Fighting for identity as change accelerates

We all know that life is change. What’s new is the pace. It’s faster than ever before. All of those thoughts in our head that create the experience of life from moment to moment — mundane and profound alike — have finally broken past the speed limits of time, distance, and hierarchical power.

Blame and credit the internet. There’s never been such a powerful way to gather, consume, judge, and share the concepts that make us human. On top of that, it’s affordable. It fits in your hand. It’s so easy to use, toddlers can operate it. And it makes someone in China as easy to reach as someone next door.

People spend hours a day eating up all that content. Professional, amateur, clever, dumb, inspiring, demeaning, destructive — all of it taken in, every second. And it never runs out. More and more keeps coming. You could do nothing but watch, read, and listen to something new the rest of your life with no more effort than reaching into your pocket.

That’s different. In the span of a few years, we’ve taken a huge leap in the broader trend of separating human mental activity from the limiting factors of the flesh. Telephones extended our voice; we could chat with someone in real time without having to take a massive trip. Now we have devices extending our voice and bodies, farther than ever before. And we’ve made it amazingly cheap. If I want to hold a face-to-face conversation with someone in Africa, I have myriad choices, many of them effectively free (a basic level of service costs nothing, but, yes, internet connections have a fee, which is remarkably affordable for a certain segment of the human population). Videotelephony has come a long way.

The strangest part of this information revolution is the feeling that what’s happening in my head is increasingly disconnected from what’s happening with my body. My concept of “me” may be undergoing a revolution as I engage more facts, stories, and relationships than ever before, but here “I” am, sitting in a chair in front of a desk in New Mexico.

A gap is developing. There is a “local me,” made of my body and place and all the limits they entail, and a “virtual me,” an ethereal concept defined by connections to other intangible, mediated ideas pulled from anywhere at all times.

It’s disconcerting. Which “me” is the real one? How many of “me” are there, if we define a personality as an intersection of information, tangible and virtual? Are they all real? Which one do I fight for? The “body me” that enjoys American freedoms? The “virtual me” enjoying friendships in Hong Kong?

In this environment, it becomes hard for anyone to claim ownership of a particular identity. Culture, once like stone that people were shaped by and shaped themselves into, now pours through and into and out of us like water.

If anyone can don an identity by filling their head with the concepts that define it (with less effort than ever before), then a foundation of being human has been remade.

Yet in an unstable world, sometimes your (illusory?) definition of “me” is all that holds still. If this too is under threat, there are two responses: fight for your identity, or redefine what it means to be you.

The fighters are coming out. It’s what I see in the fascinating arguments about cultural appropriation. I’m not indicating equivalence here, but it seems to be at play at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Far, far left, and far, far right hunger for a purity, though for far different reasons. I’d argue that these movements are a search for stability in a technological world that has cut the ties between one’s bodily identity and mental identity. People are trying to bring unity to what technology has sundered. They’re fighting not just for who they are, but for the process society has provided for defining ourselves.

I don’t know if they can win. Humans have always pushed to escape the brutal reality of bodily limits. I believe we’re moving toward more fluidity, toward a multitude of “me’s.” Virtual reality will become the norm, and people will wear cultures like clothes; they’ll use their characteristics like tools to elicit certain responses from those they communicate with. “Me” will become a functional choice. Identity will be a quickly shifting network.

Way, way ahead, I imagine consciousness completely separating from our bodies. It will travel to where it’s needed or desired, free and ghostly as light.

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