Inventing the Self

Asking the right questions?

November 20th, 2013 by Yana Walton · 1 Comment

Conversations about human connection and technology usually fall within two predictable camps: Those who lament the lack of “real face time” connection, the false promise of more time, betrayed by the eternal presence of the virtual world via mobile technology (while using such technologies) – And those who celebrate the possibilities and expressions of intimacy and connection are fostered through social technologies. Sherry Turkle’s work is representative of this first camp, complete with the nostalgia for hopscotch on Brooklyn streets, and CJ Pascoe’s ethnography of dating intimacy and technology in American teens shows how rituals of public and private romantic relationships mediated by technology collapse rigid boundaries between the real and the virtual. Certainly these arguments and explorations are more nuanced than tech-resistant and tech-positive, but these overarching threads are present in both of these authors’ works.

While Turkle pose a good question when she asks what kinds of connections with others do we want to have, she neglects to answer her own questions that her “alone together” premise begs.  Before the rise of social tech, weren’t we still alone together – that is, distinct selves in relation to our human environments? Or even more pessimistically – alone alone? In some sense, the human condition is always one of solitude, which is the state of experiencing an ongoing self that is distinct from others. Either way we look at it, solitude and intimacy are ever present in the human condition, and technology is but one lens with which to observe the visibility of these aspects. When Turkle questions the inauthenticity of online lives & representations of self on social media by saying “We can edit our messages untile the project the self we want to be,” she doesn’t seem to ask about our underlying desires to be seen as we want to be by others. Don’t we already do everything we can to control our self-presentation in non-virtual arenas too? Hasn’t intimacy always been a time-consuming task? Finally, absent in all of Turkle’s critiques of the ways we feel eternally on-call and tethered to email  – is a critique of capitalism. She seems to put the sole blame on the technologies themselves, rather than the system in which we’ve developed technologies for a specific use: To be more productive so we can consume more.

On the other end, rather than ask what our relationships to our computers, tablets, and mobile devices are, Pascoe looks at what relationships humans have with each other, mediated through social technologies. A more productive question might be, what are our expectations of technologies, seen through this lens? If the disconnection from technology also means a disconnection from humanity, but we feel somewhat dissatisfied by the ways we’re connected or expected to connect, how can we connect in more satisfying ways?

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1 response so far ↓

  • matthew finston // Nov 20th 2013 at 9:39 pm

    It is interesting that “alienation” has served as a foundational Marxist critique of capitalism. The Marxists argue political economies are dependent on the alienation of labor. In order to produce wealth, bodies must have an inverse relation to their products. I wonder what the response would have been if Turkle used a Marxist critique of technological innovation.

    Also, I am wondering if you have read Foucault’s “Friendship as a way of life.” I think it speaks to the questions you brought up. At least for me, what new forms of media have invited is opportunities for “inventiveness” of sociality. They may not always be the most rewarding. They may also operate as disciplinary sites. But the fact that they challenge dominant notions of proper intimacy I think foretells it might be useful.