The Digital Self. Impact of Digitalisation on Personal Identity

Illustration: Felix Kumpfe/Atelier Hurra

The debate about how our digital environment affects our identity and how computerisation embedded in our lives affects our individual capacities is being conducted in various places. But because discussions about bodies and the self touch our innermost feelings, they are highly emotionally charged. What appears to some as a short-cut to dystopia is, for others, a technology-based hope. But no one is left cold by implants, data shadows, robots or technical “enhancement” of the body. Sensitive education can contribute to classify the debates and phenomena, and also to contrast them with the real developments of the digital transformation. It can enable reflection on the points at which the matter becomes uncomfortable and also enable debates on the desired direction of digitalisation close to the human body and mind.

If identity is a construction that is co-created by the creators and owners of (digitised) artefacts and digital infrastructure, then the digital self will also be pre-structured through the principles and rules of computer mediation. The interaction between things and individuals (among each other and with each other) is creating a new social space, affecting and challenging personal identity and its mastery or management. Concretely, users and platforms create not only personal data traces or data shadows, but also digital selves, the presence of individuals in the digital sphere which goes far beyond a mere extension of their analogue appearance.

Technical Environment

This question included also the technical aspects. People typically install numerous apps, using on average ten daily and more than thirty in a month (AppAnnie, 2017). According to CISCO, the number of devices per capita will grow to 9.4 in Western Europe and 4 in Eastern Europe before 2023 (CISCO 2020). It is easy to go into a forest but challenging to find the way out. The app and data ecosystem is similar. Many efforts intend to make things user-friendly from the very beginning. However, with every new app, update, new device, feature, app authorization, or new way of processing, people lack overview over their connected IT or their manifold installations during its use. Control may become more challenging and confusing.

We need also to learn, which data these apps are producing, how safe they are or if their analytical are reliable. Moll et al. Have shown siginificat gaps in sensitivity and data security of fintness apps (Moll et al. 2017). Especially the market for health apps is intransparent, the developers seem not to align the design to user needs and also from a societal perspective there seems to be too little reflection about the potentials during the product development (Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2016).

Added Value and Exploitation

Zuboff points out that the economic basis of many services and platforms is a mechanisation of the digital self – the body is technically “extracted”, dissected into data and assembled into models of behavioural analysis. The promise of personalised offerings can result in the depersonalisation of digital people. According to the currently dominant logic of the large platforms, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”, their personal data is transformed into behavioural prediction models using the means and models of behavioural psychology and Big Data and economically exploited, largely excluding the users and assigning them the role of reliable data producers (Zuboff, 2015). In this sense, the question is how users can better understand the business models and the human assumptions of their services and the devices connected to them.

Applied Behavioral Psychology

Supported by techniques from the methodology of behavioural psychology (like implementing gamification elements or undertaking social experiments with their users, nudging, or reframing), the behaviour of people is influenced. Very visible are manipulative user interface designs to make people consent to their sharing of data or buying things, so called dark patterns. A common example is that the button for giving consent to third-party cookies is more colourful than the button for the minimal settings. Other examples are trying to make people click on supplements or installing unnecessary software. Also known are warnings with messages like ‘only a few offerings for that price left’.

Surveillance capitalism births a new species of power: instrumentarian power. This is the power to know and shape human behaviour toward others’ ends. It is an unprecedented quality of power, completely distinct from totalitarianism. Instead of armaments and armies, terror and murder, instrumentarian power works its will through the automated medium of an increasingly ubiquitous, internet-enabled, computational architecture of “smart” networked devices, things, and spaces.”

Shoshana Zuboff

Identification & Biometry

One could object, that this could be done by regular checking and cleaning of the smartphone or the databases. Another issue is that the specific mixture of apps and devices makes individuals identifiable, because the information about installed apps and used devices is transferred to third parties.Individuals are identified along their specific mixture of devices and apps. Many people are not aware that many diverse and unique (identifiable) features are a crucial aspect of the digital identity. Identification is the basis for modern data analysis. We cannot treat de-anonymisation and personal tracking only as exceptions but have to admit that they are also conditions of ubiquitous computing and Big Data. Also their democracy and rights-sensitive variations cannot guarantee 100% anonymity.

Biometry is technology aiming to identify a person through their personal characteristics or body features. It compares real body characteristics with stored data. The European General Data Protection Regulation describes what kind of data is involved: „Personal data resulting from specific technical processing relating to the physical, physiological or behavioural characteristics of a natural person, which allow or confirm the unique identification of that natural person, such as facial images or dactyloscopic data“ (Article 4 (14) EU GDPR). On each European identity card, mandatory fingerprints and facial images are stored. Since biometry was a domain of state data processing for a long time, the technology has become a standard feature for identification in smartphones and computers. Services and employers collect DNA profiles and scan vein patterns, irises and voice profiles as well. Many of these data are shared with third parties.

Biometric technology is giving or blocking access for different social groups. It might become a tool for surveilling individuals or groups. „The fear is that facial recognition technology could ultimately lead to a situation where it is no longer possible to walk down the street or go shopping anonymously” (EESC, 2019). It also opens up new possibilities for theft and discrimination through the possession of biometric data. This is why many think very critically about biometric technology and call for its strict regulation, including the EU Commission, which mentions it as a critical technology in its White Paper on Artificial Intelligence (EU COM 2020/65 final).

The Body

Last but not least, identity has a psycho-physical dimension. The more human-machine interaction bis becoming usual, this is affecting the individual self-description and self-perception. We don’t even have to call up the strong images of cyborgs and robots, because technically some devices have been forming very strong and sometimes even permanent connections with our physical bodies for a long time. We see this most obviously in medical therapy. Some are invasive, e.g. implanting a sensor in the body, others non-invasive. Probably most familiar are cardiac pacemakers.

In the context of datafication and connectivity new control and security issues are appearing. Also in line with a trend toward automatization, industrial robots are developing new features toward better interaction. The technological trend hints in the direction of more ubiquitous robotics. The International Federation of Robotics assumes that sensors and smarter control will make robots more cautious or collaborative, no longer fenced in cages for safety reasons (IFR, 2020).

The example smartphone, watch or fitness tracker are demonstrating that smart body machine interaction left the therapeutical (or military) purposes for which they were often invented and swept into the everyday culture. This has consequences for our self-perception as humans and of our abilities.

Latest after the first apperance of educational programs in the television people debate the impact of technology and in particular screens on health and mental developments. Further debates focused on computer games, online games or smartphones. It is no question that new media and technology have an impact on the brain and also on the physical abilities of our children. “But that applies to books and any other form of learning and experiencing too” (Reinberger, 2017, p. 3). There is evidence that internet usage has an impact on the ability to think analytically and leads one to focus on where to find content rather than on acquiring the content’s meaning (Brey et al., 2019, p. 23). On the other hand, the opportunity to access a variety of content can lead to improved information-related skills and enable cognitive learning (p. 24).

Meyer and Asrock are hinting us to the shift of the perception of people with disabilities instigated by advanced prosthetics – a shift from being ‚warm‘ and incompetent toward more competent and less ‚warm’ (Meyer in Zimmermann, 2020 p.17 ff.). If a technical perspective on disability and the body takes over and displaces the discussion on inclusion, this can lead to new stigmatisations or renew old patterns of exclusion when a partial problem of disability is eliminated.

Quantified Self

Critics argue, the ongoing presence of optimization and rating, the permanent availability of performance data and the present (mainstream) images of bodies on the internet might lead to a silent ”dashboardification” and subordination under dominant beauty and body ideals. They are concerned that the society as a whole might now internalize these norms too much. Others, the promoters of the idea of the „quantified self“ accept quantification tools. The term describes according to Meidert & Scheermesser “a person actively measuring oneself with apps and devices in order to generate knowledge through the analysis contributing to optimizing lifestyle and behaviour in the fields fitness, wellness, or health” (Meidert et al., 2018, p. 44).

These persons have very different interests in tracking and analysis. Some are forced to do so for medical reasons, others see it as a useful aid in order not to neglect their health, rather few try to get everything out of the means in terms of their performance optimisation.

Most people seem to have a mixed attitude toward the new digital tools mixed with pragmatism, criticism, fear of addiction, or compulsion for autonomy. The vast majority seem to be aware of the risk of losing social and cultural variety in light of excessive quantified self-practice. Those, that are relying from social solidarity (like people with health problems) have more concerns regarding the quantified self than those that are in the norms.

Images of the Body

As amplifiers of emotional and touching content in particular social media platforms have a stronmg influence on the mental wellbeing of individuals and on their physical self-perception. A study about the body weight of Italian women points out that “normality” as a statistical spectre is not similar to an ethical “norm”. Their interviews show “that girls and young women wish to be thinner, which leads them to neglect healthy behaviours. They prioritize social acceptance rather than their own wellness and lifestyle quality” (Di Giacomo et al., 2018).

Social media amplifies such outcomes, although one needs to concede that it has also supported the emergence of counter trends such as #BodyPositivity (a hashtag used by people not wanting to subordinate to the dominant beauty trend). Each social media platform seems to have a different impact. For example, the Royal Society for Public Health established that YouTube appears to be less normative in their promotion of body images than Instagram (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017).

Conclusions for Education

In a broader perspective, education can raise awareness on the fact that digital transformation might be driver for social inclusion and participation, but also lead to new barriers and exclusions.

Body-machine interaction is increasing, and also the challenges related to democratic attitudes, values and rights need to be addressed. These discussions started for prosthetics and robotics (for instance, discrimination, vulnerability, fair access), or for biometry as a risky technology (potential for exclusion, surveillance).

The technology gives also access to tools for self-optimisation and the quantified self. Education might encourage learners to conscious and reflective usage.

Learning might also relate the imagination and appearances of bodies and abilities how they appear for users in the digital sphere with the pluralism and diversity of appearances and (beauty) ideals. And hashtags such as #BodyPositivity and overstaged Instagram posts represent the spectre of digital body imagery.

The text is an adaption of the author’s contribution to: The Digital Self.
Published in the frame of the project DIGIT-AL – Digital Transformation Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. DARE Blue Lines, Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe, Brussels 2020. Published by the author under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 License in:
Competendo – Digital Toolbox

Gamification, dark patterns or amplification of emotions through platform mechanisms pander to addictive behaviour of those people with addictive predispositions or vulnerable groups (in particular young people). Education might help learners to reflect on these mechanisms and strengthen their ability to cope with their digital omnipresence.

Social relation competence: A remarkable part of today’s internet is built around social relations, and also analogue and digitally facilitated relation-building are intersecting more and more. Thus, relationship competencies gain in importance, understood as a reflective assessment of ones position in the network of social relations and also the individual ability to create and maintain relations in the online and analogue world. As a result, this becomes an explicit topic for adult education whereas it was formerly sought more implicitly.

Illustration: Felix Kumpfe


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