Identity, Symbolism and Uniforms

Disclaimer: I’m in no way a sociologist, those are the state of thoughts in my brain as of now, it will probably change later. And yes, it’s the result of different conversation I had online recently

Identity crisis

Identity and surveillance

There’s something going on in my head for a while, it’s that I have hard time thinking why mass surveillance is inherently bad. I agree with that, but I try to understand why. Because, as Quinn Norton and Eleanor Saitta said it in their 30C3’s talk ‘No neutral ground in a burning world‘, the surveillance is not necessarily bad.

If we want mutual care and mutual aid to work – and really, I think it’s mandatory in the world I want to live in – then we need surveillance. To keep tabs on each other just to know if they’re OK, or if they need something.

So, the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that the bad thing with surveillance is not the massive amount of data collected. It’s the link made between those data and entities – human being, devices, whatever. And that is, I think, what we call identity.

Some might argue that identity is what you are, but I tend to think it’s more than that. Identity is the projection of yourself in a social context, and the your identity is not the same from the state perspective or from your friends one.

Embodiment and identity

An identity is an interface between your self and other selves. It can be a login on a computer system, a social security number, or any other features. The Guy Fawkes mask is one of them for instance, as well as a lots of memes – but more on that later – and this interface is what we usually call a body.

A body (including the way it is dressed) is, in the meatspace, how people will identify me. My friends recognize me because of my body (and not because I give them my social security number). But in this networked world, you’re body has been augmented.

Your socials networks (Facebook profile, twitter stream, G+ account, whatever) is just that. A big pile of data that became your unique body on those networks. Same goes for the medical system, your personal medical record is your body in there – and yes it include description of your flesh and blood body.

And, for what it matters, the state, by giving you ID papers and forcing you to have them with you at all time, including biometrics to check that you’re really the good version of you (yes, a picture is a biometric identification system) gave you an identity.

And this is where it starts to suck big time. Whatever we wanna do today, you’re asked for a proof – a link – of identity. More and more content you check online require you to be authenticated using one identity or another, and since everything is logged, it’s added to your identity and to your body without your consent or your knowledge.

And every time you’re forced to use an identity (to get money from your bank account, to prove your ID to a cop, to watch that porn), you’re forced into a body. And that’s why registration sucks. Each time you have to login or decline an identity somewhere, you have to endorse a body on which you have less and less control.

As the feminist says: "My body, my rules." It should apply on all forms of body, including the ones made of data.

Symbolism and memes


Before going further, I need to define what a symbol – or an icon – is. I’m not a specialist in symbolism or else, but still. Symbols are ides compression system. When you see one of them, you instantly access to a lot of ideas and concepts linked to it – of course those ideas will depend on your past and on the events you’ve gone through – and that’s why symbols can be extremely powerful. They are to ideas and memes what gzip is to text, a fast way to deliver memes.

And occult enthusiast loves the symbols because their meaning depends on your cultural background. Take the svastika for instance. If you’ve got an hinduist or buddhist background, a north-westernenr one or if you’re a raëlian, it does not deserve the same message. And occultists loves the hidden meaning of symbols, after all occultism is all about the hidden meaning. What’s the hidden meaning of this bird fly, of those tea leafs, or any other stupid sign they try to interpret and give meaning to.

Symbol and bodies

Adding symbols to your body is, usually, a good way to tell a lot of things to the entities interacting with you. Wearing those buttons of the CCC or EFF basically explain to those who have the cultural background that I support them.

The hidden meaning of symbols and the fact that they’re senseless is also extremely interesting. That’s how antisocial and oppressed groups identify themselves. Christian during the early age of roman empire, used to use fish as a way to identify themselves. Nowadays fascists wear some specific clothes, or use some symbols (like the celtic cross) to be able to identify themselves but not being flagged as a fascist (while having a nazi cross tattooed on their forehead will makes us identify them as nazi).

So tattoos, clothes, buttons, avatars, quotes, and all those memetic shortcuts you wear on your body do tell to people what you claims to be or think. And that’s why we spend some time to think about how we look, that’s because those symbols will unzip themselves in people thoughts when they’ll meet us. Your body – and then your identity – tells a lot to the people you interact with. And that’s why it’s important for you to get in control of your body.

I mean, you wouldn’t allow somehow to tattoo that nazi cross on your forehead. So, you shouldn’t let a government or a corporation labels you as, for instance, a radical lefty or a LGBTIQ militant if you do not want it.

However, some symbols have became so powerful tat they now have entire identities attached to them. Take the Guy Fawkes mask. Seeing one makes you think Anonymous (and can recall V for Vendetta) and Anonymous is an identity. It’s a body you can wear at any given time it’s even its purpose.


And yes, there’s a lot of these kind of body you can wear to represent specific ideas. You reject your identity to embrace one another. For instance the UPS delivery guy is not someone specific. He is UPS. While wearing this brown body, driving this brow truck, he become UPS and all that this represent or can represent.

Wearing a uniform denies your identity and makes yourself part of another body. That’s why cops and soldier have them. To identify themselves, for us to identify them as the function they serves (and not as specific individuals), and to differentiate from their enemies.

That’s also why anarchists and others tend to have a uniform (hell, black flag is a strong symbol, and nowadays most of them wears black hoodies and scarf to hide their faces) it allow them to abandon their identities and to wear another one.

Wearing a symbol or a uniform also makes you part of a community. I mean, the Apple is a sign of belonging to the Apple values (elitism, lack of control, wealth, coolness) as well as wearing a latin cross will give you the feeling to belong to the christianity, or wearing those branded shoes will makes you part of a community. Or makes you think you are.

But mostly, uniforms are a form of abandoning your identity to merge yourself in a crowd of more or less likely minded people. That’s why I tend to think they can be dangerous. When you start having people all wearing the same symbols with or without understanding all the implication a symbol might have – not everyone have the same cultural background – you start to have a uniform appearing.

And wearing a uniform is abandoning your identity to became another.

The link with surveillance?

So, you have your body. Some part you
control, some you don’t (basically everything that’s in the cloud – which is a technical term meaning I don’t give a shit about what happens to those data).

The ones you control is not the problem here. The problem here is the one you don’t control anymore. Different entities are associating ideas, tags, identification mark all over your body – think tattoo here – for different kind of purposes. To tailor some services, advertisement or – as the event in Kiev show us – to classify you as a dissident.

You have no control on that. Those organisms use those (meta)data to build an identity and to link it to your others identities. And if you control the identity – hence the body – you control the people.

You make them wear a uniform they don’t even know about, or understand. You transform them from individuals to part of something else they have to conform to, because wearer of uniforms do not disobey or they’re stripped of it. And since it’s cool to wear it, you do not want to lose it.

And yes, this identity imply that you’ll comply with what it means. From the state point of view, building identities allow them to sort between good and bad citizens. And to expose the bad ones as bad citizens and you don’t want to be the bad guy – except for the sociopath.

So, you’ll do everything you can to conform. To obey. To stay in it, to deserve your uniform of good citizenship. And then to abandon your self for the one you’re told to wear. And that’s where mass surveillance sucks. It’s not about the amount of data collected which can be useful (asks an epidemiologist to work without data collected on the whole earth for instance). It’s not even about surveillance (knowing a disaster is happening and reacting to it is, generally, a good thing). It’s the identity building that sucks.

Enforced identity is quite new as a concept in the human history. And each time a state have provided citizens with ID-card, it was for controlling them (yeah, in France we have them since the Vichy government), not for making their life easier.

And in that connected era, states aren’t the only on to gather data and to attributes ID. Twitter nickname, Google and Facebook ID, all of them are more and more used to connect to other services. And yeah, it means they want to have control over you. And for you to wear the identity they’ve chosen for you.