A hot topic of online debate recently has been the push for ‘persistent identity’ on the Internet. Persistent identity, in a nutshell, is an online model of interaction in which each person would have one (and only one) account or online identity, and that this identity would follow them everywhere they went online. Imagine being logged into Facebook or Google, always, such that every website you visited, whether to read, shop, watch a movie, or play a game, knew who you were and catered to your online self. Persistent identity would bring many conveniences—you’d never need to enter another password or fill in your credit card info again on individual sites, for example. It would also be an enormous boon to advertisers and social scientists, and proponents claim it would cut down on damaging behavior like cyberbullying. In many ways, the model seems to make a lot of sense.
Putting aside the obvious implications for privacy and the substantial evidence that persistent identity and ‘real-name policies’ don’t prevent bullying, persistent identity is a misguided idea on a very basic philosophical level. We have historically thought of ourselves as individuals: each of us with a relatively stable personality, well-defined in regards to others, and of a singular mind. Unfortunately, this model hasn’t held up to much scrutiny since the days of Descartes. At least, not in the sense many of us have come to believe.
Western ideas of the self generally conceive of the individual as some kind of automaton guided by a rational mind or spirit. In this ghost-in-the-shell model, the mind controls the body, telling it when to eat or sleep or dance with little outside interference. Input from outside is limited to what we explicitly perceive with our senses, allowing us to then make rational decisions about the situations we find ourselves in. Put crudely, we are all islands, essentially isolated and alone, looking out at the world through an array of sensory holes in our heads.
But what if it weren’t so simple? What if (gasp) we weren’t masters of our domains, so to speak? What if we were affected by one another and by our environment, in physiological and psychosocial ways? What if our environment and the people around us changed us, not just over a lifetime, but moment to moment? Suddenly, the universe and each of our places in it would become infinitely more complex, more interesting, and even, I’d argue, more fun.
Over the last hundred years, critical social theory has done a good job of outlining some of the ways that society and culture (norms, beliefs, languages, etc…) shape and constrain our ‘rational’ decision-making processes and actions. Clearly, we are not islands in a strict sense—we learn, we grow, we are able to adapt to our social surroundings with incredible flexibility. But aren’t we still, biologically at least, individuals? Yes, and no.
It turns out that the answer to this question is a bit messy. In her book The Transmission of Affect, Teresa Brennan builds a compelling case that our social interactions can change our bodily chemistry, indeed our very biology. I am a different person from you, of course—this isn’t new-age Dr. Bronner’s theology—but the evidence points to a reality in which you and I could actually affect one another’s emotions on a chemical level. If I am excited or depressed, not only might you pick up on this on a subconscious level through pheromones and subtle physical cues, but that could in turn change what’s happening in your body on a physiological level. In some sense, we are already way closer to telepathy than we realized!
Let’s take it one step further: we know we can affect one another, but what are we really talking about when we say ‘we’? Jane Bennett’s philosophy of vital materiality offers a view of a more interconnected and interesting view of the self. First, she says, we must step outside our anthropocentric worldview and accept that animals, plants, and even inanimate objects have some agency of their own. This does not mean that a rock is conscious, but it does mean that ‘things’ can act with, through, and on us, shifting out reality and shaping our actions. The thing I call myself is actually a complex assemblage of, yes, brain matter and body parts, but also hosts of microorganisms, minerals and vegetables which I ingest, ideas which I carry, and air that I breathe. All of these elements and more work upon one another, changing, moment to moment, who I am in often imperceptible ways. In conjunction with Brennan’s theory of affective transmission, the figure of the individual begins to erode. If all that I am is so closely entangled with the people and things around me, I am not as isolated or rational as I might have supposed. I am, instead, something of an ecology, a convergence of countless elements in time and space.
Turning back to the question of online personhood, the idea of a singular, monolithic, permanent identity now seems positively alien. Do we want to cede our malleability and dynamism to the corporate Internet for the sake of convenience?
As Deleuze and Guattari assert, each of us is multiplicity. What is at stake, then, is nothing less than our humanity.
by sam kellogg
cross posted here on the digital media theory blog