Issue 2: Making Conversation

The Transfer of “Self-Consciousness”

This paper focuses on the flow of people’s selves into digital space as the times have moved on, and reflects on the implications of this for millennials’ self-understanding as well as suggesting new ways of thinking about it.

In this essay, I will discuss the development of people’s egos and how numbers influence the sense of self. As well as my derivation of a new definition of what constitutes self-awareness.

In the first half I will talk about the beginnings of self-awareness and the research and conclusions of some forward-thinking scholars about it.

In the second half, I will describe how the self has been impacted and influenced by the decades of the Internet’s development, especially among the millennial generation.

Finally, I will visualise the impact of digital on the self in relation to my work. To conclude my essay with new reflections.

How is the human self made up? How has self-awareness been defined throughout history?

 “a second self, a trusted friend.”

-Roman scholar Cicero

The study of alter egos has a long history. As early as the Roman period, the scholar Cicero pioneered the term “alter ego” in the 1st century, describing it as “a second self, a trusted friend (‘Alter ego’, 2023).” This “alter ego” was first fully recognised by Anton Mesmer in the 18th century. This “alter ego” was first fully recognised in the 18th century by Anton Mesmer, who used hypnosis to separate the alter ego. Mesmer’s experiments revealed a unique pattern of behaviour in the hypnotic state, different from the individual’s true personality. That is, it was as if a completely different consciousness was found in the same body.

The famous Austrian psychologist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, founder of psychoanalysis and one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud also did a long study on this matter. He proposed that the human ego consists of three parts:

In Lecture XXXI The Dissection of the Psychical Personality,

Freud said:

“[…]The poor ego has things even worse: it serves three severe masters and does what it can to bring their claims and demands into harmony with one another. […]Its three tyrannical masters are the external world, the super-ego, and the id. […]”.(Sigmund Freud, James Strachey, and Peter Gay, 1995)

During the same period, more and more psychologists joined the study of the self. Unlike Freud, Alec Erikson proposed a new theory of psychological development that divided the life span into eight stages of psychosocial development. Instead of agreeing with Freud’s view of sexuality as a driving condition for personality development, he divided human development into five stages.

Half a century later, under Philippe Rochat’s theories, self-consciousness was categorised into five grades: Level 0: Confusion,Level 1: Differentiation, Level 2: Situation, Level 3: Identification,Level 4: Permanence, Level 5: Self-consciousness or “meta” self-awareness. (Rochat, 2003) He describes the emergence of self-consciousness from nothing. It was obtained through children’s mirror experiments.

Whilst at the same time demonstrating the versatility of self-consciousness at the end of the article. “the fact that self-awareness is not singular, but multiple. It is dynamic, in constant flux between levels of various experiential qualities, until death to come.”(Rochat, 2003)

I very much recognise his description of consciousness, its versatility, its complexity. As well as my own brief summary of the current views on consciousness and a bit of new ideas:

Consciousness acts in the past, present and future, accompanies us throughout our lives until the end of life, and eventually detaches from our brains to find a new host.

The Millennial Living Environment

Firstly, there is the post-pandemic era, which is currently the most talked about. People’s lives have experienced a long period of restriction and a sense of unease. This is particularly acute in Asian countries. It is particularly affecting millennials in their formative years, and even more so the younger Generation Z. For example, China’s insistence on a “zero Covid” policy. (BBC News, 2021) The Korean capital also has a policy of banning group gatherings of more than five people (S. Korea’s capital area to ban gatherings of 5 or more people to contain COVID-19 spread – Xinhua |, no date) , etc. People’s travelling and activities have been restricted for a long time and thus everyone has turned their attention to the virtual world. During the same period, web technology developed at an even faster pace.

As we enter the twentieth century,the pace of globalisation has inexorably been accelerating (Padilla, 2015, p. 204), and the cultures worldwide have continued to flow (Hannerz, 1987). Millennials are also facing new challenges and shocks to their selves. The impact of globalisation and the internet on foreign cultures is huge.

“China’s Millennials have the highest smartphone penetration rate in the world (97 per cent). They spend most of their time online, averaging more than three hours a day…”(China’s Millennials Become Superpower of the Internet, Study Shows – Article, 2015) It is as if young people use the Internet as an outlet for their emotions. The Internet is another world for them.

The emergence of more short video apps such as Jittery, Shutterbug, etc. Has made people lose interest in traditional news. People always think that fast and frequent information has opened their eyes. However, they have been trapped in the information cocoon for a long time. Big data computing leaves us nowhere to run. Everyone will be a product of capital. As mentioned in the documentary Social Dilemma: 

“If you aren’t paying for the product, then you are the product.”(Social Dilemma, 2020)

In such a social environment, the development of the ego of those original inhabitants of the Internet, the addition of the virtual world has become inevitable. The internet has subconsciously altered the formation of the millennial ego, splitting it up to become more fragmented, or to form more doppelgangers. In 21 Lessons in the 21st Century, Harari mentioned:

“People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don’t realise that they are already trapped inside a box – their brain – which is locked within a bigger box – human society with its myriad fictions.”(Yuval N. Harari, 2018)

The birth of another superego? -Virtual Superego

As a mirroring of the external world pointed out by Freud, the virtual world occupies an (‘The Matrix’, 2023)virtual-superego. And It has become indispensable; when things cannot be achieved in reality, people will seek satisfaction in virtual networks. At the same time, people will leave traces on the Internet.

These traces are deliberately stored and cannot be erased, just as we cannot flashback once we grow up, thus the Internet seems to have memories. Some movies I like very much, such as “Black Mirror”- San Junipero(‘“Black Mirror” Season 3 Review: “San Junipero” and “Nosedive” Are a Sunny Start’, 2016), Transcendence(‘Transcendence (2014 film)’, 2023),and The Matrix(‘The Matrix’, 2023), have all described this independent virtual consciousness that can be transmitted over the Intenet.

I believe everyone has met their alter ego in the virtual world. For example, in immersive

computer games, the avatar acts as a powerful alter ego, even possessing an aura that swallows the player’s true identity. In our time, everyone is given an inescapable identity: the user.

Here, the “alter ego,” the external world, and the Self are completely mixed together into a

symbol that travels back and forth between production and the consumer market.

It is as Baudrillard points out:

This mutation concerns the passage from the form-commodity to the form-sign, from the abstraction of the exchange of material products under the law of general equivalence to the operationalization of all exchanges under the law of the code . With this passage to the political economy of the sign, it is not a matter of a simple “commercial prostitution” of all values […]It is a matter of the passage of all values to exchange-sign value, under the hegemony of the code. ”(Baudrillard and Baudrillard, 1975)

​How does the fluidity and fragmentation of the self manifest itself in my work?

My work focuses on self-awareness and self-knowledge. At the age of four, I began to ask myself, “Why am I me? Why am I me? I think this question will stay with me for the rest of my life.

With the development of technology, the human self no longer seems to be singular. The self is separated into many parts, and even on the Internet another me has appeared. You can’t say which is the truer self. Or that all of these are me.

I feel that art is the perfect form of expression to explore this.

I focus on digitally exploring the relationship between the self and the world. Starting from the shallow to the deep, I first analyse the self, then the group and the social situation. I like to use installation, performance art and digital art to express my ideas. Animation is my main creative vehicle. I tend to favour absurdity in my depictions, which may sometimes be close to the natural form of the scene. This is accompanied by a natural soundtrack or distorted, reverberating human voices. This creates a sense of separation between the real and virtual worlds.

In this era of increasing influence of virtual networks, it is important to discuss the impact of the internet on the sense of self. The separation between the real and the virtual seems to be growing. My discussion is no longer limited to myself, but slowly extends to thinking about groups and society. I use digital art to discuss its own existence.

(Xinlan Li, unit 1 work:”anxiety of always” , 2022, 2023)

In this work, I am both the constructor and the participant, the controller, the user, and the viewer. During the process of creation, during the process of viewing, I am constantly switching identities. I create this virtual world, but when I am done, I become the viewer, and I exist as a character in this virtual space. It’s like every user, switching accounts or identities on social software.

If the work exists, my identity transformation will never stop. I try to find “my” identity in this process, to catch “me”, to know “me”.

The infinite cycle of identity, the continuous flow of identity, may not stop one day. This is especially true for us Millennials. The constant flow splits my perception, my knowledge of myself.

(Xinlan Li, Family Simulation, 2023)

This is a continuation of unit 1 artwork. It revolves around self-identity.

Especially in virtual space. The transformation and development from individual to group. I wanted to explore how people’s repressed selves manifest in social and political contexts. Creating digital images of family members and trying to connect with them is used to satirise the current state of social networks being overly split from reality.

(Xinlan Li, tracesss, 2023)

Tracess is a digital art project. I use a variety of digital media (including digital modelling, real-time rendering, etc.) to present a hyper-realistic virtual space in which a (first-person) character walks through the world I have created and records it. A first person ‘camera technique’ is used to present different stages of self-exploration and state of mind. Eventually it was stored as a video that I uploaded to a memory card and exhibited as part of my self.

The work is a vision of the development of my own ideology, and a reflection on its future form.

Future Awareness

“the fact that self-awareness is not singular, but multiple. It is dynamic, in constant flux between levels of various experiential qualities, until death to come.”

Rochat, 2003

When you realise that you are progressing, every time you look back you realise; Oh~ I used to be like that.

Is the creation of this consciousness a result of the continuous evolution and growth of the human brain, or does it depend on the perception of one’s own behaviour by external substances; “The wind moves, the sails move, and in the end, it’s still the heart that moves.”(Schlutter, no date) In the ancient times, when there was no modern technology, the wise men were faithful to their hearts, everything came from the heart, and their actions were based on introspection. Of course, there are also many works that express the classic theory of idealism, or “I think, therefore I am”.(Russell, 2010)

Until now, films like “Inception(Inception, 2010)” and “Source Code” (Source Code, 2011)have expressed the idea that self-awareness can change reality. There are also some works that look into the future of consciousness. (Such as “Black Mirror Season 1, Episode 3, Memory Particles”, Black Mirror Season 3, the overall theme of the future is to change the views of human cognition, “Rapid Transformation” is a more prominent embodiment). We can see that the idea of human beings for the future of science and technology, is to help human beings through the future of science and technology to repeatedly cognise the behaviour of others, self, and even a decisive role in the actions of human beings themselves.

At such times, human consciousness, the perception of things is based on the external material, science and technology to build. Perhaps everything in the outside world is a distraction to human self-awareness, and human beings have their own consciousness. In the modern highly civilised society, which relies on modern technology and will even rely too much on it in the future, the definition of human self-consciousness has gradually changed.

After more advanced development, technology will amplify the connection between human beings. It is very likely that eventually human consciousness will develop into a whole (this whole does not mean the same, but a highly concentrated form) consciousness will no longer be fragmented into individuals, but will be like a computer mainframe, becoming a “high-level and centralised collective consciousness”.


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About the author

Xinlan Li (Lillian) is an artist and designer based in Guangzhou, China or London, UK. She works in product design, interaction design and 3D animation. Xinlan Li (lillian) graduated from Camberwell MA Fine Art: Computational Art in 2023. Follow her work via @lilianli_