Contextual identity

Last week I was in 121 at a seminar/conference thing organised by the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council. The topic was “Moral Maze on Virtualisation and Society” and was, ostensibly, a initial discussion into the morals and ethics of such phenomena as social networking and online role-play/immersion activities. The discussion topics were billed as follows:

  • How has virtualisation impacted on notions of identity?
  • How has virtualisation impacted on our values as human beings?
  • How has increased connectivity impacted on the nature of our organisations?
  • How has increased connectivity and virtualisation impacted on our ability to develop meaningful communities?
  • Is a regulatory framework desirable?
  • What are the theological implications of the changes being brought to individuals, to society and to organisations by increased connectivity and virtualisation?

This is all good stuff and very relevant in our technology-oriented world.

Overall, the day was interesting enough, with some very challenging issues raised about our use of such technology, our expectations of privacy and much else. However, I was left with the abiding impression that none of the advertised topics was adequately addressed, there was no clear direction for where it was all going and, depressingly, that there was a bit (more than a bit) of disconnection with the reality of the pace of change and the uses to which the technology was being put. I can see the panel ending up commenting on technology that has long since fallen out of favour or moved beyond how it is being used at the moment.

Anyway, that’s really by way of introduction to what I want to mull over. One of the ideas that was floated around was that of ‘contextual identity’. Virtualisation allows us to ‘be’ different people in different places. Each of those personas is ‘real’ regardless of their existence in cyberspace or ‘IRL’. They are ‘real’ because they are an extension of who we are – we make them real because they are from us (arguably, part of our legacy of sharing in the task of creation when we named the animals) – and they are real because they have real consequences. Our virtual interactions with others will ultimately impact with a real person at the far end. We can be ‘different people’ on a night out with the lads or sitting in church on a Sunday morning and virtualisation has simply been an extension of that. But it offers greater scope for identity adoption and it often offers the veneer of anonymity and impermanence. It’s easier than ever to be whoever we want to be.

There are the obvious issues raised about ethical integrity and moral behaviour but I want to pick up on the issue of self-identity. When we adopt a contextual identity, whether it is who we are sitting in the pub, or our character in WoW, it is an extension of who we are. It cannot be otherwise, surely? That’s not to say that it necessarily represents a ‘significant’ part of who we are. It may be that tiny fraction of our personality that needs released every now and again for a bit of fun or it may be a large part of who we ‘are’ and what is important to us. The problem is that we are very bad at making relative judgements and tend towards the absolute. For example, I like to blog about systematic theology, therefore I must be an ‘academic’ with no understanding of real-life pastoral concerns. OK, bad example maybe. But joking aside, it’s an example of how one public persona could potentially be seen as representative of the whole person. Virtualisation compounds this problem with no discerning value-judgement being made on the ‘weight’ of each contextual identity. Added to that there is the possibility of many, many contextual identities and there may be little or no knowledge of the others from the one being looked at (and evaluated).

These issues are, arguably, purely sociological, and that would be true. But they do have a theological or faith dimension. Not least because some of those contextual identities may well representing a person’s faith, or ethics, or morals. But there is also the issue of ‘self’ and, from a Christian faith perspective, that is a theological issue.

Each of these contextual identities is real and so they are part of the real ‘us’ – they define who we are. Each aspect may represent a greater or smaller fraction of the whole, but they are nevertheless ‘us’. Furthermore, if we acknowledge that we are ‘fallen’ creatures then some (all) of those parts will be less than perfect. And it may well be that the ‘biggest’ aspect of us that is seen (virtually or otherwise, but especially virtually) is the least perfect.

And so integrity of ‘self’ becomes an issue. How de we ensure we are not misrepresented by those contextual identities and yet allow them to exist as part of who we are? But maybe that’s not our problem, but lies with others – how they perceive us, who they understand us to be given only the snapshots of us which appear in any given context. And therein lies another issue. We are not static beings. We grow, we learn, we change our minds, our views, our behaviour. Who we are is in a state of flux as we are moulded and shaped, brought down and raised back up again. Indeed the Christian belief in resurrection is not purely a future-focused one, but is a present reality as well. We are always in a time when we ‘die to self’ and become more Christ-like.

Therefore, the Christian understanding of forgiveness becomes all the more relevant as well. In many respects the internet is like a very large elephant – it never forgets. There is no shortage of websites where archive snapshots can be found of all manner of online mutterings are preserved for posterity. Any information we put ‘out there’ can be reused and further disseminated by others. Arguably it is no longer our own, but our fingerprints are still all over it. In a sense we cannot escape our virtual past and so our history, which is always bound into our sense of self, becomes more and more difficult to escape. But our past history, however influential on who we are now, is not who we are now. Christians, like everyone else, can be very good at dredging up the past but Christians should, out of anyone, be most aware of how that past can be set aside. If it were not so then Jesus stands for nothing and the cross is meaningless.

One final thought, and one that goes of on a bit of a tangent. Last Sunday evening I heard a sermon that got into a discussion of the nature of the Trinity. One picture offered was of a three-piece jigsaw, each part interlocking with the other two. It’s an unfortunate image in many respects, especially as the words used seemed to imply that each was ‘part’ of the whole and somehow lesser when ‘separated’. But in critiquing it we have the same issue of ‘self’ in the context of this discussion. We see these contextual identities somehow as individual parts of a jigsaw – not representative of the whole and incomplete without the rest of the pieces. But the problem is, like the relationship in the Trinity, there is no disconnectedness from the whole. Each piece may appear to exist in isolation, but that would be to misunderstand the nature of ‘self’. Each piece is shaped and formed by its relationship to the whole and so must contain some sense of the ‘whole’ within the ‘part’. But does that mean that we can extrapolate the ‘whole’ from the ‘part’? With the Godhead, yes, for it exists in perfect relationship. But for us, no, for our relationships, with one another and with ‘self’, are not perfect. But that, surely, is the challenge to who we are – to grow into better relationship and become more ‘integrated’. What, then, is the challenge to us for our contextual identity?

These are some of the things the seminar ought to have been addressing. Whether that’s the direction they are heading remains to be seen.

4 responses to “Contextual identity”

  1. Hi John,

    Very thoughtful post!

    Completely agree with your points about our complex make-up. Virtual technologies are such a fantastic way to facilitate communication and information sharing, but getting to know someone’s  character more deeply maybe needs time spent in their company? I think that the challenge for the church is to continue to embrace the possibilities of new technology for mission and “being church” whilst considering how more face-to-face Christian community can be fostered. That’s not to say it has to be of the sit in the pew and listen to the sermon on a Sunday morning variety!

    Hope all’s well with you.


  2. We are not one person all of the time, we are many personas at different times, and this is to me a necessary biopsychological condition to stop as being overwhelmed (and possibly harmed)…a necessary limitation of our corporeal existence.

    The world is of course an incredibly complex (and often dangerous) environment and to a great extent our biological condition provides us with the only practical method of effectively and safely interacting with it…by design if you like. The perceivable processes of identification and categorisation that allow us to make associations and affiliations with others in this world are pretty much predetermined therefore. However, that’s not to say that ‘we are what we are…’ of course. Biology is just the building block of human personality, and the sum total of sociopsychological influences ultimately determines how creatively we concoct ourselves in any given situation.

    The CV-like characters we create for use in ‘cyberspace’ aren’t that much different to any other transient persona we use for any given situation it would seem. However, I think our virtual personas assume much less responsibility, provide no real emotional connection, and are, more often than not, completely incidental to our real world existence. They are akin to having a chat with a someone on a train on a one off journey: you strike up a conversation, you don’t give away personal details, you shape yourself favourably for the duration of the journey, and once that journey ends the persona is discarded….and furthermore, the journey never really happened, you only imagined it!

    I think we have to be careful not to lose ourselves to this attractive but limited world. I do believe we should ground our ourselves in the real world, where interactions with others (relationships) are potentially more permanent, more meaningful and where responsibility is something that is unavoidably learnt.

  3. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the link, but it’s a paid subscription service and my Uni doesn’t seem to be signed up to any sharing agreement.

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