Who Are I – Identity and Explorations of Its Causes in Today’s Networked Society
Who am I?
The concept of identity continues to be a central question in the everyday lives of many people, and the humanities and social sciences. The term identity is derived from the Latin idem and means the same or even sameness. As such, the term has a long lasting origin, reaching back to Greek antiquity and the term autos [self, the same]. The concept of identity as sameness guarantees immutability, perfection, unity, rationality, and continuity. Although these attributes are still associated with the idea of identity today, their relevance and implications for a contemporary concept of identity are increasingly called into question. Those who ask themselves the question of identity will find that their self-image is subject to change and development, that it could always be different, and that it makes a difference whether I look at myself in the mirror or from the perspective of others. So what criteria are important for the formation of identity: profession, gender, family, religion, language – or all of them together? Who am I in my eyes and in the eyes of others? Am I still today who I was yesterday? Or have I not yet found my true self at all?
As far as I can tell, I’m Max! I’m sitting at a table on D12, writing this text on the 12th floor of a building at 6 East and 16th Street. Yes, I live and work in New York City! Who would have thought that when I was born almost 29 years ago in Berlin Wilmersdorf, in the Sankt Gertrauden Hospital, at Paretzer Strasse 12 – to be precise! I am the son of a German man and a French woman, so something between pretzel and baguette, Goethe and Baudelaire, Volkswagen and Renault. The legend goes that the two met and fell in love in an elevator in southern Germany and moved to Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. Whether the story about the elevator is true, after all this time, cannot really be determined, but it sounds quite good.
In scientific debate and research, the concept of identity is approached very differently. From a psychological point of view, the meaning of self-images is explained; from a philosophical point of view the relevance of the alienation for one’s own identity is emphasized; from a pedagogical point of view the developmental possibilities of identity are considered; from a social science point of view the social preconditions for identity concepts are reconstructed; or against the background of cultural studies the symbolic or power-specific relationships of identity patterns and situations in life are analyzed. 
Furthermore, identity is also understood as a social role or attribution, as a performative achievement, and as a constructed narrative. In this context, it becomes clear that identity not only has something to do with individuals and their competencies, but also with social, cultural, and temporal conditions and developments of life. This way of thinking is also expressed in Erik W. Erikson’s Model of Stages of Psychosocial Development , according to which human identity develops in dependence on historical social changes. Central to Erikson’s considerations is the extension of the Freudian theory of the Psychosexual Stages of Development into the social realm and the description of eight life crises, from early childhood to adulthood. Each of the eight stages represents a particular conflict, whose resolution forms the foundation for addressing the crisis of the following phase. According to Erikson, a child’s identity unfolds in the tension between the child’s personal needs and the demands of its social environment. A person’s interaction with their environment is thus central to their development and the shaping of an identity.
My early childhood in Berlin can be summarized as sheltered, middle-class, and idyllic. In 2001, I moved from primary school to high school, from the suburbs to the city, from green to grey, from Phillip Frank Weg to Tiergartenstrasse – to be precise! For eight years I attended the Jesuit-run Gymnasium ‘Canisius Kolleg’ and enjoyed a humanistic education with a strong tendency towards Catholicism.
Religious? … Not really!
No premarital sex? … No comment!
Philanthropy? … Yeah, man!
Same-sex marriage, abortion? … Anyone should choose for themselves!
Ten years have passed since I left high school; a decade between graduation and this table on D12. Where has time gone? Well, firstly in Vienna, where I studied architecture for 5.68 years, only to decide after graduation that I would never see an architecture studio from the inside again. Vienna was followed by another year in Berlin, where I worked for a super mega innovative design agency, developing disruptive products and services – scalability included! And then? Off, across the big pond, into the promised land of burgers, trucks and technology giants. And here I am now, sitting at this table, looking back on the past. What has changed? How is the world I lived in 1991, 2001, and 2010 different from the world we all live in today? And how does this all relate to my identity?
The last three decades have been characterized by accelerated deterritorialization and globalization, as well as techniation, automation and digitalization, which have led to enormous upheavals in cultural and social living conditions. Indeed, the social conditions and the corresponding demands on our identities have already changed radically over the last century. These changes have been brought about, for example, by the increasing life expectancy, which has almost doubled; by technological and economic progress, which demands ever greater flexibility from people; by various social movements [student, women’s, civil rights movements], which have brought about new orders of traditional bonds and relationships; by globalisation processes on an inter- and transcultural level, which suggest a new way of dealing with what is one’s own and what is foreign; and by educational developments associated with concepts of life-long learning and self-management.
Questions of identity are always concomitants of these cultural and social changes, and may be understood as consequences of a flexible way of life or as responses to political and media transformations. From Zygmunt Bauman’s point of view, the increasing fragmentation and pluralization of life concepts with regard to the identity formation of individuals leads to uncertainty and existential fears. According to his analysis, contemporary society is in a state of transition from a solid modernity to a liquid modernity  in which institutions, structures and traditions alternately dissolve or emerge, thereby causing insecurity and fear among people. Bauman argues that rising prosperity, mass and media consumption, intensified competition in education and work, increased mobility, higher levels of education, and a gain in leisure time in the second half of the 21st century have resulted in lifestyles becoming increasingly independent of previously formative factors such as family, religion, social classes, or the community. Alongside all the perceived positive effects of these social developments, however, the rupture of traditional ties has also resulted in the absence of opportunities for self localization and consequently the lack of an important orientation for identity formation. It was above all the emergence of the Internet in the early 1990s that closed the gaping wound of identity formation and offered people new possibilities, tools and contexts for discovering and exploring their identities, as well as expressing or, possibly, recreating them.
Sherry Turkle describes the Internet in this context as a projection medium and surfaces that allow for fantasy projections – in other words, as dream machines and identity playgrounds that allow people to constantly reinvent themselves according to their ideas and desires. Turkle illustrates her thesis primarily through her experiences with players of so-called MUDs. MUD is the abbreviation for Multi User Dungeon, which essentially represents text-based virtual communities. These communities mostly present themselves as interactive game environments, in which the participants slip into roles, create identities and form characters, develop them further and let them act, explore, fight, solve puzzles, or play games in the narrated fantasy world. According to Turkle, the MUD games meet crucial criteria of continuity, anonymity, invisibility, and abundance [the possibility of being more than one], which makes MUDs preferred places for identity work and constitutes their nature as identity workshops. The Internet – and especially the MUDs – would create a foundation for self-transformation.
This transformation is founded on the assumption that the Internet allows users to work through their respective life situations and biographical dispositions in a psychoanalytical sense. In addition, the networked online worlds enable users to express diverse and often unexplored aspects of their own selves in such a way that they become visible as independent selves. The participants are free to design their ego-ideals in interaction with others and truly bring them to virtual life. Yet this transformation and re-creation of the self is not limited to the online world. The boundaries between individuals and the Personae they create become increasingly blurred. The conventional distinction between a constructed persona and the true self is more than questionable and the screen, as well as life on the screen, is a place of fluid transitions. In reference to John Brockman, one could argue: You are not LIKE your virtual identity, you ARE that identity.
As we now know, during its emergence and widespread adaptation, the Internet has been regarded as a space for individual personality development and free exchange of expression and data. Furthermore, it has always propagated ideals such as anonymity and pseudonymity, which are expressed in the iconic caricature of Peter Steiner’s On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog, published in the New Yorker magazine in 1993. Also today, civil rights activists, politicians, and associations such as Anonymous , consider anonymity on the Internet to be indispensable. But while in liberal Western democracies the form, scope and control of digital identification mechanisms are still the subject of intense debate, the digital economy has long since made the analysis of user data the foundation of its operations and established its very own and powerful realities of forming and controlling individual self-representation. The anonymity of users is no longer a reality in the current form of the Internet, but is the sole prerogative of omniscient surveillance regimes of large Internet corporations.
The bare existence of digital and Internet-based surveillance and information monopolies has been brought to the attention of the public by disclosures such as those by Edward Snowden in 2013, and have raised society’s awareness on certain forms of systematic, intentional, and institutionalized surveillance. Snowden’s publication of secret documents of the Anglo-Saxon intelligence community marked a turning point in the public debate on digital profiling. On the basis of the approximately 7,000 pages of the documents currently available from Snowden’s data, which is probably at least 59,000 pages in total, it becomes clear that over the last two decades and within the secret intelligence community, procedures for the digital identification of individuals for security purposes have been actively pursued.
Especially after the attacks of 9/11, the United States experienced an acceleration of state surveillance practices, replacing previously existing restrictions with increasingly invasive, state-organized surveillance mechanisms. The driving force behind the rapid implementation of these projects were primarily technology companies in the private sector, above all Google, which in the years after 9/11 were inundated with hundreds of billions of dollars in state commissions and subsidies. The state of political emergency of the early 2000s enabled Google and other technology giants to develop, test, and establish surveillance practices and their required infrastructure. The elective affinity and collaboration between state agencies and the private sector, borne out of mutual interest, thus created the basis for the development and design of today’s surveillance empires and ensured that their practices could develop and solidify with minimal supervision or regulatory hand.
In her recent book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff refers to Surveillance Capitalism as a system that uses the invasive forces of the Internet as a source of capital formation and wealth creation. In our time, Google and Facebook are to surveillance capitalism what Standard Oil and Ford were to mass production and manager capitalism of the 19th and 20th century: Discoverer, inventor, pioneer, role model, leading implementer and disseminator. In particular, Google is the flagship and ideal type of this new economic logic based on fortune telling and selling. What is crucial here is that this new market is not based on exchange with users, but with other companies that know how to make money by betting on the future behaviour of users. In this new context, users have become a means of making a profit in a novel market where they are neither buyers nor sellers – users are the source of a free resource for a novel production within a ubiquitous networked institutional regime that records, modifies, and commodifies everyday experience from toasters to bodies, communication to thought, all with a view to establishing new pathways to monetization and profit. To dive deeper into the topic of Surveillance Capitalism and to understand the relationships and reciprocities between all parties involved, I’ll further discuss a basic definition of labour and project it onto the logic of Surveillance Capitalism.
According to the Marxist theory, when creating a good, people operate on the subjects of labour, using the instruments of labour, to create a product. Thus, the means of production include two broad categories of objects: subjects of labour [natural resources and raw materials] and the instruments of labour [tools, factories, infrastructure, etc.]. For example, in an Agrarian Society the means of production are the soil and the shovel. In an Industrial Society they are natural resources, mines and factories, and in the Information Society, information and offices, and computers. It is important to note that in all economic societies from the Agrarian Society to the Information Society, the actual work has always been performed by humans. If we now try to understand the production process and creation of products within the Algorithmic Society, which represents the overarching economic concept of Surveillance Capitalism, we come to the conclusion that there is one important difference: the labour itself is not performed by humans anymore, but rather by fully autonomous and invisible algorithms which process raw material in the form of data, content, and metadata created by human workers.
In that way, human generated data is becoming a resource, a playground for algorithmic social network analysis, classification, and algorithmic profiling. The products of these immaterial factories are more than a billion different user profiles, categorized and ready for sale. Furthermore, users that are being used as a raw material are also constantly working on fine tuning of their digital clones, feeding the system with more and more information about themselves. Therefore, the system outlined above can be understood as a perfect symbiosis between free immaterial labour and schemes of corporate surveillance that allowed a small group of entrepreneurs to build gigantic business empires and acquire huge fortunes, enforcing the deep economic gap between the ones who own and control the means of production, and the users/workers who often live close to the poverty line; thus delineating another similarity between the age of the robber barons of the 19th century and the silicon sultans of recent times.
To further understand how this system could evolve, it requires a look into the past, back to 2007, when Google began to combine its massive records of search information with a gigantic treasure of marketing data by purchasing the targeted advertising giant DoubleClick, setting the stage for the new economic order of surveillance capitalism. While Google only had access to its users’ email and search histories prior to this deal, DoubleClick’s extensive network now allowed Google to keep track of which sites its users visited, how often and for how long they visited them, and how they ended up on them. John Cheney-Lippold describes the effects and inclinations of Google’s acquisition as follows: “By purchasing DoubleClick, Google had woven an Internet-wide surveillance network. This surveillant assemblage conjoined the various, decentralized vestiges of data about us and our online behaviors.” 
Today, Google collects data from more than one billion Google users, more than three billion searches per day, more than 425 million Gmail accounts, and controls the traffic from an estimated one million websites, including nearly half of the ten thousand most visited. The surveillance embedded in the technological structure of these multi-billion dollar acquisitions is more subtle, mundane, but increasingly extensive in scope. The computer scientist Roger Clarke describes this form of surveillance as Dataveillance, a systematic surveillance of people’s actions and communication through the use of information technology, which reconfigures the nature of surveillance and its subjects. This brings us back to Pasquale’s Black Box Society, in which we as users have no comprehension or influence on what is happening within Algorithmic Factories. 
In a diagram on web monitoring we encounter in this context the metaphor of the one-way mirror, where internet users do not know how their data is collected, analyzed and used, while website owners have almost universal access to this data. Zuboff also adopts this metaphor and ascribes the success of Surveillance Capitalism to “one-way-mirror operations engineered for our ignorance and wrapped in a fog of misdirection, euphemism and mendacity.”  Hence, one thing is certain: our data is constantly being observed, recorded, analyzed, and stored in databases, or as media scientist Mark Andrejevic puts it: “our data is in constant interaction with algorithmic machines – without us really being able to influence it.”
If we now take a step back and ask ourselves to what extent these insights affect us as human beings, we quickly realize that our identities today are no longer defined only by historical and societal transformations as per Bauman, or by the demands of our social environment and the declaration of self-identification in the sense of Erikson and Turkle. Today we are also a representation of our data interpreted by algorithms. John Cheney-Lippold describes us in this respect as units of ourselves and “layers upon additional layers of […] algorithmic identities.” These digital identities consist of a myriad of layers of interpretation from hundreds of different companies and agencies that identify and categorize us in thousands of competing ways.
In most cases, it is impossible to track who we are online for whom and at what time. In addition, our digital identities are constantly changing. Since our algorithmic identities are based on a timely interpretation of data and as we produce more and more data, these interpretations inevitably have to change, which means that our algorithmic identities also change. As a user clicks from one website to another, the interpretations, the scoring of their assigned identity, such as gender, can change within seconds. John Cheney Lippold describes these characterizations as Measurable Types which have their own histories, logics, politics, and rationales, but are necessarily different from our own. He argues that “Google’s gender is not immediately about gender as a regime of power but about gender as a marketing category of commercial expedience.”  In conclusion, we can conceive algorithmic identities as a kind of just-in-time identities that are produced ad hoc in an ongoing process between our data and the various algorithms that process them — and that work in interaction and sometimes in tension with our analog identities.
Whether or not we identify with our assigned digital clones is irrelevant, as they still influence our lives: search results are sorted according to personalized calculated relevance; websites deduce your gender and age from your previous behavior and present specific versions of their pages; and advertisers can place bets on your future behavior through algorithmically supported analysis of huge data pools. Thus, the process of classification leads to a restriction of our power, to an organization of knowledge and life that determines the conditions of our possibilities. When Google categorizes you as a man or woman, this is not an empty, insignificant rating. It is a structuring of the world on terms favorable to Google. The gender assigned to you serves as a marketing category that cares little about whether you really are a particular gender as long as you surf, shop, and behave like that gender. Accordingly, Google is not interested in a personal exchange with you.
Rather, Google interacts with your personal data, your sub-individual units, which Tiziana Terranova defines as “Dividuals, the decomposition of individuals into data clouds subject to automated integration and disintegration.” Alexander Gallows expresses a similar thought by writing: “On the Internet there is no reason to know the name of a particular user, only to know what that user likes, where they shop, where they live, and so on. The clustering of descriptive information around a specific user becomes sufficient to explain the identity of that user.” Shoshana Zuboff also circumscribes this thought with a grim but conclusive analogy. She compares us, the users of online services, to elephants, the “most majestic of mammals”. Surveillance capitalists such as Google are poachers who profit from our behaviour and ignore the meaning inherent to our bodies, thoughts and feelings, which bears a certain resemblance to the slaughter of elephants for the sake of ivory. She concludes: “No, you are not the product; you are the carcass left behind. The product is taken from the behavioural surplus that is snatched from your life.”
We live in a world in which our lived individualities as users become more and more insignificant. We live in a world in which our behaviors and experiences are recreated as data, our social ties and relationships are read as data, and our bodies themselves become endless categories of data. These huge pools of data create algorithmic identities that condition our analogous presents and futures and are thus part of us – whether we like it or not.
Who are I, really?
In the past, Max worked with leading design and architectural firms such as IDEO and Zaha Hadid Architects, and developed products for clients such as Spotify, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Mercedes Benz, and San Diego Zoo.