Our sense of self comes not just from a set of unique characteristics that we call our own but also from how other people see us. David Baker, who helped launch Wired in the UK, argues that the more we worry about our identities online, the more we are in danger of forgetting who we really are.
Earlier this year, just down the road here I live, two men, stole the camera of an Australian television crew who had been filming a story about the royal wedding. The event caused a brief, low-level stir. But what really stuck in my mind were the rumours of why they did it - as a trophy to show off on YouTube. And a £15,000 camera is a pretty good trophy.
The key word here, for me, is YouTube. The digital world – that tsunami of apps, websites, devices and memes that has engulfed us since those early modems crackled into life and the internet was born – has influenced the way we think about ourselves and relate to each other in astonishing ways.
We’re used to the debates about privacy, surveillance and what happens to our data – thank you Facebook and Cambridge Analytica for alerting us to that. We’re also becoming concerned about the psychological effects of being online, though, as yet, the data doesn’t back up the scare stories. But a lesser known hazard of the new era – and one that I think is very real – centres on the damage it is doing to our sense of identity.
Our identity can be framed as something that is both part of us (“I am me”) and that lies outside our control (“I’m worried what people think of me”). An essential part of the human condition, this duality has become even more acute in the digital age, perhaps dangerously so.
Whatever we think of ourselves internally, much of our identity depends on our relationships with others. For most of human history, that would have meant interactions with a relatively small number of people. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, has argued that we can realistically manage good social relations with about 150 individuals. Beyond that is too much for our brains to handle.
But in the world of Twitter, Instagram and the rest, that’s exactly what many of us are trying to do. A great part of how we see and present ourselves has moved from the manageable, human realm of the ‘small’ – Dunbar’s 150 people – to the overwhelming, digital ‘big’ – our online friends, followers, fans, retweeters, likers and so on – who require almost constant cultivation.
The result, for many of us, is that our digital identity has come untethered from our identity in the physical world and transformed into something that we need to maintain and ‘curate’. And we are not free agents in this – there are rules. Online, judging by the photos, messages, likes and so on that fill our social-media feeds, it should always be sunny; we should always be happy and our friends should always be interesting (and gorgeous). For many people, then, managing their online identity has become a full-time occupation, even an “addiction”. And because the internet promotes and prioritises the popular, the quoted and the viewed, we can never really retire from the game. An unnoticed post is the modern equivalent of a tree falling silently in a forest.
Over time therefore, our digital identity becomes more and more the identity that matters. China is already putting into place systems that will assess someone’s trustworthiness and their qualities as a member of society on the basis of their online presence. From 2020, everyone in the country will be given a “Citizen Score”, based on their posts, likes, views, online purchases – and, alarmingly, those of their friends – that will affect their access to housing, travel, credit and jobs. And in Europe and the US, there are plenty of employers, insurers, credit agencies that use online identities as a basis for offering or denying consumers a service.
All of this has implications for civil liberties. But it also has profound implications for us as human beings, as our real selves start to atrophy. I am a technology writer and a big fan of what we have created with the internet, but I am also a teacher at The School of Life, where we use philosophy to help people think about how they are living their lives and what it means to be a human being. It is here, in conversation with hundreds of students, that I have come to realise something has to give.
Whatever digital evangelists like to argue, we are not the avatar we create online; far from it. We are the person who engages emotionally and empathically with others in the real world: at work, in the street, at home. We are the person whose values and ideas have emerged through real-life experience and the messiness of living with other human beings. We are much more than (and quite different from) the person other people see on social media.
This seems so obvious that it feels odd to have to say it. But the enormous influence the digital world has over us – its values (an unflinching belief in data and neoliberal capitalism); its priorities (the quantity of customers/followers/ retweets over the quality of what is being said) and its ability to make us doubt even core aspects of our identity (the cacophony of ideas and thoughts that make it hard to work out what we really believe in), mean that we are in danger of forgetting what it means to be a human.
Some Silicon Valley visionaries are already looking forward to the time when cybernetics will create a new species – part human, part AI – which, they say, will have unlimited powers. For me, this represents a failure to appreciate what lies at the core of what Greek philosophers called a “good” life: things like love, tenderness, connection – things that AI can only fake.
Whatever AI-inflected future awaits us, I, for one, hope we will still be able to look inside ourselves and answer the question “Who am I?” authentically. But the way we are currently ceding so much of our identity to the whims of online “followers” and the promptings of algorithms somewhere in the cloud, means that core connection with ourselves is in danger of being lost, our identities becoming little more than multiple data points in an AI-driven world. And that doesn’t sound like living to me.
David Baker is writer and broadcaster with a close interest in how technology affects our lives. He was the managing editor of Wired in the UK and teaches at The School of Life.
Illustration: Mike McQuade