I came across an interesting bit of hand-wringing over a threat to our personal identity. Ironically, the risk comes from Facebook and the other social media that we use to share bits of ourselves with the world. Kevin Slavin writing on Edge (which is a wonderful place to hang out) laid down the argument that because we have put so many events from our lives out on the web, we will lose the ability to forget.
Slavin writes “The sharp upswing in all of this record-keeping – both active and passive – [is] redefining one of the core elements of what it means to be human, namely to remember. We are moving towards a culture that has outsourced this essential quality of existence to machines.”
If we can’t forget the past, it will harass us and maybe even bury us; at least, that’s Slavin’s concern.
As threats go, this one is slightly overwrought but it does get you thinking about the connection between memory and identity and how one loops back on the other.
If you couldn’t remember your past, would you be the same person?
We put a lot of stock in the idea that memory is identity. Amnesia is strong fodder for any number of movies, and the murkier the past, the better. Jason Bourne in “The Bourne Identity” seems like a decent enough bloke except when he reveals a certain knack for killing a man silently ten different ways.
But put aside the pretext of an action film and the basic story line is a main character driven to uncover his or her roots. It seems like a reasonable motivation. We don’t argue that knowing where we came from is essential to knowing who we are. The absence of memory leaves us bobbing in the ocean of the present but memories of people and events aren’t the only building blocks of identity.
Jason Bourne’s story isn’t a bad way to uncover one of the wrinkles that complicates the connection between memory and identity. At one point he asks “Why am I able to run a mile and my heart rate barely goes up?” This is a nice nuance because Bourne is naming a skill he has that has survived longer than his memory.
He can now say, “I am a person who has wicked good endurance” and that’s the beginning of identity without recollecting past events. What we can do might be part of identity too.
But wait, there’s more.
If people weren’t trying to kill Jason, he probably would be a lot more zen about his amnesia. Sure, this is a plot device but at the abstract level, Jason is exploring his relationship with others. The desire to kill is not a healthy relationship but it is a relationship nevertheless and one that I would want to understand.
Viewed this way, Jason’s quest to uncover his past is an effort to learn how he is connected to other people. Our identity is not ours alone; it is ours within a network of families, friends and colleagues. How they view us and want to treat us can shape our identity too.
So now, what do you make of the connection between your memories and your identity?