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The Digital Identity Problem

We face four great meta-crises in the 21st century.

As this open letter to humanity summarizes, over the last six months or so, I have been down a bit of a “rabbit hole” and have been opening my eyes to a different way of seeing the world. For most of my professional life, my attention has been on the discipline of psychology and how we might achieve a more coherent approach that allows the discipline to share its knowledge and practices more effectively.

However, for several reasons, I am finding myself increasingly alienated from the institution of psychology. I love talking with individual psychologists about their thoughts, work, research and ways of practice, but the structure of the institution increasingly feels broken and outdated to me.

Consequently, I am spending much more of my time in different territory—specifically, I have been listening more to futurists and reflecting on the state of the globe. As far as I am concerned, we are in real trouble, and I don’t think it is alarmist to consider the possibility of “global civilization collapse” over the next several decades. If this is true, it means we have much work to do. Because of this, I have decided that trying to get the institution of psychology to change its basic sensibilities is not the best way to spend my efforts. Instead, I am now focusing my energies on cultivating awareness of the meta-global situation and possible solutions.

The way I am current making sense of things is that (Western) civilization is experiencing a complex admixture of four different, but interrelated meta-crises. If we solve these crises and come out the other side, the 21st century might unfold as one of the most successful centuries our species has had the good fortune to live through. On the other hand, the magnitude and scope of the problems are such that, if we fail to solve them, it is not hyperbole to state that the 21st century might also mark the end of Western Civilization and, perhaps, humanity as we know it.

The first crisis is what John Vervaeke calls the meaning crisis. This crisis arises from the fact that, collectively, we don’t have a shared sense of reality or morality. That is, we can’t make sense of what is true and what is good, and we don’t know how we ought to live. The roots of the modern meaning crisis can be most obviously traced to Nietzsche and his observation that God was dead, killed by the Enlightenment Age of Reason. But it has progressed significantly from that point, greatly exacerbated in recent decades by the postmodern turn. Regardless of one’s philosophy of science (and there are many reasons to support a postmodern perspective), we live in a chaotic fragmented pluralistic world, such that we are drowning in bullsh*t. As Vervaeke notes, it is not accidental that the last decade has seen a strong resurgence of the zombie, an archetypal symbol of mindless living absent a soul oriented toward an existential moral purpose.

The second is the mental health crisis, which is seen most obviously in our youth (see here, here, and here for some of my writings on this). We are witnessing an epidemic of depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicidality, and this is especially true in our children, adolescents and young adults, along with certain socio-economic groups, such as lower-class whites. The distribution of mental health problems aligns directly with the meaning crisis. For example, it makes perfect sense that the identity politic wars would have their highest casualties among lower-class whites. Lacking in capital and being blamed for causing injustices naturally results in a defensive, depressive, reactive stance. As for our youth, they are growing up in a culture racked by confusion and uncertainty and accelerating change, and it is little wonder that they feel insecure.

The third crisis is the one most often touted by the scientific community and has received by far the most press. I refer to it here as the techno-environmental crisis. This includes both global and local climate change, and the technological extraction of resources from mother earth, along with mass extinctions, which by virtually all accounts, is leaving her wounded and depleted. Borrowing a metaphor from Jordan Hall and Daniel Schmactenberger, humanity is a caterpillar eating its way through the substrates that sustain us. Each decade the situation progresses, and mother earth is losing her robustness and becoming more fragile. This then is juxtaposed with our increased capacities for weapons of mass destruction, and the numbers of countries that have access to them. Hall and Schmactenber argue strongly that we cannot continue to live a rivalrous lifestyle competing for material resources. We either evolve and learn to play a new game (i.e., continuing with the metaphor, we transform humanity into a butterfly), or we will face the painful consequences.

The last is in some ways the most salient, but also the least understood and least predictable. It is the digital-globalization crisis. Digital here refers to the age of information networks, and includes the Internet, computational processing and communication systems, and informational interface platforms and capacities, ranging from smartphones to the deep melding of human and artificial intelligence systems and our interface with them. We are witnessing the emergence of a whole new landscape of complex adaptive behavior systems, and it is changing all the rules such in a way that the old institutions (i.e., media, governments, financial systems) are not structured to manage. The most obvious change is that physical distance and location collapses, and the field of interaction is increasingly virtual, taking place on the digital landscape. This means that boundaries between groups and nations change radically. In addition, as Marshall McLuhan noted, the medium alters the form of our psychologies, and the digital age is like nothing we have ever seen. In short, “digital” is changing globe and the form of our identities (see this fascinating book, Digital Libido, for a powerful analysis).

As my longer open letter notes, I think we can fruitfully collapse these four meta-crises into a meta/macro Digital Identity Problem (i.e., it is shorthand for the wicked complex of the Digital-Techno-Mental-Meaning Meta-Crises). This can then be thought of as the great problem for the 21st century. Given the magnitude of these meta-crises, a natural response might be to shrug one’s shoulders and say nothing can be done about it. I don’t think that is the best way to go.

As skilled therapists know, to effectively address problems, one needs awareness of the situation one is in and the dynamics that are operative, in both the short and long term. As such, the goal of this post is to raise consciousness about the “meta-situation" we (i.e., humanity) find ourselves in. I believe that with collective awareness of the Digital Identity Problem, we might have more clarity about how we can coordinate our collective efforts and move toward solutions. That is, I believe there is still time for us to change and grow toward a “Digital Identity Solution” (e.g., see this podcast, Emerge, for a series of ideas on the problem and possible adaptive solutions). The bottom line is that we need to cultivate general awareness and start the process of awakening toward adaptive change. So that is my calling here: Let us collectively wake up to the situation we find ourselves in so we can actually fostering ways of being that affords us hope for a future of the kind we would all want.