We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.RuPaul
In Stuff, anthropologist Daniel Miller compares people’s personalities to an onion. Just as an onion is made up of layers, identity is formed by layers that are added in the course of life. If you peel off the layers one by one, there is eventually nothing left. Miller refers to Peer Gynt, a play written by Henrik Ibsen: “Actually as Ibsen’s Peer Gynt observed, we are all onions. If you keep peeling off our layers you find - absolutely nothing left. There is no true inner self".
RuPaul, the American TV personality and drag queen, describes it like this: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.1” RuPaul is noted for his indifference about the gender-specific pronouns used to address him, as stated in his autobiography: “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.” RuPaul has also played men in several TV and film roles, and makes public appearances both in and out of drag.
The view that there is no such a thing as a unique personality arose in structuralism, a movement in the social sciences that was popular in the 1960s and 70s. According to structuralists, systems such as family and school dictate who we are. We seem to be free, but we aren’t. Our personality is totally determined by the structures around us, and is nothing more than an insignificant cog in a huge world full of structures. Language is extremely important in structuralism. Our personality is determined by the language(s) we speak when we are young.
An important characteristic of structuralism is that the subject (the person) is not placed in the center, as it was in the previous classical philosophy. Structuralism removes the human as a subject entirely. The concept of the personal and free subject is abolished. The French philosopher Michel Foucault goes so far as to declare people dead, and speaks of the end of mankind2.
Structuralism disappeared as a trend relatively quickly. However, the central concept – that people do not decide everything that occurs in society, but instead that certain structures lead decision-making procedures – remains an influential theory in postmodern philosophy. Jean-François Lyotard is one of the writers with whom postmodernism is associated, mostly due to his book La condition postmoderne from 1979. Lyotard argues that ‘grand narratives’ are dead, and as a result, modernity has come to an end. According to him, this is how we ended up in the postmodern era.
Postmodern philosophy is characterized by doubt and relativization. It questions the existence of absolute truth. In contrast to concepts such as epistemological security, a fixed identity, historical progress and unambiguous meaning, postmodern thinkers explore subversive concepts such as difference, repetition, trace and hyper-reality. The human subject isn’t autonomous, but is determined by unconscious emotions, others and language. Postmodernists call this the ‘decentration of the subject’. Along with this comes the idea that people are also somewhat irrational.
The concept of people as insignificant cogs in a system, with a very limited ability to choose an identity, let alone the existence of a unique and consistent identity in any event, becomes even more elaborate and layered in the age of the Internet. Using the publications of Jos de Mul, professor of philosophy at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, I will explore this idea a bit more. De Mul has interesting ideas about identity at the intersection of postmodernism and the Internet.
Identity in the age of the Internet
In 2010, de Mul published Cyberspace Odyssey: Towards a Virtual Ontology and Anthropology. With the discovery of cyberspace, and the colonization of our daily lives in that cyberspace, our understanding of identity has changed. One of the chapters starts with a remarkable quote: “The revolution that characterizes our age is that of uncertainty - an uncertainty that touches all aspects of our lives, in particular our sense of identity.3”
The postmodern human is trapped in a web of relationships that is more complex and fluid than ever before4. The developments in mobility (such as low-cost air travel), communication means (mobile, Internet and TV), economic flexibility (think of migration), social life (changing roles) have resulted in a personal identity that is not a static fact, but instead is constantly evolving.
Identity, singularity, coherence and stability are in the past. The human subject – or what is left of it – is multiple, flexible, fragmented, historical and culturally changeable. The postmodern identity is no longer seen as given, but rather as a never-ending task. In a sense, postmodern society resembles a supermarket of lifestyles. The individual is supposed to ‘shop’ his or her identity together5.
‘Life on the screen’ means that we find new ways of thinking about ourselves. Our identity does not seem to be as fixed as we used to think it was. Instead, it is flexible and can be adjusted to various contexts. A new form of identity that is constructed, playful and simulated. This postmodern identity is seen as a radical reaction to the modernistic viewpoint of the self, in which identity was seen as something fixed, given at birth or determined by our immediate environment6.
In response to the postmodern, dehumanized subject, the current philosophical debate revolves around the return of the human subject. But that doesn’t mean we will return to the classical understanding of that human subject.
A striking trend is the Quantified Self. With the help of new technologies, patterns are measured from our daily lives, giving us insight about ourselves. An identity is built up from this data. The Quantified Self movement confirms the postmodern view of man as insignificant cog, but has comparatively little to do with the postmodern love for the irrational and subjective.
A second trend is neuroscience, a popular movement that explains people’s behavior from the viewpoint of brain function. Our identity coincides with our brain: “We are our brain.7” This view is closely linked to the postmodern idea that we are trapped in structures, and are only free to a limited extent. Both trends focus on collecting data, generating insights and a scientific approach to the self.
As individual as you
I read “As individual as you!” on the cover of the little folder that holds the keys to the hotel room in which I am staying while writing this article. A few days ago, I read, “Fashion isn’t about anyone else, it’s about you” on a poster in the metro. In my gym, you can train based on “your own unique DNA.” In their new campaign, Suit Supply couples homoerotic photos with the tagline, “Find your perfect fit”, and Nutella is allowing you to personalize your own jar: “Everyone gets their own unique jar.” The tagline of the brand is “unique like you.” The fashion brand G-Star offers the consumer the possibility to customize the label, so that their jeans become unique. Postmodernism sent the human subject away, but it is now back in the spotlight as a ‘user’ with wishes and needs. As individual as you! Everything is about you!
It is especially interesting to look at the current practices of marketers and market research institutions against the idea of the postmodern subject in cyber philosophy as outlined in this article. With a post-modernistic view, segmenting and dividing up target audiences into categories is extremely backward, and is still based on the classical idea of the human subject. We have learned that identity is not a consistent given, and is not something that we can choose. The ‘unique self’ doesn’t exist. In the words of RuPaul: “Fuck identity.” The marketing messages are absurd, and only aim to change consumers’ perceptions. Advertising as deception8.
We do not have to look far for ‘bad practices’. There are, for example, many different assumptions about millennials. I came across the following statement: “Millennials are making more conscious purchasing decisions, and are looking for more personal relationships with the companies they buy from.” Purchasing decisions are being made under the surface, at an unconscious level. There is no ‘millennial’ as a consistent identity to which we can target our communications and digital services.
In the introduction to this article, I expressed my doubts about the use of personas in the digital design process. You may wonder why we continue to create personas in the digital domain, in which we are so close to fragmented identity. It’s likely that here, an unconscious ‘marketing mafia’ rules, and upholds the classical ideas of identity. Personas are tidy little stories that don’t actually exist. They are no longer suitable for designing and building digital services. Personas are an attempt to fit huge numbers of people into a small number of boxes, and the needs of the individual are glossed over. In other words: there is no room for variation between the ways in which individual needs change from one situation to another, and how they change over time9.
There is no true inner selfDaniel Miller
The new approach
What can we conclude on the basis of the above findings? And what is a better approach than assumptions?
Let’s start by doing away with personas. Personas are fiction, a static story. Truly effective digital design recognizes the fragmented, context-determined, dynamic character of the personality. It is better to design dynamic digital services. Services that are living, and respond to consumers’ needs, environments and behaviors in real time. We must develop profiles as data sets that learn from users’ behavior and choices10. Fjord speaks of ‘Living Services’, Mirabeau calls it ‘Dynamic Design’.
The next step is to base the design of a digital service on scientific research instead of assumptions summarized in fictional target audiences or personas. We are, at least to a large extent, equal to our brains. Neuroscience offers implicit techniques to monitor the unconscious motives, associations, emotions and motivations of consumers and the opportunity to integrate them into the design process11.
Above all, we must stop creating an illusion for the consumer in our communications and digital services. There is no unique self. Do not change the perception of the consumer, do not offer an infinite number of choices and possibilities for personalization, but make products and services better8.
Lastly, we must acknowledge the transience of the world in which we work. The consumer’s vision and mentality changes every day. There is no unique and consistent personality. Ethnographic research does more justice to the behavior of people and who we are. It acknowledges the fragmented and context-determined character of the personality8.
Is the disappearance of the ‘unique self’ something to mourn? Have we become so obsessed with cyberspace that we’ve lost our identity? Actually, the opposite is true. Technology and neuroscience are allowing us to peel away layers of assumption and labels, and get to the heart of the matter: that human beings are complex, ever-changing and adaptable. To excel in Digital Design, we must also be those things, too.
Dynamic Design Magazine
This article is part of our Dynamic Design Magazine, Spring 2019. Download the complete magazine here. Do you want to continue the conversation about this article? Or are you interested in receiving a print edition of the magazine? Reach out to Mirabeau's Creative Director Henk Haaima.
1. Carpentier, M. (2016), “RuPaul’s Drag Race: empathy and naked emotion are the point, not winning”. The Guardian. URL visited on 17 February 2018.
2. Foucault, M. (1966), “Les mots et les choses”. Editions Gallimard, Paris.
3. Baudrillard, J. (1994), “Simulacra and Simulation”. The University of Michigan Press.
4. Lyotard, J.F. (1984), “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge”. Manchester University Press.
5. De Mul, J. (2002), “Cyberspace Odyssee”. Klement, Kampen.
6. Turkle, S. (1995), “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet”. Touchstone, United States.
7. Swaab, D. (2014), “We zijn ons brein”. Olympus.
8. Savić, N. (2018), “Bringing Perspective of the ‘Other’ into Focus”. In Dynamic Design.Mirabeau, 2019.
9. Shetterly, N.and Nayak, N. (2017), “Data + Design. A Tale of Two Problem Solvers.” Fjordnet.com. URL visited on 25 November 2018.
10. Romijn, S., Haaima, H. (2018), “Designing for the Brain”. In Dynamic Design. Mirabeau, 2019.
11. Braeckman, A. (2002), “Terugkeer van het subject. Recente ontwikkelingen in de filosofie”. Universitaire Pers Leuven, Belgium.
12. Koerkamp, S.K. (2014), “De Quantified Self en het einde van een postmoderne identiteit”. Thesis. Universiteit Utrecht.
13. Widdershoven, G. (1996), “Wat is postmodernisme?”. Trouw. URL visited on 17 February 2018.