pixelated faceThe London Free Press had a feature article this past weekend on our digital identity, aptly titled “Our Digital Soul”.  There’s more to come in the next couple of weeks but this first installment was about the reality that there’s a lot more “out there” about us than we realize.  Sensors in various places pick up our facial features, voice characteristics, fingerprint identification, even odour, sweat and how we walk.  In other words, who we are is increasing becoming digitized, our “soul” supposedly no longer our own.

The article dealt primarily about digital identity as it relates to security, but we all know it descends far deeper than that.  A recent report by the British government’s chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, reasons that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, even on-line gaming, are not only changing how people view us, but how we perceive ourselves.  Interestingly, his report was titled “Future Identities” and highlighted how different our world is going to look like just 10 years from now.

Beddington figures that the most important trend that will determine our identity is what he calls “hyper-connectivity”.  Sounds good, until we discover that his research had concluded that all this “connection” could actually result in communities becoming less cohesive.  While the Internet provides for untold opportunities to connect with others online, it can easily result in encouraging social exclusion.  In other words, I don’t have to really see someone to connect; I can just text.  Convenient as that may sound, and is, it actually goes against millennia of socialization that prompted humans to require face-to-face contact if communities were to be established.  It was harder to remain anonymous and easier for others to perceive the sincerity of those they were encountering.

The identity paradigms are shifting underfoot.  In the wording of the report:

The changing nature of identities will have substantial implications for what is meant by communities and by social integration.  The study shows that traditional elements that shape a person’s identity, such as their religion, ethnicity, job, and age are less important than they once were.  Instead, particularly among younger people, their view of themselves is shaped increasingly by online interactions of social networks.

The study outlined some conflicted findings.  While the Internet permitted many to hide who they truly were, for others, especially the marginalized, they were allowed to escape the preconceptions of the age.  Those fighting disabilities, for instance, quickly learned that being online meant that people didn’t notice such challenges.

Something that became readily apparent in the report was the blurring of work and social identities as people’s personal lives became more public through the use of social networking sites at work.  Ultimately, that’s a good thing.

The drawbacks also became clear in the report.  People with ulterior motives – criminals, trolls, hackers, molesters, for instance – could hide behind their fake digital fronts and create social dysfunction.  Remaining hidden or anonymous also permits political polarizers, bigots or prejudicial people, to sew significant levels of social discord within a community.  Without face-to-face encounters it remains even more difficult to understand a person’s true intentions or motives.

Our digital identities are what we make of them.  But if we want to build our communities, social networks will prove pivotal in the coming decades.  If all we want to do is mix it up, sewing the seeds of purposeful discord, then it will remain difficult for communities to move ahead through the digital domain.  Lurking behind a person using Facebook to open up to the broader community lays someone else choosing to keep him/herself anonymous.  It will be difficult to maneuver our way through such contrasts.

Beddington points to the remarkable solidarity displayed during London, England’s 2012 Olympics as an example of what can happen when people put their better angels on display on networking sites.  Yet he points to the same city’s 2011 riots as an example of the destructive force of the digital domain.

One thing remains clear: while a decade ago Time magazine boasted of the new “Digital Democracy”, it has not yet arrived at the point where it structurally is lifting our political systems for their current malaise.  Most Canadians possess little of the kind of knowledge that makes for an informed citizenry, and only some of them possess the skills necessary to negotiate between all the images and propaganda besieging their minds everyday.   Those most savvy with the new technologies – Canadians under 40 – often adopt an anti-institutional bias (church, government, politicians, corporations) that effectively removes them from the very influences they need to motivate in order to bring about the reforms to which they aspire.

Social networking on media sites can permit our identities to remain in isolation, even as we communicate, yet our digital soul doesn’t represent who we fully are.  If the networking features of the digital world don’t succeed in bringing us together in ways that matter then we remain remote identities residing in our communities. It’s as Robert Frost wrote: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows”.  Our communities await our “coming out”. Sometimes it is in letting go of the limitations of who we are that we become what we can truly be. Unless our digital identities lead to human contact and growth, we shall ever be isolated and society will remain unreformed.