The crisis of identity

September 14, 2022 by Lucian Mogosanu

Identity, funnily enough, is a term used to denote two opposite things.

On one hand identity points out when a set of objects are the same. This meaning lies in the very root of the word, the Latin "idem", which leads to "identitas", which can be precisely translated to "sameness", or... identity. Which is, I hope we understand each other, entirely distinct from equality, in mathematics as well as philosophy, "social sciences" and what have you. Identity is universally quantified, while equality holds in some cases, while in others it doesn’t hold at all for any values, attributes or characteristics whatsoever.

Conversely, when one points out a bunch of identical objects, he also necessarily -- necessarily -- discriminates: A, B and C are identical, therefore any other item under consideration in the closed universe must be different. Moreover, this discrimination may be taken to its very extreme: while on one hand all items are axiomatically identical to themselves, on the other, if one finds the smallest difference between any two distinct objects, identity may then be confused with uniqueness! That is, by the way, how atomization works: convince a mass of arbitrary people that they are each unique and thus paradoxically you will end up with identical spherical chickens sitting in a vacuum.

Which brings us to the current piece. It may be a stretch to say that the Western world is undergoing a so-called crisis -- although for the folks involved I bet it (finally) looks like one -- but... let's take a step back and look at how the practice of establishing identity -- that is, of identifying -- works in human societies: you take some entity with which you interact1 and start attaching related stuff to it. For example if the two of you are interacting in the online environment, you may attach a public key to it, assuming that said agent is capable of emitting signed artifacts. In most cases however you attach particular actions, which provides you with a model of how it acts and interacts, in other words, a model of that entity. In other words, that identity is formed based on a whole lot of things that relate to it in some way, the way in which they relate being at least as important as the things in question.

Moreover, and in the very same way, people form ways to identify themselves -- which incidentally is one of the fundamental problems in the field of psychology. For example, I tend to spend my time interacting with computers, therefore I must like them, and the liking is as much a part of my identity as are the computers, or rather my representation thereof. In general, based on my own actions, I can therefore say particular things about my identity. Taken as a whole, these two aspects make up a fundamental part of how human societies are formed, that is, through interaction between individuals and through reflection within them. Whether other animal societies are formed the same way is an interesting point to approach, but it is also irrelevant to this discussion.

In traditional societies folks gave a whole lot more importance to how people were identified than to how they identified themselves. Consider for example the case of names, which are a principal symbol for the identification of individuals: before the existence of the modern state, with its birth certificates, IDs and passports, names were for the most part assigned informally, through nicknaming2. Even within the modern state, folks very rarely get to choose their name, such changes occurring almost exclusively through marriage.

Then along came technology and the whole game changed. As one creates an account on the platform, he or she may not only choose a name, but also an avatar -- that is, a digital face. Or if we're considering arbitrary online games, one may choose a race, gender and other characteristics which sum up to a peculiar sort of digital "identity", natural as far as the virtual world is concerned, but otherwise entirely artificial, that is to say, made up.

Now, it might indeed be a stretch to say that technology is the cause of this so-called crisis of identity. Honestly, I don't think it's a cause, but I do think it's an amplifier. You certainly don't need a MMORPG to create make-believe stories about princes, dragons and furries, but MMORPGs sure give one the chance to spend the vast majority of his living moments in such a place. This habit encourages a harsh sort of derealization3, what they once liked to call over the ocean a sort of "reality distortion field" which I'm afraid cannot be escaped by the common postmodern man. Why else do you think the so-called metaverse is a marketing proposition in the first place?

It might indeed be a stretch to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway: given the opportunity, kids will eagerly rush to upload themselves into the matrix. This... this is just the beginning.

  1. Nowadays it makes very little difference whether the item in question is human or not. 

  2. Which is how surnames such as Bucicoiu (Romanian) or Cockburn (Scottish) came to be. 

  3. For example; for another example; and so on and so forth. 

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4 Responses to “The crisis of identity”

  1. #1:
    Cel Mihanie says:

    I have to agree with that last paragraph, in more ways than I can express in words. We are so doomed. Everything that makes us human, everything that makes us more than clumps of cells... the decerebrates of tomorrow will happily throw it all away and never even realize what was lost. The true end of humanity is all Huxley and no Orwell. We'll own nothing, especially in our brains, and be happy.

    Ya know, I'd say religion was the MMORPG of its day, or, alternatively, MMORPGs are the religion of our day. Let's face it. People back then didn't really have IQs in the 80s. Not outside subsaharan Africa at least. If they looked at it lucidly, it was obvious to most of them that it's bullshit. The magic man in the sky, the water turning into wine, the coming back from the dead. Please. Clearly fairy tales. But they didn't looked at it lucidly, because religion offers everyone a comforting illusion: that you don't live a meaningless life, doomed to be nothing more than cannon fodder for Pharaoh. That you can be a hero... in your own mind. Just live "righteously", and no matter what happens in reality, you will be judged *individually* (this is crucial), and rewarded *invididually* with eternal life or whatnot. If that's not a reality distortion bubble, what is?

    Is it any different today? Play this game and you'll embrace the comforting illusion that you don't live a meaningless life, doomed to be nothing more than cannon fodder for Corporation. You can be a hero on the screen, be looked up to... by NPCs (both in the Matrix and meatspace).

    Ah, but it is different today. For one, stories about a magic man in the sky are just ideas. If you don't believe in them, they cannot fetter you, not without physical humans to enforce them. And there was plenty of space to hide from those humans. But machines are different. Machines are real. They can and will enforce nigh-perfect, invincibile, eternal dictatorial control on all of us. It is just a matter of time.

    Pharaoh also needed that cannon fodder, needed to keep them alive. The "useless eaters" weren't truly useless in the long run, and he knew it. Now... although slower than techno-optimists believed, change is coming and most humans really are becoming superfluous. In Nature, superflous things have a tendency to disappear. When Corporation no longer needs all that cannon fodder, from the trucker to the Excel monkey, we won't become a planet of "creatives", 10 billion people sipping lattes at StarBucks designing logos. Nor will those 10 billion people live in a Matrix dreamworld. Why waste resources on them? No. The elites will still be there, there'll be as many "creatives" as there are now, likely even fewer, and the rest... why, the rest will be just gone. Gently or brutally exterminated, who knows, but exterminated nonetheless.

    I'm so fun at parties.

  2. #2:
    spyked says:

    > everything that makes us more than clumps of cells

    In all fairness, "we" are going to great lengths to reduce ourselves to clumps of cells. Just hear 'em talking about the great achievements of their democracy, while they're preparing for poverty. Who knew that bipedal monkeys would be trained to beg for this state of affairs?

    > The true end of humanity is all Huxley and no Orwell.

    Huxley was pretty close to the mark with his essays on pacifism, although I'm pretty sure he himself had no idea of the extent to which his utopia could come to life.

    > MMORPGs are the religion of our day

    MMORPGs, TV shows, sports and so on. Pop culture has built for itself an entire pantheon!

    > religion offers everyone a comforting illusion

    If by that you mean that religion provides common folks with a convenient interpretation of fundamental metaphysical items, then sure. IMHO that alone doesn't make the contemplation of ideals and the meaning derived from it a worthless endeavour. On that matter, I will defer to Aristotle.

    > Play this game and you'll embrace the comforting illusion that you don't live a meaningless life, doomed to be nothing more than cannon fodder for Corporation


    > the rest will be just gone

    Until then, Zuck'll just sell them, or hell, give away for free ten billion pods equipped with free connections to the metaverse and the minimum amount of sustenance needed for... well, whatever it is they call living, i.e. the clumps of cells above.

    Terrifying, but what can I say, let 'em enjoy it.

  3. #3:
    Verisimilitude says:

    What a shame that my Latin is still so immature that I didn't notice this by myself; I knew IDEM, but not yet IDENTITĀS; however, I checked my dictionaries, the cheap book and then the comprehensive Oxford bookset and finally a little WWW program, to found no such word therein; it seems not to be classical Latin.

    In traditional societies folks gave a whole lot more importance to how people were identified than to how they identified themselves.

    This is the most important sentence here, and one I'll do well to remember for some later time. Sure, technology isn't the lone culprit; men had sobriquets for writing and publishing; people have named themselves and others on graffiti, even in Roman times. There's always some way for a man to exude verisimilitude of his choice.

    This... this is just the beginning.

    Isn't it exciting in its own way?

    As for Huxley, I can't view his fiction as a dystopia. It's just the world the weak make for the weak.

  4. #4:
    spyked says:

    > it seems not to be classical Latin.

    Indeed, it's medieval Latin.

    > There's always some way for a man to exude verisimilitude of his choice.

    Right, and there's nothing wrong with that. And there's no problem with spurious, osmotic self-identification, it just yields a lot of mess.

    > Isn't it exciting in its own way?

    To be honest, it makes very little difference as far as I'm concerned.

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