Many things that seemed complicated before have become extremely simple today thanks to the emergence and wide use of information technologies. For example, Belgian researcher Derrick de Kerckhove has stated that, nowadays, globalization is imminent, even more so when the use of mobile phones allows us to “take the world into our pocket.” [1] This, in turn, causes the processing of information to transcend our brains and spread to our screens.

 

According to de Kerckhove, a “psychotechnology” is any technology that emulates and expands the processes of the human mind. These technologies permit mental associations that could not have emerged without their appearance. This is why innovations in the field of technology for knowledge have always led to changes in society, and why the appearance of the computer cannot be considered innocuous.

 

The digital realm is an agent of change over what is understood to be “the social”: the mind as an expanding software and cyberculture as the interface that mediates this relationship. That’s why this analysis of identity is based on the ever-popular social networks: in all of them, the first thing you need to do as a participant is to create an avatar. When we open the portal, we find a friendly interface that invites us to answer a simple questionnaire, then enter an email address, a series of settings, and pick a username. Voilà! We have created a version of identity.

 

Digital identity is not an accessory or a counterpart of the creative self; it is the first condition of possibility for the existence of an “other entity.” Thus, for instance, a new inhabitant of Twitter is born: it emerges when it is granted the sine qua non condition without which the world would be distant and inconsistent–the ability to communicate. All that exists communicates [2], and the surrounding world (reality) is constituted from that communicative act. Reality is created and recreated through the actions of humans.

 

In this context, the ideas that, since 1942, emanate from the Palo Alto School become particularly relevant. On that year, English anthropologist and linguist Gregory Bateson joined American anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, and Austrian-American communicologist Paul Watzlawick, among other social scientists, to create the Palo Alto School under the concept of “invisible school” (for not possessing a physical structure). This group of researchers began to develop theories of communication based on an orchestral model rather than the traditional linear “transmitter-channel-receiver” model. According to their postulates, constitutive communication (which constitutes reality) occurs within an open, rhizomatic network [3] that is orchestrated by members of a given culture. Reality is, therefore, intersubjective [4]: it is assembled on perceptions shared through communication and the sense that is given to it–all within a recurrent system, which is constantly repeated as long as a group of people exist.

 

Transmodernity

When Twitter appeared in 2007, the world organized itself in an increasingly cosmopolitan way. The computer, then in all the homes of the globe, established a new relationship between reality and knowledge of reality: to represent reality “as it is” was no longer the fundamental thing, but to create plausible models of reality and optimize its treatment. The more plausible models, the better, without the need to elucidate whether they adequately represent reality [5]. This world of profile photos and trending topics demands to be seen from transmodernity: the mechanism of production of new modes from existing modes by modifying and recombining their components or attributes [6].

 

The era of social networks has brought on phenomena that fully exemplify the postulates of the Palo Alto School. For instance, Watzlawick and his colleagues say that it is impossible not to communicate. Based on this idea, a social media user can present a series of meanings with its mere existence, without saying a word, as in the case of @BarackObama or @Pontifex. Another of the School’s postulates affirms that communication has a content level and a relational level, so the message itself does not represent the totality of what is communicated: the same message will not be decoded equally if it comes from an account like @BBC or @CNN, than if it comes from the account of a common individual. Similarly, Palo Alto thinkers affirmed the existence of a digital level (referred to by analogy) and an analogue level (which provides direct reference) of communication. On the Internet, conversations happen mainly through language, so communication is mostly digital; even so, the analogical value is upheld via the use of images or visual references that do not require conceptualization but refer to elements by direct analogy.

 

In the last of Palo Alto’s postulates, Watzlawick and his colleagues assert that communication can be symmetrical or complementary: it is symmetrical while the communicators remain on equal footing –for instance, two young people exchanging content–, and becomes complementary when one of the two young people is @katyperry or @MalalaFund –then, we can talk of a differentiation that implies a condition of superiority.

 

Taking account of the above, transmodernity is revealed as the era of networked relationships, of intersubjective generation of realities, of culture as prosthetics, and of exchange as constitution of the surrounding world and of the subject itself through the greatest creative and empowering act: communication.

 

 

Identity: A World Within the World

As with the idea of reality, the concept of identity has undergone various mutations throughout history. In our times, we have lost the linear notions that once bound man to history: as psychologist Kenneth Gergen states, the concept of “individual person” has ceased to be the simple reflection of something that exists and is now a common creation derived from discourse. Following the thinkers of Palo Alto, it is possible to assume that identity is also the consequence of the communicative act, interconnected and made significant; in transmodernity, identity is constituted the same as the rest of reality. Philosopher Massimo Desiato argued that “the self is constituted by multiple relations with the other: so to speak, the self is the sounding board for the others”–identity becomes a contingent idea that finds its modus operandi through the same process with which the continuous (re)interpretation of the world constitutes the world.

 

 

Avatars, Incarnations of Gods

An “avatar” (of Hinduism: incarnation of a deity) represents a unity in itself, over which its maker has absolute control: a profile photo, a name–unique and unrepeatable in all the universe–, an email address, a personality based on hashtags, likes and retweets, and which owes nothing to the personality of its creator. Though heirs of the physical world, digital identities are disembodied entities whose form of communication does not fully correspond with tangible reality.

 

The everyday situations of contemporaneity are proof of the postulates proposed by the School of Palo Alto: the condition of Twitter avatars’ existence is based on their inherent ability to communicate. Virtual identities are capable of generating conversation and expanding the public sphere to global proportions. Media researcher Carlos Scolari states: “Us humans do not just use language, we actually inhabit it.” And in that territory, where language is the common ground, these avatars coexist and interact; they are not their creators but operate under their instructions, dwelling inside a simulacrum that becomes more and more real(ity).

 

 

I Am as Long as We Are

Taking as starting point the transmodern premise about the constitution of the real via the intersubjective, we can say that digital identity is a consequence of that very process. Therefore, it cannot be attributed to a single author; it is the confluence of two types of communicative acts: first, the actions of the avatar itself that communicate specific content; second, the acts of all the “others.” Twitter exists as long as individuals are sharing content within it, and is equally influenced by the shared content as by the replies, retweets, and interactions.

 

The identities that inhabit Twitter are transmuted into hypertexts that, as is only possible on the Internet, generate simultaneous connections in infinite directions, where any of the reading paths constitute and define those identities. The construction of identity, as an interpretative act, happens in the other (who is no longer alien, but constitutive). This virtual other, who reads and interacts, can only grant identity to its true possessor through the communicative act that makes it public.

 

 

From the Twitter You Have to the Reality that You Are

An avatar has a number of characteristics given to it since its creation; in the same way, humans are given a series of meanings from birth. Since then, as on Twitter, life is developed from communication, the inevitable, constitutive and rhizomatic act of putting in common. Erving Goffman, from the Palo Alto School, states that subjects interpret the roles of life as actors on a stage; the individual and the social are made simultaneously and reciprocally. For the subject, to deny another is to deny oneself.

 

Communication technologies have given individuals the chance to transcend the reaches of the physical world. This establishes the identity of the avatars and that of the creative subjects, who now coexist with both analog and digital pairs. In Goffman’s “theater” of life, reality and identity are hybrids of the material and the virtual, no matter which side of the screen we are on. People and avatars play a character they get to know little by little: the “self” built in the gaze of the other.

 

 

So Who Are You?

The question of one’s own identity has accompanied humans since the beginning of the history of thought. The issue is addressed countless times in art: “Who am I?” asks Carroll’s Alice, Asimov’s robot, Ridley Scott’s androids, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Dolores. Today, as the limit between cyberspace and offline reality is constantly blurred, it is critical to retake this questioning. What determines my own being when there are so many elements at play? when it seems that you can live two simultaneous lives, one on each side of the screen?

 

On Twitter, as in any social network, individuals can create avatars that represent them within that community–they give them names, location, reference images…–but those elements are only a first outline of their self, which will be built through the relationships they establish with their digital peers. But this avatar is not an unfolding of its creator; it is an independent being that will, little by little, create its own identity unrelated to its author. Relations build our own concepts of what surrounds us and of ourselves. Nothing is given, nothing is preexisting, according to constructivist thinking: everything is constructed. Everything is shared with a language that can never be private–instead, it is a means for collective creation. It is probably easier to associate the Internet and its “inhabitants” with a fully created universe because humans built it and saw it emerge from zeros and ones.

 

The notion of rhizome takes on a special significance in the digital world since it makes it easier to visualize the network (interconnections) between the subjects. However, cyberculture is not exclusive to the online universe: starting from the theories of the Palo Alto School, it can be said that the social construction of identity and reality is an inevitable fact on both sides of the screen. Communication, which comes with existence, constructs the referents (abstract and tangible) that make up the world. Thus, relationship with others builds this world and, with it, the self.

 

If the dialogical condition of man leads him to put his thought in common with others, and this, in turn, modifies his conception of the world and of himself, communication comes to be a macro modifier –the broadest of psychotechnologies. So, unraveling one’s identity is not a simple matter: like “time”, identity is a relative concept, which cannot be grasped–merely measured, at most–but which determines us. It is an ever-transforming property, perpetually mutating as relationships are developed among humans beings. Identity is not an answer, it does not preexist or transcend, but materializes again and again in every communicative act.


 

References:

[1] Baldesan, M .; Giglio, K. (2011) La piel y sus extensiones: contribuciones de Kerckhove para la convergencia de la cibercultura. P. 4.

[2] This is the first of the Palo Alto School’s proposals. It is founded on the idea that nothing is opposed to behavior; people cannot “stop behaving” (Beavin Bavelas et al, 1989). “Now, if we accept that all behavior is a situation of interaction and has a message value, that is, communication, it follows that no matter how much one tries, one can not stop communicating” (p.50).

[3] A postulate developed by Deleuze and Guattari (2002). A rhizome is a branched model, which presupposes a structure of conjunction and interconnection in motion that acquires speed in its center. In this way, the rhizome lacks a beginning and an end.

[4] Intersubjectivity is understood as a relational field of reciprocal projective identifications, an oscillatory tension between individualities that precludes considering an isolated occurrence of the mental life of individuals (Eizirik, 2002).

[5] Ibáñez, T. (2001) Municiones para disidentes. Realidad-Verdad-Política. P. 100101.

[6] Amar, G. (2011) Homo Mobilis: la nueva era de la movilidad. P. 128.

 


 

About the author:

Deborah Rodríguez (Caracas, 1993) holds a degree in Mass Communications with a major in Audiovisual Arts from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. She has worked as a video editor and videographer. She was instructor of Morphosyntax and assistant researcher at the Center for Communication Research at UCAB. She is passionate about philosophy and research.

Compartir