Not too long ago I posted an article wherein I discuss the relationship between individuals and the information that defines and describes their lives. The essence of the article was that in our digital age I am my information and our information is me. The post generated a lot of reaction, public and private, with many agreeing and some disagreeing with my position.
One of the most interesting reactions to the post came from a colleague named Gopal who recently moved his family from Delhi to Dallas. When he arrived in Dallas, he tried to get a credit card and, of course, lacking any credit history, he was denied a normal credit card and forced to use a pre-paid card. After about a year of using the pre-paid card, he told me, he was able to obtain a regular credit card. A similar sequence occurred with his cellular service. My article, he noted, reminded him of his experience, because, though in India he was a serious person who always paid his bill son time, that reality was irrelevant in Dallas. What he was or wasn’t in the physical world had no impact on whether any company would extent him credit in the U.S.. The only thing that mattered, he said laughing, was “Digital Gopal.” Indeed, he noted, “Physical Gopal” could be a thrifty and upright citizen, but so long as Digital Gopal could not “vouch” for that fact, nothing else mattered. Furthermore, when he came to the U.S., Physical Gopal had to, in a sense, “give birth” to Digital Gopal, nurturing him and caring for him with meticulous spending habits and early payments so he would grow quickly into place. In that sense, Physical Gopal was a kind of “parent” to his digital offspring. Interestingly, the stronger Digital Gopal becomes, the more important he becomes, to the point that in a year or two the parent will be subservient to the child. In other words, it will be Digital Gopal’s behavior and history that will determine what Physical Gopal can or cannot do in our digital financial world.
The more I thought about this conversation, the more I thought about my own “Digital Carlos” and the experience I had a decade ago when someone stole my identify during a mortgage application process. I remember that it was an odd feeling knowing that someone out there was using my information to pass for me. In fact, the very phrase we use — identify theft — is interesting. In reality, what the thief stole was information about me, but that is enough for most people to think he actually did steal my identity. The word “identity” has a Latin root, idem, which means “same.” In the modern sense, our use of the word identity has gone far beyond its ancient root, for when we think of our “identity” we think of something that is us — not just the same as us. If my identity is stolen, some part of me has also been stolen. Likewise, when we build a digital identity there is an assumption of some correct relationship between that digital version and the physical version. In cinema studies, there is a term for this relationship: indexicality. Indexicality refers to the relationship between the original source of a movie scene — say a dark room with a wind blowing outside — to what is seen by the viewer. For most of cinema’s history, there was a high degree of indexicality: what we saw on screen largely corresponded to what had existed in a studio or location. Today’s digital technologies have made indexicality almost irrelevant: we know we can see a man sitting on an airplane reading a book and also know that the airplane, book or even man may never have existed. Technology has removed the relationship between image and reality in cinema and music, and the same thing, I would argue, is happening with people.
We now have the power to create one or more digital versions of ourselves that can write, buy, critique, insult, woo, or praise — all quite independently of what our physical selves can do. What’s more, as more and more interaction and communication moves on line, our physical selves become less able to impact others except through our digital identities. Is is too much to say that in one sense, in the ability to act globally across time and space, our digital selves are more “real” than our physical selves? And if that’s too far to go in 2015, will it be too far to go in 2025?
The more I think about these issues, the more I go back to the story of Digital Gopal, which has an interesting coda. At the end of our chat, my colleague mentioned that, since he may go back to India after his stay in the U.S., he has to keep an eye on “Indian Digital Gopal, not just U.S. Digital Gopal.” In effect, he has two digital children/parents, which means there are three Gopals who can impact his life at any moment. “He” is now “them,” as are we all who have credit reports, blogs, profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter accounts, etc. Maybe, in the end the, the right idea is not that “I am my information” but that we — all of my physical and digital versions — are my information. We are all composites now, perhaps in transition to some future state, where the digital version lives on long after our physical versions are gone. After all, Physical Gopal is mortal, but Digital Gopal, son and father, can live on forever.
The idea that our digital versions can be “real” and even productive entities after our physical self is gone may seem far-fetched to some, but in many aspects of life this is already the case. Forbes, for example, keeps a list of the top earning dead celebrities, which is currently headed by Michael Jackson. As Forbes notes:
Few celebrities prove the point that there is (financial) life after death better than Michael Jackson. The King of Pop tops our list yet again with $140 million in earnings. This year , the singer had his second posthumous album release with Xscape, which debuted at No. 2 on the charts. He also appeared (in hologram form) on stage at the Billboard Music Awards. The hologram performance left some fans thrilled and others a bit freaked out, but expect to see more of the same from other dead celebrities as the technology advances to the point where we won’t be able to tell the difference. [Emphasis mine]
It’s an amazing to consider that a dead singer made more money in 2014 than most living people. It’s even more amazing to note that he actually “performed” as well. Apparently, one of the benefits of being a mega-celebrity is that your digital self can go on performing and earning money for your heirs long after your physical self is gone. Indeed, as Jason Stanyek and Benjamin Piekut put it in their analysis of the collaboration on “Unforgettable” between Natalie Cole and her long-dead father:
Moving beyond human exceptionalism by framing agency as effectivity allows us to rebuild the idea of personhood to encompass far more than a simple body or a hunk of flesh, as is personhood could be limited to the boundaries of the epidermal wall. In our framing, personhood is not limited to a lone body, but is distributed among and articulated with other entities that are textual, technological, juridical and affective… (1)
Is it too hard to imagine that, as the technology used to create “Unforgettable” becomes more available, that top CEO’s will also continue to give advice and motivate workers for decades after their death? Or perhaps the best professors will continue to lecture an endless generation of students?
In my first article on Google, I noted that the rise of digital selves that can shape our physical lives in many ways will lead us, eventually, to the conclusion that we are, when all is said and done, information. I quoted the writer James Gleick, noting that “in Gleick’s view, what is ultimately most important is not actual human life of blood and bones, but the idea of what a human being is.” The story of Digital Gopal only reinforces that view in my mind. All of us who have created digital versions of ourselves can now look into a “digital mirror” that reflects what we were, what we are and even what we hope to be. That collection of data is as human as we are, for it is our creation and a unified part of our identity. In this new world we are all forming, our information defines us, shapes us, — is us.
That’s why I’m sure that wherever Digital Gopal is right now, he is looking forward to a long and happy life.
(1) Jason Stanyek and Benjamin Piekut, “Deadness: Technologies of the Intermundane.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. J. Sterne. Routledge, 2012. 305-324. Print.