuition and spirituality with rational brainwork” (Luyckx, 1999).”

Implications and Conclusion from the Research

Dana Klisanin:

“The bulk of research and media attention has focused on the negative uses of the Internet, especially the activities of the cyberbully. This study demonstrates that there are also individuals using the Internet and digital technology for positive aims. While this statement may appear glaringly obvious, until now researchers have neglected to acknowledge or study this population. Through recognizing these individuals and their activities, as worthy of research and attention, we promote the positive side of human nature and the ethical use of the Internet.

While the characteristics and traits of cyberheroes must be studied in a larger population, the archetype currently appears to embody a transpersonal sense of self. Importantly, 93.7 % of respondents recognize their lives as interconnected with all the life forms on our planet, and 84.4% of respondents believe that through using the Internet to help others, they are contributing to conditions that promote peace in the world. If this recognition and pro-active stance holds true across the larger population of individuals who are actively using the Internet to help other people, animals, and the environment, (the “Causes” community alone currently has a membership of 150 million), it is not an exaggeration to infer that they hold great potential to address global challenges, especially when acting in concert. Social learning theory (Bandura, 1977; 1996) and research in social persuasion (Fogg, 2002; Bogost, 2007) suggest that this pro-social behavior may increase as more individuals become aware of it and use social media to spread that awareness.

And awareness is spreading rapidly. Televisions with Internet-enabled capabilities now air programs with weblinks designed to support public health education (Hollywood, Health & Society, 2011) and social networking sites, such as Causes (2011) already offer cause-marketing platforms through which users can elect to watch advertisements that result in donations to charity. Likewise, on-lines games have been designed for the purpose of addressing social problems (Games for Change, 2011; McGonigal, 2011); some such as Zenga’s Farmville (2011) have raised money for disaster relief through the sale of virtual game products (Adams, 2011), other’s, such as Tim Kring’s, Conspiracy for Good (2011), have used a combination of mobile and on-line gaming to build libraries in Zambia. More recently, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Konami Digital Entertainment have partnered to create Food Force, a game in which players fight hunger around the globe, i.e., the “money spent by players goes to fund WFP school meals projects in the real world” (WFP, 2011). Games are evolving at a rapid pace (Bogost, 2007; Chatfield, 2010; McGonigal, 2011) and, as the above examples demonstrate, digital altruism has already become woven within them. As these initiatives expand, more individuals will have the opportunity to join the collective in addressing a myriad of challenges—in doing so they will be embodying the cyberhero archetype. Their actions will affect change in larger systems, for example changing economic structures through consumer mandated corporate social responsibility (e.g., requiring that donations be made to charitable organizations in exchange for viewing advertisements results in a larger percentage of revenue moving into the hands of non-profit organizations).

While this archetype requires further investigation, it is an important construct, for, in order to promote our higher natures, we must recognize and support acts of goodness, acts of compassion wherever we find them, including the Internet. Doing so means that rather than placing all of our attention on cyberbullying, we need to begin giving equal attention to the opposite action: cyberheroing.

Negroponte (1995) stated, “being digital” as “almost genetic in its nature, in that each generation will become more digital than the preceding one” (p. 231). In choosing to identify, study, and celebrate “cyberheroes” we provide a form through which individuals, especially the young, can recognize their ability to use Internet and mobile technologies to act compassionately on behalf of others. In summary, the cyberhero is a viable embodied archetype poised to expand the heroic imagination into the new millennium.”

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