Photo by Alessandro Calabrese
The question of identity has preoccupied the philosophical debate for centuries. The simple questions “who are we?” (and, to a slightly different degree, “who am I?”) have been an engine of epistemology for the longest time. We haven’t really reached any definitive conclusion, but some have at least agreed on the fact that that was never the point. Humans are all part of the same race, but a marquee trait resides in the million differences that shape us as unique individuals — be they physical, behavioral, or related to outside fields such as personal belief, religions, spirituality, education, etc. For many people, it would even be hard to describe themselves as persons with a singular identity. Time, emotions, contingencies and other factors determine a certain level of fluidity that can lead the path to very open identities, bordering a multitude of them. Something that has never been truer than it is now for literally billions of people, thanks to the advent of digital identities. Who are we — online? How does our virtual self change from our in-real-life persona, and how do the two interact? If the future is going to be a mostly digital affair — as the much-discussed concept of the metaverse portends — what will our future identity look like? As you may have guessed by now, answers here are even more crumbly. But instead of parsing through the fields of philosophy (at the risk of verging dangerously toward cheap speculation), we had a chat with Mischa Dohler, an experienced technologist, university professor, entrepreneur, and musician currently serving as Chief Architect at Ericsson and working on 6G and other tech to come.
“A Failed Entertainment” is the result of a three-year research project in Milan, where Alessandro Calabrese photographed various aspects of the city, reflecting both its identity and his personal experience. He explored the potential of Google’s Reverse Image search, uploading his own photos and collecting visually similar images from the web. These anonymous images were printed on acetate sheets, overlapped, and backlit, creating a multifaceted lightbox effect that separated them from the original photos. Calabrese then scanned these acetate groups into a new digital image, resulting in a transformed and unfamiliar but closely related version of his original work.
How do you define identity?
That’s a very philosophical, difficult question you are asking me upfront, right? So… I think identity is affinity. What you really have an affinity with, what has shaped you, what has built you. It could be a cultural affinity, a circumstantial affinity, a family, work, etc. It is, essentially, a kind of permanent imprint left from a lot of fleeting encounters. Identity, like Rome, isn’t built in a day. So you’re building it, you’re shaping it, you’re sculpting it. It is not something you can just buy and get it, and it’s yours — it is something that is crafted over time, from fleeting moments. So, things that have happened: your mother saying something, your friends doing something, you processing some things, something happening in the street or whatever… again, it builds up over time. Does it make sense?
Yeah. So it’s really that aggregate effect of many fleeting moments for me. That’s how it’s shaped up.
But do you think there are some things related to your identity that you’re born with?
Presumably, yes. But I’m not a geneticist, so I don’t know what the data is on this, data that suggests identity is somehow imprinted from the DNA, etc. There will probably be studies confirming that there are twins with exactly the same DNA, meaning they come into this world with exactly the same conditions and yet end up having very different identities. I think that’s probably a baseline, but it erodes over time. It grows over time with that aggregation of fleeting moments you accumulate in your life.
Would you say that identity is something that has changed over time in the past few decades, with the evolutions in technology and society in general?
I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while. It all started with a discussion I had in London with the United Nations folks. Back then, I kind of realized that we moved from an era where the only thing that would matter is your passport into one where the only thing that matters is your password. It is very subtle but very important. Back then, all that mattered was your geographic identity. You’re Italian, so your fleeting moments were shaped by, you know, speaking to your parents, your friends at school, reading the newspaper… that was shaping your Italian-ness, that was your identity. And it all manifested in this kind of gravitational document called the passport. If you lost your passport, it really was the end of the world! People would panic. And now we’re in an era where if you lose your passport, nobody really cares. You have another set of documents. What is really worrying people is not the passport but the password. Today our identity is defined by the platforms we use and how much time we spend on them. We spend more and more of our time in different digital layers. One is maybe your workplace, the identity you have at work that is maybe attached to LinkedIn. So, there’s a Mischa on LinkedIn which has one kind of projection of my identity, the one in the professional workspace. And then you got the other social media — Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. And that’s a very different projection of who you are. We’re coming to this era where we have several identities, and we have to maintain them. What is the psychological, and psychiatric impact of that? I wouldn’t know. So that identity-splitting, can you almost call it personality-splitting? I don’t know. I don’t know what the impact is, but we definitely see that people will have different identities and different media. And therefore, you know, anything related to identity is now much more subtle, much more layered, much more fragmented with respect to the past, where everything was just gravitating around your passport.
I think it’s really interesting that your passport is the gateway to your physical world — the places you go to — and your password is your gateway to the digital world. But we’re living in both spaces, so what happens next? Should we bridge the two, as we live in a liminal space that contains both? Or maybe the physical world is increasingly not going to matter? Can you elaborate on that?
Ha, good question! I’m not sure I have the answer for that, but I personally think the physical presence is eroding over time. I mean, we still have to eat. But you know, the last few years that I lived in Europe, before Brexit, it didn’t really matter where you were from. And you’re right; it was quite a fluid kind of construct. It was more important to me who I connected with on Instagram. So, to answer your question, I think that the physical proxy shaping your identity is eroding over time. It’s being taken over by the digital identity. And I think with the emergence of the metaverse, you know, we’ll take a completely new turn as well. [The physical aspect is] getting weaker and weaker. It will never disappear, of course, because you still need to go get your coffee, talk to people you know, give a hug to your mother, etc. These types of things will always be around. But the main area where it’ll all play out will be the digital sphere, as well as the metaverse.
Photo by Alessandro Calabrese
When we meet people in the physical world, we can fake who we are, but there is always a sense of presence that makes people understand that maybe we are being fake. On the other hand, in a digital space, it’s very easy to manipulate one’s identity or just to present yourself as somebody you’re not. If, in the world of tomorrow, our first point of contact with people is increasingly going to be digital, do we have to be afraid about losing that sense of presence — of reality — as we cannot trust what we see?
Yeah, I think you’re in the right spot there. I think this is exactly what we should be worried about. On this Teams call there’s some latency between us — I would estimate something around 160 ms — and that doesn’t seem like a huge difference. It seems like we’re together: everything is good, we are having a good conversation. But in reality, we are lacking an emotional bond, which we have when we have people in front of us, in the physical world. And in the physical world, our brain is geared toward these 10, 20 ms engagements. That’s why the eye is actually attached to the brain and not the hand, as an example. Where it would be much better to have, because you could actually, you know, look around. The reason is that the human nerves are very slow. So, the eye needed to be extremely physically close to the processing unit — the brain — with a single nerve, actually. Anything I see here in this room is being processed within 10 to 20 ms, giving you that emotional bond you experience when you are with people. But technology is advancing at light speed, and we now have tech available, at least over shorter distances, which allows us to mimic these very low latency engagements and is fully immersive, not least because of advanced VR. And therefore, we will be able to cheat biology, almost, and invoke these very emotional bonds over digital media. And that means that the physical presence will be eroded even further. For some people, presumably, it is an opportunity. Some people would like to have the life of films like, I don’t know, Inception or The Matrix. They would like to have multiple abilities and identities, and do things they’re not able to do in the physical world. But for most of us, that is the very essence of humanity, the non-digitized humanity. That physical touch is very important. So it is a problem. We need to watch out for this, and maybe we need to have schools until a certain age where there should be no digital media or something. I’m not specifically suggesting solutions for that, but we need to watch out. Definitely.
If we look at “gen.one” of this, which could be social media, and the way it has shaped the way we talk to each other and how we present our very identity — the person we are on Instagram and the person we are on LinkedIn — there are already differences from who we are in real life, as we mentioned. If we try to project this into the future, should we just be worried, or is there room for excitement as well?
I mean, as a techie, I’m clearly very excited. You know, I’ve been driving a lot of that thinking, which is why I know about all these numbers. There is an opportunity to change the world for the better. But there’s always a risk, right? Think of wars, with the discovery of nuclear energy. There’s always that risk that we don’t manage well, and then humanity has shown to be very resistant to change. These transition periods are always very painful. In King’s College, a whole department was studying that change, how people deal with change, and how long it takes for them to absorb it. They found it’s roughly half to one generation for people to embrace that properly. Look at the age when cars were introduced, which was painful to quite a few people. Then we introduced the Internet, and it was the same story again, and then social media on top of the Internet… But now our kids are growing up with that natively. Sometimes, as parents, we think they just don’t know, but they’re actually dealing with it their way. You can’t stop that flow. It will happen. Change will happen. Now it’s the metaverse: it’s coming. But we need to learn how to deal with it and just really pay attention that it doesn’t cause a lot of harm — or harm at all, actually.
It almost feels as if we are somehow changing dimensions, doesn’t it? We are changing the nature of the things we do, and so we need to adjust our identity. We need this to fit into new communities, to find a new sense of belonging. The point is, does it all blend together? Or are these new realities going to cause a new kind of separation and conflict?
I’m not sure we are going into a new dimension. I mean, we’ve always moved — through biological evolution, then social demographic evolution, which is still ongoing… and then it’s all been dwarfed by the digital evolution. And we don’t know what the endgame is. It could be that we realize that, as biological beings, we’re just very inefficient and ineffective. Or maybe we move toward somewhere closer to The Matrix. It could go either way. However, I do agree on the importance of communities, which you have pointed out. Communities are a very human thing, and technology is helping us build them. I use tech every day to connect with my family, who lives tens of thousands of kilometers away from me. That sort of community-building is definitely happening. When we tie that back to the idea of identity, on the other hand, things change. If you are part of a community and that shapes your identity, when some form of external force brings in conflict, you do feel attacked. If you don’t, then that community isn’t part of your identity, full stop. Does that make sense?
Photo by Alessandro Calabrese
It does! But I want to touch on the idea of separate dimensions a little more. The physical world and the digital world may be blending, and this conflict may well help define our identity, as you say. But there is still a physical me that is somewhat detached from my digital presence that in real life makes a difference. At the moment, I am sitting behind the screen, and for all you know, I may be in my pajamas! The rules of engagement inevitably change in the digital sphere. Some things are just not possible in the physical world. And so, does this separation create an identity split, or will we just start taking these things for granted?
What I think is that there is no digital brain. All these layers you are calling dimensions can be distinguished — the Facebook dimension, the Instagram dimension, the LinkedIn dimension, etc. Let’s go with Instagram. Suppose you start portraying yourself as this super-rich influencer taking selfies on expensive planes and white-sand beaches. There is no element of identity there at all. But then the moment somebody actually finds out is when you get very angry because your opportunity to continue being that influencer is threatened. And that’s when conflict arises: your identity is questioned, jeopardized, violated, and something sleeting and ethereal does turn into a form of identity. But still, this is purely reflected in your physical brain — it doesn’t happen in the metaverse. Whatever happens in the digital space all comes back to this proxy here, our physical brain.
Someone said that one’s perception of themselves is not determined by what other people think of them, but rather what they think other people think of them. Is that exacerbated in the digital sphere, leading to stronger, more powerful identity crises?
I do think so, yes. In the digital realm, we have more of these dimensions, and the overall velocity of everything is much higher. The difference between what you can be versus what you want to be is bigger, and not very many people actually manage to handle digital media well. So that inevitably leads to more identity crises, yes.
What is your responsibility as a technologist in all of this?
I believe it was Vint Cerf, one of the three fathers of the Internet, who argued that some two hundred years ago, nobody had any privacy at all. You lived in a city or village and everybody knew what you were doing. There was no notion of privacy. Then the industrial revolution came, the places we lived and worked merged, and as a side result, the need to separate the two emerged in the form of privacy. The Internet doubled down on that, and people started to feel that their privacy was being more and more violated because we rightly feel we have a right to privacy. And there is certainly work we can do up and down the tech stack. We at Ericsson work at the piping level, so we are always trying to understand what we can do from that point of view. Then you move up, and a company like Facebook has a different set of responsibilities. It is a huge challenge, but we are definitely on top of that. There’s a whole group of people working on these issues specifically in every single company I can think of.
Photo by Alessandro Calabrese
Let’s talk about the metaverse. Do you think that it’s going to be open, a bit like the Internet, and a space where companies tend to collaborate more? Or are we going to see more of a private metaverse, where the realities created by companies like Microsoft and Facebook don’t really talk to each other? And how does that relate to our digital identity of the future? Will we have a shared, consistent, interoperable digital self or several private, distinct ones?
It’s all so fresh that I’m not sure anybody has an ultimate answer, but I think it’s good to talk about the metaverse. At the moment, in whatever form we look at it, the metaverse is little more than an over-the-top application. Standards bodies are looking at standardizing elements of the metaverse, but unless we standardize it properly, there is a strong risk of it being a winner-takes-all kind of scenario, with two or three dominant, proprietary metaverses, each with its own characteristics. Which, obviously, would mean having different identities, and different social constructs. I don’t think we will have one platform. Today we have Facebook, we have Instagram, we have Twitter… I think it will play out like that. I wish I could say that there will be just one, but I don’t see it happening.
What about interoperability, though? Will the different digital selves “talk” to each other in some way? Adding on to that, could it be that it’s just one digital identity with different “looks”?
Again, I wish I could tell you that there will be complete interoperability, but the past has shown us that it’s not that simple. Will we be able to transfer assets? Yeah, I think that will be possible. On that front, we have definitely moved forward. Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable to even move stuff from Facebook to Instagram and then to Twitter or whatever. Today we can do it. Even in just a very rudimentary form, when you share something, you do have the option to push the same content to three or four different platforms. When it comes to the metaverse and tomorrow, I think that the blockchain will help us not just with cross-compatibility, but also with tracking the provenance of digital media, accountability, even the tracing of ownership — that’s what NFTs are for. I would hope that using blockchain technology you will be able to port the digital assets you own everywhere else. I think this will happen. But again, this is not native interoperability; this is still very much over-the-top interoperability.
Given the power Big Tech has today, the idea that the same dynamics might be replicated — and even amplified — in the metaverse should probably have all of us worried, especially considering that the digital world, in which we will spend more and more of our time, is a place that can be tightly controlled. What is your take?
Ultimately, I think it all boils down to dependency. There are some services we just can’t live without — for me, that would be Google Maps — and when we use them, we sign up with our accounts, accept the terms and conditions without reading them, and then just hope for the best. And, you know, Facebook has shown us that it doesn’t exactly go well all the time, which is presumably what happens with other companies too. Maybe there needs to be some regulation. But the one thing we need is alternatives. For every Google Maps, there needs to be an Apple Maps, and users need to be able to choose so that in the end we don’t have a choice between the blue pill and the red pill, but rather a few blue pills and a few red pills. Maybe that’s a solution.