• John Favaro

Identity in a Dematerializing World

Liannadavis [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

So went the caption of the most reproduced cartoon ever published by the New Yorker. What was that dog sitting in front of the screen trying to tell his canine companion with that statement?

Ironically, the cartoonist himself attached no particular meaning to his caption – he just wanted something funny – but he managed unwittingly to capture a profound truth about the Internet that was emerging just over 25 years ago, when the cartoon first appeared: in cyberspace, identity is affected in ways that we are still trying to grasp today.

The use of the word “grasp” was no coincidence: exploration of the concept of identity in our increasingly immaterial world is bound to become something of interest to those of us in the GRASPnetwork. It goes to the very core of who we are.

Of course, digital identity is a hot topic in many areas now – not all of them pleasant ones, unfortunately. Identity theft has become an enormous problem, as anybody reading the news will know. A stolen fiscal ID number sells for about 1 Euro on the black market; credit card data around 20 Euros; and stolen login and password for a bank account can sell for 200 Euros. Millions of digital identities have been stolen in the past five years.

Many people have the opposite problem: they can’t prove their identity. As many as 80% of those who have no bank accounts say the main reason is inability to document their identity. Not being able to demonstrate who you are can make it impossible to register to vote. In GRASPian terms: with no proven identity, they become invisible.

Identity theft has led to an increase in activities in safeguarding “Electronic Identity”, or “eID.” Many governments have large initiatives for providing their citizens with an eID that can’t be stolen or compromised, which may also make it simpler to prove who you are. One of the more interesting initiatives is a movement to create a so-called “self-sovereign ID” using the new blockchain technology, which was rendered famous by the Bitcoin electronic currency. (“Self-sovereign” means here that you don’t need to go back to some central office to prove the validity of your ID.) But one of the especially interesting side effects of all these initiatives is that it is forcing people to think hard about what constitutes your identity. Some things seem pretty clear, like your date of birth. But what about the others like the color of your hair or your sex (more on that later)?

Even those practical E-government researchers are finding out that identity can be a muddy affair. Let’s consider for a moment the question of what happens to our identity when we enter cyberspace. Amazingly, we end up right back at a theme that has permeated the GRASP blog entries for months now: mind and body. We have seen this theme pop up again and again over the course of the blog posts of the last year, so perhaps it is time to acknowledge that this is likely to be a major topic for GRASP to be addressing in its future.

The official term you will see identity researchers throwing around is disembodiment: mind and body separate when we enter cyberspace (or any dematerialized context, which is what we’re worrying about in GRASP). We’ve talked about the consequences of losing that relationship to the body in other posts, mostly with respect to our well-being. But the consequences for our very identity can be even greater.

Let’s turn up the heat a bit and look at a topic that concerns us all: sex. In cyberspace, not only does nobody know you’re a dog; they don’t necessarily know whether you’re a man, a woman, something else, or a mix of all of the above. McRae has noted that “ … Virtual sex allows for a certain freedom of expression, of physical presentation and of experimentation beyond one's own real-life limits".

Once you have left your body behind, your identity can be redefined, changed, and blurred in ways that we have only just begun to explore – and there is no guarantee that this will be good for us. It’s bad enough when, in this dematerializing world, we find it harder to cope with new forms of knowledge work; but when the dematerializing world erodes our very sense of our own identity, things could get much worse. As Widewalls has observed: “The human identity is truly a pastiche, but with the digital age, consumer and celebrity culture, and the changing currency from money to information, individual performance of Identity has changed significantly, leaving us in danger of losing the body in an act of disappearance into the virtual world.”

So the potential effects of a dematerializing world on our identity are a valid topic for GRASP to address, which leads us to a natural question: can artful thinking be applied to the problem? Is art being used anywhere to contemplate identity? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer is a resounding “yes”. Fellow GRASPer and theatrical director Patrizia Falcone tells me, “Acting is all about voluntarily assuming another identity, which is essentially all about exploring the very meaning of identity in all of its facets.” In fact, the theme of identity is so much a part of contemporary art that it’s hard to know even where to begin. So in this brief post we’ll confine ourselves to one representative initiative.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York – the MoMa for all who know it – is one institution that has been paying a great deal of attention to the role of identity in the arts for many years, including a section of their MoMaLearning online resource dedicated specifically to the theme of Investigating Identity. As the overview states, “Identity is the way we perceive and express ourselves. Factors and conditions that an individual is born with—such as ethnic heritage, sex, or one’s body—often play a role in defining one’s identity. However, many aspects of a person’s identity change throughout his or her life.” Then lo and behold, see how they explore three of the very concepts that we have discussed above:

· The body in art. The key role of the body in investigating relationships to gender and identity;

· Constructing gender. Using art to examine the fluidity of gender.

· Intersecting identities. Exploring our multiple intersecting identities through art.

So we can rest assured that we have been given plenty of food for artful thought concerning the puzzle of identity in our dematerializing cybernetic world.

© GRASP network 2018

GRASP network is an officially registered non-profit organisation in Austria