The Disintegration of Identity in the Digital Age (and How to Overcome It)
Answers to the perennial question, Who am I? have radically changed. Traditional human categories and stable sources of meaning are being obliterated by the onslaught of the cultural, political, and digital machine. There is no shortage of adjectives to describe what has happened to the concept of the self or to describe our understanding of what it means to be human in a world that seems to be shifting beneath our feet. Consider Charles Taylor’s buffered self,1 Carl Trueman’s psychologized, sexualized, and politicized self,2 or Michael Sandel’s unencumbered self,3 to name a few. All of these terms capture an important element of what is considered constitutive of a human person today.
Yet the proliferation of digital technologies and transhumanist visions suggests another adjective for the way many people understand themselves today, especially those who have grown up—and are growing up—as digital natives. Today’s immersive digital habitat fosters a granulated understanding of the self—a granulated self that has varying strains or grains of identity, all constructed in large part through the digital medium. This curated and performative source of identity causes a never-ending search for the true self in which only self-chosen identities are “authentic” and by which one is always en route to something but never seems to arrive. Always becoming; never being; untethered from real things, transcendent truths, or any givenness of human identity that is planted and situated in meaningful relationships of love within real-life community.
Fine-Grained: The Making of Granulated Selves
Living in the digital ecosystem allows identity to be tweaked and tailored, curated and performed in ways previously impossible. The authors of Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age (2021) call these “fine-grained identities.” They are “intricate individual mixes of attributes, the result of careful and ongoing discovery.”4 Indeed, countless apps and social media platforms allow for separate granulated identities to be established in parallel by the same person, who somehow attempts to hold them all together. What prior generations would have understood as conflicting identities are now combined digitally through “molding and assembling various pieces of identity into a coherent whole that gives expression to the inner self.”5
Yet when the self is granulated in this way, one finds himself in an iterative loop of inconsistent fragmentation with no way of escape. One of the snapshots the book provides is that of Marcus, who identifies as gay, Christian, and Asian. Online he found others who shared each of these characteristics, and these highly tailored niche groups became his support network. Yet each was a distinct community encouraging only a single aspect of his composite identity.
The online experience allowed Marcus to create this multiplicity of identities, all of which he viewed as modular parts of his true self, when in reality they might exist in tension with one another or even be mutually exclusive. Elizabeth Bachmann, Junior Fellow at First Things, explains:
[Marcus’s] Christian friends could not accept his sexually active gay lifestyle in which he flouted the Christian sexual ethic while also professing Christianity. Meanwhile, his gay friends could not accept his Christian beliefs; so, he fragmented himself, remixing both “Christianity” and “gayness” to suit his particular feeling of what these should be. He eventually discovered one man who, like himself, was a gay, Christian, Chinese immigrant to the U.K., and who affirmed all of Marcus’s self-generated ideas about himself and the world.6
The experience of constructing digital avatars, social media profiles, and online personas encourages this culture of self-constructed identity and expressive individualism. When the body’s physical characteristics and capabilities are less central to everyday living—when we hardly ever swing a hammer or turn a wrench, when we rarely thread a needle or butcher an animal—the limits of our human bodies don’t seem to matter so much. Instead, as the Gen Z, Explained authors write:
[T]he digital shapes identity formation . . . [ which] shows how important the internet is in the articulation of identity markers that are clearly communicable in words and images. . . . The quest for distinctive, true-to-self identity in the digital world means that it is taking place with both constant surveillance and constant display.7
Fine-Tuned: The Making of Granulated Communities
“With social media—and the internet more broadly—at their constant and immediate disposal,” they continue, “postmillennials have the opportunity to fine-tune the communities to which they belong in step with their fine-grained identity.”8 The deep desire for belonging inherent to the human experience encounters new territory online, as endless access to affinity groups and micro-communities presents itself.
As fewer people experience a stable family life, other forms of community and belonging fill the void—especially online. In Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (2019), Mary Eberstadt unpacks the “unprecedented familial dispersion” that has taken place since the sexual revolution, by which “western men and women are indeed more atomized and estranged from their own than ever before.” In such an atmosphere, people of all stripes and on all sides, yearning for a tribe, seek out “figurative family/community to do what literal families/communities of earlier times did by default.”9
The Gen Z, Explained authors put it this way: “finding your fam is an ongoing project that need not be set in stone.” One college student interviewed for the book said, “even if you don’t get it right—you find out your identity one way and you switch to another. It does not matter. It is not something that is meant to be fixed. It’s fluid.” In an interesting accompanying twist, many Gen Z-ers “call parents ‘friends’ and friends ‘family.’”10
“Granulated” proves to be a helpful term here as well—not just for understanding the self, but also for understanding the communities being formed:
Postmillennials try to balance flexibility with stability, and freedom with security, in this quest for belonging that matches their identity. Just as fluidity and flexibility are central to many aspects of their personal identities, so too with the groups to which they belong. Their art of digital living involves joining and leaving groups as identities become clearer and habits of being change.11
Shifting Sands: From Granulated to Planted
As much as fine-grained identities and fine-tuned communities might sound hopeful and authentic, they leave the individual like a grain of sand on the shore—constantly driven to-and-fro by wind and wave. The intense focus on continual exploration and self-discovery recognizes nothing stable, sure, and safe from which one can live with purpose. It tends instead towards a gnostic-like disembodiment, a rejection of the limitations of bodily existence, and a frenetic, ongoing search for the true self, all of which work at cross-purposes to human flourishing.
The distinct grains of identity and community that individuals so carefully curate, choose, and construct aren’t strong enough to hold together and end up slipping through their fingers just like those grains of sand on the beach. As Carl Trueman summarizes:
[T]oday, the self is entirely plastic, and the external world—right down to our bodies—is liquid, something that offers no firm ground upon which to build an identity. That no doubt helps to explain, for example, the catastrophic levels of depression and anxiety in the West, which, on the whole, enjoys greater material prosperity and security than has been typical throughout human history.12
Alternatively, ultimate human identity in actual reality is a given identity. It is given to us as we are planted and situated in webs of mutual interdependence and support. At our birth, our name is given, our place is given, our family is given, our community is given. Many of the most basic categories for self-understanding—things like bodies, families, communities, nations, and more—are granted to us.
They are ours, that is, if we are willing to dethrone the exalted, autonomous self that sees only self-chosen commitments and identities as authentic. So perhaps it’s time to choose not to choose our identity and instead to receive our identity. There are enough unknowns in the universe. We don’t need to upend the most fundamental and primal forms of human existence by turning them into additional questions of self-discovery. We can become rooted, settled selves by receiving the gifts of our identity.
Toward that end, we must reorient ourselves towards our given identity, which plants us deeply in our families, communities, and churches. We have been planted in a garden. Though it is a garden with thorns and thistles, suffering and evil, it still reverberates with the echoes of that primordial garden and the Edenic pronouncement that “it was very good.” It is in this corrupted yet still hopeful garden of the world that we experience hints of our true human telos.
And it is in the garden of the church that those glimpses of our final destiny break into time-and-space reality. They break in through the gifts of God in Word and Sacrament, which deeply root us in union with Christ and each other. Here we can see shadows of the final eschaton, where we will be planted in the restored garden of God and will find the fullest expression of human identity imaginable—being planted deeply, even grafted together, with the True Vine, in full communion with the Holy Trinity and with one another.
1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2018).
2. Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Crossway, 2021).
3. Michael Sandel, “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self,” Political Theory 12, no. 1. (1984), 81–96.
4. Roberta Katz et al., Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age (University of Chicago Press, 2021), 39.
5. Ibid., 68.
6. Elizabeth Bachmann, “Is There Hope for Gen Z?” First Things (Feb. 3, 2022): firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2022/02/is-there-hope-for-gen-z.
7. Gen Z, Explained, Ibid. note 4, 70.
8. Ibid., 94.
9. Mary Eberstadt, Primal Screams (Templeton Press, 2019), 11, 69.
10. Gen Z, Explained, Ibid. note 4, 94, 202.
11. Ibid., 94.
12. Carl Trueman, Strange New World (Crossway, 2022), 126.
is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #65, Summer 2023 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo65/gen-granular