Virtual Identities
Palazzo Strozzi



Franziska Nori
Antonio Glessi
Roberto Simanowski
Michael Wesch
Sherry Turkle
Sherry Turkle
Alone Together

Only fifteen years ago, in looking at the early internet, I felt a sense of optimism – I saw a place for identity experimentation – for trying out aspects of self that were hard to experiment with in the physical real. All of this still happens and all of this is still wondrous. But what I didn’t see is that mobile, portable connectivity, the world of the internet would mean that we would be able to bail out of the physical real at any time. And that we would want to. Once computers connected us to each other, once we became tethered to the network, we do not so much work at computers, keeping them busy. They keep us busy, very busy. It is as though we are their killer app.

We are on our e-mail, our games, our virtual worlds and social networks. We text each other at family dinners, while we jog, while we drive, as we push our children on swings in the park. We text each other at funerals. The children I interview say that their parents read them Harry Potter and hold the book with the right hand and scroll through their BlackBerry e-mails with their left. Young men tell me that their fathers used to watch Sunday sports with them and in between plays and during commercial used to talk with them – a special time for bonding – but now they sit at the television with their laptops or smart phones and do their messages and e-mail. These young men miss their dads.

I talk to teenagers who describe that moment when they come out of school and want to make eye contact with their parents – they would never, ever tell you they want to – and their parents are not looking up for them, their eyes are down, staring at their phones, scrolling through messages.

From these same young people I hear “the nostalgia of the young”. They talk about the idea of telephone calls made, as one eighteen-yearold puts it, “sitting down and giving each other full attention”. Teenagers grew up in a culture of distraction. They remember that their parents were on cell phones when they were pushed on swings as toddlers. Teenagers say that they sleep with their cell phones and even when their phones are put away – relegated, say, to a school locker – they know when they have a message or call. Indeed, for adults as well as teens, when we misplace our mobile devices, we become anxious. People feel their phones vibrating, even when they are not. It is called the “phantom ring”. Mobile technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of us.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies and these days there is no coyness about its aspiration to substitute life on the screen for the other kind. Technology is seductive when its affordances meet our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy. Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We can’t get enough of each other if, if we can have each other at a distance, in amounts that we can control. Like Goldilocks, not too close, not too far, just right. Connection made to measure. The ability to hide from each other even as we are constantly connected to each other. To put it simply, we’d rather text than talk. We can hide what we don’t like or fear in ourselves in media that lets us perform ourselves.  

To paraphrase Thoreau: “Where do we live and what do we live for in our new tethered lives?” Some answers are disturbing. Connectivity brings with it many bounties. But we are also vulnerable. We are too busy communicating to think. We are too busy communicating to create. We are too busy communicating to fully connect with each other. In continual contact, we are alone together.   Mobile technology reveals a great psychological truth: if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely. Having gotten into the habit of constant connection, we have lost our capacity for the kind of solitude that energizes and restores.   Continually online, distinctions blur. We are not sure who to count on. Virtual friendships and worlds offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment. We know this and yet the emotional charge of the online world is very high. People talk about it as the “place for hope”, the place where something new will come to them, the place where loneliness can be defeated. “It’s like having a little Times Square in my pocketbook. All lights. All the people I could meet.” People are lonely. Connectivity is seductive.  

What do we have, now that we have what we say we want, now that we have what technology makes easy?   Online, we put forth the self we want to be. We can communicate when we wish and disengage at will. We can choose not to see or hear our interlocutors. What we have is a technology that makes it easy to hide.   Mandy, thirteen, tells me she “hates the phone and never listens to voice mail”. She presents a downbeat account of a telephone call: “You wouldn’t want to call because then you would have to get into a conversation.” And conversation: “Well, that’s something where you only want to have them when you want to have them.” For Mandy, this “would [be] almost never. It [that is, conversation] is almost always too prying, it takes too long, and it is impossible to say ‘good-bye’.”   Stan, sixteen, will not speak on the telephone except when his mother makes him call a relative. “When you text”, he says, “you have more time to think about what you’re writing. On the telephone, too much might show.”  

This is not a teen problem. In corporations, among friends, within academic departments, people readily admit that they would rather leave a voice mail or send an e-mail than talk face-to-face. Some who say: “I live my life on my BlackBerry” are forthright about avoiding the real time commitment of a phone call. Here, we use technologies to “dial down” human contact, to titrate its nature and extent. People are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.  

Dan, a law professor in his mid-fifties, explains that he never “interrupts” his colleagues at work. He does not call; he does not ask to see them. He says: “They might be working, doing something. It might be a bad time.” I ask him if this behavior is new. He says: “Oh yes, we used to hang out. It was nice.” He reconciles his views that what was once collegial is now “interruption” by saying: “People are busier now.” But then he pauses and corrects himself: “I’m not being completely honest here: it’s also that I don’t want to talk to people now. I don’t want to be interrupted. I think I should want to, it would be nice, but it is easier to deal with people on my BlackBerry.”  

We become entrained in a vicious circle that does not go according to plan. We imagine that e-mail and texting will give us more control over our time and emotional exposure. But we send out a lot and get even more back, so many in fact that the idea of communicating with anything but staccato texts seems too exhausting. Shakespeare might have said: “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.”  

Adults, too, are overwhelmed. We measure success by calls made, e-mails answered, texts replied to, contacts reached. And here, we confront a paradox. We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think, uninterrupted. And we communicate with each other in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses; we don’t allow ourselves the space to explain complicated problems.   Our new connectivity changes the terms of how a generation comes into adulthood. Today’s young people grow up with the fantasy that, in some way, they will never have to be alone. Adolescents still have the “job” of separation, but it can be worked through in smaller steps. Now you may find yourself texting your parents fifteen times a day. And your friends, too, are always around. Feelings of being a bit stranded used to be considered a normal part of adolescence, a step toward being comfortable with autonomy. Connectivity makes it possible to bypass this feeling. They move from “I have a feeling I want to make a call” to “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.”  
Young people in constant communication move to a position that I would characterize as “I share therefore I am”.  

Technology does not cause but encourages a sensibility where the validation of a feeling becomes part of establishing it. Our contact list has become like a list of “spare parts” to support the fragile adolescent – or adult – self. But when we use people in this way we reduce them as we turn them to our own purposes. We take what we need. It is not the way to a real relationship.   Many turn to the metaphor of addiction to capture the power of the internet. We know why. A sixteen year old says: “Facebook has taken over my life.” She is not able to log off. Another says: “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull.” And we recently have learned that every time we do a search, our brains experience it as “seeking behavior” and reward us biochemically.  

However apt the metaphor of addiction, we can still afford the luxury of using it. It does not serve us well. It subverts our best thinking because it suggests that there is only one solution. To end addiction, you have to discard the substance. And we know that we are not going to get rid of the internet. We are not going to get rid of social networking. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children. Addiction with its one solution that we know we won’t take makes us feel hopeless, passive.   We will find new paths, but a first step will surely be to not consider ourselves passive victims of a bad substance, but to acknowledge that in our use of networked technology, we have incurred some costs that we don’t want to pay. Then, we will be open to repair, moving forward, and repair again. We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything.  
As we consider all this, we will not find a “solution” or a simple answer. But we cannot assume that the life technology makes easy is how we want to live. There is time to make the corrections. And this brings me to my second point: we are in early days.  

Because we grew up with the Net, we assume that the Net is grown up. We tend to see what we have now as the technology in its maturity. This is a dangerous habit of thought. We need to remember that we are in very early days. The affordances of the tethered life speak to our vulnerabilities. But we don’t have to respond to everything that talks to us this way. Every technology provides an opportunity to ask: “Does it serve our human purposes?” a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are.

From the exhibition catalogue "Virtual identities", published by Silvana Editoriale, 2011.


Special project: I AM NEDA
Special project: ME 2.0