The Story of Your Identity in the Digital Age

The concept of identity has always been difficult to define, and while the digital age has, to some extent, simplified the issue with its ability to capture, store, and transmit our personal information, it has also introduced an additional level of complexity by forcing us into neat digital boxes, including the box that says, “prefer not to answer.” 

I recently watched Zara Rahman‘s presentation on stage at The Conference in August 2019. Titled The Unintended Impact of Technology, Zara raises several concerns about how technology is being used to define who we are, which I feel is very important, as who we are (or think ourselves to be) shapes the content and style of the personal stories that we share.

Zara is a researcher, writer, speaker, linguist, and the Deputy Director at The Engine Room, an international non-profit organisation supporting civil society to use tech and data more effectively and strategically.

Instead of diving right into the latest technologies or the politics of identity, Zara begins with a personal story that reveals the complex nature of defining her identity, with family roots from Bangladesh, yet being raised in the UK and holding a British passport – culture vs documents – not an uncommon situation considering modern migration patterns.

“The ability to self-identify is what makes us human. The fluidity of changing identities is a core part of how we grow and change as human beings, no matter what our passports may say.”

She explains how the issue is much larger than just a passport by introducing the concept of “identification technologies” that include any type registration system, as well as the use of national identity cards. The notion of our identity being fluid is not new, as humans have been migrating for over 50,000 years, but most of that time was undocumented and no one was tracking where we came from or where we might go. But that’s all changed.

From a travel standpoint, the requirement of identification has been on the rise for decades, and after 9-11 that increase has been most pronounced when traveling by air. On my last international journey various authorities checked my passport five times. I feel fortunate that my ability to travel is largely unrestricted, but other people are not so lucky with travel bans in place based on religion or ethnicity.

Referring to the establishment of nation states, and the subsequent use of the passports, Zara talks about the positive aspects of establishing shared citizenship, and a shared identity. You can see yourself as having a common bond. But once you’re labeled, governments and corporations can use this data to make decisions based on where we were born, within the borders of lines drawn on a map. How many of you chose the country you were born in? Yet you will always carry that with you, even if you become a citizen of another country.

“…a passport is not a document that tells us who we are, but a document that shows what other people think of us.” – Orhan Pamuk

And in some cases, this rigid view of your ethnicity can be fatal, as Zara recounts the events surrounding the Rwandan genocide in 1994, a tragedy amplified by the use of identity cards which accelerated the slaughtering of Tutsis. The Rohingya people are being persecuted by the government of Myanmar (more commonly described as ethnic cleansing) to the point where tens of thousands have been forced to leave the country and are now stateless, with no national identity.

On another front, the field of genomics holds great promise in its ability to peer inside human history and evolution as a way to uncover the nature of diseases, and in doing so, potentially provide cures and treatments for those diseases. But there’s also a troubling downside to the collection of genetic information when it is used to ‘define’ ethnicity, or quantify the ethnic diversity of our genome. I wonder how this will evolve – might this become another way to place people into categories based on their DNA, and could that lead to more discrimination?

As we’re all aware (or should be) once data is captured, it’s there forever. And if that data is shared, which is the norm for non-governmental databases, then it becomes permanent in multiple places. And should that data be in error and need correcting, or should you want to withdraw from a database altogether, there’s no guarantee it’s possible to do so.

How do you identify yourself when telling your story, and how does the world see you after hearing your story? Is your identity a benefit, or is there a downside that you must deal with?

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Why Drones Need Our Better Angels

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick PhD is an associate professor of political sociology. He teaches at the Kroc School of Peace Studies on the University of San Diego campus, and while his interests are varied, he’s most passionate when it comes to the study of social movements and social change, with an added emphasis on the role that technology plays in society.

Of particular interest is how the advent of small, commercially available drones will play out in our everyday lives. Austin opens his talk at the Kroc School’s Peace Innovators Conference by talking about how he and a grad student measured the size of a crowd during a protest in Budapest, Hungary. He’s a big believer in empowered people and accountable authorities.

This was a protest against the government’s plan to initiate a tax on internet usage. And while previous protests in Budapest had been relatively small, this one was predicted to be much bigger, and by using a drone to capture the event Austin was able to verify the size of the crowd, which was far greater than the government claimed. In the end, the government was forced to drop their plan. So in this case, drone technology served the public quite well.

Drones can help us see the world from a new perspective, and drones can hold the powerful to account. – Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick

But Austin goes on to talk about what may lie ahead with the expanded use of drones, as they can be used, just like any other technology, for good or for evil. He reminds us that the internet has evolved from the information superhighway, to the dark web, in the span of just three decades. Despite best intentions, over time the technology has enabled criminals.

Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress. – Paul Virilio

Online banking provides great benefit, yet it also exposes us to having our account hacked. Mapping software can guide us to our destination, while at the same time tracking our every move and location. Social media sites can connect us to friends, but can also become a platform for hijacked political debates. A classic case of unintended consequences.

And drones are undergoing a similar evolution. Watch Austin’s talk to gain insight as to how our future may be affected, for better or worse, by the increased implementation of drone technology. Which of the scenarios presented will come to pass? Do you seen this technology serving society, or becoming a tool for the self-serving? Are you excited, frightened, cautious?

Aerial Drone Over Lake

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

In short, technology has become a character in our personal story, and can shift the narrative in many ways. As you think about the trajectory of your story, and the wisdom you wish to share with others, think about how technology has affected, or could affect, your storyline.

Peace Innovators is a program from the Kroc School of Peace Studies, University of San Diego in which select faculty members prepare presentations that are focused on the human issues they address within their professional studies as well as class curriculum. I had the pleasure of working with each of these speakers as they prepared their talks.

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