Avatar, Personal Identity, and The 4th Revolution

On February 27th, 2010, posted in: Technology by shaharm
Avatar, Personal Identity, and The 4th Revolution

By Nick

Think Copernicus or Freud changed the way we understand ourselves? Think the Agricultural Revolution changed human life? What about the Industrial Revolution? Well there is already evidence that the internet has made equal or greater changes. The recent movie Avatar might indicate that these changes are being noticed by the masses.


The internet is the place that gave birth to digital identity. Digital identities are those identities a person creates via the internet for various purposes: communicating, networking, journaling, blogging, networking, gaming, buying, selling, file-sharing, etc. And now that such a great portion of the world has one or more digital identity, people have begun behaving in ways which suggest that we no longer think about personal identity the way we did pre-internet. Our relationship with technology and the importance of personal identity have changed so dramatically that human identity is no longer a mere material matter; we now, at least in part, identify ourselves an one another by digital activity, digital imagery (pictures, avatars, artwork), and/or digital ’space’ (websites, profiles, blogs, etc.).

Luciano Floridi—research chair in the Philosophy of Information department, Hertfordshire University, and fellow at St. Cross University, Oxford—is one of the first to articulate a research-based interest in the affects of this trend upon human self-understanding. As a scientist of information, he is convinced that our relationship to technology has changed human self-understanding so drastically that we ought to consider the changes a “Fourth Revolution.” What is more is that Floridi is convinced that these changes affect every area of human life: family, economics, academia, government, religion, etc.


Let us consider some observations which demonstrate what Floridi is trying to communicate. First, there are digital identities. Facebook has over 350 million active users—35 million of whom update their profile at least once per day—and 700,000 business profiles representing 70 different languages. MySpace has 80 million active profile pages, 1.4 million band profiles, and 15 million blogs. Twitter now has 75 million users. LinkedIn fosters 50 million users worldwide. Skype has over 22 million concurrent users. Second Life’s digital community ended 2009 with 769,000 active users. World of Warcraft’s online gaming community boasted 11 million users as of September 2009.

The point here is that a great deal of the globe has committed to spending much of their time as a digital identity—some as multiple digital identities. Floridi does well to point out that there are entire people groups who spend more of their waking hours interacting with digital identities, on internet-based programs such as Facebook, World of Warcraft, or Second Life, than they do interacting with material identities, that is other humans.

But the internet does more than foster digital communities, the internet stores our digital information—Floridi calls this the “infosphere.” WikiPedia now has 14 million pages of information. The internet as a whole hosts about 240 million blogs—72 million of which are considered “active”—and 1.5 billion readers representing over 150 languages. Google, whose mission is “…to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” indexes almost 100 billion webpages. Amazon has digitized over 400,000 books for download. iTunes has sold more than 5 billion songs and it has the largest online music catalog of over 8 million tracks. What is more is that iTunes rents over 50,000 movies daily, and has a catalog of over 20,000 TV episodes and over 2,000 films. Perhaps the most striking statistic is that over 53 million Americans have committed all of their financial information to the internet by going “paperless” and doing all of their banking online—bill-paying, tax-paying, trading, transferring, saving, etc.

But enough information. How has this affected us?


As I mentioned earlier this growing commitment to digital identity and information has already affected just about every bit of human life. But it would belabor the point to list every area and how it has been affected by the digital identity revolution. Let us instead begin with a general observation followed by a few specific examples.

I will begin with how human self-understanding is being revolutionized. Consider first that about 100 million people engage their digital identity at least daily (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Second Life, World of Warcraft, WordPress, Blogger, etc.). Now consider that there are entire people groups who spend more of their waking hours operating as a digital identity (online) than a material identity. South Korea is currently best known example of this; a number of groups in the US and the UK are not much different. This information alone indicates that there are a large number of people, the majority of whom represent the wealthiest 3rd of the world, who behave as if their digital identity is more important, that is more worthy of their time, than their corporeal identity.

Also, economics is affected by the online world with daily income and spending via digital mediums such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, Pandora, etc. The equivalent of $144 billion is spent on internet goods annually. Second Life users made a total of $55 million in 2009. Google, Inc. accepts $10.5 billion of income each year with internet advertising alone. It is clear that global commerce is capitalizing on the demand for digital products.

Now consider religion, Christianity in particular. It was in 2003 that Christian churches began creating virtual church buildings with virtual services in the internet world known as Second Life. With almost a million users, some of whom spend most of their waking hours investing in this virtual reality, virtual church may be the only ‘church’ experience a Second Life user may have. Thus, to some, church services and church communities have already begun to become purely digital experiences.

But this is only a piece of the affect on religion. Though religion is purely a digital experience for some, it is still a hybrid for others. Churches use their digital identity (websites, blogs, etc.) to complement human-to-human orthpraxis with digital version: sermons as podcasts, alms-giving as online giving, and basic communication as e-mail, text-in sermon questions, prayer request forums, etc. And this is not limited to American evangelicals in the West. Recently, the Pope, who himself has increased his digital presence, called priests to begin changing their method of mass communication by blogging, creating websites, and embedding videos (it might be worth mentioning that, officially speaking, the Roman Catholic Church still objects to internet-based confession).

Consider also education. Writing was the first big change to education. Thoughts, dialogues, lessons, and entire disciplines that were standardly taught verbally would be recorded on papyrus reeds as a reference or a learning tool. Eventually the pieces of paper were stored as scrolls, then codexes, and now tightly-bound books. But since writing has taken on a digital form, education is changing yet again. Technology such as the Amazon Kindle and Apple’s iPad (or online resources such as GoogleBooks or GoogleScholar) have made the concept of 3-dimensional books and ink a thing of the past. Likewise, email and video webinars have digitized classroom lectures and discussions. Thus, with online programs such as the Open University (enrolling more than 11,000 students worldwide), campuses, libraries, and tenured professors are no longer necessary elements for accredited higher education programs.

It is perhaps needless to mention that this type of behavior and activity could not be observed pre-internet.


It is clear that, as the globe transitions from personal interaction, education, leisure, religion, commerce (etc.) to their online versions, the understanding of human life will change; indeed changes are already observable. Just as the Agricultural Revolution changed the purpose of human life or the Industrial Revolution created the concept of work ‘ethic’ in the West, the Digital Identity revolution has changed how people think about themselves, their life, and their neighbors.

This is primarily manifest in the change from human-to-human interaction to humam-to-digital interaction via illuminated displays in our living space (television, computer, PDA phone, etc.). Secondly, most human information is moving to the internet. And thirdly, civilization, in general, is relying more and more on the internet. Commerce, religion, education, leisure, etc.—almost every area is being replaced (or supplemented) with an online counterpart.


So ask yourself: If I were to compare the amount of time I spend doing human-to-human activities to the amount of time I spend doing the human-to-digital-identity activities (email, social networking, gaming, blogging, word processing, podcasting, video chatting, banking, buying/selling, bill-paying, classwork, reading, television-watching, movie-watching, texting, etc.), which amount of time would be greater? Which activity do I enjoy most? What does this tell me about my understanding of life or myself? What does this tell me about my commitment to technology? How do I feel about this?

When I began asking these questions, I was surprised with myself. You?

Disclaimer: I readily admit that the thesis here represents a behaviorist supposition in that it deduces its main point from the observation of human behavior. I would remind those who find this to be a faulty premise that while behaviorist deductions lack perfect soundness, the evidence from which they are deduced cannot be ignored: the relationship between humans and their technology is becoming more important (time-consuming) than their relationship with other humans.

No Responses to “Avatar, Personal Identity, and The 4th Revolution”

Leave a Reply