Identity is one of the strongest concepts of both life and technology. Identities define who we are, what we can – and cannot – do. They are extremely powerful, but with all power comes the potential for abuse.
To be honest, I’ve written this post many times before, yet, deleted them over and over again. By the end, I either failed to clearly get my message across, or simply tried to say too much in 1000 or so words. This is such a critical topic, that I wanted to do it justice. I wanted to make sure that my words were clear, my story complete, and that people came out with a better understanding of the power of identity and how it can be used to make themselves better and to make their creations better.
The best place to start is probably the beginning. When I was a kid, I was different from others. And I had an ego to boot. That combination made me an easy target for bullying. At the time, it wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I can happily say that I made it out alive and with no physical scars and minimal emotional scars. In fact, I’d even say that if it weren’t for the teasing and the bullying, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
It was either the summer before my junior or senior year of high school that I realized maybe it was something I was doing that brought about all the teasing. At the time I couldn’t quite grasp that I wasn’t perfect, but I clearly saw that people didn’t see me as perfect. The question became – how do I bridge the identity crisis I had that the identity I had for myself was different from the identity that others had placed on me. This disconnect lead to miscommunication, and probably a large amount of bullying and teasing.
So began my yearly quest to re-evaluate my identity. It started small – I tried to go through a week in my life in third person. I watched my mannerisms, my words, and how they affected others. Annoying traits that I had, I tried to suppress, and things that people enjoyed, I tried to accentuate. It made things a little easier, but it didn’t get to the root of the problem – the identity I had given myself was not in tune with reality. No amount of acting would change that.
After a few years of re-evaluation, I came across a crazy programming concept of the completely-mutable object. This is a concept/object in which you do not predefine any functions or attributes. They are all defined when the application is run. This allows for great flexibility, but arguably, too much. Imagine a car being able to transform into a plane, then a house, then a horse. A drive down I95 becomes a bit more complex, no?
I discovered this concept around the same time as I was taking my yearly re-evaluation and I had an epiphany – maybe humans have a completely mutable identity, we just refuse to change the values. This thinking took me down a path of complete mutability. I mirrored the personalities of whomever I was spending time with. I tried to give up the attributes that I thought were me while taking on new attributes. The experiment had interesting results, but ultimately ended in failure. For those who didn’t know me, they accepted my identity as whatever I showed them, which was very much a mirror of themselves. For those that knew me, my changes caused confusion and uneasiness.
Ultimately, a mutable identity made me lose a sense of self, because I never knew if I was a car, plane, house, or a horse. But, the experiment showed me that I don’t have to live in a box, and that I can have fun if I just let go. It also taught me the power of perception. Following this experiment, I quickly fell back into the old me, mainly because that is how others saw me and it was easier for me to accept that identity than to try to forge yet another.
Identity is a powerful force. It is what leads to racism, hate, and mislead ignorance. Evolutionary, it probably has some strong purpose. We can learn which animal species we can trust, and which we must avoid. We can learn behavioral patterns and apply them to other animals of the same species to best capture them or avoid being their prey.
Ultimately there are three identities in play when dealing with another human. There is the identity that person believes, the identity you have formed from your interactions, and the identity you’ve inferred. Inferred identity is where bias and prejudice comes from. Someone wears a specific type of clothes, therefore they must be in a gang. If they are in a gang, they are dangerous. If they are dangerous, they should be avoided… All of that inferred simply from an article of clothing. Unless it’s a shirt with a gang slogan or emblem on it, with gang colors, in an area where that gang resides, it’s probably off base.
But then there is the more subtle identity crisis. The one between the identity you’ve given someone and the identity they believe is their own. Chances are, neither of those matches with reality, which increases the chances that those two identities differ. It is true that first impressions are amazingly strong. The identity you associate with someone when first meeting them sticks hard. Meet someone when you’re having a bad day? Chances are it will take you a long time for them to update their identity of you.
These disconnects lead us to fear and miscommunication. How many times have you thought “X will may this person happy” then done X, and it didn’t make them happy? From their side, they think, “How did they not know Y makes me happy?” Everyone feels dissatisfied, simply because there was not an acknowledgement of the identity gap. Worse is when we refuse to accept that an identity has changed. Treating an adult like a child, or a smoker who wants to quit as still a smoker. By pushing your concept of an identity on someone else, you could make it more difficult for that person to change their own identity.
I used to think it was love that would save the world – compassion. While we need compassion, the only thing that will save the world is education, understanding, and an acceptance that identities are both mutable and powerful. There are religious zealots who cannot let go of words spoken over 1500 years ago and continue to fight and kill an enemy that they cannot possibly reason with. The identity gap is simply too far. Around the world, there is conflict everywhere that stems so greatly from identity gaps. Pride and the inability to accept that the identities you have for people and yourself may not match up with reality have held us back from such great progress.
This is normally the point where I read through what I’ve written, and delete it all, because I’ve failed to convey my message, or worse, failed to come up with a conclusion that tied it all together. While a better writer would have done a much better job, this message will reach your eyes, and hopefully the message will be clear. I have no conclusion, and by far I have no solution. But, I hope to continue to educate, and to share my insights and maybe even inspire people to be happier, and to help others be better. It’s hard to think of myself as a grown man, because inside I feel like a child, still searching for his purpose, searching for his identity. I’ve spent years refining, chipping away at the ego I hated so much, and trying to bolster the good. I’ve come so far, but my journey has barely begun.
Thank you, as always, for listening.