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Opinion

I tweet therefore I am: Finding identity when life is online

After a year where we’ve increasingly done everything online, from work to socialising, shopping and schooling, our personal and political identity is undergoing a radical change, says Tracey Follows

Nearly two decades – and a whole lifetime – ago I found myself in Hollywood shooting a blockbuster cinema ad with Gary Oldman. The brand in question was called One2One. That brand no longer exists, having been taken over by T-Mobile. But the words Oldman spoke in the ad still resonate today. “What makes you, you?he asked. Youre every onetoone youve ever had” came the reply.  

This echoes a Buddhist belief that ones personal identity is not something that is fixed and unchanging, or even something that arrives with you at birth. Identity is more likely to be something that grows over time, and is an aggregation of all the experiences you have had with all the people you have interacted with during your life. Its a notion that posits identity as something more fluid and potentially ever-changing. 

It also assumes that interactions with others are of great importance in defining who’ you are, that you dont get to define this on your own. Certainly, the rise of the internet and the companies and services that have been built on the back of it reinforce this feeling. Every day we opine or present or perform some task online and it is inevitably done so in front of others. We receive instant feedback and sometimes abuse, but no longer do we ever encountersilence.

Everyone in the world affects who we are, because we are now all digitally connected

We are surrounded by others. Not only in our street or amongst those in our wider community but also online. We now have digital lives which we spend at home making Zoom calls; we shop by search, based on the recommendations of others; we put on our makeup in the mirror of Instagram for all to watch; and we learn a new skill not in a classroom full of warm bodies but facing the cold hard stares of an avatar teacher reciting her virtual lecture through a screen. 

Thank goodness for such technology that became the connective tissue for a population socially atomised by government edicts to shut people in their homes and keep them from mixing during the Covid-19 outbreak. But this has gone on for so long, and at such an extreme level, that it is bound to change us and the society within which we live. Some suggest that this is actually the point. 

Radical change awaits. As more and more of our institutions give way to corruption, incompetence and total system failure, we will turn towards our peers and any others whom we feel are on the same level, and as such are part of our community, even if that is an online one. It means we can expect a challenge to the nation state  an institution that has until now conferred on us our citizenship, our currency and our mode of governance. 

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Increasingly, people are willing to put their trust in companies more than countries. Technology platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon are what we now rely on to provide us with our public services. They have the customer data, the behavioural insight and the powerful artificial intelligence to analyse it all.

Moreover, citizens often feel these companies are more responsive to their needs than the hulking bureaucracy of local or national government. Pointing the way to a possible future is the emergence of smart cities that use digital data to monitor and analyse the comings and goings of the city and facilitate greater efficiencies. A future where our internet service provider becomes the only provider we need to access everything we want because everything we want is digital. If we dont like their terms, we just unplug and sign up to the next. You cant do that with a nation. 

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Well, you cant right now. But countries like Estonia already offer e-residency to non-Estonian citizens which will give e-residents a fuller stake in the Estonian digital nation at some point in time. Once Bitcoin becomes more accepted as digital currency, what is keeping anyone tethered to the land on which they happened to be born? Many will choose to be governed globally, from the Cloud. 

This may sound fantastical but the pandemic has shown it is possible and various global governance structures are pushing us towards greater and greater public-private partnership solutions to what they view as societal problems (and which others may just term individual choice). 

We can expect a backlash too. Some people will want to reclaim their sovereignty. Not of their land but of their lives; of their ideas and thoughts and actions. Many will baulk at the idea of a digital identity or a vaccine passport or the only way to travel being a self-driving car that logs where you went, with whom and at what time. 

But such is the fate of what we have become, a networked society’ in which we are all interconnected and from which there seems no escape. It is no longer the case that every one we encounter in life has an effect on who we are. Rather, everyone in the world affects who we are, because we are now all digitally connected, whether we like it or not. It is for that reason that we must try harder to find the right balance between technocracy and the sovereign self. 

Tracey Follows is the founder CEO of Futuremade, a futures consultancy, and the author of The Future Of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-century Technology? published by Elliott & Thompson on March 18 (£14.99)

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