Introduction

In everyday discourse and dictionary definitions, authenticity is usually conceptualized in essentialist terms: authenticity is equated to being “genuine,” “real,” “true in substance,” “in accordance with fact,” and “what it professes in origin or authorship.” Because it is understood as an inherent quality, it is not achievable and neither can it be stripped away or created: the person, object, artifact, or place in question simply is authentic or not (Doorman, 2004; Lindholm, 2008). In the past 50 years, however, there has been a shift in how scholars understand the very nature of social reality, and thus, the nature of authenticity itself. Through a sustained critique, sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann questioned the foundations of the essentialist paradigm, arguing that reality is socially constructed, and therefore, the object of analysis should be the process of language, socialization, and cognition in which this construction occurs (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). This perspective builds on various philosophical, sociological, and political views (from Nietzsche to Lyotard and from symbolic interactionism to phenomenology) that challenge the idea that there is a pre-established reality that provides unmediated and uninterpreted facts.Footnote 1

In this paper, we move beyond the essentialist-constructionist dichotomy and hook into the idea that authenticity is a culturally informed process of negotiation (Vannini & Williams, 2009). For example, when it comes to classical paintings, banknotes or phishing e-mails, experts, and laypersons commonly agree on the procedures to be used in testing for authenticity. There are, however, many cases in which the judgments of authenticity made by experts are not accepted and where the procedures to qualify a person, object, artifact, or place as authentic remain open for negotiation. Instead of authenticity-attributions confirmed by experts, which remain unchallenged, authenticity is negotiated by various social agents acting within everyday-life situations. From this perspective, (im)material artifacts are not as such authentic or inauthentic—or essentially authentic or authentically constructed—but rather understood as outcomes of negotiations between various stakeholders.

In addition to essentialist and constructionist approaches, we will discuss a third approach that, although it cannot be simply reduced to any of the two other forms (though it does relate more to the constructionist approach), has received less attention in the literature on authenticity. This approach celebrates, one could say, the authenticity of inauthenticity. It seems to “essentialize” inauthenticity and to denounce, castigate, and ridicule what others take as original, natural, and authentic.

Instead of understanding these three approaches as distinct understandings of what is authenticity, we will reinterpret each approach as a different manifestation of authentication, each one representing a different authentication logic and moral challenge for individuals and societies. Authenticity is, as we will illustrate, often strategically invoked as a method of social control or a mark of power relations.

Because of their enormous reach and intrusiveness, emerging technologies—especially digitization and data-driven technologies—have an even greater ability to influence authentication processes and propel a shift in power. Think for example of affinity profiling algorithms and behavioral predictions on the basis of big data. Predicting characteristics such as “deviant behavior” or “bad health” often pass as apolitical technical categorizing tasks, as in many cases, the actor or agent—be it a person, expert group, institution, or, increasingly, data-driven technology—is considered or considers itself neutral and not part of the power structure in which the authenticity negotiation process takes place. This assumption will be challenged in this paper. Essentialist, constructionist, and other types of authenticity-claims are understood as expressions or outcomes of power relations. . However, power relations as such do necessarily have to be suppressive: authentication processes can oppress as well as enable a critical formation of selves and societies.

We hold an agnostic-ontological perspective of authenticity, which means that we do not adhere to an essentialist, constructionist, or “inauthenticity as ideal” approach. Instead, we propose an interactionist approach meaning that each approach of authenticity can have its own added value as long as the process in which authenticity is negotiated enables a critical formation of selves and societies. Therefore, we argue not only in favor of descriptive research on how authentication processes work in practice, but also in favor of answering the normative question what a “good” and meaningful authentication processes entails. Because emerging technologies, especially digitization and data-driven technologies, have increasingly come to define the way we understand and form ourselves and our societies, we will address their normative role in authentication and de-authentication processes. This brings us to the central question of our paper: how can authenticity be understood as an interactive negotiation process and how—against the backdrop of emerging technologies—can processes of authentication and de-authentication contribute to a critical formation of selves and societies?

The set-up of this paper is as follows: first, we will discuss three approaches of authenticity. Then, we will demonstrate how and why authenticity should be treated as a process of negation. Next, we will argue in favor of an interactionist approach of authenticity and elaborate on why the notion of authenticity as authentication matters in our current technological environments. Finally, we will discuss the importance of creating space in authentication processes that are increasingly influenced by technology as an invisible actor.

Three Approaches of Authenticity

Romantic-Essentialist Authenticity Approaches

The most common approach of authenticity entails that the less an attribute has been compromised by intervention or design, the more authentic it is considered to be. This romantic-essentialist perspective is based on an essentialization of nature. Rooted in eighteenth-century Romanticism, the cultural value and ideal of authenticity stands for “natural,” “pure,” “original,” “genuine,” and “unique” (Boyle, 2003; Brooks, 2000; Campbell, 2005; Lindholm, 2008; Taylor, 1992).

The romantic-essentialist view has a particular history and gained momentum in the eighteenth century. In Western pre-Romantic moral philosophy, people were summoned to embrace and reflect on God or the idea of “the good.” Valuing external entities and bodies increasingly was challenged and gave way to valuing the inner self of the individual. This shift can be interpreted from at least two different perspectives: valuing the inner self can be seen as a result of liberation from external agencies, but attributing value to the inner world or to nature can also be regarded as an alternative strategy for giving meaning to life now that this meaning is no longer secured by an external deity.

In the eighteenth century Romantic stance, it was particularly the force of nature within each individual, which came to be regarded as the ultimate source of all thought, feeling, and action (Campbell, 2005: 182–184). The key figure in this development was Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) who presented the issue of morality as a voice of nature within us and articulated the related idea of being free and unique as an individual, deciding for oneself what to do rather than being shaped by external influences and pressures of conformity. “Being true to yourself” meant being true to your own originality, not living your life in imitation by others and finding the blueprint to life within yourself instead of outside yourself (Taylor, 1992: 25–29).

In the most general sense, the Romantic value of authenticity is formulated in opposition to (modern) society that alienates humans from their natural environment, “inner selves” and creative potentials. In contrast to the Enlightenment conception of nature as an object that could be studied, controlled, and technically manipulated, the Romantics interpreted nature as a meaningful and moral entity in and of itself. This idea is reflected in the Romantic resistance against industrialism and mechanical worldviews, and the perspective on human nature. The birth of an authentic self lies in the Romantic notion that human beings are gifted with a pure self-identity that is located in the deeper layers of the self and is uncontaminated by external society. Such an authentic inner self possessed an innate moral sense and intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong.

An important aspect of authenticity as developed in Romanticism is creativity and the ideal of the artist. Before the eighteenth century, art was understood in terms of imitation and portraying reality. The Romantic resistance against imitation gave way to a new criterion: art had to be a real, sincere expression of the artist himself. Spontaneity became an indication of sincerity and quality because the spontaneous was free of conventions and rationalizations (Taylor, 1992: 62–65). Along with this new understanding of art, artistic creation became a mode in which people could come to self-definition. These views of the artist and genius, as well as this conception of authenticity, spilled over into different areas of everyday life, such as the humanities and social sciences, from philosophy to psychology and management sciences. The emphasis came to be placed not on what someone said but on who he or she (mostly he) was.

All in all, the eighteenth century Romantics chose to raise the natural to a higher moral status and to problematize the artificial in the modern, industrialized world as the evil to be overcome (Campbell, 2005: 183). The Romantic worldview is generally considered a marginal counter-current in Western societies, but remarkably has increasingly evolved from counter-culture to cultural mainstream. In the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, middle-class youth gave expression to cultural discontents about processes of modernization, rationalization, and bureaucratization and massively embraced the Romantic worldview. Central to the counter-culture was a disgust of rationalized modern institutions and hierarchical power structures that demanded people to conform to narrowly defined and artificial social roles which oppressed people’s personal authenticity. Playing such roles was understood as alienating and being reduced to a cog in a rationalized machine. An alternative for these criticized processes was found in small-scaled, informal-organized communities, living in harmony with nature, searching the authentic self through artistic creativity, psychedelic drugs, spiritual practices, and meditation (Aupers et al., 2010).

As different academics argued, the countercultural imperative of resisting modern institutions and seeking authenticity, so vivid in the 1960s and 1970s, has paradoxically become part of mainstream society and even been co-opted by business life (Aupers et al., 2003; Houtman et al., 2010; Campbell, 2005; Heath & Potter, 2004; Doorman, 2004; Kennepohl, 2014). Not only has authenticity become a binding value and common norm in Western societies, consumer culture has incorporated the rebelliousness and non-conformism of the 1960’s counter-culture and calls consumers to set themselves apart from the gray masses (Frank, 1998; Houtman et al., 2010). As professors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argued: “The Romantic critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for the past forty years” (Heath & Potter, 2004: 98).

Constructionist Authenticity Approaches

In constructionist approaches, authenticity is decoupled from the Romantic tradition to align authenticity with naturalness. Here, human nature is understood as something that needs to be adjusted, corrected, or even defeated; authenticity must be constructed, developed, or created instead of found or preserved. Romanticism with its essentialization of nature is experienced as an oppressing convention that needs to be escaped from through the construction of an authentic self. Instead of finding authenticity in nature, authenticity is something that is created out of cultural elements. Authenticity is about transcending social orders and cultural classifications through active self-creation, breaking free from existing cultural repertoires, and developing one’s own cultural language; for example, through breaking free from classifications such as “natural-born artist” or “natural-born man.”

It is remarkable that, like the essentialist approach, this approach is also often presented as a liberation offensive, however from a different rationale. In essentialist approaches, it is external influences, industrialism, and mechanical worldviews that the individual needs to be liberated from, while in constructionist approaches, all these aspects can be part of the cultural elements through which an authentic self can be created. In constructionist approaches, the existential assignment cannot be reduced to the principles of philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who assumed an authentic reality that must be discovered. Constructionist approaches of authenticity are often inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche and philosophers, writers, and artists inspired by Nietzschean views. From this perspective, authenticity is not about finding or regaining your true nature, but about creating your own nature; not about self-knowledge but about self-creation through the transcendence of both natural orders and cultural classifications (Aupers et al., 2010: 4).

The constructionist approach of authenticity is often presented as the opposite of an essentialist approach. However, constructionist authenticity approaches come in many different shapes and forms and can be recognized under different names. “Existentialist authenticity,” for example, is commonly referred to as a form of self-invention where individuals can construct an identity to which one wishes to be true (Shanahan, 2018; Waterman, 2014). This idea carries existential concepts of transcendence: a moving beyond the confines of what the self is and toward what it can be (Erickson, 1995). In the rise of existentialism as a school of thought during the early twentieth century, the fundamental freedom of the individual was paramount. Instead of a fixed self, individuals choose the self they wish to be (Shanahan, 2018: 4). Another version of the constructionist authenticity approach is reflected in the “creativity framework.” Instead of approaching life as a gift that should be respected (“the gratitude framework”), it is our obligation to transform the gift and exhibit our creativity (Parens, 2005: 37–38). This view strongly resonates with vistas of contemporary proponents of human enhancement technologies.

Where essentialist views preserve cultural dichotomies of “the natural” versus “the unnatural,” constructionist approaches repudiate the very notion of “the natural” and consequently debunk the distinction between “the natural” and “the unnatural.” This, for example, is done through the premise that the “natural body” is a discursive illusion because bodies are constituted by culture. Working from a feminist and social constructionist perspective, Susan Bordo traces female corporeal vulnerability not to anatomical differences between males and females, but to cultural forces that have defined woman as the object of masculine desire (Bordo, 1993). From Bordo’s perspective, women and men have no “biological essence” situated in the body, but the body is socially constructed in terms of male or female.

From this perspective, it becomes clear that what is authentic and what is not, and what is natural and what is not, is dependent on particular (sub)cultures. What is considered (in)authentic is shaped by available discourses and the cultural habitat of images and narratives that shape the tastes, desires, and ideas of the people living in that particular culture. As culture changes—and with it, tastes, beliefs, values, and practices—so too do definitions of what constitutes the authentic. Instead of seeking an unchanging or promissory essence of what authenticity is, constructionist approaches are multidimensional, performative, and often at peace with the seeming contradictions of everyday life (Vannini & Williams, 2009: 12).

Inauthenticity as Ideal Approaches

Few studies distinguish another non-Romantic type of authentication, which amounts to cultural celebrations of inauthenticity. This is foremost illustrated in examinations of cosmetic surgery and celebrity culture that replaced ideals of originality and authenticity by parody and pastiche (Elliott, 2011;Van de Port, 2010; Smelik, 2012). We coin this the “inauthenticity as an ideal approach.”

In his examination of Brazilian “camp” subcultures, anthropologist Matthijs van de Port interviews a drag queen who accentuates and celebrates the artificiality of her cosmetically enhanced look, instead of concealing it. Where Romantic authentication processes try to conceal artificiality behind auras of naturalness, cultural celebrations of inauthenticity aim to reveal that everything that presents itself as natural, is in fact artificially created (Van de Port, 2010: 78). Although consumers as well as cosmetic surgeons have long described the goal of aesthetic surgery as the production of an “improved” but still “natural-looking” body, several empirical studies have demonstrated that “the artificial” has become increasingly prevalent within consumers’ narratives of surgical enhancement. For example, in woman’s desire for artificial breasts that look “too good to be real” (Gimlin, 2013) or in youngsters who try to look like their digitally filtered Instagram selfies through cosmetic surgery (Rajanala et al., 2018). In deliberately accentuating the artificially enhanced body, aesthetic “fakery” is celebrated instead of concealed or problematized.

Where the Romantic-essentialist framework tries to find authenticity in a “natural body” that is left alone, these studies demonstrate that authenticity is also sought in a moral framework that accentuates the fake. As a result, cultural celebrations of inauthenticity can be understood as a hyperbolic manifestation of constructionist authenticity where inauthenticity—as the counter ideal of authenticity—has become an aesthetic and moral ideal in itself.

This ideal of inauthenticity is not only reflected in bodily self-transformation, but also in sociological studies that have discussed the social virtue of inauthenticity in human relationships. Sociologist Dennis Waskul, for example, performed a breaching social experiment where he tried to stay true to himself and others for 1 day. Waskul finds himself incapacitated by the continuous struggles to define what is authentic and morally honest versus what is inauthentic and socially right. After angering students, colleagues, and family members with his authentic and sincere ways, Waskul concludes that inauthenticity is often more desirable: Inauthenticity, insincerity, or the necessity to abandon moral struggles and say “to hell with it!” are common features of everyday life, and even of a good life (Waskul, 2009). His experiment captures the complexity of dramaturgic approaches to the ideal of authenticity and is inspired by sociologist Erving Goffman (1978) who argued that we wear masks and perform roles because our expressive action is directed at the maintenance of relationships through the saving of face. From a dramaturgic perspective, and contrary to the Romantic-essentialist perspective, the value of authenticity does not reside in choosing a role with which we feel as little distance as possible. Rather, the value of (in)authenticity lies in being a “more or less person” rather than one’s own “true self” all the time. A “more or less person” exists through experimenting with multiple roles, and concealment and information control as an actor who understands that social life demands secrecy and thus a certain measure of insincerity and inauthenticity. In pointing out how acting honestly is conceptually different from acting sincerely, Waskul highlights how there is virtue in inauthenticity and thus how impression management is not the epitome of inauthenticity but the very root of what it means to be a functional, socialized, integrated, and lovable member of society (Vannini & Williams, 2009: 5).

As Van de Port demonstrated in his study of Camp and Baroque subcultures, contemporary societies also contain cultural registers that accentuate the constructionist nature of things. At first glance, these registers appear not to be about the cultural production of authenticity. However, when he looks at what the revealing aesthetic does in the subject’s experiences, this also turns out to be preoccupied with the production of authenticity. After all, accentuating “the fake” appears to generate an unstoppable desire for what is real. In this revealing aesthetic, it is the desire itself that constitutes the sensation of the real (Van de Port, 2010: 85). In other words, authenticity is found in a cultural aesthetic and moral logic that underlines the truthfulness of the fake. So, in order to be authentic, you must not only construct yourself, but you must also value and embrace this ongoing construction process as your real self.

From Authenticity to Authentication

We have seen that the constructionist and “inauthenticity as ideal” approach reject the idea of innate, natural authenticity. Constructionists deny the existence of a predetermined natural essence and consider the self to be a social construction. An authentic person, object, or artifact consist of a self-defined, self-established, and self-made being; it qualifies as authentic because it is constructed in a particular way. In addition, the “inauthenticity as ideal” approach has been understood as a hyperbolic manifestation of constructionist authenticity, in which artificiality is seen as an aesthetic-ethical imperative: you can only be authentic if you adopt and appropriate the artificial and a desire for what is real as your real being, which renders the essentialist form as an anti-ideal.

Although the differences between these approaches cannot be denied, all three make a claim about the being of objects and people: authenticity is innate, authenticity is constructed, and being authentic entails embracing and celebrating the made. Paradoxically all three forms still seem to be able to be expressed in essentialist terminology: authenticity is essentially natural or authenticity is essentially constructed. Against these approaches, we propose an interactionist understanding of authenticity seeing it not as something that exists, does not exist, or should exist as an inherent or made property of a person, arifact, object, or place, but as part of an interactive, culturally informed process of negotiation. This is in line with the views of sociologists Vannini and Williams:

“By showing that the precise standards and techniques through which people build a shared agreement over what is to be considered authentic, an interpretivist approach to the production, exchange, and consumption of authenticity conceptualizes authenticity relativistically by envisioning it as an outcome of social interaction, as an emergent product of intrapersonal and interpersonal communication, and as a cultural trait that is indeterminate, fluid, “invented,” and shared (and also contested, resisted, and commodified) by social agents acting within concrete everyday-life situations” (Vannini & Williams, 2009: 12).

In this respect, instead of “authenticity” and “inauthenticity,” we speak of “authentication”; the process of language, socialization, and cognition through which objects, persons, and places are negotiated as authentic—and “de-authentication”; the process of language, socialization, and cognition through which objects, persons, and places are negotiated as inauthentic. The three discussed authenticity approaches can be reinterpreted as three different types of authentication with different styles in negotiating authenticity: each type has its own moral logic and “authenticity ethics,” varying from a moral assignment to reveal, problematize, or eliminate inauthenticity, to a moral assignment to celebrate or cultivate inauthenticity. The value of authenticity lies not in having to choose for one of the three approaches, but, as we will demonstrate the next paragraphs, in the degree to which the process of negotiating authenticity can contribute to critically and deliberately form the self,Footnote 2 as well as the artifacts and processes surrounding the self.

Although researchers did not universally use the term “authentication,” sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and ethicists have empirically demonstrated the presence of divergent types of authentication in cultural industries (Roeland et al., 2011; Rutten, 2019), cosmetic surgery transitions (Weiss & Kukla, 2009; Gimlin, 2013), life-style and marketing discourses (Rose & Wood, 2005; Chalmers & Price, 2009; Houtman et al., 2010;  O'Neillet al., 2014; Houtman et al., 2016), personalized healthcare (Sharon, 2017), bio-ethical debates on human enhancement technologies (Bolt, 2007; Marceta, 2020; Parens, 2005), and AI-generated art (Floridi, 2018). Authenticity has become such a binding value and dominant norm in Western societies (Aupers et al., 2010) that the way people talk about what constitutes the (in)authentic may say more about the authenticity conceptions available in everyday language, than how people truly feel or think about what constitutes the (in)authentic. In marketing narratives and cultural industries, Romantic-essentialist authenticity conceptions are for example more dominant and widely accepted than other conceptions (Cohen, 1988; Doorman, 2004; Chalmers & Price, 2009; Roeland et al., 2011; Kennepohl, 2014; O’Neill et al., 2014) which results in over-emphasizes on Romantic-essentialist conceptions, while other types of authentication might be just as prevalent. In academic literature, the “inauthenticity as ideal approach” is less studied which does not mean that these or other forms of authentication are less prominent. In online Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner fan subcultures for example, cosmetic procedures are the norm and natural faces are undervalued. Here, inauthenticity as an ideal approach seems to be dominant.Footnote 3 Accordingly, authentication should be understood as an interactive, culturally informed process of negotiation in which particular authenticity conceptions are more available in language and communication than others.

Processes of authentication and de-authentication are thus not so much shaped by individual agents, but by multiple actors such as institutions, companies, cultural industries, marketing discourses, technological environments, and many more. As a result, authentication can be understood as a field of power (Bourdieu, 1984) in which particular actors and authenticity conceptions dominate, while others may be ignored, devalued, or even oppressed. In Romantic-essentialist authentication, the oppressing actor is commonly conceived as “the artificial” that individuals and societies need to escape from, while in constructionist authentication it is precisely this Romantic conception of “naturalness” and a “true” self that is conceived as oppressing. In inauthenticity as ideal approaches, the oppressing actor can take shape in the form of strict rules and cultural codes that a particular inauthenticity aesthetic prescribes. This means that the space for individuals or groups to negotiate authenticity can vary in the range and degree to which it is possible to deviate from cultural and socio-technological norms that prescribe particular authenticity conceptions and types of authentication. Consequently, authentication processes can be suppressive and lead to cultural homogenization when the negotiation space is absent or colonized by one dominant group or one dominant ideology. This often goes hand in hand with processes of objectification and naturalization in which power structures that promote the interest of an established group or stakeholder are concealed behind aura’s of naturalness and authenticity.

The space to negotiate authenticity, i.e., the space to construct or deconstruct a person, place, object, or process as authentic, can become “hidden in plain sight.” When the constructionist nature of authenticity is concealed—deliberately or unintentionally—the potential to negotiate authenticity disappears. As we will demonstrate in the next paragraph, this potential is increasingly influenced by technology as emerging technologies have the tendency to be perceived as neutral and conceal asymmetries in power which eliminates the space to critically and deliberately negotiate authenticity. This is not to say that power relations are always necessarily oppressive, as the creation of space also requires power influences and a reordering of power relations. An important condition to create, find, and eventually use the space to negotiate authenticity is the genealogical discovery that the forms and rules we initially take for granted are the result of a historical interaction process that has often been made ahistorical and thus absolutized and rendered invisible.

In the following paragraph, we discuss how emerging technologies, especially digitization and data-driven technologies, have only made the notion of authenticity as a process of negotiation more relevant. We often see, on the one hand, that authentication processes are subject to maximum control, influence, and persuasion and, on the other hand, a shift in power as a result of the hiding of those processes from view by emerging technologies.

Why Authentication Matters in Technological Environments

Dominant in the past were structures and forms generated by religious, political, and moral ideologies. Individuals attempted to form themselves in relation to particular ideas and ideologies that they endorsed or challenged. Gradually, besides ideas, technologies and technological infrastructures have increasingly come to define the way we understand and form ourselves and our surroundings. Our environment is increasingly a technological and digitized environment and our interactions are increasingly technologically mediated. With the merging of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information communication technology and the cognitive sciences, the ability to re-engineer and redesign bodies, communications, and life itself has rapidly increased. Hence, not only is technology increasingly shaping our environment, it is also greatly intruding in all the facets of our lives, as history professor Michael Bess indicates:

“Today, we are in the early stages of an epochal shift that will prove as momentous as those other great transformations. This time around, however, the new techniques and technologies are not being applied to reinventing our tools, our methods of food production, and our means of manufacturing. Rather, it is ourselves who are being refashioned. We are applying our ingenuity to the challenge of redesigning our own physical and mental capabilities” (Bess, 2008).

Equipped with a neurobiological and information technological view of humanity and accessible techniques for self- and societal transformation, people are altering their lives and their surroundings aiming to become “better,” “healthier,” “happier”—and sometimes “more authentic”—individuals. These technologies seem not only to affect the means that can be employed to transform the self and society but also to co-determine what is a good self and a good society. This challenges researchers to reflect on the incentives, implications, and impacts of new and emerging technologies besides criteria as functionality, efficiency, and safety.

Whereas technologies as pharmacological substances, deep brain stimulation, cosmetic surgery, and deep learning algorithms aim at improving the quality of life, the enhancement rhetoric of technologies promising us mastery over our lives, ignores the fact that technologies can become “actants” themselves that profoundly co-shape both human subjectivity and the world. Our technological environment cannot be situated outside humans and their conditions. Technologies norm what is considered as “human,” “normal,” and “enhanced” in terms of what these technologies are able to measure, diagnose, and treat (Aydin, 2017: 322).

This view can be extended to the question of authenticity: technology also influences and norms what we consider “natural” and “unnatural,” “real,” and “fake,” “human,” and “unhuman” or “authentic” and “inauthentic.” In addition to common, accepted and integrated technologies, digitization, and data-driven technologies play an increasing role in self-shaping, societal-shaping, and authentication processes. Affinity profiling algorithms, big data analysis, deepfakes, and AI-simulations of human voices, texts, and images (De Ruiter, 2021) increasingly guide our self-image, worldview, and actions in the on- and offline world, often beyond our awareness. As such, technology has not only increasingly become an actor but also an invisible active actor.

An example is affinity profiling. Algorithmically grouping people together according to their assumed interests has become common in our digital world, with advertisers increasingly able to target or exclude certain groups from products and services based on assumptions of what they think users want to see. Online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook play a major role in authentication processes of self-identification. Advertisers use, for example, assumptions about someone’s sexuality and target or exclude them on that basis. Both accurately and inaccurately profiled users potentially miss out on certain products and services based on their algorithmically assumed interests, characteristics, habits, or routines. As professor Sandra Wachter illustrates: “Algorithms and digital technologies constantly collect data and evaluate us and sometimes make life-changing decisions such as credit, housing, and employment. Advertisements play a crucial part in this in that they inform us about goods and services, opportunities, products, or nudge us into certain behaviors. Affinity profiling may use seemingly neutral reasons to withhold a job advert for example from Cosmopolitan readers or people with an affinity for black culture, while claiming not to have any designs against women or ethnicity per se” (Wachter, 2019).

Algorithmically assumed characteristics affect processes of self-identification and identity formation. The authenticity of algorithmically assumed characteristics and affinity categories cannot be negotiated as users have no access to the meanings derived from their data and how this is fed back to them. The possibility for users to explore routes that are not algorithmically suggested narrows down their space to explore alternative routes and re-define their identity. Moreover, various studies have shown that the reality of majority groups (mostly Western, White, and male) is overrepresented in online datasets and algorithmic models, and masquerades as the invisible background that is taken as the “normal,” “standard,” or “universal” position (O’neil, 2016; Eubanks, 2018; Wachter, 2020; Birhane, 2021). As a result, data-driven technologies have the capacity to propel a shift in power by objectifying processes of self-identification and making the authentication process invisible through which data-driven technologies mediate particular personality traits and affinity categories as “objective,” “real,” or “essential” features of one’s identity.

In addition to appreciating the positive utility of data-driven technologies, the opaque ways in which companies as well as governments weaponize big data to predict human behavior, guide human decisions, and manipulate public information spheres for economic, social, or political gain (Maras & Alexandrou, 2019; Westerlund, 2019) is increasingly problematized by scholars from various academic disciplines (O’neil, 2016; Mittelstadt & Floridi, 2016; Maboloc, 2016; Ferguson, 2017; Eubanks, 2018; Binns, 2018; Zuboff, 2019; Wachter, 2019; Spithoven & Beerends, 2019, Rasch, 2020; Birhane, 2021). This has led to a critical attitude toward “dataism” a term that is explained as the widespread belief that big data reflects an objective reality about people and society, and “datafication”: the transformation of social action into online quantified (meta)data that are made commercially accessible to third parties. Datafication has become a broadly accepted paradigm for understanding sociality and social behavior, presuming a self-evident relationship between data and people, and subsequently interpreting aggregated data to predict human behavior (Van Dijck, 2014).

From our perspective, the withdrawal of social agents and technological mediations in a neutral realm is ontologically impossible. Although this is constantly held up as possible by virtue of economic-political forces, every attempt to place individuals and technologies outside the negotiation process is considered as yet another expression of power within the negotiation process (see Aydin, 2007). Against the background of increasing datafication and concealed shifts in power, it becomes ever more relevant to ask the question of how processes of authentication and de-authentication can contribute to critical subjectivation and cultivation.

Emerging technologies have an increasing capacity to dominate authentication processes and inform as well as misinform us about what the self is and how it can or should be shaped and treated. Currently, developments in artificial intelligence have a major impact on how we are informed about what is the self and how we should fathom what it represents. An example is the premise that AI emotion recognition systems are capable of detecting someone’s “true” emotions on the basis of facial expressions. This idea is incorporated through the implementation of emotion-detection algorithms in recruitment strategiesFootnote 4 as selecting the ideal applicant for a job is increasingly outsourced to automated video interviewing software. Algorithms evaluate video applications for micro-expressions that would betray people’s “true” personality traits and “true” emotions. The authentication of facial expressions as the representation of someone’s inner states takes place through multiple agents such as software engineers, HR professionals, and end-users. Since scientific studies have demonstrated that facial expressions do not reliably correspond to emotional states (Barrett et al., 2019), AI emotion detection is now also de-authenticated through the explanation that it is impossible to infer how someone feels from a simple set of facial movements.Footnote 5

As technologies and other actors shape our self-image, personal desires, goals, and ideals, often beyond our awareness, these technologies can compromise the self to such a degree that it has virtually no space to critically negotiate authenticity and form the self (Aydin, 2021: 211). Therefore, the emergence of new technologies requires a new diagnosis for understanding how a critical relation to present-day authentication processes is possible. How can the self be prevented from becoming a plaything of contingent influences and forces? And how to create space to develop new ways of altering technologically inscribed behaviors? In order to contribute to this, we illustrate in the following section how, taking Nietzsche as a steppingstone, this critical relation can be established. We employ Jaques Lacan’s perspective of “creating space,” as well as his idea of discovering that the “Big Other does not exist” (Lacan, 2006). 

Creating Space in Authentication Processes

The proposed value of authenticity lies in its potential to create space to critically and deliberately form the self, as well as the artifacts and processes surrounding the self, that is, to create sufficient distance to challenge existing norms, and to introduce alternative, new, and different ways of shaping self, society, and world. But how does this work? Inspired by Nietzsche’s ontology of the will to power, a first impetus can be given to answer this question. From this perspective, setting a standard in order to establish or measure what is “normal” and what is “enhanced” is an expression of the will to power, which can be questioned by other wills to power. Desisting struggle by absolutizing one standard that fixes what is good, enhanced, or ideal (and, hence, not acknowledging other possible standards) is for Nietzsche “life-threatening”: it blocks the emergence of new life forms and new meanings. This view can be extended to authenticity: setting a standard in order to establish or measure what is “authentic” and what is “inauthentic” is an expression of the will to power, which can be questioned by other wills to power. Nietzsche stresses throughout his work that the potential to challenge this and establish new ways of living can only come from individuals who are not completely absorbed and exhausted by society and have enough distance and power to challenge it (Aydin, 2017: 322).

Nietzsche’s claim is complemented by researchers who observe that despite social conditioning, human beings continue to invent surprising new ways of altering the inscribed behaviors they are called on to perform (Noland, 2010; Smelik, 2012). This principle can shed light on how different types of authentication can be mobilized to create negotiation space. Instead of debunking authenticity as a meaningless concept or disqualifying particular authenticity-conceptions as “incorrect”, we argue in favor of an interactionist approach that enables a meaningful authentication process that can contribute to critically and deliberately form the self, society, and world. This means that one does not have to opt for one particular form of authentication, but that, depending on the context, different approaches can be used strategically to create negotiation space. Each context imposes a particular type of authentication which can be challenged when sufficient space is created and used to critically negotiate authenticity. In this manner, people can become an active agent in the negotiation process. An example is the context of psychiatric disease-labeling and psychotropic medications. Research in this field demonstrates that Romantic-essentialist authenticity approaches can be mobilized as a motivation to reject pills: in that case, medication such as antidepressants is de-authenticated in terms of a “false sense of self” and “fraudulent happiness” imposed by a society that medicalizes “gloomy” feelings which should be accepted as part of life. However, Romantic-essentialist authenticity approaches can also be experienced as a straitjacket. Diagnosed individuals then feel that they have to overcome Romantic-essentialist ideas of a “natural” “untouched” self in order to take psychotropic medications and eliminate what prevents them from being or becoming themselves. During the process of self-transformation, people can experience more or less space to negotiate personal authenticity and authenticate their (non-)pharmaceutical transformation process in a meaningful way (Beerends & Bröer, 2012).

The discussed example demonstrates how each type of authentication has its own “authenticity ethic,” which means that essentialist, constructionist, and inauthenticity as ideal approaches each have their own moral logic of what authenticity is and how it should be reached, and their own way of creating space in the process of negotiating authenticity. However, this does not mean that “anything goes.” Our interactionist approach entails that authentication has not a mere descriptive status but also a normative one, as there are particular conditions that enable a meaningful authentication process. As described, the condition of creating space is crucial to critically and deliberately negotiate authenticity and form the self, society, and world. But how does this work? To answer this question, we hook into how Lacan explains the notion of creating space (see Zizek, 1997; Zeiher, 2017; Aydin, 2021). For Lacan, creating space seems to require three steps (Lacan 1997: 83, 112, 115–127, 212; 2006: 78, 125, 230, 255, 345f, 671–703):

  • [1] Recognize that both our subjective composition and intersubjective interactions are governed and regulated by a Symbolic Order of (digital) language, laws, and customs;

  • [2] Discover that there is something in or about the self that can never be fully incorporated in whatever form imposed by the Symbolic Order;

  • [3] Make visible that Big Others (God-like authority figures that inscribe the subject into the Symbolic Order in a particular way) “do not exist,” that is, have no irreducible ground or essence.

Lacan’s three steps help to understand how the three types of authentication can facilitate critical negotiation space or how they can limit or close off this negotiation space. Essentialist authentication can be understood as a process in which power structures conceal that what we call “authentic” is in fact socially embedded and constituted; in this phase, the space to negotiate authenticity is rendered inaccessible. Constructionist authentication can be understood as a process in which it becomes clear that what is called authentic is part of a social construction embedded in power structures; which corresponds to the second phase of the Lacanian framework; the potential to discover that there is something in or about human beings that can never be fully incorporated in whatever form imposed by the Symbolic Order. In this process, the space to negotiate authenticity is fueled by the realization that authenticity is not only socially constructed, but also may not be found within the confines of the Symbolic Order. In this vein, Goffman (1978) demonstrated that the expression of authentic selves is an action that has to follow advocated codes of conduct. Individuals achieve and maintain their effect of authenticity by continuously citing the norms of authenticity.. According to Vannini and Williams, these norms are often accompanied by the limitations that racial and class hegemony imposes on the repertoire of available identities:

“The price to “choosing” one of the few available identities open to them is the self-destruction afforded by a mask that is personally and socially unbearable in the long run” (Vannini & Williams, 2009: 9). Confrontation with a cultural repertoire of pre-cooked identities that do not fully coincide with one’s own may fuel the realization that authenticity may not be found within the confines of the Symbolic Order. Anthropologist Matthijs van de Port makes this very strong:

“In the Lacanian narrative, entering culture is tantamount to forcing the subject to “a supervening, deeply impersonal law which applies indifferently to all” (idem: 86). The symbolic order is therefore the last place where one should look for the real. In fact, “this blankly anonymous order” (idem: 84) is exactly what prevents us from being ourselves” (Van de Port, 2010: 81).

According to Van de Port, just as a mass squeezed into a mold produces a residue, so too the Symbolic Order produces an “excess” in the subject: something that is there but cannot be there. This residue keeps popping up in our consciousness as a constant challenge to the genuineness of the Symbolic Order. Because we never feel completely at home in the Symbolic Order, we often designate this residue as our most own, unique core (Van de Port, 2010: 81). Van der Port’s deployment of Lacan, especially in situations where the Symbolic Order is repressive, is justified. However, we must keep in mind that identity formation for Lacan, which includes what could be called authentic identity formation, is impossible outside of a Symbolic Order. It is, however, possible to withdraw from a particular constellation of the Symbolic Order. This transgression can be the beginning of a new order which in the long run can again become stifling and may be subjected to criticism. This brings us to the third phase of Lacan’s framework: the discovery that the Big Other does not exist and the possibility to make room for something new. This phase corresponds with the inauthenticity as an ideal approach which amplifies the made by making it maximally visible. Here, the space to negotiate authenticity is fueled by the realization that if every form of authenticity is ultimately groundless, it offers the possibility to ground self-created authenticity in such a way that it can be regarded as “real," at least until it is and must be challenged.

In addition to Nietzsche who pins his hopes for critical negotiation on the capacity of exceptional and creative individuals, we also consider the capacity of social interventions and buffers. An example of such an intervention, is the interactive installation “Input ≠ Output”Footnote 6 which is a mock-up version of automated job interviewing software, made for public use at events, conferences, and festivals. It is a simplified imitation of the software architecture used by market leader HireVue to assess applicants’ emotional states and personal profile on the basis of facial micro-expressions, word choice, and tone of voice. Instead of covering the algorithmic process within the back-end of the software, Input ≠ Output pulls it into the front-end user interface. As a result, participants—acting in the role of interviewee—can see on a computer screen how their facial expressions and spoken language are algorithmically quantified and categorized (See Fig. 1).

Having the possibility to experiment with exaggerated expressions, for example, a fake smile, they can experience how the installation (not) recognizes their expressions. The final screen shows participants their personal “interview score” as used by companies to select applicants.  The screen invites them to critically reflect on questions such as: what do these numbers mean? Do they represent something about my personality or emotional states? Normally, applicants cannot actively engage in the AI emotion detection process and have to blindly trust the outcome and interpretation. By making this process transparent and interactive, interviewees can discover that the forms and rules that govern emotion detection are subject to a system of trans-subjective laws and customs and that Big Other HireVue, who inscribes the subject into the Symbolic Order in a particular way—in this case relating facial expressions to emotional states—is also made and has no ground or essence. Some participants, for example, described their interview scores as a horoscope telling them something about themselves while realizing that it was “untrue.” In this way, Input ≠ Output helps to create sufficient space to critically negotiate authenticity: it uncovers power structures and stakeholders involved in algorithmic recruitment, challenges how AI-systems shape our self-perception, and enables the possibility to create alternative interpretations of AI emotion detection. Once participants have experienced that emotions and facial expressions are not always linked, they have gained a clearer understanding of how AI (mis)informs us about what the self is and how we should fathom what it represents.

Conclusion and Future Work

In this paper, we have demonstrated how authenticity is an interactive, culturally informed process of negotiation, and how this negotiation process is increasingly influenced by new and emerging technologies. In both everyday discourse and academic literature, we found three different approaches of authenticity: (1) Romantic-essentialist approaches, (2) constructionist approaches, and (3) inauthenticity as ideal approaches. Instead of understanding each approach as a distinct conceptualization of authenticity, we have reinterpreted them as three different types of authentication, each one having its own moral logic and “authenticity ethic,” varying from a moral assignment to reveal, problematize, or eliminate inauthenticity, to a moral assignment to celebrate or cultivate inauthenticity. We argue in favor of an interactionist approach of authenticity which means that the value of authenticity lies not in having to choose for one of these three approaches. Instead, the value of authenticity lies in the degree to which processes of authentication and de-authentication can contribute to critically and deliberately form the self, as well as the objects, artifacts, and processes that surround the self. This requires sufficient space to be able to negotiate authenticity.

The space to negotiate authenticity is increasingly influenced by emerging technologies that have become an invisible active actor. We have demonstrated how digitization and data-driven technologies can conceal asymmetries in power and problematized the withdrawal of emerging technologies in a neutral realm. To demonstrate how, against the backdrop of these technologies, sufficient space to negotiate authenticity can still be created, we used Lacan’s three steps of “creating space” and described a practical example of a social intervention that created sufficient space to challenge existing technologically inscribed norms. Building from Lacan’s framework and our example, we conclude that a good and meaningful authentication process requires three important conditions:

  • [1] The potential to uncover and make visible that all people, (technological) objects, and artifacts are subject to a system of trans-subjective laws and customs;

  • [2] Space to challenge existing power structures and cultural norms;

  • [3] The possibility to introduce and adopt alternative, new, and divergent ways of formation of self, society, and world.

Individuals, community’s and organizations can become an active agent in the process of negotiating authenticity when these conditions are met. However, the third condition is not a final station: authentication is an ongoing process that never can nor should be fully finalized, which is secured by creative ways to create negotiation space. Depending on the situation, different authenticity approaches can be used strategically to reveal, find, create, or use this space. In a context where the idea that everything is constructed is dominant, essentialist approaches can for example be employed to make room for alternative forms of life. Although essentialist authenticity approaches are historically introduced and employed precisely to bar the room for negotiation, it is also possible to deploy an essentialist approach against another, completely solidified essentialist approach to create space.

Emerging technologies increasingly become an invisible active actor, adding a layer to the social and more passive technological context in which authenticity is negotiated. This is something that in future research could be further elaborated. The capacity to reveal, find, or create space to negotiate authenticity becomes ever more relevant in the context of increasing digitization and developments in artificial intelligence. People and societies increasingly understand themselves in the mirror of AI technologies: our communications, jobs, relationships, healthcare systems, welfare regimes, city governance, and educational systems are increasingly co-shaped by data models and AI systems. This has a major impact on future processes of authentication. AI increasingly (mis)informs us about what is the self as well as the persons, objects, artifacts, places, and processes surrounding the self, while at the same time concealing asymmetries in power between those holding the data, i.e., Big Tech, and those who are the subject of that data. The ongoing struggle to authenticate or de-authenticate AI as the representation of intelligence, broadens, or narrows the space of tasks that we want to outsource to machines. The ideological baggage of AI, i.e., dataism (van Dijck, 2014), surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019) and a mechanistic interpretation of intelligence, not only co-shapes our self-understanding and our behavior, but also our ideas of what constitutes “human authenticity” and what it means to be human. This calls for future research on authentication processes increasingly influenced by artificial intelligence).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Interactive installation Input ≠ Output, Photograph: Bart Leguijt/SETUP