Inventing the Self

Is technology an “I-it” relationship or an “I-thou” relationship?

November 12th, 2013 by matthew finston · 1 Comment

Last week, we discussed in class whether our involvement with “social media” encourages narcissism. On the surface, I believe we came to the conclusion that social networking sites like “Facebook” are perceived as a narcissistic enterprise. Whether true or not, I think characterizing the debate on social media in terms of “narcissism” is unproductive. I think the case can be made for both. What would be more worthwhile would be a look into the new types of experiences that modern technology enables.  Perhaps afterwards, we can return to the topic of narcissism.


This week’s readings “Technology as Experience” gives us a more productive way of talking about “social media.” McCarthy et. al.’s claim that modern technology enables formations of self-expression and forging relationships is apt. They argue that modern forms of communication “augments people’s ability to organize complex and busy work, family, and social lives. For many it also provides an opportunity to express themselves, their feelings and emotions, in ways not previously available to them.” (6). Rather than eroding relationships, text-messaging or “tweeting” provides opportunities to connect with others otherwise unreachable. If you know that a significant other has an important presentation or meeting, you can send instantaneous words of encouragement without interrupting their task.


Or, as I did this weekend, one can use “Facebook” for multi-dialogic engagement. Specifically, last week was “birthday week” for my girlfriend. I tried to make everyday meaningful. Around midnight, when my girlfriend was checking her “Facebook” “Happy Birthday Wishes,” I wrote on her wall, “Almost forgot, Happy Birthday!” I know this was silly. I was already celebrating her birthday with her. But I hadn’t yet wished her happy on her wall. I did this partly to get her attention. Direct communication wasn’t working. She was engrossed in thanking people for their comments as well as responding to her text messages. But also I wanted to engage her in a dialogue that would be otherwise impossible without this form of communication. We can communicate simultaneously through this technological medium and face to face. One doesn’t replace the other. In fact they add up to what McCarthy et. al.’s terms (borrowing from Bakhtin), “the unity of felt experience” (18). In McCarthy’s words, I take this to mean: “When we conceptualize technologies as experience, we are attempting to re-view technology by making visible aspects of experience of technology that would otherwise remain invisible” (20). In doing so, I can communicate with my girlfriend in contradictory ways through social media.


You could also argue that I was disciplining myself by powers of normalization, to use a Foucauldian reading. By admitting fault “Almost forgot” I was acknowledging publicly to the Facebook panopticon a failure to participate in the social norm of wishing “Happy Birthday” on the person’s wall. I know this has been especially important for myself at times. I would equate my self-worth and “popularity” by how many people would wish me happy birthday. As a quasi-public sphere, I have assigned value to how I represent myself and how others have perceived me. In addition, I had a friend who, on his birthday, checked his Facebook profile on his mobile every five minutes and announce who wished him happy birthday. He would also mention who hadn’t wrote on his wall. You could call this effect disciplinary-narcissism. As a reminder to all those with him, he takes note of who forgets his birthday. The act of forgetting is to sever the relationship. To not write on your significant other’s wall would be a defamation of this sacred social sphere. The absence of a “comment” would signify an irreparable rupture. Thus, Facebook also could represent a site of productive power where one must continually engage in this alternate form of relations so as not to commit social suicide or social alienation. We must actively promote ourselves, to act in a narcissistic manner, such as in updating our profile, liking other people’s comments, adding new pictures, so as to prevent the rupture of meaningful relationships. To engage with others through social media, in this light, is not dialogic but dialectic. Communication with others, commenting on another’s status, writing on another’s wall, is not to engage in the dialogue but to synthesize others in a perpetual self-promotion.


While this view can be argued, and I don’t think it necessarily is exclusive to McCarthy et. al.’s analysis, it does sufficiently undermine the “I-thou” characteristic of social media. To say that this form of media is only dialectic, makes invisible the felt experience where “I” exists in relation to “thou.” Martin Buber’s, a philosopher of Hasidism, notion of “I-thou” versus “I-it” rests on the assumption that “self-realization” comes out of “reciprocal individualism” (quoted from Rotenberg, 1978: 157-160). Martin Buber (1878-1965) understands this reciprocal individualism as emerging from the “dynamic sphere between person and person in dialogue” (Rotenberg, 1978: 158). I think it is important to note Buber’s influence on Bakhtin. While Bakhtin was at the hospital between 1967-1971 he was asked his feelings on Buber who recently paid him a visit. Bakhtin responds, “Buber is a philosopher. And I am very much in debted to him. In particular for the idea of dialogue. Of course, this is obvious to anyone who reads Buber” (see Joseph Frank’s “The voices of Mikhail Bakhtin” ff 2.2).


I think that the incorporation of technology in our lives becomes the narcissistic-disciplinary site when we engage it in an “I-it.” The “It,” Facebook in this case, is the primary concern. How does “It” my profile, my page, status updates, represent or reflect me, or “I.” An “I-It” relation causes us to care more about how many people are wishing us “happy birthday” than the “who” or the “thou.” McCarthy et. al.’s use of Bakhtin’s theory of “dialogics” becomes clearer in this light. “A dialogical perspective on sense making orients us to the idea that meaning is a process of bringing together different perspectives and, in this creative bringing together, forging understanding. Bakhtin refers to this as creative understanding” (18). In engaging social media not for the sake of “I-it” but for “I-thou,” that is to forge meaningful relationships, these mediums allow for a futuristically driven “creative understanding” of “self-realization” through “reciprocal individualism.” It is that dialogic encounter with open-ended possibilities (like we saw in Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too). “Self-realization” is thus not fixed but open to dialogic encounters.

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1 response so far ↓

  • Samantha Gamble // Nov 13th 2013 at 11:20 am

    They argue that modern forms of communication “augments people’s ability to organize complex and busy work, family, and social lives. For many it also provides an opportunity to express themselves, their feelings and emotions, in ways not previously available to them.” (6).

    This really stood out for me in the reading also. As someone who is a lot more comfortable writing their feelings down, I agree with this on some levels. this issue is that although technology can bring people together, it can also pull them apart. There are many time I send text message and mean it one way but someone reads it a different way. The tome is lost. The feeling aren’t always there.

    I expect Happy Birthday messages on Facebook from “friends” but if I don’t receive a simple phone call or you don’t come by to see me when you are literally a block away, are you really my “friend?”

    I feel that human contact is much more important and that at times, technology tends to get in the way of that.

    ***on a side note: I miss the days when there were only house phones, no cell phone, Facebook etc. I remember being able to truly get away and take a break from others. Anything that needed to be said, had to wait until I got home. Now it feels like there is an invisible string attached to me every where I turn.

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