Digital Identity in a Relational World

I grew up at 326 19th St. NW Cedar Rapids, IA. The house was a fine little four bedroom place, it just seemed smaller than it was with two parents and six kids. On top of that, one of those four bedrooms was appropriated for what we called The Study. This was Dad’s Space, his work area. It was not huge so it worked well for this purpose. Each wall was lined floor to ceiling with books, save for one of the short walls where Mom kept her sewing machine and the other short wall which was divided into thirds; the outer segments were closet-type areas where Dad kept some suit coats (if I recall correctly) and the middle segment fit an old ’70s rocking chair and a half height bookshelf from top of the chair to the ceiling. The other anchor to this room was Dad’s Desk. It was constructed (I’m assuming by him, I have no idea where else he would’ve gotten that behemoth from) by laying a giant rectangular piece of wood over two metal filing cabinets about three or four feet in height. On the desk was the computer. This is where Dad worked.

This is all very vivid in my head for many reasons. I spent a lot of time in The Study, doing writing assignments on the computer, occasionally getting a theology book down from one of the shelves and feigning intellectual prowess, etc. There are still landmarks in that room that stick out in my head. The old globe on Dad’s Desk. The mustard yellow plastic waste basket. The Chronicles of Narnia box set that was missing Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The window curtains that featured a Ferdinand Magellan-era, high seas motif. These things all made a long-lasting impression on me.

Colleen and I have had iPhones now for about nine months. We’d held out for what now seems like an eternity, using old flip phones that had served very little purpose, only texting and calling (“what more do you need” was our logic). Turns out, it has already had a drastic effect on certain parts of our lives. It’s a killer little machine. It’s also given me a new perspective on how I want technology to relate to and fit into my life.

I recently finished a book entitled “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now” by Douglas Rushkoff. The first half of the book was fascinating and absolutely worth reading. The last half was kind of lost me, went over my head. But what I took from the book overall was how drastic of an effect technology has had on humankind. And not just generic technology, like airplanes or refrigerators or TVs. But rather the tech that gives us the illusion of being able to always live as present as we can. Tech like smartphones (and the infrastructure needed to make them work, the Internet, fiberoptic cables, cloud servers, etc.).

What’s interesting is that we use smartphones as a way to try and be present. What a beautiful sunset I’m watching right now, I’m going to Instagram this and immediately cross-post it to Facebook and Twitter so all of my friends/family/followers can see this. Or hey family, here is a picture of me holding my half-hour old baby daughter. Look, lots of my FourSquare friends have checked into the party across town that I’m not at, so I’m going to leave the party I’m at now and join the one that’s more fun, right now.

You get the point. Our technology has given us an illusion of being ever present, in the moment. The inherent problem with this is that the concept of “now” is fleeting, and we actually cannot hold onto it. A beautiful quote from the book:

“And like the diminishing beauty returns for a facially paralyzed Botox addict, the more forcefully we attempt to stop the passage of time, the less available we are to the very moment we seek to preserve.”

I love this quote because it unmasks the paradox we’ve created for ourselves by viewing so much of life through the viewfinder of technology.

And this is what I fear about technology. Inadvertantly taking myself so much out of the present solely because I’m trying to preserve the present moment. I want to figure out how best to use my technology to enhance the present moment, rather than just having a distraction brick in my pocket at all times.

The same goes for larger tech too, not just my phone. My phone is great and very handy, but when I think about how I viewed technology as a kid, I remember always connecting it to some useful purpose my parents gave it. For example, we didn’t have cable growing up, so our TV was basically for watching PBS, TGIF and World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, every evening at 5:30 while Mom cooked dinner and I waited for Dad to get home from work. That was how Mom got her national and global news back then, this early evening broadcast news show. And that’s what Mom wanted the TV used for. Mom and Dad never wanted to get cable and bother with having hundreds of channels to watch and, most likely, censor.

The TV could’ve been a gigantic time suck for us, but Mom pretty much ruled when and what we watched, and so it didn’t become that (she might argue differently). And honestly, I’m fine that I don’t have memories of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Salute Your Shorts or any of those other shows lots of kids grew up on (not to disparage those shows at all. Every time Colleen talks about Salute Your Shorts, it sounds like an awesome show). I feel like I got great value out of the technology we had, mainly because my parents made sure it factored into our lives on their terms, rather than letting our lives mold around how the technology worked.

Same with Dad’s computer. He used his Study to study. He read, he worked on his computer, he was nonverbally communicating a part of himself to me through his physical space and the tech that lived there. He gave his tech a purpose there.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest utility I want out of any future tech I acquire is helping me to relate a certain part of my identity to the outside world. If I had been born in any pre-computer era, I don’t think I would’ve been able to express as much as I do in writing. I can’t imagine getting the volume of my thoughts out with a pen and paper, let alone organize and edit them. My writing is contingent on me having a digital medium.

It’s this digital facet of my identity that I want my technology to help elucidate. I want my tech to be the way I intake new information: news, music, TV/movies, etc., and I want it to be the way I output how I’ve processed this internalized information.

This is certainly going to be a learning process though, because I catch myself letting my tech take over sometimes. If I’m not careful, it’s easy to let my life revolve around my tech rather than my tech enhance my life. And that’s the biggest danger with it. But used correctly, tech is a great way to communicate my digital identity in a world where our personal relationships define who we are.

So to tie this all up nicely, I want in my new home what Dad had in our home growing up. Basically, a room dedicated to things that help me express myself digitally. I’d like a solid wooden desk with a comfortable office chair. On the desk I’d like an iMac with wireless speakers, keyboard, and mouse. My record player will live in this room, along with my guitars and amp. Maybe a picture of Clapton or D’Angelo on the wall, or some hip album art framed up. I want this room to be called The Den, and I want any kids I might have to know it’s my space, and that they’re welcome in it. I want to create this space as much for them as for me. The memories I have in my Dad’s Study are deeply ingrained, and I’d like my kids to have those same sorts of memories about a physical space I’ve created to house the digital aspect of my identity.

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