Questions of Digitizing Identity

A common element of the (various) streams of thought that I’m usually engaged in surrounds the question of identity. What constitutes identity? How is this constitution being modulated (or is it?) in digital spaces? What can past and contemporary theorists offer us, in response to these questions? What are the strengths of these responses, and what are their weaknesses?

Over the next six months or so, I want to begin taking up these questions more seriously. I plan to begin constructing an account in order to gain a better appreciation for both how granularly we often attempt to separate identities, and how at the same time those are often shared, surveyed, or otherwise modified without our ever being aware. My thoughts are that a core difference between ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’ identities follows from the (relative) ease of surveying and modifying digital identities without the source of that identity ever being made aware. While unobtrusive surveillance is possible in an analogue space, there is an emphasis in the West on the development of homogeneous protocols that are intended to facilitate the diffusion of data across digital pathways, and this carries with it new ways of collating and modulating available dataflows.

What strikes me as interesting (and of some concern) is that identity is different from ‘data’ because it holds a particular meaning. ‘My’ manifest identities are my own insofar as they operate as signifiers for what it means (in particular situations) to be me. As a consequent, I have different identities for different situations – the identity that is performed when giving a talk diverges from that performed when I’m home and chatting with friends. While this is one strand of ‘meaning’ in identity, another strikes me as how ‘efficiently’ my identity can be disseminated through the protocols of diffusion and analysis; my identity is more instrumentally meaningful to particular parties where it can be efficiently segmented into constituent bits and pieces. As an example, an manifest identity on a drivers license is more meaningful insofar as the data contained on the license is organized in an efficient, normalized way. Strictures of normatively guide the fabrication of identity, but I’m uncertain what those strictures are in hybridized environments, where the analogue and digital increasingly blur to capture the analogue (often imprecisely) within the lens of digital algorithms.

Given that we are increasingly operating in environments where computers are required to sort information so that it can be made sense of, and so that identities can be ‘effectively’ collated, I wonder what the normalizing effects of this vast mechanization of identity has on the construction of identity, and the ability to creatively perform identities. When we establish identities so that they can be segmented into database queries as part of our daily lives, does this lead to a transformation of how we perceive the construction of our identities? Is there a wider myth of what identity formation is, that is being replicated here – that is, is there a nostalgia for what identity was in an analogue era, an identity that was never manifest in that ‘past’ era? What does it mean when the datasets that constitute my ‘digital’ identity are stripped of their clear association with ‘me’ – what happens when the meaningfulness that I inscribe into my identity is stripped away ‘to protect my privacy’? Does this constitute a separate identity that is apart from me? How do we talk about ‘meaningless’ identities? When do, or don’t, modification of meaning matter, and what conditions give rise to these differences? What is the consequence of an identity, that is ascribed to me, being constructed through near-invisible surveillance of my actions?

Currently, I hope to start taking up these questions through the lenses of the theorists below – if you have suggestions on others that I should read up on, leave a comment so that I can add them to the ever-growing list.

  • Paul Virilio
  • Heidegger
  • Jean Baudrillard
  • Sherry Turkles
  • Michel Foucault
  • Lawrence Lessig
  • Manuel Castells
  • R.D. Laing