Multiple Identity Syndrome: Newsletter #31.
Every question has two lives, first in philosophy and then in technology. Robotics, synthetic life, virtual reality - these were once in the province of fiction and metaphysics and are now seen as technological questions. While machine intelligence is fascinating and some of us can't sleep at night for fear of waking up to rogue robots taking over the world, our every day lives have been transformed by a different metaphysical conundrum turned technological solution. I am talking about the nature of identity, that oldest of metaphysical questions exercising everyone from the Buddha to Hume.
Why identity? Because identity has gone from being a constant to a variable. Instead of being a rice farmer or a temple priest for a lifetime, we can almost wear our personas like garments. We aren't ready yet to treat our body as a garment, to be cast off as one pleases, but when it comes to identity we are at the cusp of dial-a-personality.
Unfortunately, we might all start dialing the wrong number. Email spam is bad enough, but what happens when we are afflicted with identity spam? Everyone has a colleague who keeps forwarding bad jokes or some other unwanted online come-on. Everyone has a friend on Facebook who harps on and on about something or the other. It's one thing when people send spam. It's another thing when people are spam. Spam identities are inexorable once creating a new persona is as easy as pressing "send."
In contrast, fixed and secure identities have a ring of authenticity to them. "Who are you?" said the villager to the visitor. "I am so and so, son of so and so," said the guest. It's identity reduced to information theory - assuming that everyone shares the same dictionary, we can communicate our identities in a few bits.
If you have only one identity you can't fake it, but once there are more than one, there's an inevitable question about the real deal. Strictly speaking there are no fake identities; they're all different forms of self-representation. If I put on a genuine smile from 8-5 to greet customers and turn into a grouchy bear at home, which one is the real me, which one the fake? Especially if I would rather be at work than at home. It's not falsehood that's the bane of identity; it's posturing. It's me posting pictures of my wonderful holidays on Facebook for everyone to admire. Or tweeting zen koans one after the other.
Talking about Facebook, I am told that young people are leaving Facebook; or rather, they use Facebook as their official identity, i.e., what they want their parents to see, and their parent's friends. There was a time when Facebook was cool; I don't think that's been the case since 2010. Kids entering college today have never experienced a cool Facebook.
Cool is of course a relative concept; one mans cool is another mans tepid, but if at all there's such a thing as "true cool" these days, it has got to be an attitude or identity that's simultaneously new, fresh and authentic. In other words, something that's not a posture. It's a way for you to be genuinely yourself, even if that genuine you is as much an invention as the fake respect we give our bosses. There's a subtle but important line dividing the artificial real and artificial fake, a line that's often lost on older people who haven't grown up with these technologies.
Which brings me back to Facebook and its lack of cool. Sometime between the seven hundredth post the leadership skills of Narendra Modi and the thousandth denunciation of ISIS, you got to wonder what kind of socializing happens in social networks and what "friend" really means. It's becoming impossible to use Facebook for anything besides gaming Facebook.
It's an interesting dilemma - if all of us are posturing, we know we are posturing, we know others are posturing and we know that others know that we are posturing and so on, ad infinitum, then it's turtles all the way down. There's no trust possible in such a society. Not only is that bad for democracy, it might be bad for commerce as well. After all, Facebook's business model depends on your trusting my endorsement of a product. If you think I am fake, why would you be willing to buy anything I like?