Facebook ergo sum. Or, by contrast: I am not on Facebook, therefore I do not exist.
This is not the conclusion of an extraordinary new article by Rob Horning, “Google Alert for the Soul” – it is the premise.
From the very first paragraph: “(A)uthenticity is shifting, describing not fidelity to an inner truth about the self but fidelity to the self posited by the synthesis of data captured in social media — what I here call the data self. This sort of decentered authenticity posits a self entirely enmeshed in algorithmic controls, but it may also be the first step toward postauthenticity, in which identity ceases to be conceived as personal property.”
He is literally suggesting that the only route to authenticity in the world of Big Data (a term he doesn’t use) is to let your social media tell you who you are. Don’t fight it: it’s liberating.
“From this totalizing system, we can then derive the comfort that everything will be recorded and be factored in — we don’t need to decide in advance what is significant, what to consume or not consume. With social media as a personal content-management system, we get to consume more than ever, free of the supposed guilt that comes from consuming the wrong stuff or showing off.”
The “data self” as he notes in a graphic (but not the text itself – is there a difference anymore?) will even allow “Winning by having outsourced the production of one’s own subjectivity.” This, the graphic states “frees subject for higher level thinking/curating/consuming.”
Exactly what higher level thinking or curating can be done without subjectivity is left to the imagination. Exactly what “higher level consuming” is I can’t even begin to guess. I’d be really interested if someone could explain it to me in 100 words or less.
Horning (Executive Editor of “The New Inquiry” and author of “Marginal Utility”) is trying his best, but it’s damn hard to have a revolutionary idea these days. The notion that we are what people see us as, far from being innovative, began way before social media.
Satre talked about it at length in the concept of “Being for Others” – and if Satre talked about it, you can be sure Heidegger thought of it.
Erving Goffman wrote about how the “self” is a theatrical construct on a very different level in his 1959 book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” generally considered one of the seminal works of sociology.
Jacques Barzun talked about the need for external structure was the whole point of early education in his 1959 book “The House of Intellect.”
By contrast, Rollo May described members of the older generations as “gyroscopic man” in his 1953 book “Man’s Search for Himself”: in the past people had gotten their inner “gyroscope,” that kept them level as they moved through life, from external factors and influences. They had been set and spun by society, and the momentum kept them turning. But that contrasted with the newer generations … us … who had the opportunity to determine their characters for themselves – a task that fills us with anxiety.
Horning is, perhaps without knowing it, taking us right back to May and getting in his face. Saying that the very idea of “searching” for yourself is more effectively done with someone else’s algorithm than your own thoughts. The whole concept of “meaning” is mistaken: it’s something somebody else gives to you.
It’s supposed to be futuristic – an “only social media makes this possible” world – but it sounds very much like a move backwards. They didn’t have social networks, but this was how people in the Middle Ages organized their identities. They “were” who they were told: they had a place, and a hierarchy, and a community, and these things defined what they thought and how they felt.
The ancient Romans, along with Chinese peasants, and the Hindu caste system, had similar approaches.
Horning’s idea of what the “social media totality” is supposed to do for the “data self” – a “mechanism for turning experience into cultural capital, or quantified identity,” “an efficient system for processing everyday life to imbue it with meaning” – is exactly what pre-modern societies had. Horning’s big idea is to return our existential freedom to history’s library and get on with the Big Book of the Middle Ages.
There is a difference, though: not once in his article do the words “character” or “virtue” appear.
To the gyroscopic men – to the people of the Middle Ages and ancient Rome and Confucian China – the primary benefit of not having a personal, existential, identity was that it would make you a better person. Your character would be built by having standards to live up to, and by doing so you would become a virtuous person (though that meant different things to different societies). Your role and feelings may have been proscribed, but you could fail to live up to them – or you could excel. To talk about “who you are” without talking about the quality of your character was nonsense.
But here we are. The data self has no concern with character or virtue, and nothing to live up to. The social media algorithms will tell each “vidual” (Horning’s term) who they are with no fuss or angst – and hence no struggle. Even if you wanted to improve your character and could contemplate such an act – perhaps you have the Aristotle app – there’s nothing to improve. The benefits of the Data Self are achieved through a total abdication of responsibility: indeed, the benefit of the Data Self is a total abdication of responsibility.
This is not something the cultures that came before would have recognized.
But we recognize it. For decades now there have been warnings that the more we think about human beings in technological terms, the more we have limited our humanity to what our machines can do.
It’s not just the disappearance of human interaction with bank tellers or phone operators in exchange for key pads and recordings telling us to press 1-9, followed by the pound key. Sherry Turkle at MIT has documented the way in which some convalescence homes are giving residents fuzzy robotic pets – in lieu of human contact, which is expensive.
“We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things,” she wrote in “Alone Together.” “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
She goes on: “Human relationships are rich and they're messy and they're demanding. And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.”
While we have fewer opportunities to interact with real people, we are “always on” with the digital world – constantly connected – constantly asked to process data, never stopping, never taking time to reflect: just like our devices.
We increasingly take drugs for our moods, rather than talking to people or thinking our issues through.
Traditional classrooms, we’re now told, are on the way out because online lectures are so much more efficient … entirely eliminating the Socratic method and reducing “learning” into a data dump. (They are not the same, but “understanding” in a broad sense is hard to measure … at least by machine … so it’s going to the wayside.)
Instead of being liberated by our devices to be more human, our devices are making us more like them.
Horning has written the manifesto for this phenomenon: we do this, he says, because this is who we truly are. We are data, and the idea that we would have an existential life under these conditions is as absurd as asking about the psychology of a square root.
“What can’t be shared and processed,” he writes, “is ‘unreal,’ irrelevant to identity.”
There goes man’s search for meaning. Or anything. What you need to know will be brought to you by an algorithm that already anticipates your preferences.
In it's way it's a seductive proposition: all the joys of 21st century technology without any attendant responsibility: not even the requirement of instrospection and intellectual honesty. We can just dissolve into our networks and be ... happy?
It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with this idea, because anything I would use to refute it – like Aristotle’s notion of character, or the existence and importance of my own subjectivity even as a non-Facebook user – doesn’t really compute with the worldview Horning is putting forward. If the premise is that I am a unit of social media interactions, then any objection I put forward will merely be used to calculated what kind of social media unit I am, the better to establish my Netflix rankings.
But I will say this: Horning grounds the search for pre-data self “authenticity” is the acts of consumption. “Earlier notions of authenticity were premised on a unique interior self that consumerism would help us express,” he wrote in the same first paragraph I quoted at the beginning.
And later: “Consumerism encouraged the idea that we were born unique individuals and that we could display that uniqueness to the world by buying things. This became the basis of the modern notion of authenticity, one of consumerism’s most successful and desirable products.”
Here we may have the crux of the case: if you assumed that all search for identity was based, measured, and authenticated by acts of consumption, then perhaps the data self is indeed the next logical step. If you believe individual identity is just a phase of consumer capitalism, then what the hell?
But that’s not what Aristotle was talking about. That’s not what Montaigne was doing. That’s not what Heidegger was thinking, or what Frankl or May were writing about. Consumerism has absolutely become a force majeure in modern life, but none of the thinkers we turn to for insight about authentic identity would have seen the kind of car you drive or number of Apple products you carry around to be relevant information (however measurable). Indeed, the notion that "you are what you have" also more resembles the pre-modern world (when land-owning was tied to rights, for example) than the last century.
If you can honestly say that the notion of “authenticity” is grounded in the things you buy, then perhaps the data self is only a logical extension. But as a manifesto, Horning’s work has nothing to offer those of us who have always been looking for more.
The existence of character, too, may be a digital divide.