Why do I need to find myself?

A common phrase in my childhood was, “When you grow up, you can be anything you want to be.” I sometimes responded with sarcastic comments like, “Oh, sure, then I guess I’ll be an invisible time traveler.”

But what has been hardly noticed – yet is astonishing – is that social media has made this dream a reality for nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime. With a few clicks, you can make yourself appear to be any kind of person. With sufficient social approval, this invented identity could quite suddenly “feel real” and change how you see yourself. 

How did we get here? In this reflection, I want to look at some ways that relatively new technologies are powerfully shaping our desire to find and share our True Selves. 

To do so, we need to notice that our society’s most powerful technologies are seamless. They are almost like magic: you don’t see the spell coming but you’re still enchanted. When a technology works so well that we no longer notice that we are using it, then it has become extremely powerful and formational. At this stage, a technology has the power to silently form not only individuals but societies.

To make this concrete, think of Roman roads. These networks of roads made it possible to communicate across and defend a large empire. The roads were a powerful technology in part because they didn’t require any thought: How do I get to Brundisium? Just march down that road!

In ancient magic, the knowledge of someone’s true name was thought to give you power over that person. I don’t think that’s a valid source of information, but it provides a helpful metaphor. As we reckon with the awesome power of technology, one powerful means of resistance is to gain a vocabulary and a framework for understanding how it is functioning. In particular, our ability to specificially describe the structure and effects of technology — to name it — is part of what enables us to make better choices. 

So to get us started: what do I mean by identity? For this piece, I have in mind that sense of knowing the “real” me.

As David Baker, a teacher at The School of Life in London and Brazil, wrote for the BBC:

This idea, that, somewhere deep down, is the “real” us, is as old as philosophy itself. And it is probably the bedrock of our identity, because it involves things like our values, our sense of purpose, the beliefs that make us who we are. This is a long way from identity as defined by our culture or ethnicity, or as defined by the things we buy and Like.

But how – in today’s technologically mediated world – do we come to understand our values, our life purpose, and our core beliefs? 

First, we can consider the enduring role of some nearly universal experiences. From birth, adults identify a baby’s sex and gender, assign a name, and imprint a sense of value (or its absence) upon the child. As children develop, they gain a further sense of who they are and what is possible from their families, friends, and neighbors. In addition to the socialization provided by these relationships, larger cultural institutions (the state, religion, schools, media) provide further definition and structure to understanding our role in the universe.

But over time, we might feel that outside influences should matter less. In particular, we might feel, as a rebellious teenager, that the authority of our parents must be reduced!

And so, over time, we often begin to author our own narrative about who we are.

In fact, we might begin to feel that we must define ourselves.

For instance, the ‘technology’ of the collegiate admissions process incentivizes a culture of individuality. Each year, high school seniors across the country ponder variants of the classic essay question, “What makes you unique?” The stakes are high. If you cannot thoughtfully articulate your personal uniqueness, your future is at risk.

But new technologies have substantially raised the stakes of personal identity formation. With their adoption, our experience of identity is more immediate, visceral, and emotional.

In part, this is because the adept use of technology is increasingly necessary to maintain or increase our social status. For millions of people, the ability to get a good job can depend on the quality of their LinkedIn profile. That’s part of the reason why Microsoft paid over twenty-six billion dollars for the platform. 

The smartphone plays a crucial role in this development. Writing for The New Yorker, the journalist Nausicaa Renner discusses the work of Kate Eichhorn, a media historian at the New School. Renner observes, “New technology—especially the smartphone—allows us to produce a narrative of our lives, to choose what to remember and what to contribute to our own mythos.”

Let’s slow down to consider this more carefully. If you lack the technology to document your own life, you might not feel the need to do so. But once you are enabled to easily create a record of your experiences – the moments that you choose as meaningful and formational – you might feel this is an important use of time and money. The smartphone becomes an essential tool for understanding yourself.

And as we’ve personally experienced, another set of technologies — social media platforms— amplify the trends set into motion by the smartphone. As your peer group begins to utilize these technologies, you might feel pressured to do the same. If you lack a self-authored and self-documented history, you are vulnerable to your own experience being narrated by your more active, story-telling peers. Well-meaning and wise parents can delay their children’s access to a phone or a social media account. But their progeny’s life experience will still be relentlessly pressurized by the ubiquitous use of these technologies, which are shaping the social hierarchy of their school.

So as smartphones become cheaper, faster, and more convenient, and social media platforms become more engaging, addictive, and socialized, the pressure slowly increases for each person to “produce a narrative of our lives.” As The 2017 movie The Circle dramatized it (in a rather heavy-handed way), “Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft.” That might seem overwrought, but if present trends continue, Facebook will soon be valued at over a trillion dollars. If we all stopped sharing, its market value would evaporate overnight.

The smartphone and the social network are now reshaping our societies with more power than the existence of roads transformed the Roman Empire. To cite Renner again:

More plausibly, [Eichorn] cites the right to be forgotten, which is the nickname of both data privacy regulations in Europe and movements against naming minors in the media. Either way, the implication is that the ability to detach from one’s past self—to move laterally, as an individual, into a new body or personality—is a democratic ideal. We also have the right to stay as we are.

Our globally connected world has moved rapidly beyond the possibility offered by these new technologies and into the invention of new rights and even the moral standard of a democratic ideal. Legal regulations and court rulings now influence the policies of these tech behemoths. 

But why? Why are politicians getting so serious about everyone sharing cat photos?

In the digital space, anything is possible. You can reinvent yourself online with a handful of clicks. Some draw attention to the fact that Facebook offers dozens of gender options — at least seventy one choices. But that creates a culture war which obscures the more significant reality: the overall ethos of social platforms offers everyone the instant, continual, and infinite reinvention of the self. 

It is a remarkable sleight of hand. On the one hand, we feel that we must be autonomous, self-defined individuals. But at the same time, this conviction of independence is shaped by our daily dependence upon social media technologies: about 145 minutes a day, on average. 

With this framework in place, I suggest to you that the final touch is advertising. As these technologies have become a primary context for identity formation and expression, and have enabled new social hierarchies, we now feel a pressing need to become a better version of ourselves. Successful companies understand this vulnerability and position themselves as the solution to our existential need. Each year, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent to reach micro-niches with personalized offerings. 

With this knowledge, I hope you can ask yourself “who am I?” with new clarity. That is, how is your very sense of self being formed by the technologies we have come to depend on? And can the answer to these critical questions be found on a social network?

More pointedly: if we use these technologies to describe ourselves and interact with our social network for two hours a day, every day, for years, do our theoretical answers to this question even matter? To modify a popular business aphorism, I’d suggest to you that “culture eats good intentions for lunch.”

Deciding who you are – what you value – and your purpose in life – these are important questions. It is my hope that these brief reflections have given you some new tools to evaluate them.

Giving Credit:

The header photo is by Barthelemy de Mazenod on Unsplash.