5th April, 2019
It was an honour to speak at last October’s excellent Dot York conference, invited to contribute my thoughts to the opening session exploring digital identity.
My presentation connects some ideas about four-dimensional humans, the selfie as a form of legitimate performance, and identity beyond digital boxes. It's divided into three parts — Bowfell, Selfie, and Nature; 15 minutes plus some closing Q&A.
Here's the video, followed by my original script if you’d rather read.
For some time I’ve been researching our place in a post-digital world; how our identity is being shaped, and how we can use digital technology for good, and use it to reconnect with much of what we’ve lost.
I’ve limited time so today I just want to share some things that interest me, and some realisations, and hopefully understand how they inform the way I live digitally, and what this means for all our identities.
This section is a slightly truncated version of my article Existing in four dimensions.
In February, I spent a few days in the Lake District — part-work trip, part fun — based in a small wooden pod. It was bitterly cold, and I wore most of my clothes most of the time. A couple of hours fireside at the pub was my nightly luxury.
When I was a kid, our national parks appealed to me the way Disneyland appealed to other kids, and that appeal intensified with age. For weeks I’d been tracing lines across maps and guides, familiarising myself with every detail about the area, meticulously planning routes. On my second full day, I rose with the sun. The summit of Bowfell was my goal, and I packed for a tough day above the snowline.
I carried extra layers, an ice axe and crampons, a compass, and a paper map — the hiker’s vinyl record. It’s pointless when you consider I’ve downloaded GPS-orienting, multiple-scale mapping for every inch of the country to my phone. I quantified the hike with my watch, and I made sound recordings with several devices.
But primarily, it was my phone I held close; capturing images and videos, field-testing numerous apps to help understand the topography and augment horizons. I spent much of the day looking at, or through, a small rectangular frame.
And as ever in these disconnected landscapes, far from 3G, I hoped that altitude might offer a little connectivity; an opportunity to contact loved ones, review “engagement” on the few posts I’d sent from the pub before bed, and — crucially — diarise today’s ascent as an unfolding Instagram story. Pics or it wasn’t happening, right?
The ascent was a struggle, but the icy summit of Bowfell offered amazing views in every direction, and also — at almost 3,000ft — a signal. That signal quivered between Edge and 3G, and I managed to post my story. Sent a tweet. Texted my Mum. Principally, I exchanged messages with my wife, at that moment ten thousand miles away in Tokyo. Eventually, my signal weakened to a death. I put away my phone and put on my gloves, saving my fingers from frostbite.
I was invigorated by the challenging ascent, but also — I admit — satisfied I’d documented it as a small dent on social media; marked in real time, though likely appearing non-chronologically. I felt happy to have sent a note of safety to my Mum and conversed with my wife halfway around the world.
But in doing so, I opened the door to others. Launching Twitter, Instagram, and Messenger delivered brief glimpses of people I hadn’t carried with me in my thoughts; random reminders of those less welcome to join me on that mountaintop.
Oh, yeah, he exists. She exists too. This person is angry at the government. Oh, that person is walking their dog. Anyway…
Perhaps your latest thoughts or photos were amongst them, appearing to me at that moment, and to others elsewhere, by way of algorithm or timing.
Being digitally present in multiple places at once typifies the intriguing notion of existing in four dimensions. Previous advancements in communication, such as the telegram or telephone, offered us a means to travel beyond the corporeal shell, but never before could we project ourselves so multifariously, and with such ease.
I beamed myself from that summit in the Lake District, on a transient whisp of 3G. Physically I was high on a remote fell, but cognitively I was elsewhere; present in multiple places; I transcended the location. Digitally I was very much present in Tokyo, and also moving in and out of several virtual spaces, leaving a small reminder of my existence on the feeds of friends and strangers in numerous locations for the rest of the day.
“Oh, yeah. Simon. He exists. He’s on a mountain somewhere. Anyway…”
Many years ago I went to art school. I was interested in painting, installations, and land art. One particular artist kept cropping up in books and lectures. I was told her work was vital for the study of visual culture, but… it was just photos of her dressing up. I didn’t get it, but, well, I didn’t try to get it. I dismissed it. The artist was Cindy Sherman.
More recently, something else I found comfortable to dismiss was the selfie. I mean, what an awful, pervy-sounding word. And yet, selfie was the EOD’s 2013 word of the year, used 17,000% more in that year than in 2012.
In 2016 I made my first visit to Japan and fell in love with various places, but Kyoto took a little work. There, tourism seemed to boil over. At every hotspot I’d see young Asian women, usually not Japanese, fancy-dressed in the cheapest, gaudiest yukata. None of these young women seemed to look at anything but their own digital reflection, pouting endlessly in attempts to get the perfect portrait, with whatever attraction they were visiting demoted to mere background. Self-obsession, narcissism. I grumbled a lot, like an old man who doesn’t understand young people.
Back to Cindy Sherman. Recently I found her staring out from a book I was enjoying. No escape. I was forced to make an effort.
So, Sherman repeatedly photographed herself in all sorts of poses and attitudes, exploring how we make ourselves, and perform our gender. In this series, she set out to counter the construction of women as passive objects of male desire, like in Hollywood’s heyday. When Sherman created Untitled Film Still #21 in the late 70s, she was suggesting that we wanted to move on from a time where women were there merely to be looked at.
That’s the “male gaze”, the dominant way of seeing that was built into cinema; all steered to men driving the action and benefiting from the action. Men watch through the eyes of the male hero, and any woman watching was obliged to do the same. So, this taps into everyone’s sense that in daily life we feel like we’re being looked at. Then, what if you try to think from a woman’s perspective: a feeling of being watched, concerning how they look, and act, of having to perform.
By freezing the film and making us think about how and why we are looking or being looked at, Sherman made this performance visible.
With Untitled Film Still #21, she’s constructed the scene using many cinematic ingredients that come together just before a woman is subjected to violence. We might feel anxious… but then we realise she has constructed this image, not men, and she is making us aware of the ways cinema depicts women as objects. By manipulating back, she claims the right to be the self she wants to be, re-performing the way women are presented, and the actual experience of women in daily life.
Sherman’s work didn’t land with me in the early 90s because I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, or at all feminist in my outlook. Also, we didn’t have the Internet. Or smartphones. Now, we do.
Now, we have selfies, where established categories of identity are being remade and reshaped. When ordinary people pose themselves in the most flattering way they can, they take over the role of artist-as-hero. Each selfie is the performance of a person as they hope to be seen by others. Everybody is Cindy Sherman.
The selfie is a new form of visual digital conversation, a primary format. It’s about social groups, and communicating with these groups, where we learn new visual vocabularies, with the visual image increasingly more important than text or speech.
I’m no longer grumbling. The selfie is innocent and fun, but also logical, and important. This is the interface of the way we think we look, and the way others see us; the visual signature of our time, and a regular part of everyday life.
So we’re thinking about how we use the post-digital age to represent who and what we are. But we have to be careful not to do it exactly as the big tech companies would have us do it: the uniformity of their templates. We can play that game, use that scaffold, but what’s the timeless version of ourselves that exists without them? The real, genuine version?
Earlier I talked about my love for the mountains and national parks, and as I’ve reconnected with the outdoors, I’ve found my phone to be a generous partner. I can hold it up to the world around me, and the apps that I use help me appreciate what I see and hear, revealing more about my surroundings.
After two decades in tech, I realise phones and social media won’t be going away, so we work with them. My take is that I now need to seek positive digital tools that connect more of us to the non-digital world and really benefit our lives. This has dramatically informed who I am and what I care about.
I don’t have time to go deeply into my research, but let me do a sort of drive-by around my critical areas of interest.
I talk a lot about reconnecting us with the natural world, but I’ve found “nature” to be an awkward word for many in tech, seen as irrelevant to our bold shiny future. But, throughout history, societies have collectively reinvented their image of nature. This is fundamental. It’s logical that we are now defining a new image of nature for the post-digital age. And with that comes a new idea of beauty. We embrace nature through our devices much more than we realise, often in a kind of blurry, pixelated aesthetic that is more real and accessible to us than glossy nature documentaries.
The idealised romantic image of nature is out of date. Forget idyllic. Nature is in constant flux. Ecology is now about resilience, and nature isn’t distant. It’s close.
I believe we have to care about nature because we are biophilic, and have an innate urge to seek connections with nature. We cannot live without animals and plants. That’s encoded into us.
In design and tech, we can learn from this. Take Biophilic Design in architecture, where direct and indirect experiences of the natural world are vital ingredients. Architecture is interesting because it learned its lesson. It designed itself into a predicament, and it’s been designing its way out by looking to nature. Maybe this is what digital tech needs to do. It took us too far away from ourselves, and now it has a responsibility to help us find our way back.
We’re seeing more technobiophilic experiences. What a great word. That’s the innate urge to seek connections with nature as it appears in technology. Just as there are scientifically proven benefits of real nature as viewed through real windows, there are similar benefits from digital imagery presented on screens.
Many of us saw the big tech companies edging towards a crisis; that they were taking us too far away from ourselves, exploiting us, and that we’d begin to hold them to account. And, as predicted, they’re now scrambling to be seen as wholesome, to help us manage our time online, and be a less useless ingredient in our lives. I’m working to understand how nature can play into a better relationship with digital technology. The idea is not that we need less technology, but that we need more nature.
Anyway, that’s what I’m up to! There is way more to my research than this, but what matters today is how I’ve come to include those ways of thinking in my identity, in the way I present myself to others — a responsible person in the often toxic and thoughtless design and tech world — and how I shape my online identity to reflect my principles, and the things that are most important to me. I use social media for this, but also tools under my own control: my own website, mailing list, my writing and talks, the things I say over dinner, or to strangers, and so on.
On Bowfell, I was digitally reinforcing the image I want to present to the world; of being an outdoorsy, environmental, thoughtful, gentle kind of person. I was using social media as my means to communicate that identity globally to as many people as possible, but also in direct one-on-one transactions with my Mum, and my wife.
What’s important is that I understand where my identity is being shaped and formatted by tools, by digital platforms, and, crucially that I know where the real, more timeless me exists beyond all that. I also know that much of it is a kind of performance.
If Twitter stopped using a big hero image for profiles, and there’s no longer a big picture of me in a Scottish glen, does that change me as a person? No. If I stopped using Instagram, would I know who I am any more? I hope so.
I don’t take many selfies at all, but I perform in much the same way. I collect tools and ideas and use them to present a version of myself to the world, the best version of me; the way I like to see myself. I do that with the Internet, but I can also do it without. I present to you a person who stands for something.
So, this was me: Simon, and the things I like to think about.
Unfortunately, Dot York will be taking a break, for reasons I completely understand and have experienced myself as an event host. Rick has earned a rest, but I sincerely hope this terrific event returns soon.
Dot York was held on 4th October 2018 at Museum Gardens, York. Accompanying me in the Identity session were UX consultant and designer Helen Joy, web developer Karen Fielding, modern poet Isaiah Hull, and session host Scott Hartop.