Nationality in flux: digital identity hits hyper-speed.
Originally published in Schweizer Kunst (2010).
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century new technologies have enhanced our interaction and understanding of the world around us. History is no longer restricted to a long forgotten past – we barely have time to experience events before we document, blog or tweet their occurrence. The ability to virtually trans-navigate the globe is shaping our perception of identity and nationality, accelerating communication to expeditious levels. What does this landscape look like, and what are the political ramifications? Furthermore, within this framework, what does the future hold for Schweizer Kunst?
Hyper acceleration of communication
It is estimated that 1,407,724,920 people, or 21.1% of the world’s population have access to the internet. In Europe there has been a 352% growth in users in the last ten years alone, with this translating to around 60% of the overall population. Facebook has over 500 million members, and more than half of them use it on a daily basis. Twitter averages around 2 billion tweets per month – that is around 750 tweets per second.
To put this into perspective, when the first commercial telephones became available in the late 19th century, users could only converse with a single other device, directly linked to their home phone. Useful when communicating with your local business, but not much else. Early developments involved making calls through an operator – a necessity because there was no such thing as a telephone number. The alternative to this slow and laborious process was a letter or telegram that could take weeks to reach its destination.
The multi-faceted nature of 21st century communication, where one can hold conversations with another person on the opposite side of the globe in real-time, would have seemed light-years away for human beings 100 years ago. According to marketing research company comScore the amount of people accessing the internet from mobile devices has doubled in the last year – a global audience of 63.2 million people. That is a phenomenal amount of information being distributed.
Although speed is an important part of this development, what remains critical to the internet’s influence on our lives is the lack of any form of traditional operator. It is deregulated, delimited and open. There has been a generalised reprogramming of information, whereby knowledge is freely available to a mass audience. The ramifications – for society, politics, visual culture etc. – are intense and we are only just beginning to understand what they are.
The impact on politics
The 2010 UK General Election was the first in the social media age. An agreement was reached between Britain’s three largest broadcasters, BBC, ITV and Sky to screen a series of live debates featuring the three main political parties. These 90-minute sessions focused on domestic policies, domestic affairs and the economy.
A stringent 76-point agreement was put in place to moderate the debates. Audience members, carefully selected by market research company ICM, were not allowed to freely ask questions, with a panel of senior journalists filtering them prior to the event. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s general election co-ordinator said the debates would completely change the face of UK election campaigns forever. They have, but perhaps not in the way Alexander first conceived.
The number of people tuning into the live television debates was staggering, the final event attracting over 8 million viewers. Yet few people experienced these historic events on a single screen. As Charles Arthur reported in the Guardian newspaper, thousands of people, and especially first-time voters, were watching them on two screens: the TV screen and their mobile phone or computer, which they used to monitor and respond on social networking sites. The result was instant, real-time reaction to the candidates’ appearance, words and policies.
The @Tweetminster Twitter account – which describes itself as “a media utility that connects you to the politicians, commentators and news that shape UK politics” – reported that in the third debate there were 154,342 tweets relating to various terms around the leaders’ debate, coming at 26.77 tweets a second, spread amongst 33,095 people. Facebook was playing its part too with groups such as Democracy UK campaigned to get people to head to the polling stations. According to statistics released 14,000 people downloaded voter registration forms through Facebook alone and on election day over 1 million of its users had voted.
One of the most intriguing aspects of social networking is the ability for people to use it to coordinate voting behaviour. Under the UK’s current electoral system, the result of numerous seats was close enough to be determined by a few hundred coordinated voters. Sites such as TwitVote (http://www.twitvote.org.uk/) and Voteforachange (http://www.voteforachange.co.uk/) are fantastic tools in enabling this synchronisation. The ramifications for strategic voting are potentially immense.
Strategic voting and growth of the far right
The last few months has seen electoral breakthroughs for the far right across Europe. Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland – all have seen a rising backlash against multiculturalism. In Austria the Freedom Party has become a political force, and Barbara Rosenkranz, who says anti-Nazi laws should be abolished, narrowly came second in the presidential race.
The Swiss People’s Party (SPP) epitomises this shift to the right. The party has 64 seats in the Federal Assembly, with its vote share (29%) in the last election the highest any party has ever achieved in the country. When Ueli Maurer, the head of the Zurich section of the SPP, was voted into the seven-member government in 2008, he won by one vote. It is fair to say we are dealing with incredibly fine margins, with any mechanism that could potentially sway votes worthy of attention.
Social networks have made it easier to connect with and influence people. The number of links are certainly smaller than the six degrees of separation as defined by Frigyes Karinthy in his 1929 short story, Chains (Láncszemek). The fact Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the right wing Austrian Freedom Party, currently has over 70,000 fans on Facebook, should not be underestimated. That is an awful lot of people not only following Strache’s political movements, but also conversing with one another.
There is a strange paradox here. On the one hand, political parties are utilising digital means to reach as wide an audience as possible. On the other, the political agendas presented by a number of these parties are infused with an anti-multicultural, anti-immigrant philosophy where control and restriction are important. We live in the reality of a creolised world where origin, identity and nationalisation are no longer fixed, but rather in flux. In this context, these political beliefs are highlighted as increasingly out of touch with a backlash almost inevitable.
Digital identity and enrooting
The tracing of lineage and the hope of discovering new territories of stability has become increasingly important. Identity is no longer tied to a physical, geographical place, but rather it fluctuates and evolves, never remaining still. It is fair to say we are no longer certain of where we have come from – and even less sure of where we are going.
The increasingly nomadic nature of 21st century existence has resulted in a growing desire to take ownership of one’s identity. On the web, pseudonym is common practice, whether it be on blogs, Twitter, FourSquare or any other online tool for social interaction. It is a process of taking control of one’s roots, dictating trajectory from the moment of inception simply through the information that you provide. How many people are completely truthful when they fill out the personal information fields on their Facebook profile? The answer is probably very few.
Writer and curator Jean-Yves Leloup describes the cult of perceived identity with reference to the pop cover band. In his book Digital Magma, Leloup explores anonymity and adopted persona as inherent elements in the mechanics of the cover band experience – both on the part of the performer and the audience. From Mad ‘Tallica and the Brazilian Beetles, to the Rollin’ Clones and Whole Lotta Led, the assumed fictitious nature of the encounter, and the boundaries with reality, become increasingly blurred. In this instance, there is a willingness to engage with personas we know do not belong to the person acting them out.
Leloup expands on this concept, using the example of musician Uwe Schmidt. Fusing genres and schools, from jazz and easy listening, to Latino music and techno, Schmidt raises questions about inspiration and originality. A member of MACOS (Musicians Against the Copyrighting of Samples), his work is an endless game of mutations and permutations, borrowing and vampirizing codes from our globalised digital culture. For Leloup, the electronic scene has created a culture of pseudonym framed by a changeable set of identities according to the style of music being composed.
Is this how the majority of people now live their lives? Faced with a rise in right wing politics obsessed with imposing boundaries and constructing borders, people are seeking new ways of regaining control and adopted persona is one way of doing this. The definition of nationality is shifting, replacing the traditional nation-state with one of commonality and criss-crossed translation lived out in the digital realm. Nationality, in a traditional sense, no longer exists. What we have in its place are blurred boundaries and adopted personas.
Within this mindset, where does Schweizer Kunst locate itself? Through the emergence of a fallible and intertwining history, origin is no longer limited and fixed to the individual or country. In a constellation of overlapping experience, Schweizer Kunst instead finds itself to be expansive and broader in scale. It becomes at once globalised and progressive in its multiplicity.
Identity is central to this. If 21st century persona is epitomised by an amalgamation of interchangeable roots, limiting ourselves to a now fallible historic notion of belonging is no longer logical. We must look to the boundaries – and cross them.