Identity and the algorithm

Opinion by Anna-Sofia Lesiv
March 15, 2017, 12:27 a.m.

He is erratic, prone to fits of rage. Sudden bouts of affection strike him forcefully and violently. He anticipates your every thought of him and acts to confound you. In “Notes from Underground,” Dostoevsky creates a character made paranoid by the determinism of reason and progress. After all, science dictates that man is a product of evolution, and who wants to be a product?

The underground man hates conclusions. He hates solutions and the finality of mathematics and equations. They represent sturdy walls that we, with our petty wills and desires, are unable to surmount.

Today, when our occupations and behaviors are confined increasingly behind the unassailable dictates of economics, the indisputable truths of big data, the contempt for certitude espoused by Dostoevsky’s anti-hero looks surprisingly heroic. He will bang his head uselessly and inexplicably against the walls of reason, if only to prove to the dictates, to the data and to himself, that he can.

Despite the underground man’s superfluously dark tone, the existential crisis that afflicts him in many ways parallels the crisis that early adulthood poses for most of us.

The process of secondary education is a slow building of walls. Each choice, of a school or major, seems to change what could have been into peripheral visions. Everything done to be listed on a resume seems like a new brick piled onto our self-made enclosure.

In fact, the more walls we have, the better. Walls are employable. They are valuable. When certainty is rewarded, a lack of answers about our identity feels painful and disorienting. In such a case, a wall “possesses something soothing, morally resolving and final, perhaps even something mystical,” Dostoevsky writes.

There’s something about this process that now seems even more claustrophobic. The walls we can build and identities we can wear seem ever more restricted. Fewer majors are as rewarding, fewer jobs offer decent pay, and when we are told that our “passions” are no longer marketable skills, we are told to pack up our things from our tiny, brick-laden enclosures and move out.

In the 1920s, Bertolt Brecht expressed this feeling in a poem about linen:

“The linen hanging out to dry in the yard
Is my linen, I know it well.
Looking closer however I see
Darns in it and extra patches.
It seems
I have moved out. Someone else
Is living here now and
Doing so in
My linen.”

Brecht’s poem sees humans as replaceable. In the modern era, whether we like it or not, we are made into the exchangeable, determined automata the underground man so feared.

To escape the anxiety of substitution we crave “identity,” and just like everyone else, we yearn to stand out.

For many of us, this identity is built in social media’s great ocean of “authenticity.” We take to its hall of mirrors to brand ourselves as unique and different. Choosing not whether we are labelled, but choosing precisely how we ought to be stereotyped. Just like the lines on our CVs, every post seems a new brick laid on the great wall of our individuality. Yet if ever we fail in our unnatural quest to smooth out all our contradictions and interests into one coherent narrative, social media has us bump into something even more soothing than the pen we’ve made for ourselves – the algorithm.

We soon discover the comfort provided by a hidden formula that knows us better than we know ourselves. The algorithm soothes us by finally allowing us to export choice and agency to an equation. More reassuring than a parental word of advice, the algorithm can reveal to us the profession for which we are best suited, predict our interests, determine our personalities, manage whom we should be friends with, along with what we should like or read. The underground man envisioned that “all human actions will … be calculated according to … laws, mathematically like a table of logarithms.” Our algorithm is Dostoevsky’s table of logarithms. It finally rids us of Brecht’s anxiety, and instead teaches us to love our walls.

This notion of identity, however, is paradoxical. Though such a cultivated identity is meant to distinguish us from others, it does so by fixing us more firmly within particular sets of characteristics, attributes and skills. This destroys the je ne sais quoi of our being, laying bare all our mysteries and making us ever more vulnerable to substitution.

The underground man understood this. He shunned the finality of identification, instead asserting his being and free will through unpredictability, inconsistency and inconclusiveness. He was a man that never wanted to be pinned down. So much so that he never once mentioned his name.

As Dostoevsky’s dystopian visions increasingly become our reality, we need the dauntless spirit of the underground man to come out from hiding. We don’t need to plunge into the depths of the human misery or break our heads against the bounds of society’s dictates to prove our devotion to free will.

All we need is to cultivate that which an algorithm can never provide, a comfort with uncertainty, an acceptance of our internal contradictions and an awe for the unknown.


Contact Anna-Sofia at alesiv ‘at’

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