Sunday, May 16, 2010

Identity & The Internet

There are a couple posts at Crooked Timber on the question of identity in the age of the Internet that tie in, in a strange way, with an odd discussion I've been having here. Since "Know Thyself" is perhaps the hardest philosophical dictum with which to come to terms, and in any case is something that is always in process, one that can never be accomplished fully, it is almost futile to consider the question as a serious one.

Along with this site, I am on Facebook (FB), along with 400,000,000 other people. The idea that FB creates a space on the internet transparent enough to reveal something about ourselves to others is kind of silly. For all anyone knows, even the most intimate details on FB can be fabricated. Whether its the family photos, the expression events in one's day, clicking "like" or "dislike" on this or that subject-matter, song, group, whatever - it can all be a construct. Shoot, I could be making up pretty much everything about me, including multiple identities so that it appears I have close friends and family who know me. To complain about a lack of privacy, of threats to our identity to the point where the personae we don in various settings in our lives - as parents, spouses, workers, siblings, what-have-you - become superfluous is nonsense on the face of it.

Everything we know about others, even those most closely related to us, who share the most intimate relations with us, rests upon a certain amount of trust. There are always gaps, always hidden, secret places in the lives of those even of those to whom we are closest. For example, last weekend, my wife and I celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary, and I can say, with all confidence and a great deal of joy, that I still do not know everything about her. The reason I can say this is simple - I recognize and grant her own particularity, her individuality, and allow her the space to be Lisa as pastor, ministerial colleague, church leader, youth leader, in ways that do not impact my own interactions with her. Which is not to say I do not consider her, along with being my wife, my own pastor also. It is just that the mixing of identities, at that point, creates a muddle at times. Also, since I look forward to a lifetime of discovery with her, I know there are all sorts of things coming up that we will share, but have not shared, and I have no idea how we will be in the midst of it all. Our children's adolescence, special moments such as proms, graduations, weddings, our retirement together - just to name a few. These are very real possibilities in our combined future, things we talk about, think about, plan for, to be sure, but things that we cannot, now, not having lived through them, have any notion of how we shall be in the midst of them.

I am always amused by the reactions some people have on the internet to people they have yet to meet. Quite apart from our knowledge of these others limited by two things - what they choose to reveal of their own lives, and how trustworthy those reports actually are - we could very possibly be having discussion and even budding friendships with people who are not at all who they claim to be.

The idea that FB, or anyplace else on the Internet, creates dangers to our identity in some deep sense - not our legal identity, as in stealing our name or some other part of our legal identity for nefarious purposes - is to grant far more power to the internet while simultaneously buying in to the idea that there is some kind of scrupulous honesty on the internet. I don't. While I trust that those with whom I've interacted over the years are, at the very least, who they say they are, I also would never think that I know who they are. In some cases I anticipate meeting them with joy; in other cases, maybe not so much, but at least these responses are based on my own sense that these people, by turns and respectively, would be fun to be around, or not.

Yet, far too often, people make noises that they may "know" something about me, or others may claim to "know" something about someone that transcends any revelations we may make about ourselves on the internet. In most cases, these "knowings" are quite wrong, almost laughably so. I used to feel the need to correct these intuitive leaps; anymore, I just laugh at folks who think they have any idea who I am apart from what I choose to make plain in our interactions.

So, I don't worry about threats to my identity in the age (or perhaps moment) of Facebook, because I would never presume that even those closest to me ever reveal anything close to their real identities there, or anywhere else.

Virtual Tin Cup

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