By Linda Marsden, PhD Candidate, Young & Resilient Research Centre, Institute for Culture and Society.
This paper was originally presented as a keynote for the event, Will you Marry Me Alexa, at The Joan on 28 October 2021. This presentation is about technology and identity, particularly in the context of the pandemic and the impact on our sense of self.
Since coronavirus spread throughout the world, the majority of us have spent more time online and involved in digital activities. Even prior to the pandemic, many people were concerned or sceptical about the increasing reliance on the digital that western culture has experienced in recent decades. These concerns have understandably intensified since the pandemic started and there are some very real downsides to increased technology use. Hate speech and abusive content have both increased, and the new form of internet abuse "zoom-bombings", also emerged since the pandemic's onset.
But many are also concerned about a perhaps more subtle effect of spending more time online - what is it doing to our sense of self, our identity, and our ability to answer the age-old question of Who Am I? As we spend more time online consuming content, like video, music or podcasts, or creating and interacting with content as we do on social media and messaging apps or indeed chatting to virtual assistants like Alexa, we leave traces of ourselves in the virtual sphere theoretically constructing a digital double. But what's happening to our "in real life" self?
For most, but not all, of us, access to technology, especially over the months of lockdown, has provided a critical source of continuity and connection in what has been a radically disrupted world.
Before we were confined to our houses for 23 of the 24 hours in a day, we structured our day around work, family, exercise, socialising or hobbies. Under pandemic conditions, those activities needed to take place within our homes, and many of them became reliant on an internet-connected digital device.
If we were lucky enough to have that connection and device, we found fun and innovative ways to continue the activities we'd previously been free to engage in outside of the home. Families and friends made and shared movies to celebrate milestones, hosted concerts, trivia nights, Friday afternoon drinks or Sunday brunch via video conferencing apps. In doing so, we continued to connect with family and friends from those in the next suburb to those on the other side of the world. We exercised using apps and online classes, and some of us were able to continue to work and learn, with "working from home" and "not having to go to school" taking on brand new meanings.
Importantly, what technology enabled us to do during this time was maintain routines and nurture relationships. These routines and relationships helped us know who we are; it helped us structure our days, gave them purpose and meaning, and demarcated time and space in "close to" the usual ways. In this way, technology-enabled us to fortify our identity and our sense of self.
In the same way that technology has been a critical part of accessing our usual routines, it has also become critical for accessing essential services, like health care. But not everyone has equal access to technology.
Increasingly, services that many in our community were accustomed to accessing offline are now reliant on not only having a suitable device and a connection but being able to use that device confidently to achieve our goals.
There are some in our community who, pre-lockdown, would have visited the local library, post office, cafe or pub, daily or weekly. In doing so, they would have seen a friendly face, had their identity validated by that person calling them by name and remembering the latest book they borrowed, the name of their dog, or their favourite drink. However, during lockdown, these channels were closed, leaving certain groups in our population further disadvantaged and experiencing alienation and loneliness.
Our sense of identity is relational – what I mean by that is that our identity is dependent on the various others with whom we interact. So, just by virtue of being amongst those fortunate enough to interact with others online, we have been nourishing our sense of identity – both individual and collective.
At the individual level technology allows us to interface with others who reflect back to us who we are; there's nothing like a bit of banter between colleagues during a staff meeting using zoom's private chat function to validate our sense of humour. Technology also allows us to maintain aspects of our identity through continued participation in things important to us - our monthly book club might not have looked quite the same, but we still managed to drink wine and talk books. Technology allows us to explore new directions for our identity, new ways of being, new skills and interests; cooking and baking, gardening, arts and craft were just some of the new hobbies people explored during lockdown.
In a similar way that technology has been useful to our individual identity, it has also been instrumental in fortifying collective identities.
At the collective level, technology has enables us to imagine ourselves as part of something bigger, from being part of the local community buy and sell group AND part of a nation fighting the pandemic. It has also equipped us to take action and participate on issues important to us, for example, #blacklivesmatter and #climatechange. And technology has allowed us to establish and build relationships with others with intersecting and overlapping identities, such as those from migrant backgrounds or who are gender diverse
The shift of our lives online has been particularly useful for marginalised populations who have explored or strengthened their sense of identity. For example, researchers at Western Sydney University found that young LGBTQ+ people used time in lockdown to explore their gender identities safely and simultaneously maintain other important relationships such as those with family.
The wholesale shift to online has also provided greater opportunities for participation in community and culture for those who have, in the past, been excluded. For example, events such as this tonight may have been previously inaccessible to many community members for a range of reasons.
Technology has also been a critical conduit for communication between specific groups, especially in crisis situations where individually, we may need to reach out to others previously unknown to us. Or for organisations to broadcast information relevant to a community or place, such as case or vaccination numbers and the recent welcome news of lockdown conditions lifting in certain areas.
Not all collective identities are necessarily helpful, conspiracy theorists and white supremacist movements being just two examples. Whilst recognising the tensions here in who gets access and whose voices are heard, my point is that we can recognise the role that technology plays in being a conduit for people to come together with shared interests. And in a positive light, there has been an upsurge in recent years of collective action campaigning for social justice, such as better regulation of platforms and for inappropriate behaviour online to be called out. New guidance and governance are positive signs that, as a collective, we are aggressively pursuing a transformation of society in which technology can be used as a tool for what is good and right.
In the past, there has been a sense that we are different online to what we are offline. In the early days of social media, many people chose pseudonyms to conceal their identity while online. In certain contexts and for many reasons, this is still important and common. Still, the online is now so embedded in our lives that having at least one recognisable online persona is critical for most people in contemporary culture. And now, many people see themselves as one and the same, online and offline, regardless of potentially having multiple online personas. Research with young people, for example, indicates that for them, there is no clear distinction between online and offline worlds. They are part of both, simultaneously, and being online is just one facet of the ways in which they perceive themselves.
Researchers working in the area of identity argue there is not a core person inside every one of us just waiting to be revealed to the world. Rather, we create ourselves incrementally, in relation to others in a continual process. Our identities are shaped, strengthened, and eroded through multiple fragments of experience. Everyday life and interactions, online and offline, constantly demand different performances from us. Or, in other words, for us to show various aspects of ourselves. Digital media is just another context in which we confront or construct the idea of what it means to be 'me' or, put differently, how we make sense of being human.
On this basis, I argue that if there is an offline self and an online self, the two continually co-create each other. And, if there is a space between those identities, it's a space in which our identities spill, blur and emerge. This space is exciting to think about because of the possibilities it offers
Technology is a tool.
The digital world can undermine or challenge our sense of who we are, and simultaneously, the digital world can strengthen our sense of who we are. When we resource ourselves with knowledge, we can make mindful and informed choices about how and why we use and interact with the digital sphere – to make sense of ourselves as individuals and be part of collective action to change the world for good.
Imagine it as leaning in, we decide when to lean into the richness and beauty of the offline world, or when to engage with and take full advantage of the bounty of the online world. It's not actually about valorising or demonising technology, it's about us, as humans, and the choices we make.
1This article was first presented as a keynote talk at Q Theatre’s Talks & Ideas event ‘Will you Marry Me Alexa’ on 28 October 2021.
Originally intended to take place at ‘The Joan’ (The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre) in Penrith, New South Wales, the Covid-19 pandemic required the event to take place via Zoom (https://www.thejoan.com.au/events/binge/).
It also involved a panel discussion and Q&A. The other panel members were Leanne Tobin (Dharug Artist and Playwright), Brett Farrell (Emu Plains based lawyer with expertise in digital security and privacy), Nick Atkins (theatre maker and PhD candidate researching networked theatre practices).
Penrith Performing & Visual Arts Support: Melissa Cannon (Producer and Host), Tim Anikin (Technician) and Nick Atkins (Question Moderator).
Third, A., Collin, P., Walsh, L. & Black, R. (2019). Young People in Digital Society, Control Shift. 129–174. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-57369-84
Hanckel, B & Chandra, S (2019) Social Media Insights from Sexuality and Gender Diverse Young People During Covid-19. https://logincms.westernsydney.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/1837977/Social_Media_and_LGBTQIA_Youth_Report.pdf
United Nations, General Comment on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRC/Pages/GCChildrensRightsRelationDigitalEnvironment.aspx