Do you consider your digital identity a separate self or is it identical to your real-world self?

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, Margaret writes: Do you consider your digital identity a separate self or is it identical to your real-world self #edcmooc.

I think the question is not whether the digital self is the same as the real self, but rather how many digital “selves” do we have? I maintain a professional web page where you could learn about my professional life, but I wouldn’t say this encapsulates my whole self.

It’s a matter of representation in the end. Any representation is a limited perspective on the phenomenon (or person) it is trying to represent. It highlights some things and masks others. The line on the graph tells you some things, the equation gives other information. No digital self is the complete whole of the person just as we as people present different facets of our lives in different situations/contexts/settings – digital or otherwise.

Maybe I’m coming at this wrong but I really don’t think of these as identities.  I have a couple of Twitter accounts, 4 blogs on different domains, plus a variety of social media accounts including Facebook and Twitter.  One of the blogs (Ask-An-Aspie.net ) is about Asperger’s Syndrome.  Store and Forward (at t-rob.net) is about WebSphere MQ messaging. The IoPT Consulting blog is about my consulting practice.  This blog, The Odd is Silent, is about everything else and topics range from identity, technology and culture to weird and/or humorous, to sometimes just plain nuts.  The only topics you won’t find on this blog are ones that clearly belong on the other two.  Other than that, it’s anything-goes.

Each of the 3 blogs has a different audience with little overlap and that’s by design.  People interested in IBM’s messaging software probably don’t want to read my rants about nosy store clerks or adventures in the urologists office.  More importantly, people who do come for those topics definitely don’t want to read about WebSphere MQ.  But are these different identities?

So, what is identity?

Neuroscience tells us that identity is an emergent phenomenon arising from collaboration between many different parts of the brain.  That may be a little hard to wrap your head around (see what I did there?) until you read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor in which the author describes her experience before, during and after a stroke.  As a neuroscientist herself, she had a much better understanding than most people of what was happening to her during the event and subsequent recovery.  Fortunately for both her and us, she recovered sufficiently to describe it eloquently in her book and take us on that journey.  If you have not yet read it, I highly recommend adding to your must-read list.

In the book, Jill describes how her conscious perception and interpretation of the world changed as her brain began to lose function, piece by piece.  Then during recovery there were aspects of the new personality that she had come to value highly but that she knew she would have to give up in order to recover enough function to live a normal life again.  She’s still “Jill,” resides in the same body as before, and has most of her memory intact. But Jill before, during and after the stroke are different people.  They share history, ancestry, memories, family, homes, even appearances.  But they have different values, different priorities, different interpretations of the same events.

Given all this, it seems weird to me that when our identity truly changes, such as with a stroke or Alzheimer’s syndrome, our laws and customs are all based on an assumption that identity has remained constant. Often this expectation degrades the quality of life both for the affected person and us as friends and loved ones.  Sure we miss the person we once knew, but our efforts to restore that prior identity sometimes ignore the needs of the new person who has emerged, who may be struggling to orient themselves, and who may not give a hoot about their former self due to having much more immediate and pressing concerns.  Sometimes the best thing we can do is to drop our expectations and focus on the person before us, if for no other reason than out of respect for the person we’ve lost, and try to ignore the fact of their both inhabiting the same body.

Meanwhile on the Internet where a single person participates in different communities, often categorizing their authored content based on the community focus, we approach these as separate identities.  In addition to my 4 blogs, I post content on Facebook and Twitter that isn’t posted anywhere else.  If you look at the navigation bar atop this post, you’ll see that the other blogs are right there.  Click on them and you’ll find they use the same Word press theme and there are few clues that you are even on a different blog.  All of them are “me” but the MQ and Asperger’s blog are so specialized that it is convenient for readers to be able to follow them independently of my clumsy attempts at humor or the occasional political rant.  So I provide an easy means for them to do so.

I’ve intentionally overlapped them, but are they really different identities?  Or is “T.Rob” actually an emergent identity that arises out of the interaction of all these?  My intuition tells me with much conviction that these are merely filters through which you view me.  “T.Rob” as you know him doesn’t exist, can’t possibly exist, if any of these are missing.

Let’s go back to Jill and do a little thought experiment.  Suppose your only access to Jill was through text chat and there is no stored history prior to the current chat session.  If it were possible to chat with Jill before and after the stroke, simultaneously in two chat windows, would you believe them to be the same person?  At the very least you would be skeptical.  From her description, I suspect that many of us would feel certain we were chatting with two completely different people.

To me, this suggests that our identities change over time.  I’m definitely not the same person I was as a teenager.  But those changes have evolved almost imperceptibly from day to day and over many years.  There’s the instantaneous phenomenon that is “T.Rob” in the moment of now, and there’s the thread of continuity back to the teenager who was pushed by drugs and violence to the brink of committing murder.  Nobody who cares about MQ security would have hired me back then.  Anybody who cares about MQ security today would put me on the short list of people they’d most like on the project.

Our legal and social framework for  identity insists that me in high school and me today are the same person when there is a world of difference between the two. Me then and me now would have very little in common, including friends, opportunities, philosophies, quality of life or future prospects.  In fact, me today takes a bit of professional risk in revealing details about me as a teenager specifically because of that. I tend to place more trust in people who admit they didn’t emerge from the womb with all the principles and integrity they possess today, and that they made bad or even tragic choices in their youth and then learned from those.  But our tradition of identity is based on a theory that identity remains constant so there are some who will read details of my childhood and perceive me as less trustworthy because of it.  This isn’t just their loss, it illustrates what’s wrong with our traditions around identity.  People in the present are often punished for the circumstances of the child who preceded them in the same body, even though they are different people.

The one place we make an effort to distinguish between a person’s identities is in the present moment. The T.Rob who exists right now is a multi-faceted, yet unique entity.  I participate in many communities across many interests.  The T.Rob writing today about technical security arcana and the one writing today about Asperger’s Dating are recognizably the same person.  The authors of those posts share the same friends, opportunities, philosophies, quality of life and future prospects and in fact are inseparable because they are a single person.  Yet our legal and social framework for  identity insists on finding ways to tease me apart into my individual components and give each their own “identity.”  If the present me lacking any one of these components is a completely different identity, then surely any of these components in isolation is even less qualified to represent me.

So there’s one identity for all of my historical context leading up to the present moment, despite drastic changes of character over that time.  Then there’s a single instance of me in the present who is represented by many different identities depending on the community, topics of interest and other artificial criteria.  And we wonder why we struggle so much with identity.

About T.Rob

Computer security nerd. WebSphere MQ expert. Autist. Advocate. Author. Humanist. Text-based life form. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, G+, or LinkedIn.
This entry was posted in Clue train, PClouds, Social issues, Tech, VRM and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Do you consider your digital identity a separate self or is it identical to your real-world self?

  1. Pingback: Do we all really have another life Online? | Schliemann

  2. Mark Dixon says:

    Dennis:

    Based on your comment above, perhaps I should use the term “eternal self,” rather than the term “eternal identity,” that I used in a comment on my blog: http://www.discoveringidentity.com/2013/03/29/core-identity-reprise/#comments

    Then, the term “identity” would be consistent with what I called “identifier.”

    Mark

  3. Pingback: Do you consider your digital identity a separate self or is it identical to your real-world self? | My Digital FootPrint | Scoop.it

  4. Hi T.Rob – We would love to repost this article on our blog (blog.follr.com) if you will let us – I think our readership would find your commentary interesting.

    We will clearly identify you as the writer and will link back to this source post. Please let me know if this is ok.

    Mark Dixon – if you see this comment I would also like to highlight your post as a follow up. I will contact you directly via your Website.

    • T.Rob says:

      Please do repost. Thanks! I’d be grateful if you could also link back to the source my post responds to. As you can tell from my writing I’m concerned that we are from a legal and policy perspective making evolutionary advancements to address revolutionary changes. The more awareness and discussion, the better.

      • Thank you and will do 🙂 I’ve long said that in terms of the evolution of human communication we are at a historical point. That creates new opportunities and new problems. Will be interesting to see how things play out.

  5. orcmid says:

    Reading Timothy Grayson’s comment, I realize that I made no effort to answer the question that is raised in the title of this post.

    My short answer is, “I don’t equate identity and self.”

    I certainly don’t equate digital identities that I associate with myself as identical to myself (or each other or to any self at all). And I dispute any notion of identity, here in the sense of “same as” and certainly not in the sense of a = a, (a = b) -> (b = a), and (a = b & b = c) -> (a = c). I have no idea what the terms a, b, and c, and the domain of discourse would be where that would hold among digital identities/identifiers and selves.

    There is clearly difficulty in applying language to this situation. Part, if not all of the problem is perhaps one of language.

    In considering Timothy’s assertions about entities, it reminds me of the problem of naming and of associating identifiers with entities. But, even if I had a GUID tattooed to my butt at birth, that would not be my identity. The character in the trench coat on the Orient Express does not say “Identity please.” It is “Papers please.”

    I am thinking that we need to consider that, in the domain of language (including digital data), there are artifacts that may serve to distinguish us to some degree of precision. But such interpretations of those artifacts don’t comprehend us; I fear it is a category mistake to presume that they ever can.

    I think “distinguishing” might be key. It requires “in what context” and “to what degree.” When taken as meaningful in our contingent reality, it is best interpreted an empirical claim, not an absolute. That it can be relied upon in some manner is an empirical consideration. I don’t think uniqueness is part of the deal.

    I claim that “dennis.hamilton@acm.org” and “orcmid@msn.com” and just plain “orcmid” are associated with me and they are distinguishing. “Dennis E. Hamilton,” not so much. I worked in a company where we received each other’s inter-office mail. There is also another who is in the same field and a technology writer, but not this one. The preacher associated with the name is not me, nor the miscreant who used my name in a fraud and led a county district attorney to put a lien on my house as some sort of legal crap-shoot for collecting on a judgment. (I learned this on clearing title for a sale. It was easy to take care of and I was told it happens regularly.)

    In exploring this situation, I think I shall approach from the perspective of “Reality is the Model,” http://orcmid.com/blog/2008/05/reality-is-model.asp

  6. T.Rob:

    Found your post only because I was cleaning out blog links and Doc Searls pointed here. Glad I wandered in. In the past, I’ve had the occasional spat with many who are long-standing or dilettantish observers of “identity” and “digital identity.” Lately, as posted here (http://blog.timothygrayson.com/2012/11/the-identity-problem/) in my own sporadic exegesis of what bothers me at the moment about such religious debates, my own development has taken me to what I think is a fine point of qualification that squares these many views. It does, however, demand clear definition and application of unequivocal and unchanging words to the ideas. (As long as I’ve been involved with digID–12 years–the same babel-like refusal to use the same words to mean the same thing has underlay all discussion and debate.)

    1. There is an entity that is you, T.Rob, or whatever name happens to be applied at any given moment. It is unique and if it were a piece of silicon-based hardware on the Web or a car, it would have a MAC address or VIN number that uniquely identifies it. In so many cases, what businesses and governments and other individuals want is to know that they are engaged with that specific and unique entity. It matters not whether it’s today painted aztec orange or black with 1970s flames on the side–or is opining about living with Aspergers or about IBM messaging software. That is the entity. Is this unique entity, then, a part of, fundamental to, or irrelevant in the context of what is represented to the world at large? Which leads to the next point.

    2. At any given moment, in the physical realm or online, a single unique thing (especially a person) can represent itself as any of many things–sometimes at the same time. The digital realm, with all of those attributes that you and Margret, and others have highlighted, makes this possibility wildly likely at a much greater scale. The capacity to represent a thing as something else is neither new nor especially imaginative: it’s the essence of much sales (and dating). It’s as old as the hills: think about how the devil appears in many forms in the Bible. (On a side note, that parallel just came to me and I’m actually kind of pleased with it. For Judeo-Christians, maybe, it should make the challenge between these two points here, fairly evocative. Must be the Easter influence today. Anyways…)

    So, coming around to a sort of summation, it should be painfully obvious that most disagreements about (dig)ID and identities are, in their present state of discussion, unlikely to be resolved BECAUSE everybody’s using the same words to describe different things. Margret’s kind of right; you’re kind of right; I didn’t go to Mark’s Website, but I’m sure he’s right; and so on. The question is, to step from the existential to the practical: What’s the point of the identity and does it matter whether the unique thing underlying it is part of that identity?

    Again, glad I found your blog.

  7. orcmid says:

    I haven’t grokked Mark’s diagram and post yet. I think “identity” is problematic, and “digital identity” is perhaps better, and still problematic. Oddly, there does not seem to be much operational difficulty, and that is intriguing if not baffling.

    There is something that you said that got me thinking. You raised the notion of a person. I think that might be the lever. I know that, as a person, I am not fixed. I also recognize that, however I recognize myself, I can be held quite differently in the identity that someone else holds of me. (I am happy to use identification instead of identity here, but that seems too technically far to the other side.)

    The example that appeals to me around this is something that most of us have experienced: having a friend that we admire in some way that is disliked by another friend of ours. And how that plays out in a network of acquaintance. (Another useful word, perhaps.)

    As a personal aside, knowing someone who holds another in higher regard than occurred for me led me to reappraise whatever my judgment was about the other.

    I think there might be something about the self and how persons situate their selves that factors into all of this.

    I value the line of inquiry your post invites.

  8. Mark Dixon says:

    T.Rob:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and intriguing post. I began to craft a direct reply to your post, but of length, decided to post a bit on my blog instead. You can read it here: http://www.discoveringidentity.com/2013/03/29/core-identity-reprise/

    Thanks,

    Mark

    • T.Rob says:

      Thanks, Mark. I’ve replied in the comments of your post and thrown down the gauntlet. Core identities can and do change! I like your identity map and it makes a great illustration for my premise that identity is a composite construct built from many attributes. The only thing with which I disagree, and vehemently, is that immutable core identity. My spidey-sense tells me there’s probably a new post or two about this on the horizon.

  9. Pingback: Core Identity – Reprise « Discovering Identity

  10. Pingback: Doc Searls Weblog · Link outline for 2013_03_29

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