In the age of self-actualisation, are we becoming more average than ever?

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In an age centered around finding our true and autonomous selves, technology provided us with a mindblowing set of instruments to facilitate the journey. The computer has extended our identity, freed from physical boundaries, allowing us to become our most sovereign selves, in a world sculpted at our sole discretion. But are we really in control? Do I own my computer, or does my computer actually own me?

Who do you think you are? Is that not the main question in this day and age? Not: what am I capable of, or: what do I want to achieve in life, what is my contribution to the group, but: who am I? Am I Dutch or European? Am I a Muslim, a Christian or an atheist? Am I Microsoft or Apple, a native or an immigrant, am I gay, straight or bisexual? Am I a fit, consciously eating, yoga-happy person working for a start-up, or a meat-indulging office clerk with a dad-bod? What is my identity in a world where nearly all boundaries, physical and virtual, have been stripped away, and so many things that used to be a given, are now open for interpretation? In this age shaped by the mantra: ‘there are no limits to who you can be,’ the belief in self-actualization is near absolute, and finding your authentic and autonomous self is the journey we embark on.

So when I asked myself the question ‘am I my computer, or do I own my computer?’ the answer was easy. If I am the king of my potential, the sculptor of my life, then of course my computer is no more than part of the stuff I own. It is an attribute in the range of things through which we shape our lives — like the house we choose to live in, the career we choose to pursue or the clothes, hairstyles and tattoos we meticulously pick out for our road towards uniqueness. How could I even suggest that this thing, this instrument of communication that is bought, used and instructed by me, could ever become me. What a ridiculous question. It reminded me of the words of one of my favorite Dutch writers, Maxim Februari, when he asked this question a year ago: ‘Are you your body or do you have your body?’ The question puzzled me, irritated me a little even, because I thought it was so theoretical. Who cares: I am my body, I have it as well — for me it is one and the same.

Miserable situations

But like all annoying things, it forced me to think about my presumptions. Because, if we are our bodies, what does it mean to be handicapped? To be small, tall, pretty, scarred, raped, old or sick? Does that then define who we are? Or, like Februari experienced: what if you were born with the body of a woman, but you identify with being a man? Are you that body, or do you have that body? The body you are given can contradict your self-image or identity, leading to miserable situations. I should know: some people view me as an overaged Barbie in hobbit version, when I myself feel like Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas most of the time. So stating that we are our body would completely challenge that current belief of self-actualization, of being the creator of our lives in a world with no limits.

‘Am I my computer, or do I own my computer?’

So how does this translate to the ownership of technology, and why is it relevant to ask yourself this question: ‘am I my computer, or do I own my computer?’ An initial thought would be that there is no comparison to be made between technological devices and the body: for the most part you are stuck with your body and there will always be some kind of connection between that physical state and the sense of who you are. The relationship with your computer seems a lot easier: we buy the thing, we work with it, we play with it, and in a sense we view it as no more than an extension of who we are. I am in control of that virtual identity, and that power and freedom can feel exhilarating.

I mean, we only use the finest images for our virtual identity, portraying ourselves in the way we want to be seen: as beautiful, intelligent, exciting people. We express ourselves in the best way possible: funny, well-read, well-spoken or, sometimes, more aggressive than we would dare to be in real life.

A computer can open doors to a world where we can feel even more like our true selves than in our physical daily lives. For example: one can feel like a lone minority in one’s home town, but find similar people in the virtual world — other gay people, other kids who are being bullied, other Marilyn Manson-fans —  thereby changing one’s group identity, which can feel genuinely empowering. But the overall feeling remains: I am staging this, I am in control, this ‘device’ is working for me — I own this.

A computer can open doors to a world where we can feel even more like our true selves than in our physical daily lives

And that’s where this takes a turn. Because my computer is not a tool I have control over, a machine that I put to work in order to improve my well-being, as happened during the first, second and third Industrial Revolutions. Those revolutions changed what we were doing, and how we were doing it, but this fourth industrial revolution changes us. That impact is significantly different, and the consequences are much more confusing and drastic than we might realize. I will elaborate on this.

Customized shopping carts

For the past decade, my physical and my virtual identities have become entangled. At first I considered that a good thing. Some 12 years ago, the doorbell rang and the postman stood in my doorway carrying a ‘Happy Box’: a purple box filled with cool maternity gifts. My initial thought was: how thoughtful is this, how do they know I hope to get pregnant soon? There was actually a pregnancy test inside, I took it and there it was: I was pregnant. Based on my online behavior, they knew what was coming. That following year, I received discounts for baby friendly holidays, vacancies for part-time jobs (such is the proposed life of a woman in The Netherlands) and ads for really cute houses with gardens outside of the city, accompanied by bank offers for mortgages we couldn’t afford.

There are even EEG devices that monitor my brain activity, allowing me to unlock my full potential

A year later I saw the postman walking up the street again with another ‘Happy Box’ in his hands, approaching our home. I started throwing abortion pills at him, but it was too late. Pregnant again.

So, for the past ten years, I received customized shopping carts based on previous purchases, music tips based on my playlists, gift advice right before the birthdays of boyfriend, children or parents, charity donation requests in line with my Facebook likes and news articles confirming my existing beliefs and interests. My weather-app, car-app and bike-app are connected to tell me exactly what to do and when to do it. The hotels I choose and the stores I visit are dictated by the taste of the masses giving them five starsMy storage capacity is unlimited, my devices more autonomous than ever and the line between digital and biological is starting to fade. It’s mind blowing. There are even EEG devices that monitor my brain activity, allowing me to unlock my full potential. So you might say that this is the epitome of self-actualization. But I can no longer state that I own my computer: it’s more like my physical and virtual identity have morphed into one, enabling every move on my path towards finding this authentic and autonomous self.

Contradicting motives

But how authentic and autonomous am I really? How much of this virtual identity, by now, has influenced the development of my physical one? And is that a problem? I think it is, because the motives behind the development of these two identities are not the same, and can even be contradicting.

The biggest difference between the physical world and the virtual one is control and connectivity

My virtual identity lives in a universe motivated by making my life as easy, as convenient as possible, powerfully driven by marketing motives. Moreover: it is based on just a part of me, the part that I consciously and unconsciously use in my online behavior. My physical identity, on the other hand, is being formed in daily life and all its discomforts, the sometimes difficult interactions with my children or co-workers, and it is about facing adversity, taking turns and making mistakes, exploring new worlds, being ugly, impatient, nasty, crying with snot coming out of my nose when nobody sees it. The biggest difference between these two worlds, the physical and the virtual one, is control and connectivity.

The reason people increasingly take to their virtual identities, spending more time there than ever, having relationships and seeking approval, is because we think we are in control of that identity. As I mentioned earlier, the overall feeling is: I am staging this, this ‘device’ is working for me. At the same time, our bodies and our physical lives can feel awfully limited sometimes: hours spent in traffic, sweaty armpits, anxiety before speaking for an audience, sickness or signs of getting older — so many things that I can not control, but try to deal with as I progress in life.

Control and connectivity

Secondly: connectivity. My virtual identity is connected to thousands, millions of people and companies, and a large part of their incentive is marketing and sales. So what happens is that a piece of me is going into the world, connects with millions of others and comes back to me, influencing the whole of me. And what is the exact element that makes you an autonomous, authentic human being? 

Privacy. The more I know of you — the way you think, the way you respond, what you are afraid of and how much you have to spend — the easier it becomes to manipulate and control you, whether it is by corporations, government institutions, a revengeful ex or a terrorist organization. So by transferring more and more of our identity to this connected world, slowly we become less human, little by little we transform into an instrument for somebody else, an instrument as average and predictable as possible — key to succesful sales. Do you still think you are staging this, that you are more in control of your virtual than your physical identity?

So what started out as the age of self-actualization, the quest for being the best version of yourself, might well turn out to be a suffocating mold of convenience and confirmation driven by marketing incentives. And one day you’ll find yourself literally trapped in the wrong body. Now the question ‘do I have my computer, or am I my computer’ becomes very relevant, and the notion of discarding it is no longer an option. Maybe, even, the question ‘does my computer have me?’ would be a more realistic one.

By transferring more and more of our identity to this connected world, slowly do we become less human, little by little we transform into an instrument for somebody else


So. Who do you think you are? The paradox of our time is our fierce belief in self-actualisation and autonomy, versus the fact that our identity is constantly manipulated by external factors that are being motivated by a set of values and incentives different from our personal ones. We must be aware of this, and ask ourselves to what extent it defines our current and future selves, in ways that can actually strip us from everything that makes us authentic and autonomous.

If that happens, even the words of my favorite Beyoncé song will become null and void: ‘Who the fuck do you think I am? You ain't married to no average bitch boy.’ Because, well, then you actually are.

This article is an edited version of a speech the author gave at the International Technology Festival Border Sessions