In the pre-industrial age, the question of who a person was, their identity, was a much less complicated one. Few people travelled far from their home community, or had financial or commercial dealings outside of it; communities themselves were on a smaller scale; the number of different types of occupation was more limited, and children would often follow their parents’ line of work; in short, the social structure was more uniform, and the number of different roles that someone might identify with and occupy – parent, neighbour, labourer etc. – more limited. This kind of social structure can still to some degree be found in the more isolated and less industrialised parts of the world.
With the coming of industrialism, this simpler social structure began to fragment. Mobility increased; some communities grew; new types of work emerged. And with these changes came increasing pressure on the individual’s identity, as the number of roles a person could expect to fulfil in their life expanded – for example, membership of a labour union. And as people from different regions mingled more within the larger cities, their exposure to different lifestyles and ideologies might lead some to give greater emphasis to a particular facet of their identity, whether ethnic, religious or social; while others might embrace increasing diversity, allowing their sense of identity to expand and become more fluid.
But if the age of coal and oil produced opportunities for extending identity beyond traditional roles, these effects are almost insignificant when compared with the age of mass communications. The ‘global village’ is now a living experience for most of humanity; and telecommunications of all kinds continue to expand, bringing more and more of us into ever closer contact. It becomes increasingly difficult not to know about almost anything under the sun, from the dietary habits of remote mountain villagers to the latest discoveries of science. Exposed to this vast kaleidoscope that showers us with more and more images of different ways of life, is it any wonder that we are disoriented, our sense of identity reeling under the impact? And many are adding to this ever-shifting panorama via the Internet, extending and sometimes distorting their identities in new and surprising ways.
Television led the charge in the exposure of the lifestyles and interests of every kind of human. But now the Internet has established itself as a major source of information, and, more importantly, the main place for new forms of human contact. Although the Internet has not changed the fact that we communicate through voice and text, it has given us many new variations on these themes, from the simplicity of email through to online games and virtual worlds, where 3-dimensional animated representations of users – ‘avatars’ – can meet and cooperate. So opportunities for making direct contact with people of all kinds, and thus to experience the diversity of human character and experience, are massively extended.
An explosion of diversity
There is much to welcome in this explosion of diversity, and it is one factor that helps explain why more and more people are spending significant amounts of time online. Of course, with diversity comes some of its less welcome aspects, such as the more intolerant extremes of political, religious, and social life. But the Internet cannot be blamed for putting on display some of humanity’s less appealing qualities – it is simply holding up a new and better mirror to the world, and by shining a light on the darker side of human nature, it may be able to help clarify and redeem some of the problems of this shadow side.
However, even if one sticks to the positive side of the Internet, there is spiritual danger lying in wait in its sheer variety. For some, this variety acts as an enticing lure, leading to an almost endless series of jumps from one site or forum to another. Hours, even days, can vanish in a stream of mouse-clicks, as the user is plunged into a kind of cyber-samsara, an endlessly revolving wheel of information and images which only ever point towards each other, never to an exit. Becoming addicted to the Internet, or to some portion of it, may be an occupational hazard of those whose work is connected with it. For example, the prominent Internet entrepreneur and activist, Joi Ito, has chronicled his growing interest in World of Warcraft1, an online role-playing game in which a large number of players (the game has over 5 million subscribers) can interact together at the same time.
Such addictions can, in rare instances, even prove fatal – a Japanese girl was reported to have died as a result of playing World of Warcraft for several days without a break2. In her tragic case, her offline identity in the real world clearly became less important to her than her online identity within the game. By extending her sense of who she was to include a fictional character, she unwittingly trapped herself within the new extension. For her, this involved one new persona – other people might become ensnared, not by any one new persona, but by the variety of different things they can do when they log on, becoming by turns an instant message user; online gamer; forum contributor; chat room participant; email sender; and so on. Each of these different activities might revolve around different communities of interest, implying the extension of identity in different directions. Sometimes, elements of fantasy about one’s identity might creep into areas outside of games. This might start innocently enough, by giving oneself a humorous or outrageous user name, and/or exaggerating slightly about one’s interests. But because it is difficult for others to check someone’s offline identity, the temptation to embroider the truth is correspondingly greater; and what begins as harmless fun may slide into deceit.
At the far end of this spectrum of deceit, the media has alerted us to the potential danger of paedophiles tricking children into meeting them offline, by logging onto chat rooms and masquerading as children themselves. Thankfully, most cases of embellishing or falsifying identity online are far less serious than this; yet each of them underscores the danger of losing one’s grip on the world outside the screen. The Internet can be like a huge masked ball, where glamorous fantasies are more easily indulged than offline. Extending the self in too many directions might paradoxically lead to a loss of the core of one’s identity – the “I” at the centre becoming obscured by a crowd of virtual “mes”, phantom fragments that can no longer be pieced together again.
Some might wonder whether this is anything to worry about – indeed, this disintegration of a unitary self is regarded in post-modernism as almost inevitable. But from a spiritual perspective, anything which forces the self to identify too strongly with the physical, emotional or mental realms is perilous – and by sucking the attention of the self towards a myriad points of temporary identification, the Internet can certainly pose this danger.
Yet this danger can be avoided, and the Internet can become a wholly positive vehicle for expanding identification with humanity, without losing touch with one’s core. A key factor is the purpose with which it is used. If we set out with the intention of expanding our knowledge of other cultures and ways of life, of discovering the many challenges that people face throughout the world, and of finding out how these challenges can be tackled, the Internet acts as a portal into a broader and deeper sense of what it means to be human. Through surveying online the work of the UN and of NGOs as they find creative ways to serve, we too can be inspired to join in. When our focus shifts from pleasure to service, the world takes on a different complexion, and the Internet is revealed not as a confusing labyrinth, but a forge of united thought and action. The more that we learn to use it in this way, the better are humanity’s chances of finally moving out of the present period of tension and difficulty into a world of sharing and right relations.
1. See joi.ito.com/archives/2005/09/28/world_of_warcraft_update.html
2. See for example www.theinquirer.net/?article=27466