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I'm curious what a world similar to this question would be like if instead of genetic modifications, shapeshifting was done via cybernetic implants. This would not work by simply injecting some magical gene modifying virus from within the body, but by mechanical implants that can be electrically stimulated to change the user's appearance. For example, you could change the proportions of your face via inflating flexible implants in different parts of it.

While other options are permitted, I imagine this as being controlled via a brain interface. Modifications would take at most an hour, and could be carried out while awake (however some may be physically uncomfortable).

Answers can treat the society as close to modern day, however I imagine this tech becoming common in 2025-2035. I'd prefer answers to be based on the US, but if you have more experience with other countries that's fine too. The technology is out of the scope of this question, but in general the technology would be based more on simulating the look of modifications to the body, rather than electronically modifying the body itself. Assume that a set of implants would cost about \$600, but anywhere from \$50-1000 is fine if it changes your answer. Things that could be touched on:

  • For things that could be changed almost instantly (like hair color depending on how it's implemented), would people that change it in the middle of conversations be frowned upon?
  • How would prejudice against people based on how they look change if they could simply make themselves no longer look that way?
  • Does this cause prejudice in it's own right?

There would be little-to-no implants for things that don't look "human." At least in the early stages of this technology, things like bright green skin would probably not be an option.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why stop them? What sort of stopping effort are you looking for? Social pressure? Police action? Legal rules? Self Enlightenment? What reasons do you have for stopping them? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 29 '18 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ Editing the question to clarify what I mean $\endgroup$ – snuggles08 Nov 29 '18 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ Still not clear - who wants to stop them? As it stands, it seems like they could do so and it wouldn't affect anyone in particular. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Nov 29 '18 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop I hadn't edited the question yet. $\endgroup$ – snuggles08 Nov 29 '18 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ Wrong title, oops. Haven't used StackExchange in a while... $\endgroup$ – snuggles08 Nov 29 '18 at 23:30
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Cybernetic implants are not cheap, and to have them on this large of a bodily scale, I suspect that only the rich would have access to this technology. Therefore, I could easily see shape-shifting becoming a status symbol among the upper class in your world. Therefore, it seems only natural that changing one's appearance at whim would be a somewhat common occurrence, if only to flaunt their wealth and social superiority. As a result, it would be common for people in lower social classes to try and emulate this cybernetic system as a way to make themselves seem richer than they actually are, such as how Chinese women have historically had their feet bound to emulate nobility. However, it also seems like this shape-shifting would bring with it a sort of social stigma, as it would permanently mark one as a member of the upper class, and may even upset religious institutions due to it defying the course of nature and the will of the God(s). I imagine that, in a few years after its introduction, it will either be so cheap as to be possessed by everyone and dismissed as a part of society, such as with cell phones, or it will fade into obscurity as simply another fad of the past.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a good answer! It brought up some points that I didn't consider while writing the question. I'm planning on changing my question to specify the device's availability, but this is still a great answer. $\endgroup$ – snuggles08 Nov 29 '18 at 23:54
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Humans to date

Humans have a distinct and recognisable face to allow other individuals in their lives to recognise them. Humans were jewellery, clothing, and various forms of skin markings to increase their recognisability. They will even adapt items meant to help surviving the environment such as boots, gloves, armour, glasses, bows, hammers, houses, etc... to be apart of this recognisable identity.

All of our social structures require a way to identify an individual so that their reputation can be tracked. This includes attributing praise, blame, privilege, and duty. Without the ability to associate a reputation to someone you do not know if that person is trustworthy or dangerous to you. The only personally safe attitude would be to treat everyone as deadly raving killers. You won't get a lot of society in these circumstances.

Losing your identity now days is deeply problematic. It makes it hard to open a bank account when the bank believes you already owe them an absolute fortune. It makes it hard to get a job, when the police believe you are a criminal. It may even threaten your life as others come to claim what your reputation owes. Regaining or even keeping your identity requires a lot of hard work to re-establish your reputation and prevent others from trying to take/tarnish it.

For the most part having a reputation is so important to attaining privileges, that it even makes sense to wear some blame, and deal with some duties. Like being dressed down for being late (to keep the job), or taking out the trash (its not pleasant but the alternatives aren't better in the long run).

On the other hand there are times when being associated with a reputation is itself going to be a problem. Like being able to eat 3 meals a day in a poor neighbourhood, or being the boss in a room filled with discontent employees.

Shapeshifters

So this race of shapshifters will actively fight to have independently recognisable identities. That may not be their face, it could be their voice, or some other hard to replicate thing. Most of them will actively dissuade others from mimicking them on this/these identifying point/s. Those that copy exactly would be considered reprehensible because of identity theft. This would draw social pressure for one of them to change. It may not change in the originals favour though.

Some shapeshifters will try to be unidentifiable because they are avoiding punishment, or enjoying a life of non-socially endorsed activities. They might do this by adopting a similar appearance to others, or by adopting several distinct identities based on location/situation, or by never settling on a single look.

Whatever isn't involved in their identity will be changed day to day with the seasons and whim. But this won't be a lot. Most choices of shape will be interpreted by many as joining a specific group. If that shapeshifter does not personally identify with the group, they will have to bear the social misunderstanding, or change to something else.

Within a group individuals will want to be different. I could imagine some shapeshifters choosing fairy wings, others would associate those wings with that groups reputation. Yet each shapeshifter with fairy wings would have something different. It might be their hair, their height, whatever it is any reasonable observer could tell them apart.

The only time the shapeshifters might literally clone themselves is in forming together to express a single demand of society or a single service to society. Militaries, protest groups, police, and judicial figures leap to mind. Here personal reputation is not important, but professional/group reputation is key. When the group succeeds all of the members succeed, when the group fails all of the members fail. The strict group identity will disappear though the moment an individual will benefit/fail independent of the group. The more the individual benefit/failure anticipated due to the group the less resemblance to the group.

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