Regulars and Shorts

Outside the Box: Personal Identity

By Alice Toler

Built, borrowed, bought—or stolen.

We each need to form an identity for ourselves—so much so that, if denied ways of building one, we are willing to break a shop window and steal it if need be. The questionable police shooting of a man in Tottenham, London, sparked a spate of window-breaking and shop-looting all across England, out of all proportion with the provocation. Book-stores were generally not touched. Fashion shops and mobile phone stores were ransacked. Everyone’s in shock. Parents of looters have turned their kids in to the police.

I spent some time in Manchester the week after the riots there, and was struck by the extremely visible consumerist culture throughout the city center. It’s not all that different from downtown Chicago or Atlanta or New York, but in light of the events there it looked different to me this time.

Even Manchester airport is designed very specifically to separate you from your cash by way of selling you brand-name goods. Once you’ve been processed through all of the security screening at Termi­nal Two, you come upon a curious bit of airport architectural layout: To get to the departure gates, you are filtered down a wide corridor and then—deliberately—right through the middle of an expansive duty-free shop. You can’t get around it—you have to go through. It is very shiny and halogen-lit, and contains many ranks and rows of designer goods and brand-name liquors. The way is not clear; you have to steer carefully through the shelves of bling. I was chatting with two fellow travelers at the name brand-laden food court there, as we drank our name-brand coffee, and one commented on my delayed flight: “The longer you have to be here, the more money you end up spending!” No kidding.

What kind of power do name brands really have? Apparently, the power to destabilize society if left unbalanced from a vacuum of any other identity-forming social forces. Who the hell am I if I don’t have my Abercrombie & Fitch? As petty as it is, it’s one of the great questions of our species. We have always been obsessed with figuring out our identities. You think of yourself as so-and-so’s daughter, or a Buddhist or an American…or perhaps you are an iPhone user, or an Adidas wearer, or a Honda driver. In tribal societies one pays for

identity in time and effort and (usually) blood during endurance initiation rituals—and that identity, once won, can’t be taken away. In Western culture, more often than not we just use credit cards. Now we’re finding out what happens when the credit runs out.

Seeing all of this had gotten me good and depressed by the time I reached home, so I cued up a video of an interview with Mitch Altman, noted electronics hacker and inventor. Mitch can speak for himself better than I can paraphrase him, so you should really go watch the video for yourself, but listening to him helped me regain my faith and optimism in the human species. For every lost soul willing to loot a Vodafone store, there’s one who would rather build electronics from recycled bits and pieces, simply because the action of making something is really fun—but the second guy doesn’t usually make the news.

The rules for living are pretty simple: Be nice. Take responsibility. Make stuff. As Mitch says, ‎”I don’t do what I do because of hope, I do what I do because it feels right.”


Alice Bain is a Salt Lake-based artist. Look for her blog updates, appearing several times a week, at

This article was originally published on September 1, 2011.