Have you noticed that as digital media grows, we are not alone?
Of course we are not alone, we are continuously connected and interconnected and we have to make a distinct effort to ‘go off grid’, to escape into solitude.
No, I mean we are not alone. There are other beings around.
Perhaps you’ve come across Lil Miquela or Shudu the digital supermodel, or you have had the pleasure of conversing with the attractive computer-generated customer service advisors from Samsung, known as Neon people. They have all started to appear in place, or alongside, us real humans.
Many of us are happy to engage with these characters online and even get into deep conversation. Teens from all over the world nervously wait for Lil Miquela’s latest IG post, whether that be to tell them how she was up all night working on a pitch, or spill the beans on the romantic status of her on-again-off-again boyfriend.
These people aren’t real in the traditional sense - they are not flesh and blood - they are code.
But that does not matter to the audience, to them they are real. Narrative and reality have become decoupled.
Or to put it another way, the narrative is the reality. And plenty of my research in this area has pointed to teens being very willing to treat virtual beings as real. "I’ll be friends with a virtual person" they tell us, “Why not?”
We think we can tell the difference of course. But who really knows who they are speaking to on, say, Linkedin? There was a report only a few months ago highlighting the vast number of fake profiles that companies were using to reach out to potential customers in the hope of getting a lead. This, regardless of the fact that the company, insists as part of its usage policy, that any profile must represent a real person.
It’s almost as if we don’t judge people online by reality or fact these days, but purely by emotion. The more immersive our media becomes the more emotive our communication, and the more emotional our own self-expression. We see a persona, a profile, or pronoun and we make our judgement. But what lies beneath? - do we even really care any more?
We should care, because identity is important.
Identity is fundamental not only to understanding ourselves but to enabling other people to understand who we are at any given moment, and therefore decide if they can trust us.
Without the ability to identify a person as the same from one moment to the next, the ability to ascribe duties, rights and responsibilities to that person becomes impossible. Roger Scruton goes further than this suggesting that without a sense of identity, even emotions - such as anger, admiration, envy, and remorse - would vanish and the purpose of life on earth would vanish with them. He’s right, since if one cannot ascribe any particular emotion to an identifiable person, how would one even start to relate to others, or form relationships at all?
And it made me wonder whether much of the time we are online these days, are we doing nothing more than ascribing emotions to identities who do not exist? No wonder we are all so exhausted.
But our own sense of self is changing too. When we jump into virtual worlds, we can create alternative personas to the one we might have offline. We can use those to experiment and explore precisely who we might want to be that day, or in that situation, or of that world, and do it without fear of judgment. Essentially, we can be many selves.
This reminds me of something a young Chinese trends researcher said to me about how he interacts with the world around him, he told me: ‘I have so many different selves, and they’re all authentically me but they’re all different for all different usages, different context, different social circles…etc”
And Hans Georg Muller (Philosophy Professor in Macau), who I interviewed on my podcast recently echoed this sentiment but also gave it a name - profilicity.
‘In Profilicity, we can recover this actual art of existence that we have. We're equally the father as we are the kid…they don't kind of cancel one another out, they enhance one another. And I think with Profilicity and living and creating and being truly invested in different profiles, we can actually go back to some form of richer existence, why not?”
This challenges us to rethink what we might have taken to be a truth about the real world until now. That we do not - and should not - try to represent the same version of our ‘self’ to everyone we meet. That representation should be context dependent.
To put it another way, where once we talked, especially in the West, of ‘authenticity’, now we talk of ‘profiles’. And it is not only because we love to post our likes, preferences and pronouns to ensure we are identified in the way we want to be. It is because we are no longer in physical proximity and now have to rely on an intermediate environment to represent us.
Today, we are relying on technology to profile and represent us, for we no longer, ourselves, represent our ‘self’.
So what does this mean?
Well as the metaverse emerges as a persistent, immersive or virtual world where we can look and speak and behave as someone we don’t usually appear to be (offline, at least) our identity is transformed, both as we experience it ourselves, but also as others experience it.
We are becoming those virtual beings that today, we merely live alongside. Those computer generated beings are becoming more like us in immersive media. But to an even greater degree, we are becoming more like them.
And if media technologies transform (us) rather than transport (information), reinventing what we do, what will the metaverse transform in future that we take for granted today?
McLuhan famously catalogued some (then) present-day transformations, within Understanding Media, where he notes, amongst many, the following changes:
The telephone; speech without walls
The photograph; museum without walls
The electric light; space without walls
So, I'm going to suggest a new way to think about what is happening and suggest that the metaverse, as our most emergent media environment, will transform our own self-creation, representation, and duplication:
The metaverse; identity without walls.
This was a presentation first given at The McLuhan Institute's student gathering on 2oth August 2022
Three things on Digital Identity that caught my eye: