Inevitably, the question was going to be asked, and the fact that it was asked by a U.S. congressman at an unlikely venue, the recent hearings at which Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress, makes it no less prescient or important to consider. The question was: In an age in which people increasingly create online identities, who owns the virtual you? That is, as people increasingly create an idealized version of themselves by what they post on social media, or by how they respond to what other people have posted, will this new type of identity or self become simply data that can be effortlessly passed around in the new global cyber brain which we all now inhabit, or even bought or sold to advertisers or to some organization that seeks data on people in order to influence elections or drive certain social change?
Then, as this virtual self become increasingly bought and sold in the digital marketplace, so to speak, will others be able to alter an identity or self that a person believes they had ownership of when they created it? In fact, could this occur simply because of how those others are diluting or changing the virtual self which someone has so carefully created to the point where it starts to become unrecognizable to the actual person who created it? Ultimately, this would appear to be the great psychological danger in this new Internet age that we have now all entered; that as much as having our privacy compromised in this new cyber world, we may in fact be losing the capacity to control the one thing that is most important to people relative to their sanity – their identities or self-conceptions.
As people go about presenting an idealized version of themselves in cyberspace by their postings, comments about others’ postings, or by simply pressing the like button on Facebook or Twitter, and are putting increasing time into doing so, our very identities are coming to exist just as much, if not more, in the virtual world than in the more real one of people and events that exist apart from a phone or computer screen. Yet, as we’re now learning, if huge social media platforms or information sharing sites such as Google or Amazon can effortlessly pass around, use, or even sell our data as they wish, that virtual identity that people spend time so carefully creating, simply because it has to a great extent left their own hands, is going to be changed by anyone who has somehow acquired ownership of it. As a result of this, others may begin responding to a virtual self of someone that doesn’t even really exist anymore.
The famous existential psychiatrist R.D. Laing, whose books The Divided Self and The Politics of Experience, published in the 1960s, caused many to reconsider the nature of identity wrote of how one can create a false, disembodied self that is different from one’s more genuine, internal self; a false self in which one becomes trapped by virtue of the fact that one comes to relate to others through this false self rather than through the more real self that is trapped inside the false one. Eventually, according to Laing, because one’s interrelationships with others take place in the world of a false, disembodied self, an unreal emptiness begins to exist at the core of one’s being.
Quite possibly, as the data so many people use to create a virtual self in cyberspace become something they have lost control of because it is increasingly bought, sold, and eventually altered in cyberspace, it is easy to see how that virtual self can easily become the equivalent of a false self within which one’s more genuine self can become so easily trapped. And because the idealized virtual me that people create in the digital world often isn’t even synonymous with their more genuine identity in real time and space, the possibility of a false identity that can be traded in cyberspace like old baseball cards becomes even more acute.
In fact, will we eventually reach the point, if we’re not there already, where other people will be able to take someone’s data and use it to create a false image of that person in cyberspace; with the person whose identity has been violated then reacting aggressively against that false image, and in so doing somehow perpetuating it even further. Will we in fact reach the point where one’s identity becomes nothing more than data which others have put together about one in the digital world; not to mention the false images which people are creating about themselves on social media in order to put their best foot forward, so to speak? Eventually, we may even reach the point where identity becomes nothing more than the algorithms which exist inside our computers and phones. Let’s all hope, for all our sakes, that we never live in such a world, although it seems that certain so-called digital pioneers out there in cyberspace may be unwittingly trying to make that happen.