Fixating the fragmented self

21 Oct 2012

I did a keynote address to the Association of Internet Researchers convening in Manchester this weekend. As was to be expected, people were tweeting and live blogging about it, so for our benefit, I copy Axel Brun's live blog here, that perfectly summarizes what I said. 

The post-lunch keynote at AoIR 2012 is by Liesbet van Zoonen, who begins with a recap of cultural theories of identity. These assume both individual and collective identities to be multiple rather than single, dynamic rather than static. Identity is something we do, not something we are. Research has been informed by these ideas, and we have a good understanding of how different groups use media to perform their identities. This has also been reflected in an understanding of diversity as a desirable goal for social policy.

There has been less attention on recent forces that work against the multiplicity of identity, and these need to be brought out into the open. Identity management is guided by clear corporate and state interests, too. We used to think that online identity is flexible and open – postmodern, admitting multiplicity and flexibility – but today, anonymity and the construction of online personas are being constructed as risk factors, which need to be militated against: there are real-name, single-account policies in many online spaces now, for example. In a post-11 September world, "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" is now a threat.

Similarly, there has been a renewed push back against multiculturalism, and towards nationalism; migrants, for example, are now often required to undergo citizenship tests which position a single, unified form of national belonging. Additionally, there is a push towards a perceived 'reality' of identities – the appeal of reality show contestants is in the authenticity of their personas, for example. Cosmetic surgery, too, has been described as establishing the real persona of patients whose physical bodies fail to reflect it by nature.

The importance of the concept of authenticity points to he importance of identifying 'real' selves; in turn, this works against multiple, variable identities. The same is true, for example, also for passport photos, which are required to portray a face stripped of all affect – an original self which can be reliable authenticated. Most forms of identity management demonstrate a similar push towards unified, stable identities; complex identities (such as disabled or transgender people) are inherently positioned as deviant.

Similarly, fingerprint recognition systems and other biometric technology works against some identities (fingerprint readers have trouble with people who do substantial manual labour, for example), thereby positioning white middle-class identities as the normative, standard case. There are civil liberties issues at stake in such identity management systems, of course – take, for example, Google's single-account systems which serve to combine the different, divergent online identities which users have developed across the various online spaces provided by the company.

But this goes well beyond the narrow confines of privacy and identity detection. Customer profiling may lead to price advantages and disadvantages for customers, for example, while geographic profiling constitutes a form of social sorting which undermines the understanding of identities as multiple and diverse. People are considered to belong to one or another category, but not in more than one.

There is a wider movement towards customer experience marketing, in fact, which engages with the customer across multiple technologies, spaces, "touchpoints". Such cross-channel advertising often goes wrong, as Facebook advertising shows only too well – but regardless of the success or failure of such systems, we are placed in an all-pervasive and inescapable position of "consumer".

Tensions and contradictions are inherent and inevitable in this. Control and univocality will construct their own resistant counter forces, as has been the case with patient databases, CCTV cameras, and facial recognition techniques. Opposition to the assumption of a single identity has been less pronounced, though, as univocality is less seen as a major problem. The hegemony of a single identity is well established – there is an industry for seeking one's own identity, and political leaders are judged by their perceived authenticity; we are constantly interpellated to be ourselves, to be authentic. The deployment of authenticity presupposes an understanding of the self as unified and stable.

Interestingly, Australian passport holders can now choose male, female, or 'X' as their stated gender on their passports – to allow for transgender people to express their identity more fully, for example. (The question remains why gender needs to be stated on a passport at all, however.) Globally, there is a wider movement of creative experimentation with identity; Heath Bunting's identity bureau project offers personal identity which may be borrowed, for example, which could be of substantial use for travellers – but this also immediately exposes the proponents of such ideas to government suspicion in a highly security-focussed environment."

Picture courtesy of Helen Keagan