I wonder when digital identity will become so pervasive as to transform our idea of the self à la psychology, the ego à la Buddhism and the soul à la Abrahamic religions.
Psychologists and sociologists spent years wondering how humanity would adjust to the anonymity of life in the city, the wrenching upheavals of mobile immigrant labor — a world of lonely people ripped from their social ties. We now have precisely the opposite problem. Indeed, our modern awareness tools reverse the original conceit of the Internet. When cyberspace came along in the early ’90s, it was celebrated as a place where you could reinvent your identity — become someone new.
“If anything, it’s identity-constraining now,” Tufekci told me. “You can’t play with your identity if your audience is always checking up on you. I had a student who posted that she was downloading some Pearl Jam, and someone wrote on her wall, ‘Oh, right, ha-ha — I know you, and you’re not into that.’ ” She laughed. “You know that old cartoon? ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’? On the Internet today, everybody knows you’re a dog! If you don’t want people to know you’re a dog, you’d better stay away from a keyboard.”
Increasingly, who you are is what you’ve done. Not just your idea of it, or anyone else’s idea, or the idea of a group, but the ever-growing corpus of data about the life you’re living. Not only is there always more data about you but there are increasingly powerful and handy tools to analyze it. This week Google added face recognition (not just detection, recognition) to Picasa Web. There was a similar face detection web site in early 2006, but now it’s just another easy-to-use feature in a popular image management application.
I’m giving up hope that technology or policy will do anything to abate this torrent of data about us rushing out into the public eye. Getting off the grid is not an option for most people, especially me. I expect that it’s mostly culture that will adapt. Knowing everything about everyone is how things were for thousands of years before the industrial age. I appreciated the observation in the article that anonymity may just be a phase of the 20th century, like the automobile. In tribes, everyone sees and hears everything, first or secondhand. Some might say that it’s the same online today, except now there’s nowhere to escape too because the eyes are global. From what I know of Native American tribes, you didn’t have anywhere to escape to either. If you left your tribe, no other tribe would accept you. Or at least others would always be suspicious of you. Maybe in the future we’ll have identity asylums. E.g. for people who’ve experienced psychological trauma or damage to their frontal cortex. (e.g. by a tamping rod)
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be vigilant about privacy. Just that relationships will adapt. It’s the political order that I’m really worried about.