Digital Identification

An article from 2003 by Yvette van Nierop about "Can You See Me Now?" and "Pockets full of Memories".

When you think about it, a remarkable feature of humankind is the capacity to project a sense of self onto objects that are outside the self. While other kinds of animals do not even recognize their own reflection in a mirror, we humans can identify with everything our imagination comes up with. Anything can be experienced as a representation of the self. Nowadays this capacity is extended to digital data. In essence zeros and ones are nothing but the digital representation of information and since everything can be viewed as information anything can be translated to the digital.

The fact that human beings are capable of using data as representation of themselves and others is due to the imagination. The stronger the imaginary capacities the easier it is to use a digital configuration as extension of the self. With those kind of extensions, the identity shows itself more and more as consisting of different layers of which some seem fixed and others are changeable or even just temporarily. For this reason, Arjun Appadurai (USA) prefers the term identification above identity. Identity as a term suggests something fixed while identification is the experienced sense of identity linked with a particular thing, idea or process during a particular moment in time. Human beings are capable of identifying themselves with everything their imagination comes up with.

The capacity to let some object work as means of identification, lies at the base of George Legrady's (H) work Pockets full of Memories. All visitors leave some trace of themselves in a database by scanning an object they happen to carry with them. All the objects that are collected in the database have significant meanings for the persons who carry them around but when the scan of the object is added to the database, most of those meanings are lost. Just like a photograph of a person can never have the same liveliness as the living person, an object that on a individual level works as means of identification becomes detached when it is categorized along someone else's logic. And that is what happens in Pockets full of Memories: objects are categorized according to a logic imposed on them by the software. For instance, there are a number of toys, but those are not necessarily put in the same category. A doll with a red dress might be combined with a red cart; another doll might be put in the category dirty, together with some spectacles. And a third toy might end up next to some object because both are experienced as personal by their original owners. The result is a flexible collection of data that is rearranged with every new item that is added to it. It is a patchwork of personal and impersonal memento's that once worked to define their owners but in their new context work to define other objects that the database connects with them. The digital representation of the objects becomes depersonalized and the experienced meaning of the objects changes.

The opposite can be said to take place in the game-project Can You See Me Now? by Blast Theory (UK). Both projects can only exist with the help of a participating audience but the role the public plays in each project is very different. In Pockets full of Memories the public is asked to take an object that defines them and add the digital representation of it to the project, while in Can You See Me Now?, the participants are expected to identify with a pre-existing digital image. This image in the form of a simple square with a running figure on it represents the participants in the game. Of course this square is only a focus point, which enables the players to recognize themselves within the defined space of the game, but a sense of identification is projected into it by attaching the names of the players. Where as in Pockets full of Memories the identifying objects are digitalized, in Can You See Me Now? the digital representations of the visiting public are treated as something existing in the real world. The project is a mixed reality game, a blend of a computer game and a traditional street game like hide and seek or tag. While the public is presented with a digital representation of a street plan in which they can move the digital representations of themselves around in, the members of Blast Theory, signified as runners, are roaming the actual streets searching for their digital prey. Physical space and digital space are laid over one another, creating an interaction between the two.

Although players as well as runners are human beings, there is no real contact between them. The players can see the runners on a computer screen and they can listen in on the walky-talky communications that help the runners in their tactics. The runners get location information on their prey through handheld computers and those computers equipped with Global Positioning System send the location of the runners to the players. But even though the human aspects in the game are translated to digital data and look impersonal, that does not mean the players experience themselves as detached from the game. The excitement purely results from the imagination of the players but that is enough to create the physical result of adrenaline floating through the body when the representative icon is on the verge of being caught. The data is experienced as personal.

The above examples show the flexibility with which human imagination can either represent itself in data or identify itself with data. Both are the results of the flexible way human beings perceive themselves. It is because we are used to having different representations of ourselves in different circumstances that we can recognize at least part of others and ourselves in different kinds of representations. As far as human imagination is concerned, the digital extension of reality is just another realm for the projection and identification of a sense of self.

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