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Our Big Data Identities

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We live in identity economics. Social media channels keep our digital selves keep streaming together. Given the influence of big data and surveillance capitalism upon our lives, Mark Zuckerberg suggested that there can be no different identities for one’s co-workers or friends as this would diminish one’s integrity. The perennial question of the multiplicity of identities within different context has been of interest since Plato, technology seems to be reminding us of this question, as well.

Locke (1996) once proposed that it was by our memories of the past with the present that we could display a continuous identity. Such an understanding is akin to the concept of “technologies of the self” as offered by Facebook which is mainly about “telling the individual life story on a single page” as Zuckerberg stated. By collecting everything a user has uploaded through the Timeline function two different narratives are being told: a chronological narrative and a database narrative.

Locke’s identity unification regarding selfhood as exemplified by Facebook is not only about a rediscovery of individual past selves, but also one of compliance as the identity should also be not breachable. A sense of single selfhood based on Timeline on Facebook should provide a psychological safety for the integrity of identity. Based on the database aspect of the Timeline narrative, algorithmically selected posts are regularly written onto the user’s wall: the psychological concept of self reveals all the aspects of our identity as experienced across diverse contexts and times.

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Continuity or Discontinuity?

Given the trails of personal data we leave behind within the digital realm, shall we aim at an integrated self, or allow the disintegration of multiple, serial identities? Given the amount of personal data gathered by companies thanks to the rising trend of big data, it seems that surveillance capitalism will make a decision for our identities as well. There can be two approaches when it comes to determining our identities in our age:

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  • To conceive discontinuity of digital identity as an organic aspect of human existence, as opposed to an anomaly: Cutting away from the information already gathered on personal profiles and re-rooting as a different person — at least in terms of the information attributes gathered on databases — can be seen as part of human growth. Today’s globalized societies support such a discontinuity due to different digital encounters rooted in cultural differences and a variety of digital interactions. A professional aspiration or a spiritual orientation, all those things may be redirected without any social penalty.
  • To resolve the users are as who they are: This would allow algorithmic predictions about consumption behaviors, and subsequently financial profit.

Could the digital forces unifying our identities also increase chances for disintegration? Possibly. One example starts with intentionally introducing anomalies to test how users on social media platforms would respond to possibilities they wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to (Netflix Technology Blog, 2016). It may be that by doing so, Netflix enables identity disintegration by introducing unfamiliar interests and possibilities — new aspects of identity — to users.

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Congruency or Identity?

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The reason big data entertainment platforms (such as Netflix or Spotify) provide such experiences is to increase congruency. In this way, the unexpected suggestions would refine the platforms’ ability to define the users still further to predict matches still more accurately. Eventually, this big data business model would twist irregular experiences into identity resolution channels.

It has never been easier to get out of who we are by connecting with unfamiliar directions. The lived experience becomes the person who lives. How extreme can be these identity shifts experienced without being co-opted by the identity resolution machines?

The Way Forward

As stated in one of my previous articles, as we increase our ability for adaptive capacity we will become better human beings because of what we have learned in the process, just as we did in the past. We only need to have a little faith in ourselves to adjust to an uncertain future regardless of what we may be thrown at

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Ayse Kok
Ayse completed her masters and doctorate degrees at both University of Oxford (UK) and University of Cambridge (UK). She participated in various projects in partnership with international organizations such as UN, NATO, and the EU. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at Bosphorus University in her home town Turkey. Furthermore, she is the editor of several international journals, including those for Springer, Wiley and Elsevier Science. She attended various international conferences as a speaker and published over 100 articles in both peer-reviewed journals and academic books. Having published 3 books in the field of technology & policy, Ayse is a member of the IEEE Communications Society, member of the IEEE Technical Committee on Security & Privacy, member of the IEEE IoT Community and member of the IEEE Cybersecurity Community. She also acts as a policy analyst for Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research. Currently, she lives with her family in Silicon Valley where she worked as a researcher for companies like Facebook and Google.

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