Me, Myself And I 7296

Me, Myself And I


In this blog, David James, chairperson of IET Sussex Network, discusses how we perceive ourselves, considering both old philosophical thoughts and behaviour of people in present digital age.

I was recently reading a book on philosophy (Fullerton, 1915), as one does during a lockdown, and was particularly interested in the views of philosophers through the ages on the subject of the ’mind’ and how people viewed themselves beyond their physical self. Views lurched from one extreme to the other and were almost always contentious, with different factions holding different views. Early philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle considered the mind to be somehow divorced from the body, like a breath, and then Descartes, in the seventeenth century, decided that the mind was located within the pineal gland in the centre of the brain. In the twentieth century (and perhaps before) it seems that views of the mind fell into two main camps, interactionism and parallelism. I’m probably doing philosophy a disservice if I summarise them by saying that the former sees no difference between the physical nature of the brain and the mind, each experience inducing some physical change or activity in the brain, whereas the latter places consciousness, as it were, on a parallel line to the physical interaction of senses, nerves and brain.

I can’t bring philosophical thought on this subject into the 21st century, since the book I was reading was published in 1915. However, in the July 2021 issue of E&T there was an interview with Tracey Follows (IET, 2021), a ‘futurist’. She considered what it means to be an individual, how that is changing as more and more people embrace the digital age and asks whether our identities can survive 21st-century technology. Follows asks “who is in charge of authenticating me, if not me?” She says that other people, mainly large technology companies, have a say in who we are and how we represent ourselves online and believes that we may need to construct a digital alias in order to travel in cyberspace so as to protect our real self.

Of course, proving ones identity online is a problem that we face today, as anyone who has tried to open an online savings account will know. Currently we use physical entities that identify a name, such items as a passport, a photograph and an official letter linking an address of a house or an apartment  with our name. These are used by banks and building societies as part of the process of opening an account. Sometimes they want to see the original document, but some will accept a colour copy of your passport. However it is really just an extension of what you would do if you went into a branch. Providing this type of supporting material is becoming more difficult as utility companies encourage us to go paperless.

It seems to me that many people already create a digital alias so as to generate anonymous accounts on email and social media. By doing this they can produce a purely digital self that has no connection to their real selves. To my mind, the only reason for doing this seems to be because they want to say something that others will find contentious, disagreeable or offensive and so they are hiding behind anonymity. Perhaps if everyone was required to authenticate their online account, linking it to their real self, users of social media would be more cautious about what they post. Certainly if banks can authenticate a person’s identity, then technology companies must surely be able to do the same.

It is also interesting to note that when we are online we are part of a global community. Not many years ago we identified ourselves with a village, town or country. Now we are more likely to identify with a group of people who are spread across the world, individuals who have a shared interest or view.

Would the use of our real identity for all digital platforms, so that everything we say is attributable to us, our real selves, make our online society become part of our physical society? Would making our digital presence act as an extension of our physical presence encourage us to interact with others online in a similar way to face-to-face interaction and make us a more considerate society? It probably needs more than a philosopher to answer these questions.

Fullerton, G.S. (1915), An introduction to philosophy, Norwood, Mass., USA: Norwood Press
IET (2021), ‘Interview’, Engineering & Technology, Vol.16 Iss. 6, July 2021, p64-67
Blog IET Sussex Network 02/08/2021 4:50pm BST


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