Who am I Online?A View from Buddhism Soraj Hongladarom Department of Philosophy Chulalongkorn University firstname.lastname@example.org
Outline Current situation regarding the social networking websites – their differences and their powers – the Thai cases. Problem of identity – of ’online’ identity – ’avatars’ The Buddhist View Doctrine of ”Non-Self” (anātman) ’Pragmatic’ Conception of Identity How this is related to the problem of online identity
Social Networking Sites What differentiates social networking sites such as Facebook and others from earlier versions of websites is perhaps the ability for average users to post information and to share the information among networks of their ”friends.” The phenomenon makes it really easy for a person to construct her own personality or even ’identity’ which may or may not match the personality (or identity) of the original person. Originally Facebook is used for connecting real friends, but now the use has changed a lot.
Constructing Identities Uses of ’avatars’ In Thailand, many opt to use pseudonyms in their FB profiles – my guess is that the use is more prevalent than in the West. Examples – ”เฮลั่น สนันทุ่ง” (Laughing Out ่ Loud Across the Field); ”มังกร ที่ราบสูง” (Dragon from the Plateau) ”ไม่ผกไม่งอก ใส่ ั ผักมาไม่กินค่ะ” (No veggie, no beansprouts. Won’t eat it if you put the veggie.); ”ราหู” (Rahu) ”Red Heart;” ”Red Cyber Red” Some put in their real names but use all sorts of pictures as their profile picts.
Avatars Some avatars are just fun ways to connect to friends, some of whom are already known to the person, but some are not. Some are put to protect the person from the stringent law against freedom of expression in Thailand (but this is seldom successful as authorities have a way to identify the person behind the avatar).
Avatars Those who use their real names tend to be well known personalities, and they use their STS accounts to promote what they are doing. The uses of pseudonyms and other ways of obscuring real identities are not new in Thailand. In many cases the pseudonyms become better known than the person herself.
Avatars It might be helpful to look back at the origin of avatars. An avatar (lit. ”coming down”) is a incarnation of a god in the body of a mortal being. This is not exactly the same as when Zeus morphs himself into an animal, or when the Christian God becomes incarnated as Jesus. When a god needs to intervene in human affairs, he takes up a body of a mortal being so that he can participate directly in the human world.
Avatars Thus an avatar is a projection of the identity of the god. It’s a way for a god to be able to ’work directly’ in another world. If we believe that there is a separation between this real world and the ’cyberworld’ of the Internet, then we are sending our ’avatars’ into the latter. This of course has created a lot of complications, not least of which is the legal one of identity theft and protection of online privacy.
An Avatar of Vishnu Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth. In order to protect the good and punish the wicked, In order to make a firm foundation for righteousness, I come into being age after age. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki /Avatar)
Metaphysics of Avatars The existence of avatar is problematizing the identity (-ies) of the person (-s) involved. On the one hand, the scripture says that Vishnu has ten major avatars – Are they all distinct? How do we count here? What is the basis we use for counting? But then these questions are also there for us who are not gods, because we also send avatars all over the place.
Metaphysics of Avatars So the basis for the identity of an avatar is that the identity of the person (or the god) is infused in the avatar. But for the avatar to be an avatar, there needs to be something else that makes up the identity of the avatar. So the basis is twofold. In the case of an online identity where a strict identity is intended (such as in online banking), the basis of identity of the avatar consists of those factors that are accepted to be directly related to the person.
But where there is a looser connection, the person can play around with his creations more freely. But what does this tell us? One can also play around with one’s ”offline” identity.
The Buddhist Perspective Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism is a ’non- theistic’ religion in that it does not put gods in a central place. The central doctrine in Buddhism is the Doctrine of Emptiness. Closely related to that is the Doctrine of Non-Self.
The Buddhist Perspective According to Buddhism, what is known as ’the self’ is made up of various factors. In the same way as the car is made up of various parts without which the car is non- existent, so is our selves and our identities. The Doctrine of Emptiness is that you can analyze things this way with no end – there is no thing such that it exists absolutely on its own without depending on any other things. This is the same with our normal conception of the self.
Buddhism, Locke and Kant Hence, strictly speaking, there is no problem of personal identity in Buddhism, because there is ultimately no such thing as a person. This does not mean that the person is denied, but what is recognized as a person is always made up of various factors. According to Kant’s there’s the ”Transcendental Unity of Apperception” which must be there in order for there to be genuine knowledge. But it does not have any basis in empirical reality. There’s a strand of Buddhist philosophy that mentions something like Kant’s TUA.
“Kant is providing a notion of a sensorimotorily enmeshed, dynamically coupled, agent that interacts with its, necessarily changing, world” (Susan Stuart 2008, p. 261).The TUA itself interacts with the outside world.
Buddhism and Online Identity So the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism is that the former believes in absolute existence of the gods – it is the gods who create their own avatars. But in Buddhism it’s the same either way. Even the gods themselves are ”empty of their inherent existence.” In a way the gods are their own avatars. And as we are sending avatars, we are our own avatars too.
Buddhism and Online Identity Kant’s analysis of the self works just as well in the online phenomenon. There must be a ”transcendental unity of apperception” that binds up the episodes of empirical online self identities into one coherent whole. If subjectivity is possible online (agency of avatar), then it is this subjectivity, this self consciousness, that points to the transcendental unity if there is to be a coherent conception of online self.
Problem One problem arising from this notion concerns agency – the avatars can’t do things on their own, but they need the person behind them to do the work (Look at this as a puppet show.) But Vishnu’s avatars are not puppets; they are fully autonomous beings. It might be a bit difficult to imagine our online avatars doing things on their own autonomously, but perhaps this is already happening!
And then are we really the ones who do things on our own? If we believe so (which we should), then the problem of agency of the avatar is answered by pointing out that the agency in the avatars is the same as our own agency. When we direct our avatars in an online world, it is we ourselves who do so. But this actually mean we and the avatars are in a sense one and the same.
Problem Another problem perhaps concerns the notion of an avatar as a manifestion. Rama is a manifestation of Vishnu, but if we are avatars, who (or what) are we avatars of? In the end I think we need to come to terms with the idea that we are our own avatars. The direction of manifestion points back to ourselves. As our real world identities are made up of various factors, many of which are social (how others view us, etc.), we are our own avatars, and in the online world things just are the same as in the ”real” world outside.
Practical Implications Realizing that there is no hard and fast, metaphysically objective line between the ”real” person and her avatars, one is aware that identity is constructed through and through. Thus in matters such as privacy and legal status of online identity, the connection is more a matter or ”how much” we feel that we need to protect our online persona for what purposes at hand rather than searching for some kind of objective basis.