Digital Technology, Trauma, and Identity: Redefining the Authentic Self of the 21st Century
In this article, I argue that our relationship with digital technologies today traumatizes us because we give these devices ontological value and because these devices blur traditional notions of time and space. In an effort to survive this trauma, many of us split our identities online, creating a dividual rather than individual identity that trickles into our offline selves. However, because we tend to adhere to a Platonic notion of authenticity, a notion that believes we each have a unique, individual core within us, this dividual self is shamed by society as “inauthentic” and therefore morally corrupt. I argue that we need to redefine what it means to be authentic for the 21st century digital ecosystem and embrace our dividual survivor status as the new authentic self.
“To realize that all your life…it was all the same thing. It’s all the same dream; the dream that you had inside a locked room. That dream about being a person. And, like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.” Rust Cohle, True Detective
Computer Culture and Trauma?
If I were to tell you that we are currently living within a technological ecosystem, odds are that you would not disagree with me. Digital technologies are quite literally everywhere; from cell phones to tablets, laptops to robots, our lives are inundated with artificial life forms that force us to see our lives in a different light. As a result of this cultural climate, a lot of familiar notions of “human” feelings and beliefs have changed. Sherry Turkle is correct when she observes the relationship between humans and digital objects and states that “people’s interest in them indicates that traditional notions of authenticity are in crisis” because of the freedom to “play” with identity in an online realm (“Authenticity in the Age” 502). While some may fear this crisis as a signal of the end of humanity, others (including myself) see this as an opportunity to adapt and rewrite what it means to be an authentic person in a digitized culture. Computers, at one time, were considered primarily tools to enhance our psyches. Now, it seems as if computers are changing the very meaning of what it means to be an authentic person. I propose that we look at our new technologically-based, materialistic selves as the new authentic self—authenticity today means to have suffered from what McCarthy calls “traumatic event of materiality,” resulting in a “dividual” self with no one inner core of truth but many (The Mattering of Matter 233 emphasis in original).
I associate McCarthy’s definition of materiality to include digital technology, so to call our relationship with digital technology a “trauma” is an interesting yet complicated notion. The word “trauma” calls to mind violence and death with lifelong repercussions on the human psyche and/or body. Today’s post 9-11 nation can easily be termed post-traumatic. After all, “in a wound culture, life is lived not as life but as survival” (Worsham 171). But how is technology considered a traumatic event? Trauma is “an overwhelming, catastrophic event, one that occurs too unexpectedly to be consciously assimilated and known” (Worsham 173). A traumatic event, then, “is one that, in its unexpectedness and horror, overwhelms every resource that the individual or community has to understand to make sense of the event, leaving one or both feeling utterly helpless in the face of a force that is perceived to be psychically, if not also physically, life-threatening” (173). After a trauma has occurred, “not only identity but this psychic skin must be constructed entirely anew and in the context of posttraumatic suffering” (175).
According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident…or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea” (“Trauma”). When the latest technology comes out, many of us suffer from the short term effects of trauma as there is a sense of “shock” from this new device and what it means for our own lives. We want to believe that we can do without our smartphones, our social networks, our Instagrams—that our lives are not completely rooted in these various outlets. But the desire to get the latest technology, the latest updates, and the hundreds of people we see walking down the street with their eyes on their mobile devices tells us that perhaps our relationship with digital technology has power over us. (Ironically, our inability to look away from our devices for too long leads not only to an emotional trauma but can also cause physical trauma, such as texting while driving). Our long-term relationships with digital technology also mimic long-term reactions to more traditional notions of trauma, like “strained relationships” with others outside of the digital realm and headaches caused by looking too long at a digital device.
The Metanarrative of Authenticity
Before delving into how our relationship with digital technologies traumatizes us, it’s important to first establish a brief narrative of authenticity discourse as the notion of romantic authenticity aids in our trauma. As David Gunkel points out, “the real problem with virtual environments and online social interaction is not, as it is so often assumed, a matter of our understanding of the virtual. The real problem has to do with the real” (140). Authenticity as a discourse is primarily one in the tradition of a premodern metanarrative that attempts to persuade others that this idea of humanity is more real (and therefore more authentic) than that perception. In this case, the premodern notion of authenticity is one of a unique core found within each of us that makes us each individual and authentic. Yet, modernity and postmodernity challenged such metanarratives as truthful accounts of reality. While many other metanarratives (e.g. religious and western metanarratives) have arguably been successfully dismantled by postmodernism and the rejection of an absolute truth, the metanarrative of authenticity still tries to put a stranglehold on our perception of identity as we struggle to understand what it means to be human in a posthuman and digital world by looking towards an older method of authentic identity. However, postmodernism rejects the possibility of an absolute truth—and this includes rejection of the possibility of an absolute definition of what it means to be an authentic and true individual.
According to Fredric Jameson, postmodernism is “a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order” (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 3). Today’s “new type of social life” is digital and dividual in nature, and the concept of authenticity needs to “correlate” to this definition in order to make sense of (and keep up with) these emerging concepts of society and humanity. Jameson points out that the “modernist aesthetic” that heralds the concept of “a unique self and private identity, a unique personality and individuality” is essentially “a thing of the past” and, therefore, “dead” (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 6-7). This important essay was delivered in 1982, long before the world we live in today with hand-held digital devices and social network sites. If the unique individual was “dead” then, the concept is dust and ashes now.
We can also tie this concept to Marshall McLuhan’s point regarding “The Newtonian God” as dead. In The Medium is the Massage, he designates the Newtonian God as “the God who made a clock-like universe, wound it, and withdrew” (146). What makes this God dead is also what makes the unique individual dead as “the groundrule of that universe, upon which so much of our Western world is built, has dissolved” (McLuhan 146). To be clear, I am not advocating that today’s authentic self is any less unique than the premodern version. However, what makes this new authentic self unique is what made the premodern authentic self not unique—the ability to split the self into many identities, each one just as real and authentic as the next. The specter of the premodern authentic self still haunts us and claims we are not engaging in “real” relationships because we prefer to text our friends rather than meet with them face-to-face. Our expectations of authenticity and reality are bone deep, rooted in the Platonic tradition that there is a “presumed hard kernel that both resists and exists outside the seemingly endless circulation of virtual images, digital appearances and mediated responses” (Gunkel 135).
Yet, the belief that there truly is a single, romantic and authentic core inside each one of us starts to dissipate in today’s digital ecosystem. Social networks like MySpace and Facebook encourage us to construct different identities and follow specific paradigms of identity, ultimately dismissing the notion that there is anything truly unique and authentic about any of us—at least when compared to romantic notions of the self. This “fragmentation of self-conceptions corresponds to a multiplicity of incoherent and disconnected relationships” and “these relationships pull us in a myriad of directions, inviting us to play such a variety of roles that the very concept of an ‘authentic self’ with knowable characteristics recedes from view” (Gergen 7). Sherry Turkle addresses these “roles” when she notes that “social media ask us to represent ourselves in simplified ways” (Alone 185) as we are each given a template to fill out that is meant to show others who we are. Instead of questioning this template, many of us just quietly answer the questions and move along. Oftentimes, the desire to exaggerate or change things about each one of us becomes too great to ignore since “on social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be” (Turkle Alone 153). For example, the choices you make regarding what you post on your profile page represent the ideal self you wish you were in life outside of cyberspace. I only post profile pictures that are flattering or photo shopped representations, uploading my own simulacrum online in an attempt to convince others online that this is what I want you to think of when you see and think of me. Even our Google searches can constitute a self, a point Aaron Hess argues in his article “You Are What You Compute (and What is Computed For You): Considerations of Digital Rhetorical Identification.” Hess notes that simply “by engaging the web via cookies, we create a core digital substance, developed through our search behaviors” (13).
To make authenticity online even more confusing, forms of identification that are not “real” in the romantic sense are accepted as legitimate, and even legal, representations of ourselves. One immediate example that comes to mind are the documents that require a signature and allow an electronic signature in place of a pen signature. College students are well aware of this newer form of authentic identification when applying for student loans as FAFSA requires electronic signatures in the form of a PIN number as proof of authenticity. We also use electronic signatures when we file our taxes every year online. In order to exorcise this specter of romantic authenticity, we need to understand how Tom McCarthy’s “traumatic event of materiality” is tied to digital technologies so that we can see our many identities online not as false representations of ourselves but as a version of this new authentic postmodern self.
Technology as a Trauma
“The medium, or process, of our time—electric technology—is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.” Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage
In “The Question of Concerning Technology,” Heidegger warns readers of the dangers of seeing and treating technology in a neutral way. We are, in his words, “chained to technology”—but this fact is only undesirable “when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology” (1). This essay was published in 1977—in 2014, we are more than just chained to digital technology. Digital technologies affect the way we speak, act, and (ultimately) how we perceive ourselves and what it means to be an authentic person—we are ontologically fused with our devices and this fusion traumatizes our beings, creating the new dividual authentic self. This is what Heidegger feared would happen, because he believed in the one true authentic self:
We depend on technical devices; they even challenge us to ever greater advances. But suddenly and unaware we find ourselves firmly shackled to these technical devices that we fall into bondage to them…We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves free of them, that we may let go of them any time. We can use technical devices as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core.” (“Memorial Address” 53-4 emphasis mine)
To be “shackled” is to be imprisoned while Turkle uses the term “tethered” when she discusses our relationship with technology, which evokes images of reciprocal attachment as we can easily untie ourselves, but we choose not to. These two philosophers offer up examples of the two main technological belief systems: the determinists and the instrumentalists.
Nicholas Carr outlines these two belief systems in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The determinists believe that technology influences us while the instrumentalists believe that we influence technology and are in control of the technologies we use. While technologies may begin as instruments, in time (and with constant use) these technologies become something more as they have a hegemonic nature. Carr notes that “the tight bonds we form with our tools go both ways. Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies” (209). As a result of these extensions, “every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function” (209). These observations are especially true regarding our digital technologies. Twitter, for example, forces us to only use 140 characters in each tweet. Therefore, when I want to tweet something, I have to be careful to state my point within these limitations and adapt my message accordingly. N. Katherine Halyes notes that “as digital media, including networked and programmable desktop stations, mobile devices, and other computational media embedded in the environment, become more pervasive, they push us in the direction of faster communication, more intense and varied information streams, more integration of humans and intelligent machines, and more interactions of language with code” (How We Think 11).
The idea that these digital technologies “push us” suggests a power relationship is at play between humans and digital technologies. As a result of our relationship with these digital tools, we are nothing more than Foucault’s “docile bodies” that, once considered docile, “may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved” by these technologies (Discipline and Punish 136). In this sense, the computer is not a tool but a mirror, showing us what we are like through a very limited perception. However, this metaphor is only accurate if we passively interact with digital technologies (something I will touch on later in this article). According to Sherry Turkle, “the computer has become even more than tool and mirror: We are able to step through the looking glass. We are learning to live in virtual worlds” (Life on The Screen 9). Regardless of how we interact (or passively accept) our relationship with technology, we can no longer deny that we are in a determinist digital age.
Ontological Value and Disappearance of Time/Space Traumas
This determinist age results in digital technologies traumatizing us to the point that we seek out dividual online identities through various social network sites. But before I talk about the result of the trauma, I must first explain how the trauma occurred in the first place. Digital technologies traumatize our identities for two main reasons. The first reason is because we give digital technologies ontological value—a move closely tied to determinism.
To be a determinist is to accept the possibility that humans can be influenced by a digital machine and that perhaps humans are not the center of the universe. This idea ties into the demise of all grand narratives in the world of postmodernism, giving rise to the theory of flat ontology. According to Levi R. Bryant, flat ontology consists of four main theses:
1. “...flat ontology rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself” (The Democracy 245-46).
2. “…flat ontology signifies that the world or the universe does not exist” (meaning there is no meta-narrative/”super-object”) (246).
3. “…flat ontology refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation” (246).
4. “…flat ontology argues that all entities are on equal ontological footing and that no entity, whether artificial or natural, symbolic or physical, possesses greater ontological dignity than other objects” (246).
For the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the final thesis and how this shift of ontology towards objects ultimately responds to the “traumatic event of materiality” and, as a result, the updated version of the authentic self.
As noted above, Bryant notes that “flat ontology argues that all entities are on equal ontological footing” (246). Ian Bogost clarifies this concept further, adding that with flat ontology “there is no ur-thing, no container, no vessel, no concept that sits above being such that it can include all aspects of it holistically and incontrovertibility” (12). With the grand narrative of the world (and human beings as the center of this world) broken down due to postmodernism, the playing field between objects and human beings is level—flat, if you will. It is only when we are on the same ontological level that we can be affected by the tools we use on an everyday basis. Many theorists like to file digital technologies under the “tool” metaphor because it implies the opposite of what flat ontology prescribes. When we call a computer a “tool,” this “metaphor tends to mask the political dimensions of computers” and “technology is considered to be neutral” and thus “indifferent to politics” (Selber 38-39). In this view, the power is all in the hands of the user and the tool is an empty vessel. I associate these beliefs with Jacques Ellul when he writes that “man in his hubris…still believes that his mind controls technology, that he can impose any value, any meaning upon it” (“The ‘Autonomy’” 437).
Yet flat ontology believes that the tools we use are not “neutral” but are very much ontologically sound and therefore able to influence us in various ways. We adapt how we communicate based upon the method of communication. When I transfer a traditional print article into a PowerPoint presentation, I must adapt the original text to fit this other mode. I make decisions on what to leave in, what to leave out, and how to present traditional text into a more visual argument. In this perspective, “modern technologies…behave like ecosystems” and “when we intervene here, unexpected consequences pop up there” (Tiles “Conflicting Visions”255).
Because these tools (or digital entities) influence us and hold a lot of power over us and our daily lives, there is a shock to our own ontological systems that causes us to break down our concept of identity into fragments. Part of why this is a shock to us is because we still wrestle with the ancient mistrust of technologies (or the specter of Heidegger) and the romantic notion regarding authentic identity and technology:
…the romantic way of being-with technology can thus be characterized by a pluralism of ideas that continue a critical uneasiness: (1) the will to technology is a necessary self-creative act, which nevertheless tends to overstep its rightful bounds; (2) technology makes possible a new material freedom but alienates from the decisive strength to exercise it and creates wealth while undermining social affection; (3) scientific knowledge and reason are criticized in the name of imagination; and (4) artifacts are characterized more by process than by structure and invested with a new ambiguity associated with the category of the sublime. (Mitcham 534)
Basically, we like what technology can do for us but, at the same time, are uneasy with the perception that technology weakens our personal bonds with each other and with ourselves. For some philosophers (e.g. Heidegger), “technology is primarily conceived as a form of alienation: it alienates human beings from themselves in preventing them from achieving authentic existence, and it alienates human beings from the world in denying them a meaningful place to exist” (Verbeek 99). We would not feel uneasy if we understood that the authentic individual of the past is no longer plausible, but there is still pressure to be this type of being and our inability to deal with this realization results in an ontological shock to our systems.
But this shock is still a chosen shock since we often choose (depending upon access) whether or not to use these digital technologies in our lives. After all, “people are seen as making strategic, and usually rational, choices about which media they use for differing purposes” (Baym 27). Therefore, this “change happens at an individual rather than a societal level” (27). The choices we make regarding what digital technology we use may begin with this optimistic idea that we are in control, but over time our reliance on these digital devices and on the Internet ultimately flip that control on its head. Also, Millennials never chose this path; it has been given to them by adults in charge, placed into their tiny hands before a word was ever spoken from their mouths.
The second reason digital technologies traumatize us is because the use of these technologies blurs the concept of time and space to the extent that neither exist as they once did. This mix of past and present brought on by digital technologies is what author Paul Ford terms a “history glut” as “the Internet has muddled the line between past and present” (“Netflix and Google Books Are Blurring”). He notes that “we’re approaching an odd sort of asymptote, as our past gets closer and closer to the present and the line separating our now from our then dissolves” (“Netflix and Google Books are Blurring”). Digital technologies offer us an instantaneous life that allows us to be present but at a distance, at once in the moment and in the past. In this sense, “‘time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished” and “we now live in a global village…a simultaneous happening” (McLuhan 630). Paul Virilo explains this notion in his book Open Sky:
How can we really live if there is no more here and if everything is now? How can we survive the instantaneous telescoping of a reality that has become ubiquitous, breaking up into two orders of time, each as real as the other: that of presence of here and now, and that of a telepresence at a distance, beyond the horizon of tangible appearances? How can we rationally manage the split, not only between virtual and actual realities but, more to the point, between the apparent horizon and the transparent horizon of a screen that suddenly opens up a kind of temporal window for us to interact elsewhere, often a long way away? (Virilo 37-38)
Before I answer these questions, it’s important to first unpack the idea of “instantaneous telescoping of reality” caused by digital technologies that traumatize us to the point of creating a new protean self to survive. According to Virilo, “we are seeing the beginnings of a ‘generalized arrival’ whereby everything arrives without having to leave, the nineteenth century’s elimination of the journey…combining with the abolition of departure at the end of the twentieth, the journey thereby losing its successive components and being overtaken by arrival alone” (Open Sky 16). Sometimes, I never sign out of Facebook and I receive immediate updates when someone posts on my wall. The same can be said about texting; my phone is always on and available to receive instant messages at any time of the day. Since we are living in a world where we are constantly “on,” there is no “off” time.
A problem with being constantly “on” is that we are constantly being watched by others which is traumatizing because we fear how others may react to us at any moment. A tweet is never really deleted; even if I post the tweet and immediately delete it, that tweet lives on in cyberspace forever if someone notices it the moment I post it and captures a screenshot of my tweet. The trauma associated with constantly being watched evokes the image of Bentham’s panopticon. As Michel Foucault notes regarding the ever-vigil figure, the “major effect of the Panopticon [is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Discipline and Punish 201). One goal of the panopticon is to consolidate human individuality into one faceless mass. Aware of this goal, digital users today respond to the trauma of the digital panopticon around them by splitting up their identities throughout various social media networks as this move “makes it much less manageable than a unity” (219). A LinkedIn profile displays a specific persona while a MySpace account displays another persona. We split into dividuals to remain authentic in this new digital world in order to avoid easy grouping and, with time, toward being controlled by these digital devices around us.
The revolutionary railroads and telegraph machines of the Industrial age made the world a smaller place, both physically and temporally. Today, we can travel thousands of miles without getting up from our seats and can connect with friends instantaneously through cell phones. While some may celebrate the ability to connect and “travel” all over the world, we suffer ontologically from the complete lack of space and time as what once was something we controlled now controls us as we constantly check our phones for updates and messages from friends and family. As Virilo states, “all that remains is a real instant over which, in the end, no one has any control” (Open Sky 18 emphasis in original).
If we truly are “beings in time,” what does it mean when there is no time and no place to be in? What happens to our identities when a digital panopticon is watching us? To the traditional notion of authenticity? Marshall McLuhan makes a vital point regarding survival in an age of digital technology when he writes that “survival is not possible if one approaches his environment, the social drama, with a fixed, unchangeable point of view—the witless repetitive response to the unperceived” (The Medium is the Massage 10). The old version of the authentic self, then, cannot survive in this digital age and any attempt to keep it will be in vain. Jameson’s declaration of that unique individual’s death can no longer be ignored in today’s 21st century digitized world.
Updating the Protean Self
“Formerly, the problem was to invent new forms of labor-saving. Today, the reverse is the problem. Now we have to adjust, not to invent.” Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage
In 1993, Robert Lifton coined the term “the protean self.” Twenty years later, the term is even more important today than it was then. Named after the god known for the ability to shift into various shapes and forms, the protean self is the result of our response to the feeling that “we are becoming fluid and many-sided” (Lifton 1). As social networks encourage us to practice at identities, and to embrace various kinds of identity, the concept of a protean self is still relevant today. After all, the protean self is a response to “a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time” and our time is very restless as far as our identity is concerned (1).
This restlessness leads to self-fragmentation to survive the trauma of digital materialism and adapt to our changing environments. In Ontology of the Accident, Catherine Malabou writes that “as a result of serious trauma, or sometimes for no reason at all, the path splits and a new, unprecedented persona comes to live with the former person, and eventually takes up all the room” (1). Therefore, “we must all of us recognize that we might, one day, become someone else, an absolute other, someone who will never be reconciled with themselves again, someone who will be this form of us without redemption or atonement, without last wishes, this damned form, outside of time” (2-3). However, like Lifton, Malabou sees the value in fragmentation as a kind of survival mechanism, noting that “construction is counter-balanced by a form of destruction” and that “it does not contradict life; it makes life possible” (Ontology 4).
The various identities we create online speak to the multiple selves each of us have in the world of the Internet. Nancy K. Baym writes that “a search for Nancy Baym will turn up my academic persona on my university website, a more well-rounded if trite self-presentation on Twitter, and a more pop-culture-oriented self on my blog. All are genuine parts of me, but online they are segmented into separate spaces where they can become distinct identities” (106 emphasis mine). Baym’s admission challenges romantic ideas of a solid (and therefore authentic) concept of the self. Only in today’s 21st century digital world can one be “segmented” and “genuine” at the exact same time.
Lifton also mentions that part of our fragmentation is due to the flux associated with surviving various forms of “death” and “renewal” (81). In this sense, we needed to fragment in order to survive the shock of mortality and the “spiritual assault” that comes with living in the twentieth century. Today, in the twenty-first century, our fragmentation is different as the shock that sparked fragmentation is not from the horrors of two world wars or the destruction of faith through scientific discoveries but rather from materialism associated with digital technologies. The Millennials are a group of survivors of this “traumatic event of materiality,” and their ability to survive is based upon their ability to fragment their inner selves successfully.
The violence caused by the “traumatic event of materiality” can be deterred through fragmentation. Lifton writes, “The protean self represents an alternative to violence. Violence always has an absolute quality: behavior is reduced to a single, narrow focus; and in that sense, violence is a dead end. Proteanism, in contrast, provides a capacity to avoid dead ends” (11). Proteanism does this because its very nature is one of choice—we choose how we fragment. One great thing about social networks is that they provide the outlet (and structures) needed to help with this choice. The life of these “survivors” is filled “with meanings and human associations that, over the course of a life, one experiences as genuine. The protean quest, however flawed, enhances that authenticity” (232). Though hegemonic at times, these structures can do more than just limit how we fragment ourselves; they can also give us permission (and a guide) to fragment and develop ourselves in an attempt to survive the trauma of materiality. We cannot do more than survive until we let go of the romantic notion of authenticity and accept our new dividual selves as authentic.
With Lifton’s protean self, an individual fragments in order to survive a massive trauma (like war or religious rejection). This fragmentation is not seen as inauthentic for Lifton but as authentic. Today, our protean selves are now digital in nature and fragment into various digital parts in order to survive the “traumatic event of materiality”—in this case digital materiality—yet many see this digital fragmentation as a symptom of an inauthentic person. Since authenticity is often tied to sincerity (i.e. Lionel Trilling), inauthenticity is seen as insincere and therefore morally wrong and false. This false association between sincerity and authenticity is why we need to update the protean self for today’s Millennials since too many of us see this generation as inauthentic and, by proxy, immoral and insincere.
Social Network Sites as a Symptom of Digital Trauma
As mentioned earlier, our new protean selves fragment online to adapt to the trauma of a digital materialistic existence. On one hand the web gives us a forum to create and facilitate online identities—an endless creative outlet. For example, in the book The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, author Jose van Dijck writes that Facebook can “offer individual users a stage for crafting a self-image and for popularizing this image beyond intimate circles” (51). In these social network sites, such as Facebook, “people want to show who they are; they have a vested interest in identity construction by sharing pieces of information because disclosing information about one’s self is closely linked with popularity” (51). This belief system rooted in social network sites is based on the notion that “sharing is caring,” a mantra repeated many times in Eggers’ book The Circle. The character of Mae states, “I think it’s simple. If you care about your fellow human beings, you share what you know with them” (Eggers 302). The novel looks at what happens when we take such a mantra to the extreme, but the germ of the idea is present today. With the inundation of digital media in our lives, and the trauma this inundation causes us, we reach out to social network sites as a place where we can attempt to rebuild our authentic selves. However, what we create is scattered and fragmented, which frustrates us because we are still holding onto the romantic notion of authenticity, and we fail to live up to that impossible standard.
The struggle to meet the romantic, authentic standards of the past forces us to see social network sites as a place with the power to create but also destroy individuality, a point made by Jaron Lanier in his book You are Not a Gadget. In this “manifesto,” Lanier fears the Internet-created “hive mind” reduces individuality and that the fragments of our selves online threaten humanity. He worries that “the exercise of treating machine intelligence as real requires people to reduce their mooring to reality,” but this assertion depends upon how one defines the concept of reality (Lanier 32). For Lanier, fragmenting the self is the opposite of what it means to be an individual; however, he fails to see how the fragmentation of identity is a defense mechanism in response to the trauma of digital materialism.
One reason why Lanier (and others) may not see digital technology as traumatic is because we are only looking at the symptoms of this trauma—not the trauma itself. These symptoms can be confusing because they often send mixed messages to users. A case in point is an examination of Facebook. In a recent article in The New Yorker, author Maria Konnikova discusses opposing arguments over Facebook regarding whether or not the social media outlet makes us “happy.” Konnikova notes that on one hand “the Internet seemed to make [users] feel more alienated” while another study states that Facebook “increases social trust and engagement” (“How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” 2). Konnikova goes on to say that how Facebook affects us depends primarily on how we use (or fail to use) the social network. If we approach Facebook in a passive way, then Facebook makes us feel inadequate and therefore unhappy. However, if we are engaged and manage to “step through the looking glass” as Turkle suggests, then Facebook can be a very rewarding experience. Either way, our approach to the social network depends upon our reaction to the trauma of digital media. In this light, “Facebook isn’t the problem. It’s the symptom” (Konnikova 3). The Internet becomes the battleground for our new scattered identity and whether or not we embrace this new authentic self is also hinged on whether or not we survive the trauma caused by flat ontology and loss of traditional notions of space and time associated with digital technology.
Catfish and Facebook: Questions of Identity
Our various online identities are examples of our attempts to survive the trauma of materiality and these identities also show that we are very reliant on the structures of social networks online as these structures keep us from falling into one of the problems of authentic identity as a process—constant transcendence with no clear boundaries. But these boundaries also question the ability of social networks to foster a truly authentic identity. However, this only becomes a question when we compare authentic identity to a romantic notion of authenticity. Our inability to let go of this outdated notion of authenticity makes it difficult for us to truly embrace the concept of a new kind of authenticity that is materialistic at the center. Kenneth Gergen discusses this problem in The Saturated Self:
Many of our major problems in society result from taking seriously such terms as reality, authenticity, true, worthwhile, superior, essential, valid, ideal, correct, and the like. None of these otherwise awesome distinctions possesses transcendent foundations; they are all constructions of particular language communities, used for pragmatic purposes at a particular moment in history. Yet when these traditional shibboleths are put into serious practice, they begin to establish divisions, hierarchies, insidious separations, oppression, and indeed mass liquidation. Every “reality” makes a fool of those who do not participate. (189)
In a way, the romantic idea of authenticity is itself a boundary that we place on ourselves and our online identities that serves mostly to hinder us by making us feel “bad” or “fake” when others call out the “truth” of our online personas. What is not considered “authentic” in the romantic sense is, by default, inauthentic and pushed to the side.
We can see this “authentic-shaming” clearly in the 2010 film Catfish. In this film, filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman follow Nev on his journey to uncover the “truth” about an online relationship he has with a young woman named Megan, the daughter of his Facebook friend Angela Wesselman. After many hours of flying, driving, and Google-based investigations, it is revealed that Angela created the Megan Facebook profile (as well as many other “fake” profiles) as a way to escape her “real” life as a stepmother to two cognitively disabled sons. Angela, who once aspired to be a painter, gave up this dream to care for the sons of her husband, Vince, in a small town in Upper Michigan.
Angela created these different profiles to give her connections outside of the home—even if those connections were themselves created by her. In an interview for 20/20 following the release of the film, Angela reasons that “It’s not normal for just one person to be on Facebook…with just one friend. You have to have other friends” (Berman). Angela also notes that she is schizophrenic but that she does not “have multiple personalities in normal life, really” (Berman). Angela even tells us that her husband calls her a “manipulator” and she agrees with this assertion (Berman). It’s unfortunate that Angela (as well as others) hide behind labels like “schizophrenic,” “manipulator,” and “normal” as these labels imply that what Angela did was not only “crazy” but morally wrong. She does not need to justify her actions (or play off of unnecessary mental illness judgments) as she was playing out the 21st century version of the new authentic self. Her actions are only “wrong” and “abnormal” when we compare her various identities against the romantic notion of the true authentic self.
Today, Catfish has spawned into a television show on MTV and continues to “authenticity shame” those who claim to be and/or look a certain way online that does not match how they are in “real” life. Only on rare occasions on the show are people actually who they say they are in their online profiles. Yet, regardless of whether or not an online identity matches a “real” identity the emotions involved are legitimate to those involved in these online affairs. The idea that the man you fell in love with online is physically a female raises too many questions and confusion for young users who would rather shame the person and their use of a “false” avatar than come to grips with the point that everything about our own identities, including sexual preferences, is blurry and fragmented. While some of us see the modern/postmodern world as a potential destroyer of authenticity, others do not and see advances in technology as advancing what it means to be human—or at least blur the lines between what it means to be human and what it means to be a machine.
N. Katherine Hayles is one such theorist who sees the blur between cognition and embodiment brought on by a posthuman construct as a positive interaction as her “dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival” (Hayles How We Became 5). In her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Hayles argues that a “constant theme” regarding the posthuman is “the union of the human with the intelligent machine” (2). Such a union, she explains, “configures a human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines” as “there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (3). Thus, “the posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (3). This has become the case in today’s adolescents—that there is no romantic notion of the authentic self. What was once considered inauthentic (the constructive self-based upon materialistic/technological concerns) is the new posthuman authentic self of today. The internet—particularly Facebook—just gives us an outlet to embody these fragments under the illusion of individuality.
Anonymity as a Symptom
Another symptom of the trauma of digital technology is also rooted in the Internet, though not necessarily within social networks. The Internet offers something nearly impossible in “meat-space”: anonymity. Anonymity is a complicated notion, especially since there are “degrees of anonymity which are varied and situated” (Kennedy 872). Regardless of the complicated debates on anonymity, the Internet gives us the opportunity to believe that we can avoid choosing an identity completely, almost like a third option once we have rejected the idea of both the romantic unitary self and the dividual self. This third option results in what John Suler calls “the online disinhibition effect.” For Suler, there are two kinds of disinhibition: benign and toxic. Benign disinhibition occurs when people use the online world to open up emotionally and help others (“The Online Disinhibition Effect” 321). By opening up and revealing more about ourselves, benign disinhibition helps us to “better understand and develop oneself, to resolve interpersonal and intrapsychic problems or explore new emotional and experimental dimensions to one’s identity” (321). With toxic disinhibition the freedom associated with the Internet results in cruel and rude behavior, such as cyber-bullying and visiting “the dark underworld of the Internet—places of pornography, crime, and violence” (321). Suler goes on to explain a few of the causes of the disinhibition effect, most notably dissociative anonymity:
This anonymity is one of the principle factors that creates the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out. Whatever they say or do cannot be directly linked to the rest of their lives. In a process of dissociation, they do not have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of an integrated online/offline identity. The online self becomes a compartmentalized self. (“The Online Disinhibition Effect” 322)
We can tie this “compartmentalized self” to another cause of disinhibition: dissociative imagination. Suler notes that “consciously or unconsciously, people may feel that the imaginary characters they ‘created’ exist in a different space, that one’s online persona along with the online others live in an make-believe dimension, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world” (323). Overall, then, “the disinhibition effect can then be understood as the person shifting, while online, to an intrapsychic constellation that may be, in varying degrees, dissociated from the in-person constellation, with inhibiting guilt, anxiety, and related affects as features of the in-person self but not as part of the online self” (325).
Many of us dissociate our “meat-space” selves from our online selves, but all of these selves should be considered real and authentic. Each represents some facet of our identity and the Internet not only allows this compartmentalization to occur but rather encourages such a division. We identify ourselves through the digital technologies we use and these technologies identify with us, continuing the cycle. For example, let’s look at Kenneth Burke’s thoughts on identification:
Once your grasp the trend of the form, it invites participation regardless of the subject matter. Formally, you will find yourself swinging along with the succession of antitheses, even though you may not agree with the proposition that is being presented in this form. Or it may even be an opponent’s proposition which you resent—yet for the duration of the statement itself you might ‘help him out’ to the extent of yielding to the formal development, surrendering to its symmetry as such…Thus, you are drawn to the form, not in your capacity as a partisan, but because of some ‘universal’ appeal in it. (A Rhetoric of Motives 58)
We are drawn to a form that resembles our own, our new dividual self, and social network sites like Facebook provide for the expression of that form. To claim our various online identites are dissociated is a claim rooted in the belief that an authentic identity must be a whole identity, not a claim based on the new authentic/protean self. We need to see all of these identities as authentic selves instead of outliers of our identities that need to be purged online. If we do not, then we make toxic behavior online acceptable on some level because many of us believe that the person online is not really “us.” This toxic behavior tends to create an online troll that causes psychological damage online that seeps into the human psyche offline. The abuse is primarily textual and nondiscriminatory—anyone can be a victim of online abuse at any moment for any reason.
A troll’s vitriolic attack serves as a purge of sorts, an unleashing of an inner hate on a relatively unknown person by another relatively unknown person. And while the purge may be a release of sorts for the troll, the consequences can have traumatic repercussions in both online and offline spaces. If trolls encourage other trolls to join in on their random attacks, the consequences can be catastrophic as we end up “using digital technology to harm innocent people who thought they were safe” (Lanier 65). These consequences usually take the form of cyberbullying that can have long-lasting psychological and physical effects on those afflicted—even suicide by those afflicted.
Ironically, a common response to the troll is to fragment our online identities; create a social profile on this site, create a professional one here, experiment with a new identity over on this site. We react to the symptom of anonymity of others by making ourselves less concrete online by experimenting with possible selves in an environment that offers a quick getaway route. Those who reject any online identity often force already dividual selves to splinter even more online than before. So even if we do not originally intend to divide ourselves online, trolls sometimes force us to make these actions.
Looking Back to Look Forward
Towards the end of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman (a psychopath who wears several personality masks throughout the novel in order to survive the trauma of 1980’s materialism) digresses on this period that brought with it a solipsism that lessened individual human value in favor of conformity:
My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this—and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…(Ellis 377)
Today, the traumatic materialism is digital in nature, but the response remains the same. While his confession may seem foreboding and apocalyptic, it is how we may respond when we fail to live up to the romantic notion of an authentic self. This is the “dream of being a person” mentioned in the epigraph to this article. There is no “real me,” no complete and tangible definition of the self that can be pinned down as authentic in the traditional sense.
But the pressure to adhere to this outdated concept only leaves us listless and angry, scattered and disgusted with our inability to glue these fragments of identity together into a coherent whole—a “monster” at the end of the authenticity dream. But this monster can be reviewed and reclaimed by changing the authenticity narrative. This new authentic person could be “an absolute existential improvisation” and “a form born of the accident, by the accident, a kind of accident” (Malabou 2). Today, an authentic being is “a funny breed” and “a monster whose apparition cannot be explained as any genetic anomaly” (2).
If we are not meant to be whole, if the fragments are indeed the new authentic self, then there is no pressure and subsequent disappointment associated with failure at our inability to puzzle our identities together. There is also no elitist camp that can claim others as inauthentic as “the search for the authentic is a form of status competition” that is known far more by what it is not than by what it is (Potter 267).
We are traumatized by digital technology, as other major events and moments traumatized us in the past, and we respond to this trauma by fracturing our identities throughout the very places that traumatized us in an effort to adapt and thrive in this new context. As a result of the trauma associated with our relationships with digital devices, everything outside of the digital realm “does not seem ‘real’” (McCarthy 232). We are not narcissists as some have claimed but are desperately trying to respond to this trauma the only way we know how in order to survive. Therefore, we shouldn’t see these various online and offline selves as inauthentic, a move that only serves to “authenticity shame” us, but rather we should redefine the concept of authenticity to accept this new dividual self that is at once online and offline at all times.
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Courtney Patrick-Weber is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Bay Path University. Her research interests include digital rhetoric, trauma theory, feminist rhetoric, and discourse analysis. When she isn’t teaching or writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband and cat in their new home in Connecticut.
© 2014 Courtney Patrick-Weber, used by permission