Few terms are as versatile as the term identity. On the one hand, it can mean a person’s own, personally experienced existence in the world: my identity is what I am. But it has long since ceased to be that easy. Identity can be retained and yet change, identities can be ascribed and adopted – but this does not happen at random. How, then, does it happen?
by Kristof Magnusson
Ideas about identity are always characterised by two opposing concepts: on the one hand, the acceptance of an unchangeable being – an essence – as the core of identity, which was already familiar to the ancient world; and on the other hand, the modern assumption that identity is a dynamic process, that identity can be made. These opposing concepts have been sustained into the 21st century. The latter model of identity was already gaining significance at the beginning of the modern era and is now more fluid, dynamic and changeable than ever. However, this does not mean that absolutely anything is possible. Particularly in our own era, the essential and the authentic take on particular importance, which requires such flexibility.
The preservation of identity is increasingly the focus of attention. Digitalisation is radically changing industries; the automobile is experiencing the most significant redefinition since its invention. Mobility no longer means simply travelling from A to B. But how does one talk about one’s identity without resorting to abstract terms and commonplaces? Are products which are launched with the aim of emphasising the traditional aspects of a brand really always connected with the historical values they are supposed to represent? Doesn’t the name of a product that includes the word “original” promise, rather, that it is precisely not the original? Of course, goods can no longer be produced in the same way as in the 1980s, 1970s or 1960s: our society’s product safety requirements have changed as have the political, economic and ethical conditions affecting industrial manufacture. Any claim to be the exact same brand and produce exactly the same product as before must be revealed, on closer inspection, to be a fiction.
Ideally, a single object or product represents the identity of an entire brand in a particular way. The more identity becomes a dynamic construct in the digital age, the more everything seems possible; and the faster the circulation of images, trends and hype in digital communication, the more enduring objects become carriers of identity. Their historical continuity goes hand in hand with a certain credibility.
It is here that Porsche’s 70-year-old history shows itself to be an astonishing special case in the current landscape of brands and companies which seem to be collapsing under the pressure to change. Porsche, as a brand, is in possession of a product, a value and a principle that does not need an epithet such as “original”, because it already is the original: the Porsche 911.
In the history of the Porsche 911 lies a narrative with a certain resilience and persistence. There is probably no other automobile which, since its introduction in 1963, has been adapted, time and again, so consistently to the demands of a modern sports car and which has remained so unmistakably true to its inner and outer values, its identity. There is enormous value in possessing a product which, in such a special way, not only retains the credibility of its tradition and continuity but also carries further development and progress within the core of its identity. If one were to attempt a conscious separation of design-related aspects from technical refinement, turning the construction into a kind of museum, one would achieve the exact opposite: namely changing its identity.
But how can such a strong brand identity be carried into the future? To answer this question, we need to identify the factors currently influencing our understanding of identity: each era produces new identities. Every industrial upheaval had a strong effect on people’s way of life, on the character of objects and on the significance of cultural heritage. The various developmental stages of modern industrial society have in fact produced different forms of identity.
The procurement of information is becoming more important than the information itself, and information literacy – the ability to handle information – is becoming the most important culturaltechnology of all. But with the democratisation of information, the relationship between information and identity also changes.
For centuries, our society has been developing away from obedience to rulers and towards self-determination. This phenomenon, known as governmentality, on the one hand reaches far back into the past but, on the other hand, applies particularly to the current digital age – and, above all, to the question of identity. The question of whether identity is given or made, whether it is static or dynamic, whether it is essential or constructed, is one of the central thought motifs of modernity.
On the one hand, great hopes are attached to the self-determined constructability of identity, since the possibility of freeing oneself from chains imposed by others and of reinventing oneself is one of the great, important achievements of the modern world. Whether it involves migration, gender identity or social class affiliation, being able to determine one’s own identity is a very fortunate thing! On the other hand, many places have a critical scepticism towards a culture with such free concepts. Might it not result in a certain arbitrariness? Doesn’t identity lose something if it is freely constructible?
When American author Gertrude Stein, in the 1913 poem Sacred Emily, wrote the famous sentence “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”, she was conjuring up the essence of the rose without providing any further descriptions or attributions. It was an attempt to evoke a pre-modern form of identity which does not require any construction or derivation. At that time, Stein was already convinced that the true identity of the rose had been lost amidst modern scientific explanations and lyrical paraphrasing. Stubbornly, she braced herself against a modernity which has, however, increasingly gained speed up to the present day.
Constructability – and deconstructability – of identity may have been a thorn in Gertrude Stein’s side, but for us, it has long since become part of our everyday experience. In the age of digital transformation, the dynamicaspects of identity are even more important, which is due above all to two things which have particular significance for our identity today: access to information and communication. The explosive power which underlies the democratisation of information can be demonstrated by many historical cases. Access to education and information has, time and again, set radical social change in motion. And with the availability of information on the Internet, the digital age represents possibly the most radical change in access to knowledge.
In the pre-digital world, in order to be able to identify with a scene or subculture, it was necessary to have a certain knowledge which was only available to the initiated. Does such secret knowledge even exist today? Can it still help to form identity? What is its position in the digital age, in which all access to information is democratised? Perhaps it is no longer knowledge itself which is now important for identity, but rather knowledge about knowledge. The procurement of information is becoming more important than the information itself, and information literacy – the ability to handle information – is becoming the most important cultural technology of all. But with the democratisation of information, the relationship between information and identity also changes. If potentially all knowledge is now freely available to everyone, how is someone who really is someone to be distinguished from someone who seems to be someone on the basis of his knowledge?
The innovation is rather in retaining the essential, basic characteristics of the car – shape, configuration and name – while repeatedly and radically calling everything else into question. Thus, the Porsche 911 remains the same sports car in principle, although it uncompromisingly aligns itself with technological progress.
In a radical constructivist conception of society, identity does not exist without communication. One’s own identity is formed only through interaction with other people. But how is an identity formed when the possibilities of communication have become so diverse, thanks to digital transformation?
A glance at social media platforms reveals clearly that the discrepancy between essence and appearance is part and parcel of the digital age. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” is a pertinent quotation on this subject, taken from a cartoon drawn in 1993. But that is only half the truth. Since it is so easy to present oneself on the Internet as a person with a particular identity, the possibility of deception is also known to the potential public. The questioning of all authenticity is the flip side of the dynamic identity concepts of the digital age. If my music streaming service can predict my next favourite song for me, which part of my taste in music still comes from myself? What part of me is myself, and what part has been added to me by artificial intelligence?
Narratives about who or what one is are always part of identity construction. As long as this narrative remains credible and plausible, changes and ruptures can also find their place in a biography in creating an identity.
To the same degree that identities are becoming more fluid and dynamic, the essential aspects of identity become increasingly significant. As an individual, I create a narrative of myself which mediates between these different identity concepts and explains to me who I am. In this respect, every person is an author who retells the story of his or her own life to him- or herself every day. But things, brands and products also possess their own narratives. And in their case, too, narratives connect the constructible with the essential parts of identity, whereby the greatest challenge for a brand in the age of digital transformation is to retain its identity without lapsing into a kind of standstill or backwardness.
On the question of identity, the Porsche 911 is a particularly interesting case because it is something which is very durable and yet constantly changing. On the one hand, one might claim that it is the same car as ever – a sports car which has existed in this form since 1963. On the other hand, one could claim that every new version of the Porsche 911 is a completely new object. A glance at the silhouette, however, immediately reveals that it is a Porsche 911; the basic shape is unmistakeable and universally known. Despite this, it is made with completely different engineering skills from those of 20 or 40 years ago. Is the Porsche 911, then, particularly tradition-conscious and consistent, or is it particularly adaptable and innovative?
To clarify this, we can now use all the aspects discussed so far in this essay. The scenario of a completely free and arbitrarily constructible identity would mean that, when developing the next 911, Porsche could theoretically throw all technological continuity overboard and quite simply call any arbitrary product a 911. In a radical interpretation of constructivist theories, this would be possible; it should not require any explanation as to why this is not the case in reality.
Another scenario would be museumisation, the suspension of technological progress. But in this case, too, an essential conceptional and ideal aspect of the identity of the Porsche 911 would be lost. Since identity is a complex matter, it cannot be explained either by strict interpretations or by simple truths. The narrative which belongs to the identity of the Porsche 911 is a narrative of a particular kind of renewal. The renewal does not consist of repackaging old, familiar things and renaming them. The innovation is rather in retaining the essential, basic characteristics of the car – shape, configuration and name – while repeatedly and radically calling everything else into question. Thus, the Porsche 911 remains the same sports car in principle, although it uncompromisingly aligns itself with technological progress.
In the case of a car, its identity can certainly be pinned down in part to the shape, function, construction and name. A Porsche 911 is a sports car with four seats, with the engine at the rear and with a characteristic silhouette. But there are also facets of an identity which cannot be pinned down to construction features. They include the narrative which is connected with the Porsche 911. Thus, Porsche removed the difficulties that were inherent in the construction over the last few decades, not by rejecting the entire model but by continually improving the 911.
In addition, a not inconsiderable part of the narrative – and identity – of the 911 is that it can develop in different directions. With the right modifications, it became a successful race car. With other modifications, it became an incunabulum of modern luxury. This narrative of persistence and changeability complementing each other puts the identity of the Porsche 911 on a solid basis: an identity whose essence does not depend on this or that technical detail. Instead, the narrative of the 911 enables a versatile handling of its identity.
As mentioned above, owning such a powerfully identity-forming product as the 911 has enormous value. But it also presents Porsche with the considerable challenge of handling this product responsibly. This creates a number of questions for the future: how does the product that represents a brand identity stand in relation to the other products of the brand? How can the narrative of the core product be translated to the entire brand? Of course, other cars cannot be built with the same configuration as a Porsche 911. An estate, SUV or crossover requires different constructional techniques. Instead, it makes sense to build on the integrability of the 911 narrative. The fact that a piece of the 911 can now be found in every car produced by Porsche is less a question of technical details or product names and more the consequence of a fine sense of what a contemporary, future-orientated identity needs: the right mixture of essence and changeability. And the self-confident handling of the narratives which connect these two extremes.
Kristof Magnusson, a German-Icelandic author, is best known for his comedy “Männerhort”, which has been one of the most frequently performed plays in German theatre for years. It was also made into a film starring prominent actors Christoph Maria Herbst, Detlev Buck and Elyas M’Barek. Magnusson’s novels, “Das war ich nicht” and “Arztroman”, made it into the bestseller lists. He was Writer in Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Queen Mary University of London. He is currently a guest lecturer at the German Literature Institute at the University of Leipzig.
Wang & Söderström is an art and design practice with a focus on digital/physical explorations and fabrication. They strive to create mind-tickling and unexpected experiences through materiality and technology. Wang & Söderström is comprised of spatial/ furniture designer Anny Wang and architect Tim Söderström. Soon after the pair began collaborating, their experience with 3D software grew into an artistic practice that broke the boundaries of their respective disciplines and extended across the borders of art and design.
The unexpected experiences the duo strive to create can be found in the experiences of something ostensibly well known, something one recognises from the real world that suddenly feels warped, and where a small detail makes you question what you are seeing and by extension, how you are perceiving the world.