The Association for Qualitative Research
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Time to shake up a sense of self

"Come on tell me, who are you? Who, who, who, who?" (The Who, Who are you?)

When it comes to an account of the self, common sense holds that it’s a unique and irreducible personal quality, the core or essence of ‘who I am’ that remains more or less consistent over time. As individuals we’re rarely asked to elaborate on this, but if asked to do so, we would most likely locate our ‘self’ inside — perhaps our mind or something akin to a ‘soul’.

We don’t need to know much more than it’s something unique to us, it’s inalienable and it’s intangible and these nebulous qualities help ensure that each individual remains the sole custodian of their self. Numerous psychological theories support these notions and thus far few have questioned the fundamental tenets of this view. So why start now?

As researchers we seldom dwell on the notion of the self, probably because there doesn’t feel like there’s much more to say on the subject, but it’s often when we take something for granted that it surprises us most. We live in a time of considerable change when long held and cherished beliefs are being challenged — see ‘the truth’ and ‘gender’ by way of examples — and it would appear that the self is next.

In his recent book, Homo Deus, historian of the moment Yuvel Noah Harari, while discussing the new world view of Dataism, suggests that “given enough biometric data about a person and computing power Google or Amazon can create an algorithm that knows you better than you know your self”.

For most of us, this is a rather shocking assertion. In Europe and North America, at least, our sense of self is unassailable. The idea that something as alien to many of us as an algorithm might know us better than we know our selves comes as nothing less than a challenge to what we believe makes us human.

Before we panic and bow down before our algorithmic overlords, let’s think about this in a more constructive way. If what Harari suggests is true in any sense it should also cause us to question exactly what we mean by self in the first place. In the conventional view of self, what we do is distinguished from what we are — our actions in the world don’t necessarily have any bearing on our sense of self.

What shapes us?

If algorithms know us using the data collected from our day-to-day activities — where we go, what we do, who we meet, how we feel et. — rather than plumbing the depths of our psyches, then it suggests that the self is more a product of our environment than we have been willing to credit.

Often what looks like radical change isn’t as extreme as it appears: what if our ‘self’ had never been a vague internal essence that defined our individuality after all and what if algorithms aren’t all that different from what preceded them? Let’s begin this reassessment of self with something more familiar than algorithms.

One of the less readily expressed qualities of our self is the extreme sense of familiarity it evokes: in environments we feel we can be ourselves we feel at ease and vice versa. For many people, home is the place that they can most be their self. Home in this sense is an environment with which we feel intimately attuned, at best it’s a frictionless experience, one we know so well that it feels as though the space itself accommodates us. We may have a favourite chair or sofa that is so perfectly moulded to our body that we hardly notice it’s there. In other words when our bodies and environments are so attuned that we feel no physical resistance, we often feel most like our selves (perhaps why self feels so intangible).

As we well know, homes aren’t a given, they are made: when we move into a new house, for example, it’s strange and unfamiliar and we have to work to make it into a home — we decorate, we fill it with our personal belongings, we make it our own place to be our own self. But a key part of this process that is often overlooked is the role of ritual and routine. These are the real factors that transform a house, a flat, or an apartment into a home: to occupy a space effortlessly we have to experience it over and over again in similar ways, our homes and the things that we arrange in them become familiar through the routines we impose on our selves and our environment: from the location of socks in our drawers to the cupboard we keep our coffee in, to the chairs we sit on.

The sense of deep familiarity we generate through attunement to our environments doesn’t end at the front door — our trip to work, our office desk, our favourite coffee shop, the apps we check, even our email all become part of our daily rituals and routines that we experience through a form of autopilot. So familiar are we with these routines that we can feel intensely put out should some obstacle break our flow and bring our attention to bear on our physical presence in the world. Being unable to find our car keys isn’t just inconvenient. We can feel as though we’re ‘going mad’ because our sense of self is delicately attuned to things being where they should be in places we know well.

Memories are what you make them

It’s become a better known fact that our memories are in general pretty poor, ‘autobiographical memory’, the part we use to recall past events in our lives that is an important part of how we establish and narrate our sense of self, particularly so. The memories we appear to access from the vault of the past are in most cases edited and elaborated to fit present needs and it has been proven that in some cases they may be entirely fictional.

What is less well-known is how we use the physical world to make-up for the imperfections of our minds. In the case of autobiographical memory, where it fails, our photographs fill the gaps (and if we’re so inclined, diaries). For example: would it be too much of a push to say that photographs often know us better than we know ourselves? Comparably, if asked to describe our home, our route to work, or our office desk, we may find that we struggle to recall things clearly. This is because our memories are stored not just in our heads, but in the environments we inhabit and the complete picture only comes together when our body is re-united with a location.

In effect then, our self has never been an exclusively personal possession located deep within: our most authentic experience of self is activated by the rituals and routines through which we engage with our environments.

What is changing is that new technologies have made what was previously unconscious and taken for granted much more visible and distinct, and this includes our self. What tech companies like Google and Amazon collect is the data traces of our rituals and routines, then they present them back to us through targeted ads.

As individuals these typically frictionless experiences leave a much deeper impression on our devices than they do on our conscious minds. The more frequently we visit a location, whether a shop or website, the more often we repeat an activity, the more a part of our self it becomes and this is what algorithms recognise, in the simplest sense.

While this possibility is disturbing to the generations who grew up without this kind of targeted advertising, for those who did it’s often seen as preferable to unfamiliar ads that say nothing about us. A recent study of 19-34 year olds in the UK found that 72% of this age group was quite comfortable with the use of personalised content in the form of targeted advertising. The rising popularity of self monitoring tech from Fitbit to DNA testing kits like 23andMe demonstrate this desire to visualise and externalise our selves is not limited to tech giants.

For these and future generations this externalised self will be a natural part of their rituals and routines, targeted ads will possess a sense of familiarity akin to the pictures we hang on the walls of our homes. As regulatory bodies enforce further transparency that expose the aspects of self that underly the choices algorithms make, people will simply come to see them as a crucial part of their self and quite possibly come to know themselves better than we ever could.

The temptation is to invoke the metaphor of the mirror, a habitual moment of our daily routines, but the problem with the mirror is that it was restricted to showing us only the surface of ourselves. Data and algorithms, by contrast, promise to present the core.

 

Nick Gadsby
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2018