Friday, 29 November 2013

Identity: Part 2

The first part (Identity - Part I) of this blog post discussed the parameters of our Identity that are either difficult or impossible to change. Exploring alternate parameters defining our Identity by our actions and behaviors can lend us more control in how we are perceived. A crisis is slowly creeping into such actively defined parameters of our Identity as political and social orders try to extend their control over people.

We can actively shape our behavioral traits, manners, body-language, spoken-language-accents, dress-sense, health-consciousness and intellectual-prowess. The economic wherewithal, geopolitical and social environment will help us achieve this at varying (personal) costs. This opportunity-cost makes it easier or less easier depending on parameters we do not control.

Read on for a deeper analysis and discussion of 'Identity' we can shape, for the most part ...

"The Prince and the Pauper" (Mark Twain) illustrates this contrast in a different age and time. Two similar characters having entirely different parameters in terms of environment, yet differing far lesser in physique and looks fall prey to their curiosities, ending up with mistaken Identity. The conclusion of the story also shows how a behavioral trait finally helped them restore their identities.

"Presentation" (of ourselves) helps build our identity. People perceive us in comparison with stereotypes. A certain level of refinement and stereotyping in body-lanaguage, manners, dress-sense, spoken-language (communication skills) as part of our presentation can be learned. This is almost a skillset, where we contend the genetic lottery that selected our features, complexion, height and looks - by either emphasizing some of those traits, or rendering them less profound.

A realistic look at identites and self-presentation
We shape with the assistance of Company (of individuals) [active environment] with collective mannerisms preferred in most parts of the world today. 'Scholastic education' provides us with this collective opportunity. Interactions at home, parental care helps us define our 'presentation' with ease. Differentiating mildly or radically from established stereotypes renders us unique or memorable or likeable.
Sadly, there exist geopolitical regions where changing our 'presentation' is less permissive. A group, culture or environment that forces women to wear a Burqa, denies them the right to education, imposing gender bias may exponentially increase the cost of the opportunity to refine ourselves. Afghanistan has a controversial political environment in which writing poems might cost lives for women. 'B R Ambedkar' who was key in drafting the Indian constitution had to pay a high cost to acquire education himself. Education was unavailable to him merely on account of his caste (a discriminative trait that society yet isn't rid of.)

Ethnic, Casteist or Racial discrimination where education, dress-code are defined by the ladders of society will also increase the opportunity cost in refining our 'presentation'. Increased opportunity-cost in modifying our 'presentation' to control our identity in some geopolitical and socio-economic conditions might be prohibitive. Addressing this collective problem of society is imperative for the growth of humanity itself.

Skills, Interests and Hobbies
Skillset often establishes identity. People were named after their profession during historic periods, including those dominated by feudal hierarchy. Acquisition of skills is easier today with more opportunities in most parts of the world. Naming someone by their profession is no longer possible primarily because our Identity has become 'flexible.'

'Julian Assange' has associated himself with the act of computer 'hacking' (more appropriately *cracking*) and with WikiLeaks. 'Richard Branson' is distinguished as an Entrepreneur. 'Steve Jobs' is identified with the company he spent most of his time with, "Apple" and its products. 'Margaret Thatcher' is identified with strong political leadership. Any celebrity or popular personality is most likely associated with a skill, subject or special-capability. Using every opportunity presented or carving new opportunites can help cultivate skills.

There are life-skills that define our personality and can be acquired in our pursuit of other skills and hobbies. Our identity is also heavily influenced by our life-skills which later improve our ability to acquire newer skills, or change perception of ourselves amidst others and unto ourselves.
Hobbies assist in defining our uniqueness. Hobbies need inclination, devotion and skill. 'Gul Panag', essentially a model, actress and activist from India spends time on fitness, running marathons, testing race-bikes, frequenting 'Twitter' - the social network making herself unique.

Political and Administrative Records
International socio-political structure is shaped by Nation states. Each Nation state grants citizens and temporary residents a set of rights. In return, they collect a vast amount of information from each individual. Originally this eased collection of taxes primarily for land-ownership rights. This information/record-keeping has thereafter increased to include detailso of our professional lives, personal lives [especially marriage, parenthood], civil law and criminal law violation record. 

These records are essentially designed to empower the state to exercise control over its citizens. The volume, quality and metrics of information held by the government or administrative authorities of nation-states affects perception of identity. Today, organizations and commercial/industrial companies also keep detailed records both in accordance with law and their own policies. 

Ease of Record-keeping in the "Information Age"
Advent of the "Information age" has spurred the movement of these records to shared digital and networked storage media. The result is easier access and susceptibility to abuse - either by learning identity without permission, falsifying identity or identity theft. A commercial, trade-driven market economy (built on top of capitalism) has begun to use such information to target customers, thereby discriminating on the basis of economic wherewithal.

In India, the National Informatics Center preserves such information together with other governmental bodies including the Bureau of Registries and Records. Sufficiently advanced nations have more resources to store such information. This information is used during employment, grant of licenses for simple tasks such as driving vehicles or specific trade activities. Civil security agencies like the police force also maintain records on criminal activity to provide better social security. 

These large data-storage facilities are termed "Data Centers." Typically the volume of data stored in such data-centers exceeds several Trillion bytes or Terabytes. That would represent at least a billion fully illustrated copies of the all volumes of 'Encyclopaedia Brittanica.' The sheer volume of data, and specialized means to access what is necessary at one's request empowers several applications (that are useful, including some that are utilitarian.) The same capacity also helps in maintaining daunting volumes of records of our personal activities on the Internet.

Identity Instruments
'Identity Cards', 'Passports', 'Voter IDs', 'Driving Licenses', 'PAN Cards', 'Credit/Debit/Cash Cards', 'Social Security Numbers', 'Insurance Cards' are distributed in an effort to collect this information. There are other purposes like permission to avail certain rights, health care and the like. Yet, misuse of Identity Instruments continues despite measures to secure them. These Instruments are susceptible to duplication, forgery and theft.

Each task we do leaves an imprint which can be recorded today. Privacy is afforded and availed both as a right and by personal choice in being able to perform tasks without having them recorded. Extremely intrusive state agencies like the infamous East German 'Stasi' listened in on almost every deed, depriving citizens of much needed privacy. This was before the advent of the information age where the cost of listening on citizens in much lesser.

Shaping Instruments of Identity and Records
These records need to be fed information in a manner that positively affects our identity. Partly, this depends on the identity instruments we choose to use which in turn depends on our intended activities. Some may prefer to limit the identity instruments they use to acquire more privacy. Others may prefer to keep their daily activities more open. Avoiding violation of the laws of state will usually help us stay away from negative records that will undermine our identity. [Some corrupt Nation-states falsify or misuse information as a discriminative measure on its citizens. This can only be rectified by strong activism which often requires a heavy personal cost.]

Digital Identity
The Internet, as a global communication medium was originally created as an open, anonymous network where ideas and expressions could be shared. 

Commercial capitalist market driven socio-economic drives has disturbed this trend "fencing" the Internet in a manner that, this requires too many identities. It is not merely access to the Internet that is controlled and recorded by the state, but our very activities - including what we read, perceive, express and communicate.

Today we have a rise in 'Digital censorship' - which has taken ugly turns in several nations. "Social Networking" (service) companies have made such information collection easier for governmental agencies (who can acquire the information from such companies with simple legal provisions.) There are several articles on sites such as 'Lifehacker' advising what should be shared on our social network posts, web logs and any shared digital diaries.

Personalized identification instruments that can be designed and controlled by us include 'Business Cards', 'Resumes' [e.g. VisualCV] and the like. These are easier to circulate in the digital age.

In addition to censorship, some agencies including both nation states and other organizations (inclusive of private/public entities) collect information without our express permission. Although this space has strong legal frameworks, imposition of control and means to ensure that our activities are not 'snooped' into by unauthorized agencies are presently slim or almost non-existent. 

Privacy on the Internet
There are measures including encryption, anonymous usage of Internet resources that can help. The extent of privacy they can offer remains limited. One example is "The onion router" (Tor) project which intended to provide anonymous access to the Internet. As online activities become easier to snoop, privacy encryption services like 'Pretty Good Privacy' (PGP) and alternatives like GNU Privacy Guard (GPG) emerged.

Misuse and unauthorized manipulation of digital images or photographs we share with our friends including those shared privately can result in "tarnishing our identity" or "misusing identity." This has become a new avenue for con-artists.

Celebrities are haunted by circulation of 'Paparazzi' photographs, and infamous 'Sex Tapes'. Misuse of these instruments is acutely harmful. The psychological effects or wrongful perception due to misuse of one's digital identity are also a major health concern today.

Activism today to grant us more privacy by reducing recording & regulation of parameters that help us shape our own identity beyond those parameters that are outside our control sphere is an absolute necessity. We also need to  maintain and secure control of our digital identities with every possible measure. These may include use of encryption, secure passwords, frequently auditing our digital security (just as we might check the locks to our house.) 

Our experiences in the real world, will have strong effects on our perception. We would have to distil this perception before deciding to use a specific experience to mould our identity and/or personality. Behaviors can be copied or learned in a systematic environments. Mannerisms also need to be inculcated in the same way behaviors can be. Language, both written and spoken variants of them usually require a systematic environment to learn them. However, for pure communication purposes, interacting with people who speak a different language or listening to tapes or watching movies in an alternate language can help us acquire that language as part of our communication skills. Learning will define our identity only if it is reflected in what we create, hence "content creation" as artists or engineers or doctors will help us build a more comprehensive and socially accepted identity.

PS: If you haven't yet read Identity - Part I, I would urge you to run through it at first to understand why finding modifiable parameters that can shape our identity is extremely important.