On Monday 13 October, at 6am EST— likely by the time that most of you will be reading this— my first post for National Geographic will be live (and I'll forgive you if you leave now to go check it out). The post serves as an introduction to me and to the project I’m working on this year, but it’s more subtle purpose is to hook people by convincing them that what I’m doing is interesting and important (which it is, by the way, in case you still need convincing).
One of the arguments that I make in the post is that this current moment is a time in which we have access to high amounts of information about ourselves. What I refer to is the existence of our digital breadcrumbs, and the argument in question is that they reveal the most essential things about us. This is stolen from Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who is a key figure at MIT’s ridiculously cool Media Lab, and the general idea is that the pieces of technology that we carry every day—phones, credit cards, travel cards, etc—are constantly collecting data on us. They’re the unflinching telltales of our lives and identities, because they contain the records of all the things that we do and the choices we make. You are the person your bank account reveals you to be.
I’m a fan of the idea academically, but I also find it compelling on a personal level. Have you ever seen your data reflected back at you? The experience prompts an odd feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it’s something in between surprise and betrayal. This is what I do? You think to yourself. This is who I am? As any cursory glance at the field of cognitive psychology will reveal, humans are wonderfully bizarre beings. We regularly hold ideas and perceptions about ourselves that aren’t supported by anything close to true evidence. The beauty of quantifiable data is that it cuts through the bullshit, and what’s left are plain and simple patterns and numbers that can be extrapolated into information about us.
So we are the sum of the choices we make, and that is noteworthy because nowadays we have devices that can accurately record those choices. The technology doesn’t necessarily change our actions, it simply records it [see footnote]. And yet, it’s that very recording that can feel so surprising (and occasionally treacherous).
As I said, I see a lot of value in the idea; in fact, as I mentioned, it partly motivates my entire Fulbright-Nat Geo project. But I am equally intrigued with a seemingly contradictory argument: that it is our perceptions about ourselves that really reveal who we are.
Here's the background: Dan Miller, an anthropologist who has devoted much of his work to studying material culture and digital spaces, argues in his 2010 paper “An Extreme Reading of Facebook” that the making of a self visible helps to create that self. His premise was based on a previously-researched Trinidadian belief that the mask an individual chooses to wear serves as the real sum of who they are precisely because it is chosen by the individual. In other words, it is in the construction of ourselves that we see who we really are. The way you present yourself is where the truest kernels about your identity reside.
Isn’t there something about compelling about this idea, as well? The fact that you may think of yourself in a particular manner reveals just as much information as the fact that you may not actually act in a way supporting such a conception.
What I like about this idea is not that it throws a wrench in the idea that authenticity is based in quantitative data. What I like is that it encourages an interplay between the quantitative and qualitative. Hard data might show what you do, but we always view the story it tells as a response to the already constructed stories we have of ourselves. Who you want to be is important in light of who you really are. In fact, I’d argue that the distance between the two is ultimately the most revealing thing of all. That moment when you look at data about yourself and have to evaluate it in light of how you see yourself can convey wonders.
In any case, I'll be devoting a piece of the next nine months to understanding if that really is the case. Stay tuned to see how that turns out.
[Footnote: I do actually think that technology absolutely changes our actions, but that’s a post for another day.]
[*This post edited on 10/13 to include link to NatGeo post]