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.