Realizing who we are in the postmodern world, between reality and virtuality

The Forbidden Reproduction” by René Magritte might look like nothing more than a depiction of a man in the mirror with his back to us, wearing an elegant suit, hair carefully combed, and the book “The Adventures of Gordon Pym” by Edgar Allan Poe on the shelf. However, Magritte likes to make us feel a little bewildered, and he shows a man in the mirror who sees his own back, although the book is correctly reflected. The failure to delineate the character’s face could mean that the subject, having no idea of his true identity, is entirely unable to define his own persona, so much so that he cannot recognize and identify himself. It is as if, in his painting, Magritte is provocatively asking us: “do you really know who you are?

The answer to this question must first come through what is outside us.

Indeed, our identity is nothing more than the result of a lengthy identification process with a series of reference models inferred from our surroundings. We start with the circumscribed model of the family context that influences us in the first years of life, moving to the models of our peers, and finally to all the large-scale models that society offers. Therefore, our identity is defined as a cultural and social construct. Still, it is an object of choice since we adhere and identify ourselves, more or less consciously, to each of these models. It follows from the syllogism that personal identity is developed through interactions with the outside world.

But with which world do we interact in the postmodern era?

The Forbidden Reproduction by René Magritte

To date, “the man 2.0” interacts with a dichotomous world, split in the real world and that simulacrum of the natural world, represented by social networks, which have become the demiurge of possible realities and ideal models. The philosopher Galimberti states social networks have turned from a tool into a world, standing between us and reality. Therefore, with the introduction of social networks as a “new world,” the environment with which we interact changes, and with it, the syllogism changes as well, as our identity interacts not only with the world but also with a virtual one. However, both types of interactions are always based on the concept of reference models to which an individual can adhere.

But what do Social Networks propose as a model? In this world, everything relies on the logic of numbers (how many photos, friends, likes, followers, views, shares, comments, and subscribers). Everyone has to show off one’s strengths to reach specific numbers, but if this is not enough, one should possess a certain degree of plasticity to model himself. Some might argue that this also happens in the real world. Still, the difference is that interaction occurs through physical contact with a group of individuals from whom it’s impossible to hide the quality of our appearance and behavior.

On the contrary, the interaction with the virtual world is behind a screen, where filters and masks show the best part of us, erase any defects and allow us to present ourselves to others in a more constructed and studied manner. Thus, social networks become a laboratory where it is possible to experiment with different and temporary digital identities, but whose ultimate goal is not towards greater self-awareness and the acquisition of an adult, solid, stable, and cohesive identity. Social networks feed one’s narcissistic side, always seeking consensus, hidden behind the numbers. On these platforms, each of us becomes a big stage, where everyone is free to show his body and choose the best contents to “sell.” Our identity becomes a product to put on a shelf and constantly modify as if in a sort of programmed obsolescence. The side effect of this continuous remodeling of one’s identity is a mismatch between personal identity and virtual identity, where the former is much more diluted and ends up dissolving in a liquid world full of content but without form, in Bauman’s words. Our accounts improve, to the detriment of our identity, which becomes anesthetized and massified.

In the digital world, therefore, the way we perceive ourselves changes, and so does the way we interact with each other. For instance, relationships go through social networks and sometimes begin and end here. Whatsapp, Facebook, and Instagram seem like essential steps in a relationship. Two individuals manage to stay in touch and get to know each other deeply as if these platforms were an extension of the relationship itself. A sort of fourth dimension of the relationship. It almost seems that one prefers to spend time with the other in the online world than in the offline world. Probably because the virtual world is “safer,” as it hides bodies, defects, and conceals identities. An online interaction maintains a proper temporal and spatial interval with the other, a kind of safe distance that can always be shortened since it is possible to reach the other at any time. There are no more silences and waiting.

Now, in order not to take the risk of establishing insubstantial relationships with counterfeit human beings and become like them, we have to rely on our judgment, get out of the fictitious schemes of these platforms, and be able to become what we are, as Nietzsche advised us, and, above all, understand where we can self-realize.

The acquisition of identity means exploring the alternatives present in the environment around us, which can only be the real world. Exploring the natural world means interacting with it through our bodies and thus taking commitments and risks on our skin, something that cannot be done in the virtual world, which does not involve responsibility, since here it is possible to create pocket identities that we can quickly wipe off. Knowledge requires experience, so only by experiencing ourselves we know our identity. The deeper this exploratory process has been, the closer we will be to the ideal of ourselves. Exploring alternatives ensures that you don’t get stuck in an imposed behavioral pattern and don’t kill your innovation, originality, creativity, and rebellion. Therefore, once in the mirror, we will be able to delineate our real face, and, contrary to what Freud says, our ego will be able to be a master in its own home again.