Spot the Difference

Identity and Technology

Some years ago, while studying abroad, I enrolled in a course called something like "Sociology in the Trenches of Cyberspace." It was a rather eclectic affair, as is often the case with courses geared towards "the internationals," and was taught by several professors with only a passing interest in covering some kind of cohesive theme. What I took from it, aside from a recognition that early programmers seemed to see themselves as akin to ancient magicians, was the oft repeated observation that the internet age offers individuals an unprecedented social licence. This licence is manifest in the diversity of fora, be they online games or chat rooms, in which individuals can appear as they choose rather than as they are.

The internet, we learned, provides avenues for people with seemingly marginal views to connect with those of like mind beyond the limitations of their immediate physical communities. It allows individuals to explore their sense of physical and sexual self in the construction of avatars, visual manifestations that can resonate on a more profound level with who they feel themselves to be, more so than what they might see in the mirror. The digital world allows for an escape from political, social, and aesthetic repression, and this is a good thing.

To be fair, the explicit message was that this was a matter of legitimate research interest, of scientific note. This new free play of identity could be documented and qualified, could serve as the meat for theoretical repast. Implicit in this, of course, an inevitable conclusion of young liberal minds, was that this phenomena could only be understood as a casting off of archaic shackles, a new form of freedom, and thus morally exalted.

The identities formed by means of cyberspace are the sum of inner yearning and limitless potential. You can be an eight foot blue alien life-form in all of your dealings if that is what your truest self demands. Insofar as identity is shaped by membership in a social group, again the internet prevails, for it is here where all forms of association are truly free. One chooses which groups to belong to, based on common cause and disposition.

This kind of membership, free association, is the ideal of the modern project, of the view that any relationship that is not contractual must be rent asunder as an offense to human dignity. The individual must be free first and only committed to others on the basis of rationally acting on inner drives. We can see this reflected in the telling language of internet use. Surfing, already a bit of a dated term, but one that evokes what is admittedly a pastime centered on solemn isolation: one body against the waves. Browsing, borrowed from the marketplace, a place long eyed with distrust, calls up the image of the crowd of scattered wholes, each with differing desires, united in seeking gratification. Browsers become buyers and are browsed in turn by eager hawkers. They enter into contract, and the thing is done.

We ought to be excited by the promise of cyberspace because of this new realization of the individual that it enables. It raises all manner of curiosity, to be certain, things both titillating and unsettling, but at its heart lies a promise of progress and escape. This at least was the conclusion suggested to us by our teachers. Had I not been so distracted by the debauchery of being twenty in a strange land, I might have stopped to more seriously question this.

It is probably not an exaggeration to state that free association, social groups formed solely by the will of members, has never been the norm of human existence. Either by birth or initiation, we have always found ourselves in groups to which we are beholden as members for better or worse. With this comes the inevitable influence on what people still seem to refer to as "the construction of identity." So long as we still need bodies, and still need to feed those bodies (and let's hope that doesn't change too soon), we still need to live in the real world. In the real world we are still susceptible to the repression of un-free obligation, we are still judged by our appearance etc. But it is also in this world, the one in which we appear, that we have an existence as real individuals in the eyes of others. This is the realm in which identity is political precisely because it is where identity is not freely chosen.

In cataloguing the diversity of cyber-life, the thousands of distinct personal niches where every unfulfilled soul can find his place, the sociologist will suggest that this creates a remedy to discord, an end to political faction, a room of one's own. I would argue that it is precisely in embracing this new individuality, crafting one's identity at will, that one ceases to be an individual at all. As anyone who has accidentally interacted with a computer, a "bot" as they call them, will tell you, the way that strangers present themselves online is both accepted and immediately distrusted. We do not appear before others in cyberspace, we send them only an apparition, a poor substitute. In this light, identity becomes irrelevant, both politically and socially, but also spiritually. Can a constructed self, as true to one's desire as it might be, really offer any fulfilment? We are never so alone as when we see ourselves as our own work.