I’m about to present an aspect of my work at an academic symposium. In doing so, I’m effectively publishing something under my name for the first time. This makes me slightly uncomfortable because (one) I don’t have a particular attachment to my legal name and (two), because my broader work openly critiques the nature of names and their relation to identity, I feel I should be expressing my creativity.
But what would be my motive? To make a point? To make an artistic statement? Let’s look at the issues here.
The first parts of my name are labels given to me by my parents. They chose a name to identify me, I accepted it, and I continued to accept it out of social convenience. Our system makes it difficult to change our legal name. Not because there’s a lot of paperwork; because we must actively lead others to recognise the connection between two distinct identifiers, and to persuade them to migrate to using the newer one.
Our surnames are not from our parents directly as much as they are heirlooms passed down through many generations, strong enough to survive as long as they happen to attach themselves to (usually) male offspring. Our parents impose this tradition onto us.
This is all understandable, of course. Names have social use-value. First names provide a handy tool for addressing individuals when communicating and middle names further differentiate individuals in an environment where certain names are common – and to allow parents to use more of the cool names they short-listed! Surnames, historically more so, enable others to recognise our membership within a wider group of people.
However, all this means we generally go through life using a name we grew into rather than one we chose. This isn’t to say that they are bad; just that they are not necessarily ideal for the individual.
In an environment where I read a lot about pseudonyms, the idea of using different names in different contexts, or simply changing your ‘main’ name at will to better represent who you are at any given moment, appears reasonable to be transcribed into the wider, socio-legal context.
I read a while ago about how mormons are properly baptised once they are old enough to make the conscious, informed decision to do so. I thought this was brilliant! I think I was baptised very young, which is a fact that is absolutely meaningless to who I am right now because I didn’t have a religious upbringing.
Of course, names are a little different because we embrace them (even if grudgingly) each time we use them. My name says more about me than my baptism because of it’s regular acknowledgement over time. But if I’m treating my name as simply an identifier, like an account number in a digital computer system, rather than something with meaning in and of itself, should I not change it to something that better represents me? Wouldn’t this be better for us, socially?
Google’s Eric Schmidt famously suggested we change our names when we turn eighteen to distance ourselves from our online youthful hijinks. This was more than a little naïve. However, if we grow as individuals, then perhaps we should routinely change our names, our identifiers, to reflect this. Not to hide our past actions, which is impossible, but rather to explicitly suggest that we are different people than who we once were. To prompt others to recognise a difference where technology fails.
We all change. Our beliefs can be radically altered. If digital systems that routinely record our actions make it harder to indicate this to others, changing our legal names may help highlight this.
So, what’s stopping me?
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to change my name. Now would also be a good time because it would help keep my academic work attributed to a consistent identity. It’s just that . . . well, I can’t think of anything specific I’m happy with.
In light of what I’ve said above, and if names are arbitrary (which I think legal names often are), a new one would be an improvement because a change has happened at all. But what are my options? I could use something like ‘Funkmaster J’, or even ‘exhipigeonist’, though neither of these have grown on me enough yet. I could use a comically upperclass English name like ‘Richard Henry Oxford Morbach III’. I could use the name of a fictional character I like (such as QT-1!), or the model number of an electronic device that has changed my life. I could use the hex value of an ASCII character/code – kinda like the Prince ‘symbol’ thing, but actually typeable – I like or that somehow relates to me (‘AF’ because I’m tall? ‘A867’ because snakes wrapped around daggers look awesome?). But do I want to use any of these names as a major part of my professional identity? And am I connected to either of them enough to make the change?
It may not be as permanent as a tattoo, but it has perhaps more serious consequences later in life – remembering all my previous names when filling in my tax return, for example. I should probably wait until something feels ‘right’.
Then there’s the added issue of ‘what do people call me?’ My family and friends may be hesitant to refer to me by any other name, but perhaps I’m alright with this. I could introduce it to them as sort of an optional nickname that may eventually stick that they may use if they feel like doing so – I’ve always tended to let people call me by whatever nickname they like.
But that’s something to worry about later down the track, as it seems it could be a while before something stands out. Perhaps ‘exhipigeonist’ will grow on me – grow with me – and I come to like that being used to relate to me as a person rather than one online aspect of my overall distributed identity. One thing it certainly has going for it is that it is apparently (for now) distinct.