It was one the first weeks of my – recently then – move to Manchester in 2014. The, I cannot recall the number, new edition of Big Brother was on TV. The show barely amuses me anymore, but my attention was grasped by a particular set of events I was witnessing. I’m not sure if this is something that has been happening in recent editions of the show, but surely it was new for me. Every time someone entered the house, it was preceded by a description of the future guest using three short facts that were also superimposed on the screen. Things like ‘he is afraid of failure’ or ‘she loves dogs’. Can we be defined by a number of short statements? Is that how identity formation works today? Far from letting the thought cast away, I lingered on it.
I’ve been playing Watch Dogs lately, and the question of how identities are constructed nowadays – what I’ve been asking myself all my whole career as academic – has strongly come back to me with new arguments. In the universe of Watch Dogs, there this Orwellian surveillance system called ctOS (of course, this is not how they promote it to the general public), which can access and control any electronic device or element that is digitally governed (from smartphones and computers to steam pipes and explosives). The system is constantly recording and storing what you say, what you do, what you write; everything that can be grasped through those devices that surround us in our everyday lives. Any similarity with reality is… mere coincidence? We live in a postpanopticon era, indeed. The Foucauldian panopticon – thanks to its success – has exploded, as if had been shattered into countless little fragments that would still maintain intact their ability to watch. Nothing escape the multiple and fragmented eye of this particular Big Brother.
What really caught my eye in the game was, again, those defining short facts. Whenever I used my profiler (a hacking tool that allows you to access the guts of ctOS), a myriad of information about the people who was around me was popping up on my screen. Yet again, sentences such as ‘Joined aerophobia group’, ‘Dyslexic‘, ‘Cited for animal cruelty’ or ‘Explosives expert’ were frantically appearing and disappearing in front of my eyes. Everything was also accompanied by information on their age, occupation and income. Matching all this data would be very interesting, but in this case I’m going to focus on those short facts.
Let’s have a closer look at the issue by delving deeper into some examples. I’ve decided to group them in different categories to facilitate the analysis. It’s important to notice that the way I classified the cases is not excluding and may feel clumsy, but it’s part of the point I will make. This is only a rough summary of a more detailed analysis I will carry out in a future entry. Keep an eye on it because it’s a very interesting sociological experiment.
Old(-ish) modalities of identity
This category encompasses those cases I consider they are part of the old pool of identity: nationality, ethnicity, family, work, gender, class, and so forth. However, we will find that something has changed; even the old modalities of identity show flaws, they are not as closed, strong and indisputable as they were. It reflects the profound changes and contradictions in the process of identity construction nowadays. There are no more taken for granted positions. It includes things like class (‘Descended from aristocracy’, ‘Owns a castle in Wales’), ethnicity (‘One-eight Kickapoo’), nationality (‘Romanian immigrant’, ‘Dual citizen’), work (‘Freelancer’, ‘Part-time paparazzi’) or family (‘Divorced’, ‘Single parent’).
Beliefs, and political and religious stances
This could have been one of the categories within the traditional modes of identity, but the game seems to pay especial attention to political and religious content. We have here, then, a sample of the complex and disarranged system of beliefs that belongs to Watch Dogs’ universe. This includes religion (‘Religious conservative’, ‘Listed as agnostic on census’, ‘Jainist’), political stances (‘Islamophobe’, ‘Member of eugenics group’, ‘Anti-capitalist blogger’, ‘Advocate for euthanasia’), and philosophical and existential views (‘Objectivist’, ‘Nihilist’, ‘Superstitious’).
Skills and abilities
To define someone by his or her expertise is a sign of how identities are constructed nowadays. Actually, this only makes sense in a widely extended expert culture that permeates society. In the end, people who are defined by what they know or what they can do.
The skills and abilities stressed by ctOS perfectly fit in the context of our contemporary societies. If we live in a digital age (Kirby, 2009; Gere, 2008), it seems to be reasonable to be defined by facts like ‘Proficient with computers’ or ‘Amateur App Programmer’. Of course, there is still place for old modes of expertise (‘European history expert’) along with useful multi-purpose skills for the world of globalisation like ‘Explosives expert’ and ‘Speaks multiple languages’.
Hobbies and passions
In a world where play and work are intertwined in different ways, and the time and space for leisure and other activities are less differentiated than ever, hobbies and passions are likely to be relevant when it comes to defining our identities. Depending on the level of engagement and experience acquired through these hobbies, individuals might develop a particular expertise in the field. In a way, this is strongly linked to skills and abilities but I will focus on the idea of what we love and are passionate about, which includes spectacles (‘Amateur magician’, ‘Amateur choir soubrette’), the occult (‘Cthulhu enthusiast’, ‘Amateur ghost hunter’), the unique (‘Foreign film enthusiast’, ‘Renaissance fair enthusiast’), the banal (‘Car enthusiast’, ‘Yoga enthusiast’, ‘Knitting enthusiast’), fandom (‘Soccer fan’, ‘Basketball season pass holder’), and collectionism (‘Comic book collector’, ‘Collects arcade cabinets’).
Illegalisms and other faults
When Foucault, in his Discipline and Punish (1995), approached how western societies have historically dealt with illegalisms, he came to a (maybe not that) shocking conclusion: despite the dominant discourse that shrouds imprisonment institutions (as any other confinement institution), the final aim of prisons is not to rehabilitate the convicted but to mark them as criminals as part of an economy of bodies that maintains them under control. It serves more as a tool to govern society as a whole than to help to those who enter the prison system. Therefore, do illegalisms have an impact on our identities? More than that; they brand the individual by leaving a mark on the deep skin of their identity.
In a world obsessed with surveillance and crime prevention, slowly slipping towards a dystopic future not even imagined by Orwell or Huxley, this looks like a very appropriate way to categorise people. This includes bans (‘Banned for local gym’, ‘Banned from local church’), driving issues (‘Multiple unpaid tickets’, ‘Drives without license’), documents (‘Expired work visa’, ‘False identity on library card’, ‘Holds a fake degree’), suspicions (‘Suspect in hit-and-run’, ‘Suspected arsonist’), justified crimes (‘Assaulted high school bully’, ‘Assaulted client for refusing to pay’), and financial debts and fines (‘Multiple outstanding loans’, ‘Fined for indecent exposure’).
Defined by your past
As someone who has studied the links between cultural heritage and identity, I am in the position to state that we are what we are thanks to, up to a great extent, what we were (or what we think we were). The fact that we can identify what we used to be is actually demarcating what we are now or what we are starting to become (even if it’s not clear at the moment). ctOS seems to characterise some people according to what they were in the past, as though it were so overwhelming that it would not let space for new identity formations. Among these past definitions we find things such us ‘Made porn film in college’, ‘Former child prodigy’, ‘Ex-military’ and ‘Former chess champion’.
Traumatic events are a subset of particular incidents from the past that define yourself today. Identities are, more or less, the set of marks imprinted on our bodies, minds and souls. We are born with some of them; others are acquired and disposed during our lifetime. There are those that are deep and indelible, while others are superficial and fleeting. Traumatic events are scarring and leave ugly and irreversible marks on the surface of our identities. Examples of this are ‘Victim of childhood abuse’, ‘Got his niece killed’, ‘Grandparents fled East Germany’, ‘Attempted suicide’, and ‘Disaster survivor’.
Losses, absences and non-existences
In the same way that you can be defined by what you were as much as what you are, you can be defined for what you lack as much as for what you have. Absences can be trivial or traumatic, but all of them have substantial defining properties. It’s the significant absence. Sometimes, the emptiness left by a loss is more powerful than any presence. Events ranging from ‘Lost front teeth in a fight’, or ‘Phone reported stolen’ to ‘Presumed dead’ (your existence defined by a non-existence) belong to this group.
Illnesses and other health conditions
Illnesses, like illegalisms, are part of those taxonomic operations that segregate the abnormal from the normal (Gordon, 1991: 37) in the collective imagination of the modern citizenship. We living in societies that have a vast knowledge of thousands of different illnesses and other health conditions, it is almost impossible not to suffer from one or several conditions during our lifetime. We are so traversed by these diseases nowadays that illnesses do not play that segregating role typical of modern societies anymore. The healthy and the sick are not easily told apart; there are different shades of healthiness or sickness.
It seems that ctOS has an interest in highlighting particular illnesses and conditions: sex related (‘Dignosed with STD’, ‘Medicated for low libido’), phobias (‘Self-diganosed with aquaphobia, ‘Gymnophobic’), addictions (‘Alcoholic’), potentially deadly illnesses (‘Terminally ill’, ‘HIV positive’, ‘Diagnosed with hepatitis C’, ‘Undergoing chemotherapy’, ‘Early stages of sclerosis multiple’), allergies (‘Allergic to bee stings’, ‘Lactose intolerant’, ‘Alergic to chocolate’), mental illness (‘Diagnosed manic depresive’, ‘On medication for schizophrenia’, ‘Dignosed bipolar’, ‘Sociopathic tendencies’), other health conditions (‘Myopic’, ‘Narcoleptic’, ‘Haemophilia carrier’, ‘Suffers from motion sickness’, ‘Dyslexic’, ‘Medicated for blood pressure’).
Sex and relationship issues
Sexual practices and the way we engage in relationships are fundamental parts of what we are and how we think of ourselves. It implies one of the most carnal and affective activities of human beings. They shake our bodies and minds; they are feral and cerebral at the same time. This includes the modes of building sexual or affective relationships (‘Engages in prostitution’, ‘Speed dater’), affairs (‘Having affair with married woman’, ‘Having affair with co-worker’), or sexual practices (‘Self-proclaimed necrophiliac’, ‘Practices S&M’).
The specific and the regular
Even if it sounds contradictory, individuals can be identified both for very particular episodes (the specific) and for what they normally do (the regular). The regular encompasses things like ‘Meditates regularly’, ‘Collects coupons’, ‘Runs DDoS attacks’, or ‘Habitual steroid user’. The specific, however, is more volatile and makes reference to things such as ‘Attacked by drunk patron’, ‘Negotiating rent with landlord’, ‘Recently ordered human tissue samples’, and ‘Has multiple computer viruses’.
Consumption and searches
Consumerism and consumer culture are one of the most noticeable features of postmodernity. According to Bauman, the ‘way present-day society shapes up its members is dictated first and foremost by the need to play the role of the consumer’ (2005: 24). Therefore, our identities are increasingly demarcated by what we consume. That also explains why identities have become fragmented, multiple and ephemeral. Watch Dogs is not oblivious to this global tendency and thus shows us consumption patterns (‘Purchases penis enlargement pills’, ‘Downloads pirated media’, ‘Frequent purchases: mask’, ‘Frequently purchases condoms’), what is frequently watched (‘Frequently watches torture porn’, ‘Frequently watches documentaries’, ‘Frequently watches westerns’, ‘Frequently watches reality shows’). Furthermore, and bringing this practice to digital age, ctOS also displays frequently visited websites (‘Frequents paranormal sites’, ‘Frequents hacker sites’, ‘Posts voyeur videos online’) and online searches (‘Frequent online searches: “Rape”‘, ‘‘Frequent online searches: “Blume”‘, “‘Frequent online searches: “how to cook meth”‘, ‘Frequent online searches: “Bicurious”‘).
Although all of the following short facts could be easily placed within other categories, I’ve decided to introduce them in this particular section because of its reflexivity (it’s a video game after all!). Here we can find things such as ‘NVZN beta tester’, ‘Attends games conference’, ‘MMORPG enthusiast’, ‘Addicted to social gaming’, and ‘Avid video game player’.
Extreme and absurd
As if the very idea of defining someone by a short fact was not (sort of) absurd enough, I’ve created this group to highlight those descriptions that seemed to be especially extreme (‘Buried victims beneath his house’, ‘Experiment with cannibalism’, ‘Fishes with dynamite’), absurd (‘Maintains blog about “bucket lists”‘, ‘Runs with the bulls in Spain’, ‘Sober’) or irrelevant (‘Uses computer library for internet’, ‘Uses birthday as password’).
Before I continue with my argument, let’s have a look at the following classification:
In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (1) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies (Borges, 1999: 231).
I have to admit that every time I read this classification of animals (a fictional account extracted from the vivid imagination of Borges, who attribute it to a a certain Chinese encyclopaedia) it makes me laugh. The list is disconcerting, if not hilarious. Why does this classification have that effect on us? Foucault, at the beginning of his The Order of Things and after bringing up this delirious classification, concludes that, when confronted with other systems of thought, we start to understand the limits of our own: ‘the stark impossibility of thinking that’ (1989: xvi). That extravagant classification belongs to a different fundamental form of knowledge, what Foucault called episteme, which makes think within its limits impossible for us:
In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice (Foucault, 1989: 183).
The episteme delimits the space of the thinkable inside a particular society at a specific time. The further you move from those temporal and spatial coordinates, the greater is the possibility of coming across a different ground of positivity. In a way, the astonishment that probably most people feel when they read some of the short facts that ctOS insist on throwing to our screens could be explained by that approach. It shows the seams of our old episteme in its transition to the new conditions of possibility, where the way we think about identities is radically changing. That’s also why the cases I selected could have been classified differently and they would have made equal (non)sense. In fact, the central issue here is that those solitaire descriptions escape any attempt to classify them.
Thus, why does a system like CToS, which knows everything about everybody, highlights those specific facts? In terms of identity, why should very specific aspects of someone’s life define them or be relevant aspects of him or her? My hypothesis here is there are no longer core elements that define identity in contemporary societies; the old coordinates by which people was understood (nation, gender, class) have been decentred, and now new elements, almost randomly, are becoming as important as them in order to define someone’s identity. That would explain, for instance, why our most frequent searches on the Internet might be as important for our processes of identity formation as the illnesses we have. Or why having our computer infested with viruses is as relevant as being a suspected arsonist.
The important question is, then, whether it is possible to be defined by one short fact or not. Once our identities seem not to be attached to specific meta-narratives, other fragments of meaning, more and more specific and global at the same time, are occupying the stage of identity. That’s the reason we are defined by what pops up in that moment, by what is relevant at that point: it can change at any time, with new events, when you are in different contexts, with different people; it can change the same day several times, in a continuous overlapping process. What ctOS does is to highlight what matters in that moment, what is relevant for the time and place being. Precisely because we cannot be defined by something that encompasses everything we are, we can be defined by anything that describes us in particular moment. The very notion of identity is being challenged. We are entering in a post-identity era.
I don’t know who the people behind the sociological design of Watch Dogs are. How did they come up with that almost infinite list of possible identity definitions? I would be more than pleased to meet them. There has been some criticism about the game’s story, depicting it as dull and not appealing enough. In this sense, some of the mechanics have been criticised for not being completely original and for not having made the most of the hacking features in the game. That might be the case, I am not a video game critic. What I am sure of is Watch Dogs has perfectly understood how identity, or what comes after it, works these days.
- Bauman, Zygmunt (2005). Work, Consumerism and the New Poor. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Borges, Jorge Luis (1999). Selected Non-Fictions. London: Penguin.
- Foucault, Michel (1989). The Order of Things. London: Routledge.
- Foucault, Michel (1995). Discipline and Punish. London: Vintage Books.
- Gere, Charlie (2008). Digital Culture. London: Reaktion Books
- Kirby, Alan (2009). Digimodernism. New York: Continuum
[This post was originally published at The Three-Headed Monkey]