Over the past few years, I have developed an interest in the question concerning technology and the philosophy of self. Having just read Stephanie Vie’s introduction to (E)dentity – as well as an excerpt from the book Born Digital – I feel that this interest has been renewed somewhat. But before going any further, I would like to caution the reader that I am prone to take a very dark view of things in relation to the digital world. This is just how I function. I pick out the negative stuff, because that is what comes easiest to me when creating a critical analysis. What can I say? Being a doomsayer comes natural to me through my writing. But I digress…
The first thing that caught my eye in Vie’s introduction was her mention of creating digital traces unconsciously. The tendency to make digital decisions unconsciously seems to speak to a tacit acceptance of digital media that is so ingrained in our daily actions, we don’t stop to consider what traces we are leaving behind. This can result in our digital traces leaving us vulnerable to data mining, identity theft, and privacy loss. Vie invokes Gmail as an example, noting that advertising can seep into emails based on automated keyword targeting. After reading Rheingold’s chapter on “Disinformocracy,” I thought email was supposed to be protected from third-party tampering by way of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act? But I guess this is only in relation to the government; as if advertisers are somehow innocuous entities that can’t touch your personal information. This is why I stopped using Gmail years ago, because in addition to the advertising, I received more spam than I would have previously imagined receiving in a lifetime. It’s just funny to me how something like Google’s security and privacy policies can allay any reasonable concerns regarding privacy in the minds of email users/consumers. We take Google at their word because, if it were discovered that Google sold personal information to a third-party, they would face possible litigation and worst of all, damaging press. But I wonder, just how easy is it for a 250 billion dollar company to sweep something under the rug?
At any rate, as quickly as Vie uncovers the dangers of participating in virtual worlds, she defends the social purposes of digital technology. She says that our “(e)dentities. . . [allow] us to form relationships and reconnect with people from our pasts.” I say that this is true, insofar as computer-mediated communication is used as a tool to search out authentic social relationships. Indeed, the desire for connection in virtual spaces, as others have shown (namely Sherry Turkle), often precludes any meaning qua connection. Facebook is now the contemporary example, in which some half dozen millions participate. We can see how the phenomenon of maintaining a growing list of social connections has become some sort of activity linked to pride. Collecting friends on Facebook validates our sense of (e)dentity, which is necessarily and invariably an adjunct to real identity. Personal identity, in my opinion, is contingent on conditions which arise out of nature. An identity, most fundamentally, is shaped by biological needs and desires. However, the need for social acceptance is extensible now, misplaced and channeled through artificial spaces to disembodied persons. We also see how this mediated socialization is characterized by in-groups and out-groups. The desire to fulfill the need for social interaction is usually predicated on the notion of kinship or, to use everyday language: cliques. When Facebook introduced its “News Feed,” thousands of users were outraged because they didn’t want untold others to be a part of their social media-socializing experiences. But with all things technological, we learn to adapt and change, right? The utility of using Facebook as a one-stop shop for news and media through HTML5, XFBML and iframe (in other words, the ubiquitous “Like” buttons) makes it easy to gain tacit acceptance from users at the compromise of annoying personal connivances. As Vie says, “We have grown comfortable with the changes and learned to adjust. . .”
The Digital Natives/Digital Immigrant debate raised by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser had me wondering to what extent digital natives use technology for instant gratification. That aside, some of the authors statements were scarily prophetic, like their saying “Digital Natives live much of their lives online, without distinguishing between the online and the offline.” I personally have a hard time understanding how digital technology can be so immersive and abstracting to the point that the concept of identity is the same in both places. But I guess that’s because I tend to think philosophically about such things. However, much like Guillermo Gómez-Peña in The Virtual Barrio @ the Other Frontier, my use of digital technology is characterized by paradoxes and contradictions. Yes, I’m a digital native in the sense that I was born after 1980; but I’m also a bit of a technophobe (if not inclined to throw in with the neo-Luddites altogether). Like everyone else though, I do have a measure of dependency on technology (to a degree). I use the Internet for social engagement, just as much as I use it for research, commerce (buying books and occasionally music), and recreational pursuits. New Media technology has allowed me to discover a multitude of things that I otherwise would know nothing about (or whether or not they even existed).
As my self-defining words will show at the end of this post, especially in regards to my (e)dentity, I remain skeptical about technology. I may be an anomaly in my age group, but I feel like the abstracting power of technology isolates people. I feel that personally within my own self, which could just as easily be due to my personality as well as my sensitivity to the topic. Furthermore, I disagree with the Born Digital authors when they claim that digital natives are as comfortable online as they are offline. Do we really feel just as comfortable in offline spaces, where we are forced to interact with each other in ways that don’t allow for controlled mediation? Online friendships are fleeting; so much so that they have possibly become commodifying. Indeed, without consequence, we can now discard each other like objects in online spaces. It’s not like we don’t already objectify each other based on observed stereotypes in physical spaces.
Another issue is that we have limitless sources of mindless distractions with New Media, and for those born into this culture of digital life, without the proper education, a general dumbing down of society is likely to occur. That’s why, upon my first reading, I think Palfrey and Gasser’s concentric circles model (where they posit Digital Natives as being the ones best positioned to solve the problems that arise from their digital lives) is a bit skewed. This paradigm effectively infantalizes the entire rational grounding of society. But when it comes to this model, digital immigrants (like most of the law-makers referred to in the text) need to learn about the changing climate of technology as well. After all, a governing body that is ignorant and out of touch with the current reality can only breed cynicism in the general populace. So much for E-democracy, then…
Ten Words to characterize my Identity and (E)dentity:
Identity: Pessimistic, honest, simplistic, humble, soft-spoken, witty, anxious, contemplative, pensive, affable.
(E)dentity: Wordy, hesitant, pretentious, brazen, immersed, flexible, comfortable, logical, abstracted, postmodern.