A New Romantic Age
At a similar historical juncture, the members of the original Romantic Movement 200 years ago — as the first hackers, if you will — fought for a broader notion of identity. They revolted against the regime of the enlightenment, against empirical, practical reason stifling the full expression of our selves.
As was the case 200 years ago, we are now confronted with another great disenchantment, another reductionism, this time caused by the datafication and quantification of everything. A myopic belief in data is threatening to treat us as one single, narrow profile instead of a complex identity; it is threatening to make us fully transparent and predictable — and less human in the process. At the same time, like the Romantics of the earlier age, we are also discovering new tools for self-expression, giving us a range of identity that is more expansive than we ever imagined could be possible.
As consumers, we encounter convenience and cost savings when we are able to interact with businesses in predictable, efficient ways, but as we gaze wearily at the marketplace, we realize that what we’re really longing for isn’t a cheap encounter that’s over quickly. We want to find our passion even as we remain erratic and inconsistent. Together, with the mysterious strangers we encounter at the counter, we seek to form an identity based on our most fluid, ambiguous selves. We discover that “we are human because we can’t be trusted,” as Gianpiero Petriglieri puts it.
We don’t want our identities to be hacked, but neither do we want them to be confined by the stiff walls of literalist security protocols. We don’t want to be deluded by fake news, but neither do we want to relinquish the freedom to embellish our own personal narratives.
As we extend the distribution of our selves and create omnipresence, omnichannel selves, the neuromancers’ time has finally come. If we combine technology and romance, then we enable ourselves to live more romantic lives.
Romance is when our self gets stretched: by unexpected events, other people, other worlds, a greater purpose; by something that is greater than the sum of the parts, something greater than ourselves. Something that remains unquantified, unexplained, unsaid and can therefore never be erased.
Romance means that we are more than just the sum of all our data. It persists that the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we collect, and those others tell about us form our identity as much if not more than the history of our transactions. From the raw data of what we do, these stories show us the meaning of why we do it. As psychologist Jerome Bruner says, “the self is a narrative process, rather than an object.” And as for our collective identities, as recent political movements have shown, from Obama to Trump to Macron, a powerful, simple narrative still eats data for breakfast.
The greatest narrative challenge faced by the Digital Romantics of our time is to choose between the many versions of the stories of identity available to us. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Mark Zuckerberg famously proclaimed. But this is misguided. We do want integrity, but not the kind that requires consistency at all times. A pursuit of integrity that reduces us to a simplified version of our selves based on a data profile held by a third party or the kind of “social credit” we gain on the Facebook platform isn’t enough. We want to be safe, contained, and consistent, and at the same time we want to be vulnerable, open, and seduced.
We want to be hacked, we want to be given new meaning. In other words, we want to control who we are and want to become; express our full selves; and yet form vulnerable, intimate human connections with others outside of algorithmic matchmaking.
While the engineers of the new Digital Enlightenment perceive Digiphrenia as a threat, the Romantics of our time have learned to embrace the ambiguity enabled by the splintering of the self. To bring romance into digital life, they embrace the multiplicity of identity, rather than merely enduring it. Digiphrenia becomes a problem only in those moments when we try to occupy more than one digital identity within a single moment. It is then that we realize our authenticity isn’t found in any single identity, but in the dynamic interplay between the many versions of ourselves that we cultivate online.
The Rituals of Human Identity in a Digital World
The ultimate human hack of Digital Romance will unite technology and humanity as equal partners, recognizing that the legacy of human cultural development brings as much to the relationship as innovative systems of information.
Digital technology will hack human society, but in return our subjectivity will hack the new machines, bringing them into cultural context as tools in our pursuit of higher purpose.
The cultivation of coherent digital culture requires us to organize our many identities to create a mosaic image of a unified self. Faced with an immense number of digital identities that continues to grow, we struggle to find a place for each of our individual identities, while understanding how they relate to the larger picture of the self. Nonetheless, the Digiphrenia we are now experiencing is novel in extent, but not in form. It is an amplification of the divisions of identity that have always existed.
Our ancestors faced struggles of identity similar to our own. Like us, they were unable to maintain a single identity capable of dealing with all the demands of their complex social lives. They needed to develop multiple identities, and to find ways of shifting between them to meet the needs of the moment. They had to find a way to transition between different stages of life and between different statuses in society. The ancient cultural technology they invented to accomplish this task of identity transformation is known as ritual.
Ritual is a process of symbolic behavior that enables the transformation of identity through the creation of a special kind of experience within which people become temporarily free from the restrictions that ordinarily restrict their actions. Ritual is designed to break people away from their present identities so that they can adopt new identities. While rituals create disruptions in the ordinary flow of life, they are integrated into larger systems of social order. Rituals are tools for ensuring that disruptions are productive, balancing the drive for changes of individual identity with the need for overall social stability.
We are used to thinking of ritual as an archaic practice, something that we abandoned with the disenchantments of the Enlightenment and industrialization. Nonetheless, our fundamental humanity remains as it always has been.
Although we are largely unaware of the rituals that we perform, we live in the most thoroughly ritualized society that has ever existed — and as digital technology expands the range of identities we can explore, our dependence upon rituals to manage the transitions between identities will only increase.
Ritual works by separating us from an ordinary experience of reality. In the classic anthropological metaphor developed by Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, a ritual is said to open up a doorway between identities. Within the doorway is what anthropologists call a liminal space. The word “liminal” is derived from the Latin word for the threshold, the frame that exists between rooms. Because liminal spaces exist outside of ordinary frames of identity, extraordinary things can take place within them. With the help of ritual guides, stories, symbols, and a collection of detailed ritual procedures, people move through the liminal space, and become transformed in the process. When a ritual is complete, participants are capable of adopting a new identity — a version of themselves that is liberated from the restrictions that once limited its actions.
As we move further into the synthesis of humanity and technology, our digital devices will become the most significant ritual objects in our lives.
In a literal sense, these devices are merely tools for information processing, but as cultural objects, they have become more like the magical objects our ancestors used to conduct rituals. Janet Murray, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, observes that, “In psychological terms, computers are liminal objects, located on the threshold between external reality and our own minds.” Our difficulty in recognizing the ritual character of our digital devices is due more to our ethnocentric bias than to a complete divide between our culture and those of our ancestors. As anthropologist Felicia-Dana Zabetnotes, “There appears to be no reason for which ritualisation, be it religious or secular, would simply disappear from one increasingly prominent aspect of contemporary life: the internet and its associated cultures.”
So far, the pace of technological development has dwarfed the pace of our cultural response to new technologies. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs celebrate the disruptive character of their inventions, without thought of how to help people cope with the disruption they create. The crisis of identity we face is a consequence of an imbalance in the codes we have created. We are increasingly fluent in the codes required to communicate with machines, but have yet to develop the codes of ritual that will enable us to maintain our human identities in the course of these communications. As the ambiguity of our digital identities expands, the need for rituals of transitions between these identities will increase as well.
The New Romantic Medium
Many people fear that, as artificial, digital technology grows more powerful, our humanity will be compromised. They worry that as machines become more powerful, humans will be expected to live more like machines, with their imagination, their passions, their spontaneous emotion outsourced to an algorithm. Given what we know about the emergent properties that arise out of new levels of complexity, it’s reasonable to conclude that the opposite is the case.
As we build new connections with machines that are themselves becoming complex, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but it is safe to bet that our experience of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity will become more vivid than ever. When algorithmic systems connect with human minds, surprising emergent properties will spring forth, enabling not just enhanced levels of intelligence, but also new forms of consciousness that will be capable of experiencing new kinds of passion and beauty that we cannot even imagine. These enhanced emotional experiences will form the foundations of new kinds of identity.
Through the happenstance of emergent properties, rather than the clumsy hand of purposeful design, exponential information technology will enable exponential romance. In partnership with our new technologies, we’ll become more human than ever.
Rather than trapping humanity in an unfeeling digital prison, this new revolution will imbue technology with human identity. This fusion of technology and humanity won’t take a single form. As we are liberated from the constraint of a standard, biologically-imposed progression of identity, the fusion of technology and humanity will be expressed in many different ways. Identity itself will become the artistic medium of this new romantic age.
With exponential technologies exponentially increasing the number of identities we can form, we will see more liminal spaces between various identities, and we will see the cycles of transition accelerate. A merely transactional approach to identity will no longer be enough; rather, we must account for the emotional needs of individuals whose default state is not security but volatility, who need robust mechanisms to ascertain overall stability as much as they need whimsical solutions to account for ever-changing, ambiguous, ephemeral, and amorphous exponential selves.
The task will no longer be an analytical one — examining and mitigating risk on the one hand, lowering transaction cost on the other — but a creative, if not an artistic one: to create the very illusion of identity. This is a very romantic mission indeed.