tagging identity

I was reading the latest issue of Smithsonian Magazine this morning and found an article called "Aerosol Art" which details a fascinating new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery called RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture (runs through October 26, 2008). The exhibit includes portraits and paintings of Hip Hop artists, film, poetry, and the one medium that really caught my attention: the graffiti art of taggers Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp. Jobyl Boone, the exhibit’s guest curator, argues that

graffiti tags function as self-portraits. "We want to present the notion that individuality and portraiture might not be someone’s face or body," she says. Conlon agrees: "Graffiti is based on choosing a name and making it as prolific as possible."

Two of Conlon and Hupp’s tags:

CON/AREK Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp, 2007 Montana spray paint on Sintra panel

AREK Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp, 2007 Montana spray paint on Sintra panel

Boone’s and Conlon’s statements (and the exhibit as a whole) challenge the way many consider the construction of identity by asking viewers to consider what role portraits, artifacts, texts, writing spaces, actions, labels, classifications, and so forth, play in the construction of identity.

I have been asking students in my Technologies and the Future of Writing module to challenge their own conceptions of identity formation by reading articles by Turkle and Dibbell and others, as well as talking about how Web 2.0 technologies are enabling the construction of identity(ies) in online environments. We look at the usual players in this discussion—Facebook and MySpace—but we also consider how we can compose identity through the texts that we write in blogs, in the kinds of web sites we bookmark using Diigo or Del.icio.us, how we tag blog posts and social bookmarks, and in the sites that we subscribe to using Netvibes (which is going to become even more identity shaping when Ginger is released—I’m psyched that I just got beta access and will be blogging about my new space). More importantly, we also talk about how associative and interconnected nature of Web 2.0 technologies allow use to create entwined identities that are distributed and built upon using multiple online writing spaces and technologies.

There is also the significant role that others play in the construction of our identities. The example we have discussed so far is the photo album feature of Facebook, where others can tag images with your name and those images will appear on your page as if you had posted the image yourself (it is very easy to read past the "Added by others" label and the thin rule). Dick Hardt captures so well the way others and artifacts and technologies construct identity in his widely viewed and respected OSCON 2005 keynote Identity 2.0 and his (more technical and somewhat less novel though incredibly important) sequel, Who is the Dick on my Site? presented at ETech 2006. This week students are reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s review essay "Naked in the ‘Nonopticon’" from the Feb 15, 2008 Chronicle Review (subscription required). Vaidhyanathan writes

Second, what we have at work in America today is the opposite of a Panopticon: what has been called a "Nonopticon" (for lack of a better word). The Nonopticon describes a state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it. The most pervasive surveillance does not reveal itself or remains completely clandestine (barring leaks to The New York Times). We don’t know all the ways we are being recorded or profiled. We are not supposed to understand that we are the product of marketers as much as we are the market. And we are not supposed to consider the extent to which the state tracks our behavior and considers us all suspects in crimes yet to be imagined, let alone committed.

In fact, companies like ChoicePoint, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.com want us to relax and be ourselves. They have an interest in exploiting niches that our consumer choices generate. They are devoted to tracking our eccentricities because they understand that the ways we set ourselves apart from the mass are the things about which we are most passionate. Our passions, predilections, fancies, and fetishes are what we are likely to spend our surplus cash on.

And, yet, it seems to me that we (or many of us) also know that we are being watched, that Albertson’s and Acme and Shop Rite are tracking our purchases when we swipe their discount cards, that they are learning something about me when I choose the self checkout lane, that they will one day be able to anticipate what I am going to purchase (in some ways I wouldn’t mind their tracking as much if when I placed my sweet potatoes on the scale and hit the "lookup item" button on the screen I would see sweet potatoes instead of 20 fruits and vegetables that I never buy). Google’s tracking of Internet searches seems to me to be the most concerning violation, but that may also be because the searches represent multiple layers of our selves. Update: Upon further review, this is just stupid: Perhaps many of us are actually participants in the "knowopticon": we know that we are being tracked and cataloged and surveyed but there is little we can do about it (and would one day like to see the tangible uses of it other than paper-wasting mailers and clothing catalogs).

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