Sunday, February 9, 2014

Information and Identity

We like to think of ourselves as somehow apart from all this information.  We are real — the information is merely about us.  But what is it that is real?  What would be left of you if someone took away all your numbers, cards, accounts, dossiers and other informational prostheses?  Information is not just about you — it also constitutes who you are.  -- Colin Koopman
In the last 100 years, many philosophers have explored the ways in which identity is shaped by cultural norms, concepts, and practices.  Michel Foucault is famous for having shown how very basic ideas, like sexuality and sanity, have changed over time as cultures have changed.  Concepts like 'sane' or 'straight' empower some at the expense of others, but there is no man behind the curtain forcing us to think about ourselves in a certain way.  We do it to ourselves.  For example, we police ourselves when we have thoughts that are 'crazy' or 'deviant,' and we treat others according to how they match up to our expectations, for instance by shunning or even institutionalizing them.

Colin Koopman, an old colleauge of mine, recently published a great piece in the Times' Stone series.  Too much technology writing is either breathlessly optimistic (this new technology will save the world!) or pessimistically tears apart the weak arguments of the optimists (never a hard thing to do).  Koopman's approach is different.  When discussing the value of technologies, he says, we need to consider how they impact our identities.

In some ways, this idea is obvious.  Information technologies, after all, are about information, and you can't understand yourself or anyone else without information.  But few people are actually talking about this.  For example, self-monitoring technologies are changing how we think about ourselves.  People are quantizing, sharing, and comparing their fitness activity, their sleep, and their (supposed) mental acuity.  What kinds of values do these technologies embody?  Do they help us become more moral, just, or honorable?  Do they make us better friends or family members?  The things we spend our time doing shape who we are, and taking the time to do one thing means we don't have time for something else.

Koopman is particularly interested in the information technologies associated with governments, which are used to monitor and control us.  When you know that your phone calls are being surveilled and that a record is being kept on you, you act in a certain manner.  If you don't, you may not be able to get a job, or you may even be detained indefinitely.  A hundred years ago, you could leave town if you got into trouble, but now your record travels with you wherever you go.  'Identity theft' means that someone has gained access to private data, not that they have stolen someone's personality or personhood.

Since philosophers can't provide solutions, Koopman doesn't offer one.  The philosopher's job is to help us think better about problems.  As a society, we need to decide what kinds of information should exist, what kind of monitoring is legal, and what kinds of categories should be used to define us.  Technology writers should stop praising or condemning technologies in general and should us talk about what kinds of technologies we actually want.  And we all need to think about what kinds of people specific technologies make us, and whether or not those are the kinds of people we want to be.


  1. I really like this line: "Self-monitoring technologies are changing how we think about ourselves. People are quantizing, sharing, and comparing their fitness activity, their sleep, and their (supposed) mental acuity."

    We aim to make ourselves better at this, and expert at that, where better-ness and expert-ness are defined in terms of metrics and measures that would have been literally impossible a century ago. I'm not sure it's a bad thing, but nor is it clearly a good thing. You are right that "philosophers can't solve problems" so the thing to do is to work to stare hard into the face of the problem. Maybe if enough of us do that, something will come out on the other side. Thanks!

    1. Have you read any Kevin Kelly? He's not the strongest theorist, but his experience with Amish communities is pretty interesting. They do deliberate experiments with technologies and see what happens to their community values. I wrote about it here:

  2. Very good post. It is the concepts of changes we as a citizen of the world feels that if the opportunity to make ourselves feel relevant is present, it is a chance to take. If you look back 100 years ago, without technology, making one self relevant requires more effort to have people know who you are and it comes from tells story's and someone that met you who is speaking of you. Today's thinking, everyone always has a story of themselves. Social media is just a gateway to allow us to share it and be relevant. And with the access to see others people identity on the web. It influence to shape ours. Not being relevant with technology and social media, it is a new way of looking as dying alone. Every pace just got faster and If we don't keep up, they won't wait for us. Sorry for the typos.

    1. Yeah, many new technologies let people share content with thousands or millions of people. But this ability shapes the kinds of things you can say. It's almost paralyzing for me to write a facebook post because I can't write anything that will be interesting or inoffensive to all my friends, and I'm too lazy to divide them all into groups. :)


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