Our Exponential Selves: Identity in the Digital Romantic Age
By Jonathan Cook and Tim Leberecht
Our technologies have not only changed what we do, they have changed who we are. — Sherry Turkle
Our future has been hacked.
It used to be that when we thought of the future, we dreamed of the new and wonderful things people could be doing in it. Now, when we think of the future, we anticipate the development of new technologies. With this change of focus, the role of human experience has become secondary in importance, diminished to a mere reaction to the new machines that define our world.
A seminal year in this cultural shift was 1984. In fiction, it was the year of George Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia, in which surveillance, absence of privacy, and what we now term “alternative facts” enabled the erasure of individuality. 1984 was also the year when William Gibson released Neuromancer, the book that popularized the term “cyberspace.” Gibson’s novel tells the story of a washed-up computer hacker hired by a mysterious employer to stage “the ultimate hack.” Neuromancer isn’t exactly a utopian counter-vision to 1984, but at least it expands the playing-field.
Technology has advanced a great deal since 1984. Nonetheless, the themes explored in that year remain at the core of our culture’s concern with the impact of digital innovation on human identity. Neuromancer has inspired an entire genre of science fiction as well as inspired the Hollywood blockbuster film series The Matrix. Orwell’s book is a bestseller again, with a theatrical adaptation running on Broadway.
The ultimate hack, in the 1980s and today, is obvious: it’s us.
Although our visions of the future are dominated by images of digital transformation, underneath this technological change lies a more existential metamorphosis. As important as the development of digital technology is, it’s the potential for the transformation of humanity in response to future technology that excites and alarms us the most. Whatever data and devices the future of human transformation may involve, its one key feature will be the self itself. The future of digital technology will be shaped by the decisions we make about how to manage our digital identities.
Who are we going to be in the future? How will our identities change in an age of exponential technology that may make both 1984 and Neuromancer sound nostalgic?
Whose Identity Is It, Anyway?
As the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) expand, the designers of digital technology services are increasingly defining identity in terms of the tactical needs of their systems. So, when Keir Breitenfeld of Experian writes about “reinventing identity for the digital age,” he defines digital identity as the combination of three things:
1) Verified personally identifiable information; 2) collective set of devices/“things” which that identity transacts; 3) transactional history of that identity.
From Breitenfeld’s perspective, the most important issue in digital identity is the ability of digital networks to confirm that people truly are who they claim to be. He’s talking about how to engineer the technical specifications by which people can be identified while they’re online.
When people who use digital technology talk about identity, they’re referring to something quite different. They focus on issues of social belonging and personal meaning. Georgina Lawton, for example, describes how “writing about my identity online” led her to have discussions with her family about “being raised white as a black woman.” When she uses the word “identity” in her work online, she isn’t referring to the security procedures she follows to keep her accounts secure. She’s talking about how her participation in an online network enables her to explore the convergence of conflicting cultural and psychological aspects of her sense of self.
Breitenfeld and Lawton are using the same word to refer to two vastly different things. What identity means depends on where you’re coming from. So, when tech professionals and tech users talk about identity, they typically talk past each other, achieving little more than mutual bewilderment.
The managers of digital systems define identity in a digital manner. To them, identity is either a 1 or a 0, either true or false. Either someone is entitled to log on and control an online account, or they aren’t. Breitenfeld focuses on “verification” and “authentication” of identity to be sure that online activity is connected to a “real person.”
The users of digital systems, however, define identity as an analog quality. For them, identity is difficult to pin down. It’s blurred around the edges. Lawton embodies this holistic, human perspective on identity as she refers to her own “fluid identity” and “mixed identity.” She grapples with aspects of identity that can be simultaneously true and false.
If the discussion about digital identity is going to progress meaningfully, it needs to start with an acknowledgement that both the technical and the psychological definitions of identity are valid and important. At first glance, these two understandings of identity seem incompatible. Upon further consideration, however, it becomes clear that they’re intricately related and mutually dependent.
Designers of digital platforms are right to point out that people can’t use online accounts without the confidence that they, and nobody else, have the right to access and control those accounts. In this sense, the technical reliability of digital identity is like the fundamental sense of physical identity we feel with our biological bodies. Our identities are more than just our bodies, but without our bodies, we can’t have any identity at all.
At the same time, digital identity that is nothing more than account security is pointless. Digital tools may enable efficiency, but the pursuit of efficiency isn’t what drives most online behavior.
Last year, the five most popular free iPhone apps were Snapchat, Messenger, Pokemon GO, Instagram, and Facebook. None of these apps support the kind of optimization promoted by the Quantified Self movement. Instead, they are all designed to assist in the projection of a psychological identity to a wider, digitally-enhanced arena of play. People rely on the ability to maintain secure digital identities when they use these apps, but do so with a purpose that transcends mere security.
In previous waves of industrialization, physical goods and human labor were optimized to create economic expansion. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution that has begun, identity is the asset that’s critical to success.
Following the precedent set by earlier industrialization, companies are pursuing the standardization of digital identity as the key to progress. David Craig, President, Financial & Risk, Thomson Reuters, for example, urges: “Once we have agreed as a society how we can and should manage our identities in the digital age, the Fourth Industrial Revolution can properly get underway.”
If there is any broad social agreement about how to manage identity in a digital age, however, it is that we can’t afford to fully surrender our identities to the organizations that seek to manage them.
The first wave of mass digitalization that came with the advent of the Internet made it both easier and more difficult to trust a person’s identity, as Jai Arun points out: “Though the internet has made it possible to provide all sorts of information to corroborate who you are, it has also made it possible to misrepresent, fabricate, and steal personal data.”
In fact, our identities have become so prone to being hacked and distorted that we now must play with multiple, competing claims of truth in order to maintain an overall presentation of self that feels true. In conditions such as these, the presentation of a single, purely authentic identity is no longer an option. Often, we deliberately create false identities for ourselves, constructed out of bits of inaccurate information, to protect our identities from being appropriated by others. In France, the Macron campaign, for instance, is said to have used “honeypots” with fake information to bait and manipulate hackers.
Ten percent of respondents admitted to falsifying social media profile information in research conducted by Consumer Reports in 2010. Two years later, that number had risen to 25 percent. Now, the creation of false identities online has become the norm. In 2016, only 19 percent of the people surveyed by British online marketing firm Custard were willing to describe their Facebook profiles as “a completely accurate reflection of me and who I am,” and it’s a safe guess that at least half of that 19 percent were fibbing.
The digital industrialists of Silicon Valley regard this widespread dishonesty as a problem that must be solved, because it interferes with the creation of orderly data plantations. The persistence of online falsification suggests something else: that falsification of identity is an essential product feature of digital technology. It’s worth remembering that, at the very beginning of the Internet’s general public acceptance, the most celebrated description of its appeal was that, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” People are determined to misrepresent themselves when they go online.
Of course, there are many different kinds of dishonesty. Not every false statement is a lie. Sometimes, when people misrepresent their identities online, they do so in the spirit of play, or satire, or in pursuit of simple anonymity. Often, when we fib about ourselves online, we’re hoping that the lie will become the truth. “Fake it ’til you make it” has become the rallying cry of those seeking personal growth in our times. We can only develop our identities, it seems, if we’re willing to believe we are really something quite different than we appear to be.
Whatever its purpose, the pervasive falsification of digital identity seems resolutely opposed to the prevention of the very consensus sought by the tech industry. The last thing most people want is for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to get properly underway.
It isn’t that people aren’t looking for a revolution. It’s the character of the disruption that’s in dispute. The digital revolution can’t be like an industrial revolution, because the materials from which it builds wealth aren’t material at all. The ore that’s being pulled out of today’s mines consists of raw bits of our human identities, and this material won’t comply with a merely mechanical approach to extraction. The only way this new revolution is going to get underway is if it proceeds improperly.
Linear approaches to identity management have been successful enough to bring us through the early years of the digital revolution. However, as digital identity becomes more integrated into everyday life, and big data gives way to thick experience, the classic algorithmic approach is no longer sufficient. The new wave of digitalization isn’t merely complicated. It’s complex, and requires an approach to digital identity that can handle VUCA: Volatility-Uncertainty-Complexity-Ambiguity.
The VUCA nature of digital identity doesn’t indicate that it’s in chaos, but that the organization of identity has begun to take place on a higher order than what we have seen before.
Digital identity appears to be unpredictable because it’s more than just a matter of simple data. It’s an emergent property of the unprecedented connectivity that today’s technology has enabled.
The scale of the digital revolution is staggering. We have not reached the 50 billion connected devices once predicted by 2020, but the adjusted estimates still project an impressive 17.6 billion (if you include smartphones, tablets, and computers). What’s more, the connections between these devices don’t consist merely of simple data communication, but are mediated by systems of AI. Furthermore, by 2020, 70 percent of companies are expected to use AI not just for IT, but with even greater impact in functions such as marketing, customer service, finance, and HR. And 80 percent of businesses stated in a recent survey that they plan to use chatbots by 2020.
Drones are already making deliveries, using intelligent data processing to navigate their way to their destinations. Soon, we are going to witness the rise of a M2M (machine-to-machine) economy, algorithms trading with algorithms, not just in stock markets, but for day-to-day transactions. Think of your autonomous vehicle earning you income by marketing its services to other passengers while you are sitting at home. Post-human organizations are within reach, too: DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) may create value chains in which humans have no role, aside from being investors.
This extreme connectivity is remarkable in its own right. However, the greatest potential of this immense scale of connection resides in its ability to serve as the foundation of new emergent properties of human identity.
Emergent properties arise when relatively simple units are connected to form a larger complex system. A complex system is not the same as a system that’s merely complicated. The properties of a complicated system are the predictable combination of the properties of the system’s constituent parts. The properties of a complex system, however, transcend the qualities of its parts. They emerge from the unexpected consequences of connections themselves. As a result, these new properties aren’t merely additive. They take reality in entirely new directions.
A wind-up clock is complicated. It’s intricately assembled, but it works as a consequence of the properties of each of its little gears and springs. A clock can be taken apart and put back together, and still works.
A protein molecule is complex. A protein that is made up of hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon is able to do things that none of these elements can do on their own. It would be extremely difficult to predict the function of a protein just by looking at the elements from which it is made. What’s more, though a protein can be broken down into its constituent elements, once this separation takes place, it’s extremely difficult to put those elements back together to create a functional protein.
A computer is a complicated system. It’s extremely intricate, but it remains a machine that can ultimately be reduced to the sum of its parts. A brain, on the other hand, is a complex system. The conscious, subjective identity that arises from the interconnected neurons in a human brain is profoundly different from function of any single neuron.
As biological cells, neurons are themselves complex systems. They consist of the combination of complex organelles, which are themselves constructed of complex substances. When complex systems are connected to other complex systems to create higher orders of complexity with their own emergent properties, amazing things take place.
As individual objects, computers may be merely complicated. Nonetheless. the connection of computers into new kinds of systems, and their integration into self-directed systems of AI, is finally bringing digital technology to the cusp of true complexity. As these digital systems get more intimately mixed in with the complexity that is humanity, a revolution is sure to happen.
Identity (in) Crisis
So far, we have used digital technology narrowly — primarily to scale efficiency. We have used it to optimize and maximize. We have glorified data as a universal, objective truth. This has increased the pressure on our selves. Radical transparency has not only enabled more trust, but also more fear, resulting in a new Digital Taylorism that is invading all aspects of our lives with the constant pressure to perform. In these performances, we struggle to maintain our subjective sense of self within the narrowing margins allowed by optimized, objective productivity.
The detached algorithms of digital management systems push us to simplify our identities, removing ambiguities and contradictions that interfere with the systems’ smooth operations. Predictability of identity becomes the primary goal, so that human beings can be understood by digital platforms in terms of standardized units of identity. Our personalities are simplified into personas, and our complexities become mere commodities, changing the unpredictable dynamics of human relationships so that they become routine.
This digital diminishment of human identity produces tremendous opportunities for those managing large systems, but it places individual human beings at a marked disadvantage.
As predictability, precision, and efficiency become the standard measurements of value, human contributions in optimized organizations begin to appear unreliable, clumsy, and wasteful.
We see that the competition we face against robots and apps is stacked against us, as we struggle like John Henry to keep our productivity even with the accelerating pace of unrelenting machines.
So, at work and in our private lives, we find ways to become smart machines ourselves. We datify, analyze, optimize, and maximize ourselves. We pursue the Quantified Self, declaring that only the measured life is a good life. We launch ourselves into self-hackathons, upgrading ourselves as if our identities were merely software. We subject ourselves to the humiliating A/B tests of rating apps such as Peeple (anonymous scoring of human character) and Spreadsheets (enhancing sexual performance based on data analytics).
Such attempts to establish self-worth through quantitative optimization inevitably fall flat, because the experience of validation we’re seeking can’t be expressed in terms of a ranked score. MIT professor Sherry Turkle explains, “Getting to know other people, appreciating them, is not necessarily a task enhanced by efficiency. This is because people don’t reveal themselves, deeply, in efficient ways. Things take time to unfold. There is need of backtracking and repetition. There is a deepening of understanding when you have gone through the same thing twice or more.”
The more we automate our quest for recognition, the less satisfying and secure our lives become.
In our relationship with technology, we grapple with the questions from the movie Her: Will we ultimately fall in love with machines? And, as Manohla Dargis asks: While machines will be able to think, will we still be able to feel? And if we feel them, we wonder whether our own emotional reactions to online experiences are genuine. In the wake of the unauthorized release of the identities of the clients of the Ashley Madison online escort service, even infidelity has been difficult to identify. It was difficult to know how to react when it was revealed in the course of the scandal that the majority of profiles on the love-on-demand service were fake identities, chatbots completely unconnected to any human being.
Is it still cheating when we’re only dating data?
The implications of the unraveling of the Ashley Madison service extend far beyond the extension of sexual identity online. The scandal speaks to the core of the crisis of identity provoked by the development of digital worlds: Can we be expected to be the same person offline as we are in the physical world?
The promise of the Internet was internally inconsistent from the start. On the one hand, the Internet was supposed to increase levels of trust. To some degree it did, resulting in radical transparency, sharing economies, and participatory designs. Nonetheless, overall trust levels have declined, and privacy concerns — the right to be alone/yourself — are more pronounced than ever before. 67 percent of European consumers believe that organizations benefit the most from using their personal data. Only 6 percent identify themselves as the main beneficiary. Trust in business leaders and governments is at an all-time low, according to the Edelman 2017 Trust Barometer.
The disorienting nature of digital experiences has made it difficult for online service users to trust even their own self presentations. Clinical professor of medical psychology Susan Scheftel warns that “we run the risk of raising children who may not fully be able to distinguish where selfie ends and self begins.” The selfie is a pose, a flattening of the self to a vision with only a two dimensional appeal. With harsh algorithmic judges always watching, the humanizing presence of struggle, doubt, and failure disappear from our digital identities.
The quirky flaws that made us endearing and unique individuals are scrubbed from our identities that filter our self-expressions until we become indistinguishable from each other, and unrecognizable even to ourselves.
It might be said that a lack of trust in ourselves is at the core of digital identity. Individually and collectively, we are experiencing a crisis of identity. For starters, the traditional bedrock of identity (family, work, and love) has been shaken. It isn’t that people no longer fall in love, start families, and build careers. Rather, we’ve discovered that the social landscape composed from these relationships is more tectonic and less permanent than we had assumed.
On the one hand, we live in an age of Radical Individualism, with the narcissism of self-curation on social media and self-optimization through automated tracking apps. On the other hand, we feel a sense of disenchantment, wondering if our identities have been fractured by the shrinking of lasting trust and intimacy that accompanies our reduction to the Quantified Self.
Douglas Rushkoff warns that we are suffering from “Digiphrenia”, his word for “the experience of trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time.” Digital technology increases the number of identities we can project.
In the future, we won’t just adopt the identity associated with our physical bodies, but will also present ourselves as a series of on-screen avatars, the drones that we send out into the world, and the data sets behind these self-representations. Each one of these identities will operate according to its own set of rules, social rules, and emotional agendas.
We are afraid of losing ourselves in this new world of multiple identities. There is a growing fear that, with the expectation of performing so many different versions of ourselves, we will lose the aspects of identity that make us feel most human. Liz McLellan writes in her essay Performance of the Self in the Digital Age that, “the human identity is truly a pastiche, but with the digital age, consumer and celebrity culture, and the changing currency from money to information, individual performance of Identity has changed significantly, leaving us in danger of losing the body in an act of disappearance into the virtual world.”
The more we delegate crucial decisions to AI, the more we fade into the background, becoming minor characters in our own lives. Our voices grow faint as the masters of Big Data assert the power to know more about us than we know about ourselves. Even the stories we tell about ourselves are beginning to be delegated to algorithms, using the apparently irrefutable trail of data that we leave behind us wherever we go. Facebook automatically curates year-in-review videos for us, and the Ghostwriter app brought to us through the Streaming Egos project promises Algorithmic Autobiographies.
As we find our identities being relentlessly archived, it begins to feel as we can never escape our past selves. Timothy Harfield writes: “The digital traces that people leave behind as a result of their efforts to forge their digital identities can also be used by algorithms to produce identities for which individuals are not themselves responsible, but that nevertheless have real effects.”
Eternal Identities at the Crossroads of Documentation and Prediction
Technology is twisting the temporal dimension of the self. It is hybridizing our past, present, and future into an eternal identity that exists at the crossroads of documentation and prediction. Our memories have become outsourced to the Internet Archive and to apps that let AI paint pictures using our memories.
From the other direction, the extrapolation of our future actions from the data gathered from our past behaviors makes it seem that our future identities are not only unavoidably predetermined, but that they are already here.
We live in a “house of mirrors” curated by the algorithms of digital platforms, within which we can no longer distinguish between where we are going and where we have been.
This convergence of the self across time doesn’t just take place for the sake of self-examination. Our past and future identities have been grasped as an economic resource for identity industrialists seeking new commodities. “There’s large-scale machine learning taking place based on our personal data for the sake of better commercial ROI, while we appear to be mere passive bystanders,” as John Havens points out. Liz McLellan observes that, in these conditions, “Identity moves from being a performance, requiring presence, to the archive, allowing distance, and finally is manifested as a commercial item.”
As corporations seek to reduce human identity to a digital commodity, transhumanists approach digital identity from the opposite direction, seeking methods for augmenting themselves through intimate union with technology. Through transhumanism, aspects of identity that were once seen as immutable are coming to be seen as merely a set of options that can be amended or replaced with peripherals and implants. In biology, in technology, and in our social relationships, transhumanists have come to see identity as an assembly of accounts into which we can log in or opt out.
It is no mere coincidence that these strange new manifestations of digital identity are being explored at the same time that our concepts of human identity in general are becoming more fluid. Transhumanists didn’t manufacture their ideas out of whole cloth. Their visions have been informed by cultural movements in the analog world.
The most prominent of these is the transgender revolution, a movement of people looking for “ways to step outside these gender boxes,” transcending the Western tradition of recognizing only two possible options for gender identity. Widespread acceptance of this movement of fluid identity led Facebook to allow users to choose from 58 different gender options for its members to display on their profiles, ranging from androgynous, to gender fluid, and non-binary. More than two-thirds of Generation Z (people now 6-20+ years of age) believe that gender does not dictate identity in the way that it once did. The impulse behind the transgender and transhumanist movements alike is to reject the assumption that identity is an objective, permanent reality.
Gender is only one of many aspects of identity in which choice and multiplicity are replacing a binary destiny. In politics, record low numbers of Americans identify as either Republican or Democrat, as the ranks of political independents swell. Members of Generation Z identify themselves as multiracial at higher rates than Millennials. Role-playing games have contributed to the subculture of Otherkin, whose members assert that, although their bodies appear to be human, their deeper identities are those of mythological creatures such as dragons or elves.
On screen, it has become so commonplace for people to adopt multiple outlandish identities on video games that we don’t blink an eye when people describe their adventures as warlocks, trolls, or panda warriors. Sherry Turkle writes, “When people construct an avatar, they often give it qualities that allow them to express aspects of themselves that they would like to explore. This means that a game world can become a place to experiment with reality.”
We understand implicitly that being online means adopting identities that are true within context, without regard to the expectations of the offline world. 75 percent of Generation Z reports negotiating multiple online identities with ease.
Yet, even as digital services support the diversification of identities, some digital industrialists are pushing in the opposite direction, seeking technological means to establish and maintain single, verified digital identities that match the offline identities of their users in a literal and linear way. Although Facebook was willing to accept ambiguity in gender identity, the company still struggles against its users’ habit of creating multiple profiles to present different aspects of themselves to different social circles. “Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities,” the social media giant advises. “It’s against the Facebook Community Standards to maintain more than one personal account.”
Silicon Valley fetishizes the unified digital identity with its faith in the Singularity, a future event in which, it is said, an identity of artificial intelligence will become so advanced that its development will create a single point in history that will change everything — and everyone — forever more. Tech titans are pursuing quests to preserve their own identities as a part of this larger Singularity. Google co-founder Larry Page alone has invested $750 million in Calico, a laboratory for anti-aging technologies. Elon Musk takes the quest further, with Neuralink, a company seeking to create “ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers”. Ray Kurzweil predicts that such interfaces will eventually allow people to upload their consciousness to artificial neuronal networks, achieving a kind of digital immortality.
The quest for digital immortality begs the question: What part of ourselves would we make immortal?
Engineers who work on digital information systems often conclude that our identities are digital memory systems, extremely advanced computers, but such conclusions may be equivalent to the presumption made by the owner of a hammer that every problem is a nail to be pounded down. Our identities, as we experience them, do not merely take place within our brains. Our identities are manifested through our bodies, through our bodies’ contact with physical surroundings, and through our social connections and the cultures they sustain. What’s more, our identities are not singular, but are comprised of an array of different versions of ourselves. When we are uploaded, which of our many identities will survive the digital translation, and which will die in the process?
These are the acute challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We risk being reduced to data serfs, quantified selves, victims of self-optimization and neuro-enhancement, objects of prediction — forced to choose sides in a new divide between enhanced brains and no-brains.
A New Romantic Age
At a similar historical juncture, the members of the original Romantic Movement 200 years ago — as the first hackers, if you will — fought for a broader notion of identity. They revolted against the regime of the enlightenment, against empirical, practical reason stifling the full expression of our selves.
As was the case 200 years ago, we are now confronted with another great disenchantment, another reductionism, this time caused by the datafication and quantification of everything. A myopic belief in data is threatening to treat us as one single, narrow profile instead of a complex identity; it is threatening to make us fully transparent and predictable — and less human in the process. At the same time, like the Romantics of the earlier age, we are also discovering new tools for self-expression, giving us a range of identity that is more expansive than we ever imagined could be possible.
As consumers, we encounter convenience and cost savings when we are able to interact with businesses in predictable, efficient ways, but as we gaze wearily at the marketplace, we realize that what we’re really longing for isn’t a cheap encounter that’s over quickly. We want to find our passion even as we remain erratic and inconsistent. Together, with the mysterious strangers we encounter at the counter, we seek to form an identity based on our most fluid, ambiguous selves. We discover that “we are human because we can’t be trusted,” as Gianpiero Petriglieri puts it.
We don’t want our identities to be hacked, but neither do we want them to be confined by the stiff walls of literalist security protocols. We don’t want to be deluded by fake news, but neither do we want to relinquish the freedom to embellish our own personal narratives.
As we extend the distribution of our selves and create omnipresence, omnichannel selves, the neuromancers’ time has finally come. If we combine technology and romance, then we enable ourselves to live more romantic lives.
Romance is when our self gets stretched: by unexpected events, other people, other worlds, a greater purpose; by something that is greater than the sum of the parts, something greater than ourselves. Something that remains unquantified, unexplained, unsaid and can therefore never be erased.
Romance means that we are more than just the sum of all our data. It persists that the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we collect, and those others tell about us form our identity as much if not more than the history of our transactions. From the raw data of what we do, these stories show us the meaning of why we do it. As psychologist Jerome Bruner says, “the self is a narrative process, rather than an object.” And as for our collective identities, as recent political movements have shown, from Obama to Trump to Macron, a powerful, simple narrative still eats data for breakfast.
The greatest narrative challenge faced by the Digital Romantics of our time is to choose between the many versions of the stories of identity available to us. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Mark Zuckerberg famously proclaimed. But this is misguided. We do want integrity, but not the kind that requires consistency at all times. A pursuit of integrity that reduces us to a simplified version of our selves based on a data profile held by a third party or the kind of “social credit” we gain on the Facebook platform isn’t enough. We want to be safe, contained, and consistent, and at the same time we want to be vulnerable, open, and seduced.
We want to be hacked, we want to be given new meaning. In other words, we want to control who we are and want to become; express our full selves; and yet form vulnerable, intimate human connections with others outside of algorithmic matchmaking.
While the engineers of the new Digital Enlightenment perceive Digiphrenia as a threat, the Romantics of our time have learned to embrace the ambiguity enabled by the splintering of the self. To bring romance into digital life, they embrace the multiplicity of identity, rather than merely enduring it. Digiphrenia becomes a problem only in those moments when we try to occupy more than one digital identity within a single moment. It is then that we realize our authenticity isn’t found in any single identity, but in the dynamic interplay between the many versions of ourselves that we cultivate online.
The Rituals of Human Identity in a Digital World
The ultimate human hack of Digital Romance will unite technology and humanity as equal partners, recognizing that the legacy of human cultural development brings as much to the relationship as innovative systems of information.
Digital technology will hack human society, but in return our subjectivity will hack the new machines, bringing them into cultural context as tools in our pursuit of higher purpose.
The cultivation of coherent digital culture requires us to organize our many identities to create a mosaic image of a unified self. Faced with an immense number of digital identities that continues to grow, we struggle to find a place for each of our individual identities, while understanding how they relate to the larger picture of the self. Nonetheless, the Digiphrenia we are now experiencing is novel in extent, but not in form. It is an amplification of the divisions of identity that have always existed.
Our ancestors faced struggles of identity similar to our own. Like us, they were unable to maintain a single identity capable of dealing with all the demands of their complex social lives. They needed to develop multiple identities, and to find ways of shifting between them to meet the needs of the moment. They had to find a way to transition between different stages of life and between different statuses in society. The ancient cultural technology they invented to accomplish this task of identity transformation is known as ritual.
Ritual is a process of symbolic behavior that enables the transformation of identity through the creation of a special kind of experience within which people become temporarily free from the restrictions that ordinarily restrict their actions. Ritual is designed to break people away from their present identities so that they can adopt new identities. While rituals create disruptions in the ordinary flow of life, they are integrated into larger systems of social order. Rituals are tools for ensuring that disruptions are productive, balancing the drive for changes of individual identity with the need for overall social stability.
We are used to thinking of ritual as an archaic practice, something that we abandoned with the disenchantments of the Enlightenment and industrialization. Nonetheless, our fundamental humanity remains as it always has been.
Although we are largely unaware of the rituals that we perform, we live in the most thoroughly ritualized society that has ever existed — and as digital technology expands the range of identities we can explore, our dependence upon rituals to manage the transitions between identities will only increase.
Ritual works by separating us from an ordinary experience of reality. In the classic anthropological metaphor developed by Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, a ritual is said to open up a doorway between identities. Within the doorway is what anthropologists call a liminal space. The word “liminal” is derived from the Latin word for the threshold, the frame that exists between rooms. Because liminal spaces exist outside of ordinary frames of identity, extraordinary things can take place within them. With the help of ritual guides, stories, symbols, and a collection of detailed ritual procedures, people move through the liminal space, and become transformed in the process. When a ritual is complete, participants are capable of adopting a new identity — a version of themselves that is liberated from the restrictions that once limited its actions.
As we move further into the synthesis of humanity and technology, our digital devices will become the most significant ritual objects in our lives.
In a literal sense, these devices are merely tools for information processing, but as cultural objects, they have become more like the magical objects our ancestors used to conduct rituals. Janet Murray, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, observes that, “In psychological terms, computers are liminal objects, located on the threshold between external reality and our own minds.” Our difficulty in recognizing the ritual character of our digital devices is due more to our ethnocentric bias than to a complete divide between our culture and those of our ancestors. As anthropologist Felicia-Dana Zabet notes, “There appears to be no reason for which ritualisation, be it religious or secular, would simply disappear from one increasingly prominent aspect of contemporary life: the internet and its associated cultures.”
So far, the pace of technological development has dwarfed the pace of our cultural response to new technologies. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs celebrate the disruptive character of their inventions, without thought of how to help people cope with the disruption they create. The crisis of identity we face is a consequence of an imbalance in the codes we have created. We are increasingly fluent in the codes required to communicate with machines, but have yet to develop the codes of ritual that will enable us to maintain our human identities in the course of these communications. As the ambiguity of our digital identities expands, the need for rituals of transitions between these identities will increase as well.
The New Romantic Medium
Many people fear that, as artificial, digital technology grows more powerful, our humanity will be compromised. They worry that as machines become more powerful, humans will be expected to live more like machines, with their imagination, their passions, their spontaneous emotion outsourced to an algorithm. Given what we know about the emergent properties that arise out of new levels of complexity, it’s reasonable to conclude that the opposite is the case.
As we build new connections with machines that are themselves becoming complex, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but it is safe to bet that our experience of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity will become more vivid than ever. When algorithmic systems connect with human minds, surprising emergent properties will spring forth, enabling not just enhanced levels of intelligence, but also new forms of consciousness that will be capable of experiencing new kinds of passion and beauty that we cannot even imagine. These enhanced emotional experiences will form the foundations of new kinds of identity.
Through the happenstance of emergent properties, rather than the clumsy hand of purposeful design, exponential information technology will enable exponential romance. In partnership with our new technologies, we’ll become more human than ever.
Rather than trapping humanity in an unfeeling digital prison, this new revolution will imbue technology with human identity. This fusion of technology and humanity won’t take a single form. As we are liberated from the constraint of a standard, biologically-imposed progression of identity, the fusion of technology and humanity will be expressed in many different ways. Identity itself will become the artistic medium of this new romantic age.
With exponential technologies exponentially increasing the number of identities we can form, we will see more liminal spaces between various identities, and we will see the cycles of transition accelerate. A merely transactional approach to identity will no longer be enough; rather, we must account for the emotional needs of individuals whose default state is not security but volatility, who need robust mechanisms to ascertain overall stability as much as they need whimsical solutions to account for ever-changing, ambiguous, ephemeral, and amorphous exponential selves.
The task will no longer be an analytical one — examining and mitigating risk on the one hand, lowering transaction cost on the other — but a creative, if not an artistic one: to create the very illusion of identity. This is a very romantic mission indeed.
I co-wrote this article with Jonathan Cook. Jonathan is a New York-based ethnographic researcher who specializes in using deep and thick qualitative methods to explore the emotional motivations, narrative structures, and ritual experiences that build meaning in commercial culture. Over the course of his 20 years in cultural market research, he has worked with many Fortune 500 corporations, including leading healthcare, technology, media, finance, nutrition, and consulting brands. You can find more about his work at http://jonathancook.us, and more of his writing here.