On Personal Identity and the Metaverse

One of the more philosophically interesting aspects of the present moment, and the crypto space in particular, is the conversation around identity — specifically, how identity should work in a digital context, the cool-sounding-but-ultimately-nebulous “metaverse”.

For the longest time, we’ve existed in one world only: the “real world” (RW). In this world, we’ve found it helpful, as a practical convention, to go by names. Like Jack and Jill and Sarah and Tarik and X-Ash-A-12.

Recently, we birthed a new world: the “digital world” (DW). In the early days of this new world, pseudonyms were quite common — that is, names other than our RW names. Today, however, we largely go by our RW names in both contexts. Instead of going with new names for the DW, we’ve merely ported our RW identities into this new digital environment. We’re Jack and Jill in RW as on the interwebs, too.

Things have recently begun to take a turn in a more interesting direction. Amidst all this talk of the Metaverse, more and more folk are beginning to experiment with pseudonyms. And not just names, either, but full-fledged identities.

At first glance, this might seem trivial. But what it really means is that, in playing with digital identity as we now are, the whole notion of personal identity is being reexamined, and thus, fundamentally, what it means to be human.

Just what exactly brought this shift about is hard to say. Early internet culture, concerns re privacy, gaming, and a general sci-fi aesthetic are all at play — and much else besides. But what’s more important than the historical piece — i.e. the question of how things came to be — is the fact that it is — the fact that we’re evolving the notion of identity in real-time. Now what’s it all mean?

We have always been more than our human identities — and so we will always be. But anything that helps capture more of what we are — the nuance, the subtlety, the multiplicity — is likely to be a good thing. We are more than our human identities but our human identities constrain us and even pervert our sense of things in rather deep and interesting ways. Names are an interesting example. Our current naming convention, harmless as enough as it is on the surface, subtly inclines us to identify with an ultimately false sense of identity. Singular names reinforce the idea that we are singular, unchanging centres of experience — things inside our heads. We call this phenomenon the “ego” or the “sense of self”. And convincing though it is, it’s an illusion, it turns out — one that can be cut through at any moment, so long as you know how to look. Contrary to how things may seem, there is no thinker of thoughts inside our heads, no rider on the horse of consciousness. It’s all just phenomena arising and passing away — and we are all but the witness to it. The great mystery of consciousness.

Our current convention around identity thus reifies the illusion of self. And the self, as the primary source of psychological suffering, the fundamental source of separateness, isn’t the kind of thing you want to be reifying. On the contrary, it’s the kind of thing you want to be getting rid of.

The notion of a digital identity/s distinct from our physical, RW identity is interesting for a number of reasons. But most of all how it comes closer to capturing the Reality of our condition — the fact that we are not singular entities but instead multiplicitous processes. We are many things, constantly in flux, and no thing in particular. We all contain multitudes.

We are mothers and daughters and sisters and lovers and artists and warriors all in one, just not all at the same time. We are many things, and which we are depends on the context. Thus it would appear to make sense that, given the multiplicity of our personhood, we should have different characters for different contexts, multiple identities uniquely constructed for their particular use cases. We may end up having different identities for different projects, identities that aid us in expressing the various parts of our Being. And that, I suggest, would be cool.

Deep existential musings aside, the notion of multiple identities — multiple characters — is just plain fun. And fun should always be reason enough. Do we want a world where we have more scope for the expression of what we are, or less? Which would be a more interesting world to live in? That’s what it comes down to, in the end.

Here’s one vote for the weird and wonderful.

Making the planet fair.

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