smeared in gridlines

Without a shift in how we understand personal identity, we risk self-amputating ourselves in an omnipresent digital age.

august liljenberg

“Can you exit ‘the grid’?”

Well, “do you cease to exist upon death?”

Amid its cold and pale face, whereupon nature crudely asserts itself with the stiffness of rigor mortis, any semblance of identity would, after all, seem to disappear. Yet, despite being reduced to a pile of flesh and bones, we often don’t treat death as the final chapter in a person’s life. A person ceases to be not when they die, but “when their name is uttered for the last time,” “every written record of them has been destroyed,” or if there are simply no more humans left to remember who they even were. For just as our unique sense of ‘Self’ is constantly amended by the perceptions of others when alive, our post-mortem destinies continue moulding themselves in line with wishes of those who remember us.

Today, exiting ‘the grid’ is no different. Attempting to scale its walls by deleting social media accounts, deregistering from digital ID systems, and abandoning the technological sprawl of your city won’t remove the trails you’ve left behind and, crucially, what is done with them. The ‘participatory panopticon’ of digital space has left stains of your identity scattered across the web—a [deleted] Reddit username here, texts of an anonymous avatar accompanied by ‘Facebook User’ there. A patchwork of identity so intangible to us, yet filled with affect, that its namesake of the ‘cloud’ makes complete sense. These versions of us are composed of molecules so microscopic that their appearance is illusory; you’ll never be able to feel, let alone reach, this version of yourself. At least when you die, your identity is logged into the minds of finite and (typically) beloved beings. The same cannot be said for the grid, which seems to be more in the hands of the autonomous, driving force of technology than any user, organisation, or Silicon Valley billionaire. Like the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan writes in Understanding Media (1964), “Humans become, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.”

Wow. A lot of assumptions there. You may object to this, thinking, “Sure, even if I try my best to erase myself from the grid, I may leave behind traces of my data. But, so what? If there’s anything I’m certain of in this world, it’s myself. It’s the connection between my thoughts and my body—the existence of my corporeal form. And by removing my material self from its dependency on the grid, I have by all intents and purposes, left.”

A quick Google search may, and in my opinion incorrectly, inform you that getting ‘off the grid’ simply refers to being self-reliant of the grid-like arrangement of electricity infrastructure. This definition bodes well for those outlining a message I sketched out above. But although every hour of modern life depends on a functioning energy supply, it’s not quite ‘the grid’ as we should understand it in the digital age. For one, working with this archaic definition would mean that with the proliferation of portable renewable energy sources (primarily solar and wind), you could be off the grid while also doomscrolling TikTok with one hand and accepting meetings in Outlook with the other. And that doesn’t seem quite right.

Instead, the ‘grid’ represents the distinct co-dependent and irreversible relationship between humans and ever-evolving technology. Once you could hop off Luddite-style—build yourself a cabin in Minnesota, perhaps. The problem for us, however, is that digitalization has massively blurred the gridlines. Not only is our data, or rather identity, ripe to be stringed together from the cloud.  Now, the humanity of our very flesh and blood also decomposes and resurfaces as an alien mass, extending into an invisible plane of binary code. This ‘data double’ is an aggregate of every Terms & Conditions skipped through and third-party cookie waivered. It intermingles with us, confuses us—if something bad happens to this double, it will happen to me too. Who is the real me, anymore?

Prescient for its age, in 1964 McLuhan believed that we subconsciously consider our interactions with technology as constituting the literal bodily extensions of ourselves. The telephone was an extension of our ear; the wheel, our foot. However, the overwhelming intermingling of the senses in ‘electric media’ was an extension of our central nervous system. For McLuhan, the synaesthetic assault of television, where we “wear a brain outside our skull” demands nothing other than the numbness of self-amputating the nervous system, in order to be consumed. The result? Rootless apathy from numbing oneself and constant anxiety over not understanding why you are so numb.

But McLuhan could not have envisioned the astonishing level that you are perpetually self-amputating in the digital age. In her book The Virtual Life, philosopher Nora Yong remarks that “digital technology unmoors us from conventional, embodied understanding of time and space.”  Here, our “disembodied self” actively interacts with technology so that we exist in parallel digital lives. For McLuhan, digitalization would likely be the stage right before the clock strikes midnight: an extension of our brains. Their neuroplasticity, being malleable to the external environment, is what leaves our identities so vulnerable in the digital age. Smeared in gridlines, you attempt to escape, but the level of numbness needed to survive in the digital age has left you without the ability of self-recognition. You have cut off almost every piece left.

How could you at least begin to exit the ‘grid’ in such an, admittedly, pessimistic state of affairs? Yong argues that we must “affirm the physical” amid digitalization’s disembodiment. Likewise, sociologists such as Joseph Weizenbaum assert that we have to value what is “least computable about us—the connections between our mind and body, the experiences that shape our memory and thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy,” arguing that “as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across screens…[we] sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines.”

Perhaps this could work. The digital imprint placed on your psyche slowly reversed and your disembodied self slowly fading away. A societal shift in how we see identity, one where people begin to see your identity as bound to the perplexing connection between your own mind and body that creates human experience. The traces of your data actually being nothing more than code. 

However, such ecstatic affirmation of one’s flesh might not be enough to escape. For those believing in an eventual technological singularity (by the way, they’re also the same ones running this whole grid-thing we’re talking about) everything in the universe is physical, a result of physical processes, and their interactions with one another. Your ‘self’ (both mind and body) is observed as material. Such a paradigm of physicalism contends that the contents of your mind, and even consciousness, are nothing but a sum of electrochemical signals—inputs and outputs. Something that’s either on or off. Binary, if you will.

To be provocative, suppose we conjure up a scenario where you attempt to go off-grid. You’ve deleted, cleared, destroyed every feasible slice of your remains from the perceivable web. Of course, some traces—in fact, many—remain. In the tech singularist’s physically imbued world, these datasets are potential for creating human consciousness. Real, subjective experience. Artificial General Intelligence collecting these traces you have left behind, forming them, moulding them, into the eerie, uncanny valley of a codified twin. And to be even more provocative, if the brain is nothing but a stream of physical processes, then there isn’t a neuroscientific glass ceiling towards creating a computer-to-silicon-brain interface, or even using advanced gene-modification technology, such as CRISPR, to bioengineer unique cellular growth and create a life that is, in some sense, you.  Now, clearly, this vulgar mess of an identity is not you in the unique sense, it’s a shoddy re-make, a techno-evangelist’s perverted image of yourself. But even if you resist this absurd level of speculation, the mere dominance of physicalist thinking, alongside the irreversible digital traces we leave behind, means that it is a possibility. These series of events aren’t just the dreams of science fiction writers, they are actively being moved towards by those rapidly expanding the grid today.

For physicalists the universe is quantifiable, measurable, and replicable—at least theoretically. It’s a relic of Enlightenment thinking where, frustrated by the inability to understand the world independently of one’s own mind, we place reason and logic at the top of our epistemological hierarchy. It’s especially adored by those in charge of our current ‘grid’, because as shown in the exaggerated example earlier, the once perceived inaccessibility of minds can now be tapped into and sewn into the very fabric of technology’s omnipresence.

However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that such a physicalist understanding of bodies, minds, and the self is the norm when consulting cognitive scientists (who still can’t quite pin down what subjective conscious experience actually is) or even physicists (who fall into a frenzy once you ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ enough times after mentioning the word ‘quantum’). In this sense, perhaps Weizenbaum’s call to value what “is least computable about us” is not hopeless. By re-ordering our hierarchy of knowledge to fit the mysticism of first-personal subjective experience, could we not make room for a path outside the grid? As nihilistic (and even egocentric) as it sounds, a solipsistic epistemology, which sees our ‘Self’ as the only thing we can ever be certain of, could be the resounding self-affirmation required to escape. Affirming the unique connection between your mind and body with the knowledge that only you can access it, may lessen the anxiousness of your grid-induced self-amputation, paving way for the reconstruction of your body parts.