I’m thinking this bright and clear Monday morning about some thoughts I had last night, when my mind slipped into philosophical musings. I went to sleep reflecting on the state of modernity, and of the rapid rise of communication technologies and their relationship to who we are and how we are. i was thinking about the Self, a concept used with so much abandon as to have little stable or secure meaning left. But clearly an important concept nonetheless.
In the two thousand or so years since the Greeks handed us the western sense of self, we have journeyed through many variations on the theme. We have had the the authentic and virtuous self: the Greek Self. Self as the locus of truth and personal accountability: the confessional Self. Self as the individual, hard-working and ethically-minded: the protestant Self. Self as personal power and critically engaged: the political Self. Self as status, fame, and fortune: the me-oriented Self. And possibly, now, with tools like twitter and Facebook mainstreaming madly: the networked Self.
To riff on a biological claim and metaphor, is there, like the selfish gene, a self-ish meme? Twitter is indeed a self-ish technology, and in its uses, a self-ish habit. But if it is a tool of the Self, and if it fits in with the long-running historical narrative of modernity, how is it self-ish?
Modernity was launched on the harnessing of industrial power. Resources extracted from the earth replaced the domestication of animals and farming techniques to extend and unleash transformations on an exponential level. After thermodynamics and mastery of fluids, heat exchange, and engines, modernity’s inventive ideology gave us communication: wireless radio, the telephone, early calculating machines, and broadcast. Modernity’s engines were now applied not only to industry but to information. And then, with the arrival of the internet and the PC, the information age segued into an age of communication.
Talk is now everywhere. It has become the medium of distribution, our means of production, and in ways still taking shape, our mode of Self. If the industrial age harnessed the body, the information age the mind, then are we now collectivizing talk? Are the “labor” and “surplus capital” of today our talk and our attention?
These are gross generalizations, but
- if Virtue was the Self of the Greeks
- if Truth was the Self of the Middle Ages
- if Knowledge was the Self of the Enlightenment
- if Labor was the Self of Industrialization
- if Information was the Self of the Information Age
- is Speech the Self of the Communication Age?
Media mediate the Self; that’s Marshall McLuhan. Mediation extends the perceptual senses and thus also our abilities. McLuhan understood that mediation is transformative — and that in mediation our presence in the world, and thus our relationships, and our very experiences, change. Today we think nothing of being connected to people far away. Our ability to communicate has itself changed.
But lost in mediation is our sense of being with. Connectedness is not the same as togetherness (the German word Mitsein is perfect). Connectedness is some strange combination of access, availability, presence projected into and through the wire, and expectations that take shape in our awareness. Hence the ambivalent but canny phrase “ambient intimacy” (an oxymoron, if you think about it).
Not only is connectedness a different kind of experience, it is a different form of media too. Media are not what they are, but how they are used, and are never properly understood in technical terms alone. New social media extend mass media, socialize it, and to some degree are assimilated back into it. Media have traditionally been associated with forms of control, influence, and messaging (if not also power, propaganda, seduction, and so on).
Power and authority operate differently in the age of communication. They are flat, de-centered, and networked — and they work by means of control and regulation. Traditional organizations exercised power and authority; Modern systems control and regulate.
But tools like twitter, and more broadly, net-based communication practices escape control and regulation. The weekend’s events in Iran being just a recent, but exemplary, case in point. This weekend twitter was political — a distributed, networked, and subversive line of communication, lines of flight unravelling the organs of the state. The personal as political, as feet on the ground and word of mouth.
There is I think a self-ish meme here. Social media are personal media. A personalization of media unfolding particularly in the transformation of talk. Talk as a means of production of the Self, in how we talk, to or in front of whom, and about what. Also as a reflection and projection of the Self, as Self reflection and Self as project. We disclose ourselves in our tweeting: whether we reveal our moods, interests, tell news, make requests, provide help, or simply pass along.
And this self-ish medium is socializing. For it socializes mass media as it socializes the Self. Self-ishness now in the form of social status, audiences, attention, influence, even social capital. The memes are media-based. Status and position, relevance and influence, not by means of money, power, authority, or control, but by means of talk, as signs of status, audience reach and attention, and distribution.
An about face of sorts, it seems. Or a post-face kind of communication. Talking is our new labor, communication, our new work. For better, or worse.