Issue #27: Identity and Belonging

"I am made and remade continually." — Virginia Woolf

My birthday is coming up in less than two weeks. Before COVID, my birthday marked the beginning of my personal New Year. I’d reassess my personal development and identify goals that fit my needs and values I experience joy and find meaning in striving to live as the best version of myself. Of course, there are limitations to having such a future-oriented personality, namely learning to enjoy the present, especially if it’s not a desirable state. So this birthday comes with mixed feelings as this country slowly spirals into greater darkness and uncertainty. The part of my identity fueled by birthday aspirations has to find a new outlet and be remade.

We can relate the feeling of being lost when we aren’t connected to our identity anymore, illustrating the connection between identity and belonging. To experience belonging with others, both within our close relationships and connections in communities and society, we have to know the boundaries of our individuality and understand the contours of our separateness. As kids, we learn about our identity through negation. As kids, we are not adults and we are not like other kids. We don’t want the same things as all of our friends; of course, during puberty, we just want to be like everyone else. As we grow up, we learn to define our identity affirmatively. We try on new clothes, new ways of speaking, we gain hobbies, we make decisions about how to resolve conflict and uncertainty and discover our most important values.

But building a strong sense of self or identity relies on environmental cues and social structures. Fifty years ago, these social structures might have been religious affiliation or a ritual like a debutante that define what being a woman meant. These constrained the available identities by social mandate and sometimes by legal constraint. As these constraints have diminished in power and influence, there are a wider range of identities available, which expand the avenues for belonging. Although we still respond to environmental cues and social structures, we now have so many options to try on identities like clothing or create them from scratch.

Teenagers maintain a number of “finstas” or fake Instagrams, often dividing the following and posting activity to different aspects of their interests and personality. We can swap faces with celebrities in music videos using an app like Reface. We can make a robot clone of ourselves through Russian startup Promobot. In one of the stranger partnerships to emerge from the uncanny valley, consumer genetics company 23 and Me and Airbnb worked together to curate travel experiences based on the heritage uncovered by DNA tests. Virtual reality and other blended reality technologies allow us to physically experience new identities by changing environment cues even our own bodies.

A study appearing August 26 in the journal iScience shows that, when pairs of friends swapped bodies in a perceptual illusion, their beliefs about their own personalities became more similar to their beliefs about their friends' personalities. The findings suggest that this close tie between our psychological and physical sense of self is also involved in functions like memory: when our mental self-concept doesn't match our physical self, our memory can become impaired.

Even as we are paralyzed by all the choices ahead, we are pathologically averse to boredom that may allow us to escape the noise and overwhelm of the technological landscape. Boredom is a modern socio-emotional invention and byproduct of moving beyond precarious subsistence with industrialization and globalization.

Boredom, it’s become clear, has a history, a set of social determinants, and, in particular, a pungent association with modernity. Leisure was one precondition: enough people had to be free of the demands of subsistence to have time on their hands that required filling. Modern capitalism multiplied amusements and consumables, while undermining spiritual sources of meaning that had once been conferred more or less automatically.

In many ways, the popularity of spiritual practices like mindfulness meditation could be interpreted as the manifestation of this search for meaning in spirituality, but commercialized for social acceptability. A few months ago, I wrote about the need for solitude to better connect with ourselves, the source of our individual identity.

With so much choice at our fingertips, the simpler and more desirable choice might be to opt out of identity generation altogether and embrace solitude. The the “ohitorisama” movement in Japan includes people intentionally and joyful choosing to do social activities alone. As the movement has grown, businesses have shifted to offer services like plated meals for one and the social media hashtag for “ohitorisama” has thousands of images of drinking, karaoke, movies and other activities all done solo. Because of demographic shifts — increasing aging populations and declining marriage rates — Japan is experiencing what many countries in Europe as well as the United States are likely to experience over the next few decades: super solo culture.

We could expect to see a similar shift in embracing solitude, especially as the pandemic has forced all of us to be face to face with the identity we had in more normal times. Single people may choose to move to the suburbs seeking silence and solitude from overstimulating cities.

Opting out of the commercialization of identity altogether may be less of a preference and more an essential strategy for the survival of our sense of self. Jaron Lanier is in many ways the Cassandra of Silicon Valley as creator of several technologies (video games, VR, and facial recognition) and author of many books about the risks of those same technologies. Lanier argues the risk profile of social media technologies are different than other environment and social stimuli.

Lanier had been early to the idea that these platforms were addictive and even harmful—that their algorithms made people feel bad, divided them against one another, and actually changed who they were, in an insidious and threatening manner. That because of this, social media was in some ways “worse than cigarettes,” as Lanier put it at one point, “in that cigarettes don't degrade you. They kill you, but you're still you.”

This degradation erodes the boundaries of identity even as the need for conceiving of a sense of self persists. Without a mandate from a traditional institution to confer identity and a lack of ability or willingness to generate identity from our abundance of choice, some fall subject to cults which have now found new life and reach online. One cult of conspiracy theorists now in headlines is QAnon. Although much of the coverage has focused on how social media enables the spread of QAnon, ultimately it’s the individual needs that drive the degradation of self that Lanier warns about. If you don’t know who you are, you are likely happy to have someone answer that question for you: