The excerpt below is the beginning of an essay that considers how we develop identity in conjunction with, as well as rejection of, digital technology. It was composed in the fall of 2018 for a class led by Richard Sennett, Carlo Ratti, and Ricardo Alvarez.
Identity in the Age of its Digital Representation
The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it.
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
In 2018, apps, snaps, and ‘grams are among the most common methods of publicizing to our respective digital social universes who we are and what we do. In other words, we construct and mediate our personal identities through technologies of dissemination. As a result, whatever your curated personal narratives on social media, personal and community identities are now inextricably bound with and bounded by technology. But, as Sherry Turkle warns, although “we love our objects, …enchantment comes with a price,” a downside to the universal dissemination of digital shards of our identities. One of these downsides is that our senses of self become so entwined with technological devices that it’s hard to disentangle one from the other. And if this is truly the case, then we must question what happens to our identities when we unplug. This essay considers the possibility of unplugging to augment personal and communal identity.
To explore this perspective, I turn to the diverse ways that Jews make use of and abstain from technology in order to construct personal identities. For some, complete avoidance of technology is the key to maintaining identity. For others, however, the palpable tension that arises when abstaining from technology on Shabbat augments their individual and community identities by grounding their experiences during that day in mental spaces that are both physical and temporal, rather than digital, distributed, and asynchronous. And it is human to human interactions in these spaces that provide a strong sense of time that are crucial to maintaining a sense of self in the 21st century.
Every day, we are bombarded by subtle messages of how technology will change our lives, make us better people, and keep us in contact with every person we’ve ever encountered. It is no surprise, then, that we cleave our personal identities to the technological methods aimed at keeping us in touch with everyone and anyone. Technology enables us to meld the tools of technological dissemination with the formation of identity. Bill Mitchell foresaw this condition in Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, which was first published in 2003, the year preceding Google’s IPO and Facebook’s creation. In the future, he augured, “my sense of continuity and belonging derives from being electronically networked to the widely scattered people and places I care about.” According to Mitchell, in the society of the future, an individual’s identity emerges as a result of being plugged into a network served by electronic communication devices. That 15-year old projection of the future is here today: electronic connectedness takes the form of a decentralized network of individual apps. We form some connections on Instagram, others on Twitter, and others still on Facebook; each network serves as a channel for a different digital slice of our lives. Even though he wrote this long before the first 140 characters ever tweeted (Twitter was founded in 2008), he was eerily prescient, predicting that we would achieve our diffuse sense of community “through wireless communication, bodies [that]…could be as densely, continuously, and seamlessly interconnected as Web pages.” Through social media, all parts of our daily experience, from showering to walking down the street to the food we eat, become a hyperlinked and visual mosaic portraying part of our identity. This ultimately results in, again in the words of Bill Mitchell, a condition where “I do not have a fixed identity, nor do I exist as a discrete individual.” Our technological connectedness actually creates a schizophrenic sense of identity, rubbing threadbare the tightly spun strands of self.