Thursday, January 12, 2012

Can There Really Be Identity Stasis?

Yesterday I read an interesting piece titled 'Mechanisms of Stasis in Identity Prosumption' by Jenny Davis on the equally interesting Cyborgology blog, from which I have drawn many sources of inspiration for my own work.

Davis sought to disentangle "the liberating and constraining potential of digitally enabled identity prosumption" in her post, arguing that the increasing prominence of 'nonomous online environments' force participants to pursue increasingly accurate representations of self that ultimately result in 'identity stasis' due to the moral imperative such authenticity (or rather the specter of being called out for in-authenticity) demands.  This moral imperative is found on both the individual and cultural level, presenting unique challenges for either side.  Engaging in "digitally enabled identity prosumption' requires both sides to "overcome the challenge of lateral surveillance and pervasive documentation", with the individual additionally tasked to find a path towards a more abundant identity construction potential while the cultural must seek to do provide the same abundance in the potential for categorical construction.  This task is not easy, according to Davis, as paradoxically the pursuit of 'abundant potential' through digital prosumption often leads to a decrease in fluidity and tendency to resort to identity stasis, be it through the need to have historical layers of 'status updates' displayed in Facebook congeal or through institutionalization of a culture prompted by categorization and normalization inherent in the documenting process.

Despite provisos that "identity negotiation…is a continuous process" and that "digital technologies…facilitate the acquisition of new identities both interpersonally and culturally", Davis asserts that once these identities engage in the act of digital prosumption their progression towards stasis is all but certain as the very categories the identities create trap those who created them.
I agree with Davis in the need to examine the prosumption of identity both on the front and back end.  The issues raised by her investigation ask important questions of new processes now being integrated into the constructions of the self.  Yet, I cannot believe fully in the idea that digital prosumption of identity triggers mechanisms of stasis.  My objections lie in two areas.  First, while both the individual and the cultural are increasingly interacting with 'nonomous online environments' their moral imperative for authenticity does not solely occur in the digital realm because, second, the representations of the self as seen through the new Facebook 'Timeline' or documentation of a culture via Wikipedia or Newspaper articles are, at best, snapshots of a highly mobile identity potential or, at worst, Soma filled idealizations of the self that are as authentic of the creator as the shadows cast from the forms found outside Plato's cave.

Take the Facebook 'Timeline', a much talked about user interface that the pre-eminent social network recently debuted.  Just as it sounds, the 'Timeline' chronologically organizes your status updates, photos, events, etc… in order to give the once various islands of data a more human-friendly narrative form.  Davis uses this change in interface as an example demonstrating the limiting potential digital prosumption of identity, represented by the sum total of events displayed in the 'Timeline', forces upon the individual as they strain to maintain a verifiable authentic self that gives coherence to what is and what can be displayed.  But if we maintain the belief that our digital activities intermesh with our physical activities, it seems lopsided to say that only the digital maintains a say in the authentication of the self.  Augmented Reality demands that information- in this case ascertaining the validity of authenticity driven by moral imperative- flows between and amongst both physical and digital realms.  I can accept the influence of the digital only if the physical is given equal measure.

Intersection of influence found in Augmented Reality
Of course, there is no denying that activity on Facebook, in addition to other means of digital reflection or documentation, possesses discernible influence on the activity of the physical.  But I would be cautious of making claims of authenticity based on Facebook posts, as often those posts are what I would term 'highlights' of one's day or thought.  There is a strong disincentive to post anything with a negative alignment, not only because it provides a strong contrast to the general commentary of unbearable lightness many willingly display but also because the very architecture of Facebook itself rewards positive commentary via ranking algorithms tied to 'Likes' and comments produced.  No one posts photos of their difficult moments of solitude, at least not to any great degree.  If an integral part of digitally enabled prosumed assemblage of identity relies on documentation of, or anchoring to, activity of the physical, then we cannot put full confidence in an interpretation that does not account for the sum total of the augmented experience.

But even if we grant digital prosumption platforms like Facebook power of total documentation, there is another reason why solely relying on one sphere of activity to explain the results of an augmented reality is not sufficient to enable detection of 'stasis mechanisms'.  Status updates, photos, comments on blog posts, even 'Likes' are essentially one-off snapshots of the self expressed at that moment.  If we took a chronologically-close cluster of these one-off moments captured, patterns of continuity and correlation would no doubt be detectable.  Under the right conditions one might even be able to witness the digital prosumption process underway in shaping identity.  But if we took a chronologically-distant gathering of moments there would most likely appear very discernible differences in disposition or tastes, to name only a few qualities, marking the change of identity over time.  While Facebook posts might act as a milepost on the road of life, they do little to tell you the grade of asphalt or bumpiness encountered along the way. 

If it appears that I am working to discredit the role of Facebook and other digital prosumption platforms in identity, I do so not to eliminate its presence all together in the digital prosumption of identity but rather to place it within appropriate terms so that its effects are not overstated.  To be fair, Davis does leave room in her analysis of digital prosumption of identity to allow for escape from identity stasis, although only obliquely, in stating that the abundance of identity categories do not inescapably trap one in the categories constructed.  Yet how one escapes the prohibitive obstacles of lateral surveillance and pervasive documentation, mentioned by Davis as the challenges "digitally enabled identity prosumption must overcome", is largely left unaddressed.  It is my belief that the framework of ‘mobility potentials’ can answer questions presented by potential activation of 'stasis mechanisms'.  Not only does 'mobility' point the way towards a more fully reckoned account of the various interactions occurring in our larger augmented reality, but it can also uncover why claims of 'identity stasis', or really any stasis at all, simply cannot be true.

Let's take a look at 'digitally enabled identity prosumption' under the mobility potential framework, beginning with the type of mobility potentials created by posting entries on the Facebook 'Timeline'.  When anyone uploads a status update, photo or makes a comment on Facebook, they are engaging in documentation of low mobility potentials.  Knowledge constructs with low mobility potential, by their very nature, engage in little change through the act of transmission.  The photo you post will look the same to anyone who views it, regardless of when they view it.  The same applies to status updates and the like- the act of transmitting that update will do little to change the composition of that update.  Now it is entirely possible that someone will view your photo or update, internalize its content, and then create their own response.  'Mobility' states that the low mobility status update is transmitted to the mind of the viewer which acts as a transition point for the transformation of the low mobility knowledge (status update) into high mobility knowledge represented by thought-reaction (response to status update).  This reaction is then transformed into a low mobility construct (posting one's response to status update) that is registered by Facebook.

What makes Facebook so valuable, in a mobility perspective, is that it allows production (or prosumption) of low mobility constructs anchored to our everyday events to occur in a very rapid manner, reducing the asynchronous effects personal documentation (to name a single documentary mode) often encountered in eras before digital communication networks existed. (And in places where the digital wave of augmentation has yet to fully permeate, one can see these asynchronous effects occurring more often- especially in claims of identity) This reduction of asynchronicity is what provides the illusion of 'pervasive documentation'- when it becomes extremely easy to create low mobility 'mileposts' of one's life it can appear as though the definition of self consists solely of low mobility constructs, thus achieving the perceived effects of a 'stasis mechanism'.

But in an augmented reality perspective, we must accept that other low and high mobility constructs encountered by the individual (reading a book or editing a wikipedia entry, respectively) in both the physical and the digital world alters that individuals activity in both spheres.  A person might have a conversation, compelled by the moral imperative to authenticate, discussing the finer points of their belief when presented with a fact, or argument, that proves persuasive and forces them to alter the presumptions upon which rest their identity.  Or they might read a book, or blog post, and decide that a new perspective should be included in the constellation of ideas that go into making an identity.  If anything, digital prosumption reduces the asynchronous effects between the self's actualization in forming identity and the projection of that identity in an augmented reality.


  1. Jeremy, Thanks for this thoughtful response. You make some really great points and I would like to sharpen my argument a bit in response.

    There are two main issues I want to address:

    First, I agree that we cannot privilege digital over physical, and perhaps I did not articulate the physical side of my argument adequately. Social psychologists tell us that our actions are guided by who we think we are and that we come to know ourselves largely by seeing what we do. In augmented society, our digital depictions become prominent (and historically layered) reflective devices. We not only have to depict ourselves accurately, but are then tied, in the physical world, to these digital representations of self. As we present ourselves with new categorical labels in the digital realm, we must uphold this through physical action/interactions.

    Second, when I discuss stasis, I do not mean absolute stasis. As you point out, I only refer to this in passing (with the word 'not inescapable'). I absolutely believe that identities are continuous and ongoing processes. They also difficult to change. This is a well established notion within social psychology. Now postmodernists predict (assert?) that the contemporary era allows for greater identity fluidity. I argue that ironically, the same technologies that allow for a more complex sense of self (i.e. access to more and more identity categories) works to make these categories somewhat rigid. In short, I argue that identity is not freer than in modern, pre-digital society, but bound in a different kind of way. I also think that we can/should disentangle cultural rigidity from individual rigidity. The main difference being institutionalization. It is likely easier to deal with threats to authenticity than the bureaucratic and social process of removing an identity category from the cultural language.

    1. Thanks for your comment and 'sharpening' of points made in your original essay. I found it to be a thought-provoking read and it's always great to find material that inspires one to write.

      I still believe there is some light between digital depictions of the self and the need to uphold these depictions through physical action/interaction, but perhaps only because the relative access to our senses of digitally prosumed identity activity is still in its nascent stage. As 'nomonous' networks increasingly draw us in I do believe some bit of 'alignment' will be required- but there is always the secret space, pockets of thought or action that goes unrecorded or done so anonymously, that can feed our identity or, rather, our sense of identity. It only now occurs to me that Philip K. Dick's novel 'A Scanner Darkly' has a great quote on this conundrum of secret space, found on page 185 of chapter 11:

      "What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me—into us—clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too."

      I agree with you that construction and maintenance of identity in a reality permeated by the digital wave of augmentation is not necessarily more or less fluid than in pre-digital augmented realities, but rather bound under different constraints. Your quest to disentangle the cultural from the individual reminds me of similar efforts undertaken by the Imperial Russian government over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries regarding issues of nationalism and elaboration of identity. I like the way you phrase the problem of culture vs. the individual- I'm finding a lot of current thinking on the nature of digitally augmented reality to be helpful in organizing my own thoughts on questions of the textually augmented reality found in the 19th century.