The perils of identity

John Ohno
5 min readJun 20, 2017

I try to remind myself (despite using words like “I” and “myself”) that, in a meaningful sense, “I” don’t exist. There’s no essential eternal personality that drives my behavior; no soul sitting in a driver’s seat making executive decisions. Instead, my behaviors are just that: behaviors, resulting presumably from an interference pattern between many competing semi-autonomous processes in my nervous system. The sense I have of myself is a model I have created by observing my own behaviors and predicting my future behaviors (something we know from experiment is very unreliable), and I don’t have any special access to my real motivations that an outsider doesn’t — instead, I merely have a greater capacity for self-delusion. To myself and to others, I am a loose collection of habits and biases, and the mechanisms that produce those habits are of only academic interest.

I remind myself of this because I’ve seen the kinds of mistakes that tend to happen when I forget — and the kinds of mistakes that happen when others forget. It’s easy to apply selective memory based on failed predictions: “I would never have done that, so something else must have caused it; I’m a good person so there must have been extenuating circumstances.” People’s models of their own behavior are subject to cache poisoning, and comparing to vague normative models (“I am a good person”) produces perverse incentives toward systematic self-delusion. However, you are what you pretend to be — or, more accurately, your behavior determines which classification you and others would be best off applying in order…

--

--

John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net