I am currently listening to the audio version of Naomi Klein’s latest book Doppelganger. It is a good book and I recommend it.
In the part I was listening to yesterday, she talks briefly about the idea of “identity maintenance”—that is, the work that a person has to do in order to establish who they are as an individual for themselves and for the people around them and to keep that identity up over time.
I have never really thought specifically about this idea before, but I think Klein is on to something here. Figuring out who you are as a person—what you believe, what you like and don’t like, what is important to you, what you share with others and what sets you apart from them—is no small feat. It also changes and shifts over time. The waves of life and experience lap away at it and you have to continuously tend to it lest it collapse like a sandcastle on the beach.
Klein’s point in the book, however, is that as challenging as identity maintenance already was, it is made exponentially more difficult by the internet and social media. I think she is correct and that we do not pay nearly as much attention to this aspect of our contemporary existence as we ought to.
There was bit of an Internet fad—I am not sure it rose to the level of a meme—some years ago where someone would scrape hundreds of different photos taken and posted by different people on Flickr and string them together in a video, flipping rapidly through every photo. As the images flew by, it quickly became clear that even though they were taken by many different people in many different places around the world, they were long strings of basically the same photo. “Look,” it told us, “all these silly people thought they were capturing these unique, meaningful images, but really they are all the same.” Your picture of a sunset over the lake? A hundred other people took basically the same shot. Your artfully framed mountain with the mist rolling off its snow-covered slopes? Seen it.
On and on, it’s all be done. Haha, suckers—you think you’re special? Think again.
I hated this schtick then, and I still do. True though it may be—there’s only twelve notes that a man can play1, after all—it has always struck me as small-minded and mean-spirited, snide internet assholes trying to ruin it for people who were just trying to make something nice.
I relate that anecdote because I think it is the other end of what Klein is getting at with this notion of identity maintenance and the increasing difficult thereof in this era of a global internet and massive technology platforms.
These systems force us all to live on a stage with billions of other people. The Law Of Large Numbers2 being what it is, your very personal struggles and passions and creative endeavors are going to be pretty similar to those of many other people. That has always been the case but now, thanks to the internet, we are all having that fact constantly shoved in our faces. That means we have to spend ever-increasing amounts of time and energy trying to figure out who exactly we are.
So, what are we to do? I don’t really have an answer in which I am super-confident, but I have a few ideas.
The first (and probably the most facile) suggestion I have is to remove ourselves from situations where we are treated as commodities rather than individual humans. I have written before that I do not believe the public internet is a healthy place for a lot of creative output3. No one is well-served by having their emotions and creativity exposed to the online acid bath. While I am not suggesting we all withdraw completely from the internet, I think we would do well to be more mindful about how much of ourselves we put online and about the places in which we do so.
That’s the easy one, though. After all, if you are following and reading personal blogs and websites, you have probably already taken a number of steps down that path.
Perhaps we should adjust how we think about what it means to be unique. Maybe your picture of a sunset looks basically (or even exactly) the same as a thousand other peoples' photos of sunsets, but the journey you took to get to the place where you took that photo is not the same as that taken by all those other photographers. You met different people along the way, you felt different emotions, you learned different things. That is what makes you unique. The technologists want us all to be outcomes-based, but the outcomes tend to be the least interesting part about the human experience; focus less on where you end up and more on how you’re getting there, on what is happening along the way.
Lastly—and possibly in direct contradiction to my previous points—a common narrative of contemporary life is that we are more divided than ever before, that it is getting more and more difficult to make connections with other people, that we are all trapped within our own bubbles by technology and politics and economics. And yet so many of us end up with the same picture of a sunset. Yes, each of our lives—our experiences of them and how we respond to those experiences—is unique, but we there are common threads we all share.
The flip-side of modern life making it ever more challenging to maintain our own identities is that it can make us increasingly aware of the identities of all the people around us. The simplistic Facebook notion of “connecting everyone” is foolish and dangerous because it treats everyone as interchangeable and refuses to acknowledge the harm caused by embedded inequities and power structures. Still, maybe there is an opportunity here to find the threads we share with other people in the world, as well as the threads of their lives that are utterly different from ours and to learn from that.
As an old friend of mine liked to say, there really is a Beastie Boys line for every occasion. ↩︎
Yes, I know The Law Of Large Numbers is about math and I am talking about culture, but it’s a metaphor. Give me a break here, people. ↩︎
I realize the irony of making this statement on my blog. ↩︎