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21 July 2010

Presentation of Cyber-Self and Societal Forgetting

There was a cool piece in the New York Times Magazine by Jeffrey Rosen on Monday with some interesting sociological insights. Here is a snippet:

For most of human history, the idea of reinventing yourself or freely shaping your identity — of presenting different selves in different contexts (at home, at work, at play) — was hard to fathom, because people’s identities were fixed by their roles in a rigid social hierarchy. With little geographic or social mobility, you were defined not as an individual but by your village, your class, your job or your guild. But that started to change in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with a growing individualism that came to redefine human identity. As people perceived themselves increasingly as individuals, their status became a function not of inherited categories but of their own efforts and achievements. This new conception of malleable and fluid identity found its fullest and purest expression in the American ideal of the self-made man….In the 20th century, however, the ideal of the self-made man came under siege….For some technology enthusiasts, the Web was supposed to be the second flowering of the open frontier, and the ability to segment our identities with an endless supply of pseudonyms, avatars and categories of friendship was supposed to let people present different sides of their personalities in different contexts. What seemed within our grasp was…perfect control over our shifting identities….But the hope that we could carefully control how others view us in different contexts has proved to be another myth. As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable. In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.

By itself, this is a great example of how our changing culture (i.e. our technology) has unintended practical, and often devastating, consequences, but its extension poses interesting, if not wonkish, problems for future social researchers. As texts vanish from the digital record (one proposed solution to this problems of an all-remembering cloud) they cannot be studied at some later time. Imagine if the Mona Lisa had been written in disappearing ink or if the Pyramids had been built to self-destruct after only a thousand years. All of this data that is in the medium term so potentially problematic for individuals will be a gold mind for social scientists in the not-so-distant future trying to understand our history. I'm just saying....

1 comment:

  1. Your conclusion is interesting because a lot of electronic communications seem fleeting. Some historians have decried the move from letters to e-mail because letters have provided key insights into a number of historical figures. Along the same lines, pictures taken with low-resolution cell phone cameras cannot compare to those taken in previous decades with actual film, which contain details that most regular-sized digital cameras can't even match. I guess the key is that we are collecting a large amount of information but that it is a different type of information than we have relied on in the past, which will change the way we understand the history of our future.