The topic of identity is one that has always been on the forefront of the American consciousness, but I think it’s only more recently that most have become more aware of that idea in relation to their virtual selves. With the recent revelations by Edward Snowden (if one could call them that) that the NSA has access to virtually all information on the internet to go along with the massive data collection also currently being undertaken by the private sector; it’s no wonder it’s been such a heavily discussed topic in the media. However, I feel that it being such a hot topic has only led to what amounts to fear mongering and a distressed, reactionary public. While most people agree that the NSA surveillance constitutes a gross violation of civil rights, people are much more shaky on what Google or Microsoft doing the same thing means for them or the country. Americans seem uncomfortable with the idea of being observed or tracked when using services on the internet, yet use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to post personal details all the time. There is a disconnect there that one can only really understand if you truly understand the concept of identity on more than just a surface level.
In his novel No Sense of Place, Joshua Meyrowitz writes about the idea of identity in relation to social interaction. He attempts to explain changes in social behavior and shows that the fundamentals of our social interactions have not changed much, he gives the example of telling different social groups a different version of a story about a vacation. He remarks that, “I did what most of us do in everyday interaction: I highlighted certain aspects of my personality and experience and concealed others.” He draws on the ideas of two important scholars, Erving Goffman and Marshall McLuhan, in order to make his point. Goffman describes social interaction almost like a play in which people perform different roles according to the situation or location they are in. McLuhan predicted much of the social change in the 1960s but could not explain how exactly electronic media brought them about, writing vaguely about sensory balance of a culture being changed by new technology. Meyrowitz marries the ideas of the two: “I suggest that the mechanism through which electronic media affect social behavior is not a mystical sensory balance, but a very discernible rearrangement of the social stages on which we play our roles and a resulting change in our sense of ‘appropriate behavior.’” The idea here is that electronic media, and social media in particular, have given us windows into the lives of others, from which we can safely observe, like never before in human history. And because we have a greater awareness of those around us we take them into greater account when it comes to social interactions. Because of the way we tie our virtual identity to our physical self, this leads to changes in the way we interact with each other. We take this media into account when considering our own behavior in the physical world.
Meyrowitz’s work is very useful framework to build on when thinking about issues relating to identity in the virtual world. This brings us to the topic of surveillance and how we feel about it. Most people were horrified once they learned the true extent of the data collection being engaged in by the NSA. Even staunch opponents of the PATRIOT Act could not have predicted the wide scale afforded by new technological developments (although they certainly did get to say I told you so). The reason this disturbs people so much is because it constitutes a lack of control over their identity that is not normally encountered physically or even frequently online. In her article Alone Together, Sherry Turkle writes: “Online, we put forth the self we want to be. We can communicate when we wish and disengage at will. We can choose not to see or hear our interlocutors. What we have is a technology that makes it easy to hide.” Online we can curate very carefully, almost better than in our own lives, our personal image. But we can also have the ability to see what we want to see and create an online bubble where we control who and what we are exposed to. Our virtual identity is heavily tied to the virtual spaces we frequent. This idea of being able to hide away our identity is obviously a natural inclination, it goes hand in hand with the idea we have of our true self, “a unified ‘me’” that Meyrowitz refers to. Judith Donath also discusses this concept in her article Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community, saying that “In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. Though the self may be complex and mutable over time and circumstance, the body provides a stabilizing anchor.” However, in a rapidly changing technological environment, it is virtually impossible for the average person to keep their online comings and goings private and this leads to the disconnect and this frustration with the situation. When one adds in the factor that the stressor and collector of data is a government agency that was established to address national security it becomes easy to understand most people’s feeling of outrage.
But more worrying than the NSA surveillance, in part due to the increased attention drawn to it by the media coverage, is the ongoing data collection that basically amounts to surveillance by various firms to service the “Big Data” needs of large corporations. In the article How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined, Fordham professor Alice Marwick outlines how corporations and other organizations gain access to personal information and how this can have very negative effects if left unregulated. She writes: “The industry of collecting, aggregating, and brokering personal data is known as ‘database marketing.’ The second-largest company in this field, Acxiom, has 23,000 computer servers that process more than 50 trillion data transactions per year.” These companies are the middle men that aggregate and deliver the data to corporations for a fee. This may make some uncomfortable but I feel like this would not be such a huge issue if there were some regulation, both legislatively and technologically, introduced.
However, the consequences of the current amount of freedom afforded in this collection is clear as Marwick points them both out. She says: “The first is data discrimination. Once customers are sliced and diced into segmented demographic categories, they can be sorted. An Acxiom presentation… placed customers into “customer value segments” and noted that while the top 30 percent of customers add 500 percent of value, the bottom 20 percent actually cost 400 percent of value.” What happens to those bottom 20 percent? Perhaps they are never advertised to, or certain sales are never made available for them. Either way that cannot be good on large scale. The second consequence has to do with exactly who these firms are selling to. Many times it is government agencies anyway so it is taxpayer’s dollars at work paying for more information about themselves to be revealed than they want. Marwick also points out that some of these companies have been investigated for willfully selling information to criminal elements, while others have been fulled by organizations posing as legitimate buyers and disappearing with loads of valuable personal info. All this shows is that more eyes need to be on the process and that there is a greater need for transparency.
We are at a crossroads as a society as to how to deal with problems we are facing. We seem to be crippled by legislative bodies that cannot hope to pass anything of note without one party having a majority. Greater focus needs to be brought to these issues so people make sure they understand exactly how much of themselves they are putting out on the internet. It is a notable time in our history as we have never lived during such a rapid growth of technology and it is a true challenge to us to keep up with the good that can be done in preventing abuses of this new power.