That it seems strange to say the birth of the virtual self occurred more than three centuries ago in small candlelit rooms replete with parchment and ink wells makes it no less true. When Descartes sat next to his stove to write and understand his place in the world, what else was the scene but an anticipation of our digital world? There sat a man carefully considering the image of himself on the screen of his imagination.
That same arrangement encapsulates much of how we live our web-connected lives. But Descartes’ thinking also laid the groundwork for the virtual self because it inadvertently dispatched with the idea that who we are is some essential thing located within us. Tucked away in his famous cogito ergo sum formulation, there was an unintended twist: discovering what makes us tick always means stepping outside of ourselves, even if that “outside” is only our own imaginations.
Historically, considering ourselves at a distance is something we’ve most often done by scribbling things down. Writing, as is McLuhan’s well-worn point in The Gutenberg Galaxy, has a capacity to externalize the self and store thought elsewhere. As a result, the person who writes and reads is never just a body. We inheritors of print culture have always been virtual, always a mixture of our physicality, our minds and the pieces of ourselves we leave scattered in words and images for others to find.
For centuries literature has grappled with this capacity to exist in both a body, and in pictures and words, too. In Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray, the supernatural painting absorbs the bodily effects of Dorian’s lubricious transgressions—much like a digital avatar both hides and reveals the predilections of a web user. But that book, which so dangerously flirted with desires beyond the bounds of Victorian morality, had to, in the end, fall back in line with that morality. When the painting is finally destroyed, the spell is broken, and Dorian’s once-perfect body suffers the physical effects of his libidinal excesses. Both the risk and promise of a magical technology that enables us to hide parts of the self is ultimately contained.
The ability to be one thing in person and another elsewhere is infinitely easier today. Nora Young, in her 2012 book The Virtual Self, explores both the past and the future of individuals and their aesthetic representations. In it, we find another room with someone writing something down, but this time, it’s Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a fastidious record-keeper, relentlessly tracking his moral and physical progress, and Young argues, it is the antecedent of the very modern trend to use technology to relentlessly track the self. In the process of keeping detailed records of what we do and who we believe ourselves to be, we also usher in a different understanding of selfhood and our bodies. And like Wilde asked of us over a century ago, we are left to wonder just what are the consequences of keeping the self somewhere else.
Think of all your likes on Facebook, the bars you’ve checked into on Foursquare, the book reviews, the exercise patterns—together, it all works to produce a virtual, data-heavy version of the self that exists online in the absence of our bodies. It is, according to Young, not simply a way of record-keeping; it’s also a way of producing a public image of who we are, partly for ourselves, but for others, too.
“There’s this very deep history of documentation as an accompaniment to introspection,” says Young during an interview at the CBC headquarters in Toronto, where she hosts the radio program Spark. “But the difference of where we’re at now is that documentation is less about an interior Ben Franklin-esque thing about examining the heart, and more a sense of pushing the self out into virtual space. It’s almost about documentation as an effort to externalize the self.”
It’s this virtual synecdoche of a person that manifests both the immense promise and threat of the Internet. The avatar, whether comprised of data or simply a profile photo, is, of course, an online representation, a way to capture a concentrated version of a personality. When these expressions take the form of elaborate online bios or showy profile pics, it’s easy to see it is as narcissism. But as Young’s description of Franklin or the rise of diary culture demonstrate, tracking the self and being a self are intimately connected. It’s what, in a beautiful turn of phrase, Young calls “documenting the self into being”: inscribing our identities in order to render ourselves somehow more real and present to ourselves.
In a sense, to exist online is to be famous—or at least “micro-famous,” as Internet entrepreneur Rex Sorgatz once called it. To be known by the collection of words and images we put out into public space was once the domain of a tiny few, those whose fame allowed them to be known by many. But in a remarkably short amount of time, many of us have come to exist in relation to a public projection of ourselves, a stand-in that more or less works as a separate yet fundamental part of who we are. What is true for Marilyn, Madonna and Lady Gaga—that there are always at least two versions, the public circulation of chatter and pictures, and the private—is now true for most of us.
The coupling of a bodily identity and a public one, however, can sometimes give rise to a desire for one to overtake the other. The work of contemporary British author Hari Kunzru is shot through with such meditations on identity, and the desire for something more than the body dominates his 2005 novel Transmission.
In it, Arjun Mehta is an awkward computer programmer, fascinated with Bollywood, who in a desperate bid to save himself from being downsized, unleashes a devastating virus. The meek, quiet Mehta suddenly becomes public enemy number one, and the media-created image of him as a brilliant terrorist comes to overshadow Arjun’s bodily self as his virtual creation does things that the small, easily intimated geek could have never done in the “real world.”
Expressing something of what the virtual sphere is capable of, Arjun almost becomes like the larger-than-life Bollywood heroes he idolizes. At the novel’s end, his body simply evaporates from the narrative as he slips away into freedom.
Clearly, it is a textual gesture toward a flight from the body, one that sees the constraints of the physical superseded by the digital, and the notion of a singular identity replaced with one scattered across time and space. Right now as you sit and read this, someone may very well be looking at your Facebook or Twitter profile, evaluating you. Like an explorative or disobedient child, your virtual self is often doing things while you are looking the other way.
As it was for Arjun Metha, for many of us this is a boon. Freed from the myriad ways in which our bodies are read, interacting with others through this virtual self can, despite its immateriality, still have real-world effects. The shy person’s brash Twitter persona, the immigrant’s perfectly hybrid avatar, the gay youth’s sex positive blog: all these marginalized identities suddenly have another place in which to explore themselves and become anew.
But Nora Young argues there’s also a downside to this ethereal, diaphanous hologram of a person: the physicality of life gets lost.
“As a culture, we respect the temple of the gym, but not the body as a source of wisdom,” says Young, who has practised yoga for two decades. “And you have this double-edged thing where the digital has a way of taking us out of the body. You only have to have the experience of walking behind somebody who’s listening to music or texting to see in the body language that they’re not actually where they are.”
It’s more than just that sense of place-shifting, though. There are serious problems with reconciling the self-in-flux with a self reduced to online data. “There’s a flaw to that logic, the idea of a persistent, hard self,” says Young. “The self is really a thing that’s created in a community with other people. It’s a very fluid thing and the line between the self and others is a very fluid line.” The online self becomes an object, and the trouble with objects is that they aren’t, well, subjects. They aren’t people.
It’s true that we’ve always attached ourselves to the objects that mark out our identities. From a driver’s license to a piece of furniture, we locate our sense of selves in the things we’ve imbued with meaning. It seems possible, however, that when those objects are digital, the virtual world makes those little anchors of recognition easier to dislodge.
In Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel Await Your Reply, Ryan Schuyler is mistakenly declared dead, and faced with no attachments, he slips into the world of web-enabled identity theft, careening through different names and personalities until a life of crime finally catches up to him. The novel opens with Ryan dipping in and out of consciousness after thugs have just sawed off his hand. This, it seems, is the book’s post-digital lament: when our identities are so unstable, we lose something of ourselves.
The virtual has thus enacted this strange tension between opposing forces. On the one hand, the public, virtual self can be reductionist, and in its denial of the body, possibly dehumanizing. On the other hand, that same impermanence is in fact incredibly instructive about what it really means to be human. One of things the web has done is that it’s taken those abstract tropes of twentieth century philosophy—you know, that the individual is a fluid, multiple, constructed thing—and made its once-obscure truth blindingly obvious. One need only think of the care put into a gaming avatar or a Facebook profile to see how the metaphors of postmodernism have taken on a digital realness. Who we are is something we constantly produce and shape, creating ourselves anew as circumstance and context dictate.
To be human is to always be beckoned toward an ever-receding ideal of yourself. What motivates us to get up on that treadmill each morning if not the imagination of how we really should be? But if that image of who we believe we should be has always existed in our minds—or maybe in the hidden pages of our diaries—it’s now taken on a holographic form on the web. We all have these shifting, flickering, digital productions of identity, crafted to be not just public representations of who we are, but often inadvertently, expressions of the private desire of who we want to be.
Nora Young, like any good journalist, is skeptical about such change. In a field as thoroughly dominated by capitalism as the Internet, it’s a smart position to take. Though Young’s book is full of praise for what tracking and publicizing identity can do, The Virtual Self ends on the idea that the downside of digital tech is that it takes us away from “the truth of the physical.” Maybe more importantly, Young reminds us that the we still haven’t answered who gets to control this new, always doubled self. We have very quickly ceded control of the sphere in which our virtual selves live to entities that may or may not be working in our best interests.
“Things like Facebook encourage you to say that you are the sum of the books you like and the TV shows you watch and where you went to school,” says Young. “But there’s so much more that we could be using those tools for, to be a little bit more human, to be a little bit more complete and self-determining in how we want to investigate ourselves.”
It’s a powerful reminder. But it also behooves us to remember that the self has never fully resided in us. It’s a shame that, in the endless debate over whether our digital lives are “good” or “bad,” many of the arguments have avoided a simple truth: we have always had virtual versions of ourselves. It’s simply that, if they once resided in the films in our mind or the words in our books, now, they’ve taken on a holographic form which has made us all public, has made us all celebrities in our own sphere.
So the self is at one of those inflection points in its history, as what was once mere metaphor becomes a little more concrete. In the early twentieth century, it was literature like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway that, in its weaving in and out of time and thought, expressed something about how the experience of selfhood was changing. In the first couple of decades of this century, it’s work like Open City by Teju Cole that is a sort of postcolonial rewrite of Woolf for the age of the web.
Protagonist Julius, a Nigerian psychiatrist in New York, keeps collapsing both space and time into the same page as he strolls through a New York criss-crossed with the ghosts of the past. It’s as if, in much the same way a computer screen has a Twitter app, Wikipedia page and word processor open all at once, the intersections of personal memory and global history merge into the same experience, as the scope of that which collapses into Julius’ field of his view far exceeds anything Clarissa Dalloway could have imagined. If Woolf’s character was one way we gave voice to the sudden realization of how inside ourselves we really are, Julius is a kind of inverse: a sign that, when we are all virtualized versions of ourselves, the inside of identity and the outside of history blur into a chaotic, troubling mess.
What’s new, in equal parts threatening and promising, is that the self which we once felt was a mostly singular thing held in a body will soon be as strange as the self that knows no writing: human, but in a way profoundly different from those who do. What that means for selfhood, citizenship and sociality is anyone’s guess, but like so many changes related to our new digital age, Pandora’s Box has already been opened. Now that the digital virtual has made manifest a facet of being human that was always lingering in our minds, we will not stop giving digital form to the imaginations of ourselves. And who knows what cataclysms that will wreak?
All we can say is that we are never more to be simply “individuals.” Descartes ‘left’ his body so as to return to it, certain of the relationship between that one solitary object and the world out there. Alas, such sureness is not for us. It is the overlapped duality of the digital and the bodily that is our fate. Where we once had a private journal or the insides of our minds, we now have a kaleidoscopic public canvas onto which to paint ourselves for others to see. And in the future, who we are will always be both our bodily self and its public hologram—sometimes together, sometimes apart—but never again a version of us that is to be found in just one place.
Illustration by Lola Landekic