THE MOVIE Surrogates depicts a future society in which the distinction between the real world and the virtual world becomes ambiguous. People no longer go outside of their houses themselves but instead confront reality with a surrogate robot. With surrogate robots, which are more attractive and younger than humans, people indirectly experience the world. People are also able to express a different version of themselves – a different self-identity. As crazy as it might sound, the life depicted in Surrogates is about to come true. Already, people are expressing different self-identities and living divergent lives through cyberspace. The fourth industrial revolution, accompanied by advanced science and technology, is anticipated to take place in the next two decades and is likely to bring great changes in how individuals express their identity.
Changes in how we see ourselves
Everybody has more than one identity. For example, a university student can identify him or herself as a studious college student, a patriotic South Korean, or a loving member of his or her family. These disparate roles call for separate identities. In fact, self-identity is the structure that shapes people’s behavior. However, the notion of a multiple identity appeared only quite recently; the perception of a self-identity has changed along with the transition of social paradigms.
Before the emergence of multi-identity, god and reason were the core elements that defined the notion of self-identity. According to a study of the Institute for Hybrid Future Culture in Sungkyunkwan University, philosophical discourse on identity began with Descartes in the 17th century. His famous mantra “I think, therefore I am” has left many to inquire what exactly “I” is: persons are immaterial souls or pure egos. In this era, religion was the supreme factor invoked to explain virtually every phenomenon. The self was also a product created only by gods and, consequently, it was fixed in its nature and remained essentially unchanged. In the 19th century, however, Hegel rejected Descartes’ philosophy and considered reason as the superior standard for judging people’s behavior. Both philosophies were based on the supposition that identity is immutable and exclusive; a single factor was thought to determine one’s identity.
“Gott ist tot*”, declared Nietzsche. In the early 19th century, discussion of a single self-identity encountered crisis, indicating the beginning of the era of multi-identity. Along with Nietzsche’s claim of God’s death, reason also loses its absolute authority. Religious and ethical norms bound by god and reason were lifted; human desires were liberated. People felt free to express their various desires through multiple self-identities. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886, reflects Nietzsche’s era when people started to agonize over a diversified self-identity which vented their various desires. The protagonist of the book lives as gentle Dr. Jekyll during the day and as aggressive Mr. Hyde in the night. His suppressed desires are expressed through Mr. Hyde, a violent character. The strife between two identities indicates the emergence of multi-identity at the time.
With the start of a new millennium, the creation of a virtual world offers a medium for self-identity to be more freely expressed and be infinitely alterable. The need to be Dr. Jekyll during the day and Mr. Hyde in the night disappeared; cyberspace has facilitated multiple Mr. Hydes to appear and express themselves freely. Technological advances, especially the creation of cyberspace, has made it easier to express previously suppressed desires. By staying anonymous or using multiple online IDs, people do not feel much difficulty in acting as multiple selves.
The Minerva incident in 2008 is a good example of how one’s multi-identity is expressed on the Internet. “Minerva” used to be renowned as a competent economic expert who was mainly active online. Many people, even some specialists in economics, believed his analysis on the global economy and invested in his recommended stock. However, he later turned out to be an unemployed man with a low level of education, and most of his assertions were based on inaccurate suppositions. Even after his true identity was revealed, some people could not accept the fact that he was a crook pretending to be an elite academic who had studied at a prestigious university.
As such, through the virtual world, people can express a self-identity disparate from the real world. Yet, until now, most people could sense a clear difference between cyberspace and the real world and did not agree that their cyber self-identity could be their real self-identity as well. According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Hybrid Future Culture in 2012, over 50% of the respondents said that they have experienced different self-identities online and offline. On the contrary, only 19% agreed that their self-identity online is identical to that of the real world. Thus, many people have used the virtual world as a medium to express self-identities that are undisclosed in their actual lives.
Becoming a multi-identity society
Today, identity has further diversified. Along with globalization, people are living in a multicultural society. In former societies, people had a relatively fixed, single identity; almost all South Koreans were once deemed to share a racial identity as Han. However, according to Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the number of multicultural families is anticipated to increase from 0.3 million in 2009 to 2 million in 2050. Such a shift to a multicultural society has enabled people to identify themselves with a variety of different cultural identities. Once fixed by a certain paradigm, identity has been liberated and now can vary from person to person.
Most importantly, we are witnessing the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, which consists in the most advanced technology ever – robotics, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience. Last April, Klaus Schwab, chief of the World Economic Forum (WEF), said that, “the fourth industrial revolution has induced alterations of the industry, jobs, and production activities, and most importantly will create complex issues with regard to human identity.”Thus, the fourth industrial revolution will change not only what people do, but also who people are.
People currently use the virtual world as a medium to express their multiple identities. However, if the gap between the real world and the virtual world decreases, people will feel much freer to express their multi-identities in concrete reality as well as online. Currently, this gap is being bridged by technology, which facilitates hyper-connectivity. With hyper-connectivity, people can remain constantly connected to social networks and streams of information. Hyper-connectivity has several key attributes: high accessibility to cyberspace, and digitalization of reality. It encourages communication not only among people but also between people and machines, and communication among machines as well.
For instance, Microsoft has been conducting a project called “MyLifeBits” since 2001 in order to enable hyper-connectivity. In this project, all of the information that people have encountered in their lives – books, CDs, letters, notes, movies, voice data – are saved in a database. This database makes all kinds of information accessible to everyone. Thus, a person’s identity has also begun to be determined by information derived from his or her digital traces, rather than attributes that can only be encountered in real life.
Additionally, the demand for hyper-connectivity itself is on the increase. By 2011, there were more than 7 billion devices connected to the Internet, and the number reached 15 billion in 2015. Furthermore, along with the development of mobile telecommunication devices, this need is typically reflected by a large number of active SNS users. The number of Facebook users per day soared from 100 million in 2009 to one billion in 2015, and is continuously increasing. With this trend, the influence of social media is likely to increase even further over the next ten years. This will enable more people to express different aspects of their identities; multi-identity society will come even closer to reality.
Indeed, Han Sang-ki, chief of the Institute of Social Computing, already announced in 2011 that free expression of multi-identity would be the next key element attracting more SNS users. He expected there would be a new form of SNS that targets users’ diverse motives and desires in the future. In fact, according to a Facebook survey in 2014, the maximum number of fake accounts was estimated be 137 million and the number continues to grow each year. Han also commented: “Contemporary people already use different SNS IDs, each ID reflecting their different motives. Consequently, how people’s multi-identities can be expressed will be the key to developing the next generation of the SNS.”
Communication among multiple identities
Along with these changes, communication among multiple self-identities will become an important social issue. According to Kim Seon-hee (Prof., Dept. of Philosophy, Ehwa Womans Univ.), efficient communication indicates having connectivity among self-identities. In such cases, multi-identity can positively act as an expansion of expressing one’s self. They can freely express their multiple self-identities based on their different desires.
On the contrary, being excessively immersed in a single self-identity while disregarding other self-identities would be a poor case of communication. For example, collision of self-identities in the cyber world and the real world, which leads to Internet addiction, is a typical problem brought by multi-identity. When the existence of a certain identity is ignored or considered secondary, multi-identity could result in dangerous side effects, including symptoms similar to autism. Consequently, according to Kim, “Rather than biasedly controlling people’s multi-identity, each identity deserves to be respected and united. This will be the core in communication among multiple identities.” The virtual world has already started to be absorbed in reality; a dichotomous perception of self-identity in the virtual world and life in reality will be meaningless.
Additionally, recent research conducted by Harvard University, “Past, Present, Future Research on Multiple Identities”, suggests that multiple identities have important effects on stress, well-being, resilience, productivity, and performance. Most previous research conducted before the 2000s cast a negative view upon multi-identity and proposed that multi-identity will be a constraint on people’s daily lives. However, the recent research on multiple self-identities shows an opposite result: successful integration of multiple identities is related to the well-being of a person, while conflict among identities and forcing a single identity can induce stress and other negative effects.
While the South Korean government invests much capital in future technology itself, it lacks preparation for the issue of multi-identity. The British Government Office for Science conducts an annual analysis on issues concerning the future society and multi-identity, whereas almost no research in South Korea that deals with multi-identity can be found. To build the basis for a sound and well-ordered future society, the South Korean government should encourage more research on these fields.
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Over the next few decades, multi-identity societies will be further vitalized. This will have great influence on the way people live their lives. In the future, people will consider the virtual world as part of the real world; identities expressed in cyberspace may be as concrete as those of the world we actually live in. This type of society characterized by multi-identity must be prepared for through further research. Benjamin Franklin once said that, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Likewise, by starting to prepare for the multi-identity society, South Korea should embrace the imminent change, respond to it, and take advantage of it as a new opportunity.
*Nietzsche’s famous quote in German, which means, “God is dead.”