Digitalisation is extending into all areas of life. In the course of this process, a number of questions have arisen with respect to identity. How can physical identities in the real world be transferred to digital identities in the virtual world? How do independent identities arise in the digital world? 

by Manfred Broy

The ability to abstract could well be the perpetuum mobile of human imagination. Like verbal language, graphic concepts can also gradually help propel the formulation of thought to ever higher spheres, enabling statements to apply to an ever greater number of phenomena. Amos Fricke is interested in these types of transitions from one state to another, under conditions of digitality. His forms oscillate indeterminably between classic modern abstract painting and screen-like resolution.

One of the topics in the influential essay by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen entitled “Why Software Is Eating the World” is the idea of identity. Individuals and companies take the identities they have created by physical means and pursue them on into the digital world. They can then use the possibilities of the digital world to acquire an identity there as well. Digital identities do not exist in opposition to technical identities. Instead, physical and digital identities merge into single identities on an intersubjective basis in people’s perceptions. For digital natives, the digital world is as real as the physical one – and closely interwoven with it.

A notable development is underway in digitalisation. As things are virtualised, technical advances separate the software from the hardware, allowing the software to be understood as an independent entity with its own identity divorced from that of the hardware. Whereas people used to associate identity strongly with physical objects, in the world of virtualisation they associate it with software entities, which have a separate and independent existence above and beyond hardware. The identity of the software becomes fully removed from the physical world. The physical identity of the hardware serves only to provide the resources and therefore the platforms needed to run the software. This gives rise to virtual identities.

Digital transformation – digital disruption
What will profoundly change the culture and identity of companies, their customers, their products and their services are cyber-physical products. These are systems and devices with mechanical and electronic components and integrated software that are connected with each other via networks and generally also connected globally. By virtue of the services they provide, cars – like smartphones – will become agents or partners that interact with customers, assist them and perform comprehensive services whether autonomously or in conjunction with networked services.

Until a few years ago, the products of digital technology were simply tools that people had to know how to operate but which themselves did not possess any obvious identity. The more skilled the person operating the products, the more he or she could benefit from their functions, but ultimately the products were nothing more than tools. Even though cars like the “Beetle” or the “Deux Chevaux” appear to have their own appealing identities, they still remain mobility appliances without wills or an actual life of their own.

That has changed dramatically over the past ten or fifteen years. This is especially clear in the case of smartphones, which people often consider to have independent lives of their own, or to be far less the passive tool of their owners than was the good old telephone. Smartphones combine local caches of personalised information with communication. They connect with the Internet and with social groups. They lay the foundation for coordination, are instruments for information, and a means for solving problems – not only locally but also globally via the many contacts of their owners. The quasi-emotional relationship many people have with their smartphones stands in marked contrast to the emotionless relationship people previously had with their telephones.

But what is so attractive about smartphones, and what does that have to do with people’s relationships with their cars, which have often been very close in the past? After all, in the second half of the previous century, didn’t cars come to be the absolute embodiment of freedom and independence? This widely acknowledged view overlooks an essential point. Physical mobility has always been a way of enabling people to take part in activities, cultivate relationships, reach locations where they can join others and maintain contacts. Smartphones enable very new forms of participation and contact. Social networks generate closeness without physical proximity. Virtual mobility is replacing physical mobility.

With every step that makes them more interactive, more like smartphones, and therefore more able to enter into dialogue with their owners, the more cars gain their own independent virtual identities. Cars with digital services lead lives of their own and interact with their owners. They can also be unpredictable at times, sometimes stubborn or unfathomable, but often useful. Above all, they possess many skills that their owners do not. As cars become integrated into social networks, they become independent individuals, subjects instead of objects, agents instead of appliances. Autonomous driving also changes the relationship between cars and that which steers them. Humans are losing dominance and influence in their interaction with machines. Roles and identities are shifting.

Creating digital identities in mobility
The major instrument for creating identity consists of the interactions between people and systems. This is the key to attractive functions and the creation of identities. The secret behind the acceptance of digital systems, as well as behind their appeal, lies precisely in shaping the interaction between people and machines in the best possible way. People are only too ready to use a system’s astounding functions without necessarily having to understand how these functions are performed. If people gain the impression that the system in some mysterious way understands exactly what they need, if they are pleasantly surprised that it’s an easy matter to get the desired ­services from the system, if a high level of transparency arises as to what services can be relied upon and in which respects the system can be depended upon, then identity and trust are created.

Of note here is that there is hardly any indication of what we might call a persona, i.e. a synthetic person that appears, speaks and interacts with customers in digital media as part of the services provided. Interaction with cyber-physical systems apparently does not have to follow the established patterns of communication and identity we are accustomed to seeing among humans. Digital systems need to develop their own forms of communication and interaction and thereby their own identities within interactions.

If people gain the impression that the system in some mysterious way understands exactly what they need, if they are pleasantly surprised that it’s an easy matter to get the desired services from the system, if a high level of transparency arises as to what services can be relied upon and in which respects the system can be depended upon, then identity and trust are created.

Digitalisation is creating completely new opportunities and challenges for established companies. Products that have played a major role in the identity-generating economic landscape, of which cars are a prominent example, will be changing their identities dramatically over the course of digitalisation.

Identity is becoming divorced from physical equipment and becoming attached to virtual services. Access to Google does not depend on the device that is used. Smartphone users today are cyborgs whose smartphones, or more precisely their respective data and services, have long since become part of their identities. When smartphones are integrated into cars, the cars will enter symbiotic relationships with their drivers. They will no longer simply provide a greater scope of physical options, but also increase human communicative and cognitive capacities. They will become instruments that enable people to communicate, become informed, receive assistance and solve problems. A marked shift is underway in how customers view their cars, and ultimately also in how they view carmakers.

At the same time, however, this interaction between cars and customers will extend into the companies themselves. As a basis for dialogue between customers and cars, autonomous driving is a superb example of something that will generate completely different forms of customer access in both directions.

New identities in the world of mobility
Transportation is used in multimodal ways today. Transportation will be controlled in multimodal ways in the future. Tomorrow’s mobility service providers will offer multimodal services – mobility services as partners of their customers. Customers have mobility needs, which they do not even have to formulate explicitly. These needs will be drawn at least in part from their appointment diaries or their emails. That will provide a basis for mobility service providers to book flights and connections, call taxis and make use of car-sharing offers. Using multimodal mobility services will be like doing Google searches, only more convenient. Digital assistants will meet the mobility needs of their customers in comprehensive fashion, and take all manner of information into account about the services required. Mobility service providers will be partners of their customers with very much their own identities.

The customers of these providers will use different services depending on their needs. For example, car-sharing means that they develop hardly any relationships with the cars they use whereas they might otherwise have done so with the cars they owned. The identity that connects them with car-sharing will be shifted directly to the service and by extension to the service provider. That is analogous to Google and the popular search service it provides. Just like many people associate a specific identity with Google, they will associate clear identities with mobility service providers, characterised by the types and properties of those services. The verb “to google” has long since entered our language. We “google” things. We “ask” Google. In emotional terms at least, users conceive of Google less as a company than as an enterprise that provides reliable answers to questions.

Customer identities
It’s amazing to think that up to this point in time, cars have not yet known the identities of their drivers. That will be completely dif­ferent in the future. They will know if their drivers are in a hurry, and how important the next appointment is. They will know not only how far it is to the nearest petrol station, but also which restaurants and hotels their drivers like. They will know which radio stations the drivers have been listening to, including which specific programmes might interest them and can be directly accessed, recorded or offered. Cars will become independent ­partners of people. Autonomy will again be creating completely different identities.

These partnerships and their identities will be transferred to their providers. Properties of specific products will be equated with properties of the companies that provide those products. Conversely, buyers of those products will get new and markedly personalised identities from the perspective of the car companies – codified via countless data on movement and interaction.

New mobile spheres of identity will therefore arise, and enable customised forms of individuality on the basis of completely new dimensions of customer loyalty and individualisation. Identity will become ever more dynamic, and will arise from the interaction between elements that are themselves undergoing rapid change. People are increasingly acquiring their identities from their interactions with and within digital media. The identities of services and cyber-physical products, and therefore also of their manufacturers and providers, will constantly be forming themselves anew.

People are increasingly acquiring their identities from their interactions with and within digital media. The identities of services and cyber-physical products, and therefore also of their manufacturers and providers, will constantly be forming themselves anew.

And what will happen to the familiar identities?
But where are the boundaries between people’s identities and those of their services? And what dangers lie in the dissolution of traditional identities? Are we heading towards a transformation that will necessarily change everything? Or is a brand like Porsche with its iconic 911 precisely the counterexample? A car like the Porsche 911 constantly changes but also remains what it is – the ultimate sports car. Digitalisation is changing companies, and changing their products, but is it also changing their hearts? New types of digital services, non-locally bound communication, information services, comprehensive driver assistance systems, and optimised driving dynamics based on integrated software are turning driving machines into multifunctional systems. But what is happening to driving pleasure, and to fascination with the perfect sports-car experience? Will all of this be eclipsed or replaced by communication, information and the autonomy of integrated assistance systems?

The danger exists that traditional brand identities will only live on in nostalgia. Digital natives – the customers of the future – look at brands from completely different perspectives and with the new eyes of a connected world. Brands are increasingly marked by the quality of their services, data and capacities, without thereby losing the perfection of their physical dynamics. The quality of a smartphone, an app or a service platform eclipses the quality and value of a physical product. In the cyber-physical systems on the markets of the future, both of these things have to work – the physical appearance and dynamics on the one hand, but also the quality of the digital services. Human-centred engineering places each one perfectly at the disposal of the other, with the human being as the focus. Perfect and harmonious mutual complementarity between physical manifestation and digital services will be the hallmark of the brands of the digital world of the future.


Prof. Dr Manfred Broy headed the department of Software & Systems Engineering at the Technical University of Munich. In 2009 he founded the applied research technology institute fortiss. He was the founding president of Zentrum Digitalisierung.Bayern in 2016. Acatech’s Cyber-Physical Systems research agenda that he developed has promoted major initiatives such as Industry 4.0.

Amos Fricke, born in northern Germany in 1987, studied Visual Communication at the University of the Arts in Berlin (2008 – 2015) and did his degree in the Class for Experimental Graphic Design, before working with Prof. Siegfried Zielinski as a Masters student; he had an exchange semester in Fine Arts at Parsons School of Design in New York (2011). His focus is on placing objects in a setting, using photography as his primary tool; he has a studio in Berlin and works internationally for a wide range of customers and publications.