The Deforming Gaze We Encounter On Social Media

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story, “The Birthmark,” in which a young “man of science” named Aylmer marries a beautiful young woman named Georgiana. Georgiana was nearly perfect in Aylmer’s eyes, nearly perfect save for a small hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. As the story unfolds, Aylmer conceives of a scheme whereby he might remove the birthmark. As you might guess, this being Hawthorne and what not, this scheme does not go well. In fact, it proves fatal to Georgiana.

The story is, on one level, a cautionary tale about hubris and how the quest for perfection can be the enemy of the good. But there is another interesting dimension to the story. It is also a study of human psychology, exemplifying how our desires come to be shaped by others from whose gaze we derive and internalize a particular understanding of who we are and who we ought to be.

Needless to say, Aylmer is awful. Not long after they marry, he brings up the matter of the birthmark, suggesting that something might be done about it. Georgiana innocently confesses that her birthmark “has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.” This self-understanding Aylmer, with monstrous indifference, undoes. “Ah, upon another face perhaps it might,” he tells her, “but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.”

The narrator reveals to us that “Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” Not surprisingly, then, “Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze.”

And she was also transformed by this same gaze. Finally, she herself approaches Aylmer about the possibility of removing the birthmark and wonders about the risks entailed. He assures her that he can successfully remove the birthmark with minimal risk, and she concedes. Indeed, she was prepared to concede even if he had said that grave risks would attend his work: ‘”If there be the remotest possibility of it,’ continued Georgiana, ‘let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust.'”

I bring this story to your attention because it illuminates an important dimension of our online experience, especially on social media. Put in rather neutral terms we might simply say that the story illustrates the intersubjective origins of our desires, including, and perhaps most acutely, our desires about our selves, and that this intersubjectivity is amplified and refracted by our use of social media (massively intersubjective identity, or MII, if you like).

Put more pejoratively, we are all subject to the deforming influence of the Internet’s gaze, from which we discern the image of who we ought to be. We internalize this image and it becomes the tacit template for our online interactions.

This raises a few questions we might consider. For example: For whom do I perform when I perform online? or What is the nature of the audience whose approval or notice I seek? or Who am I becoming as I modulate my actions and self-representations to elicit the emotional consolations I seek from the reward mechanisms of social media? or To what degree is my project of self-realization co-opted by the structural dynamics of social media?

Another way to approach the matter is to ask why snark is the default dialect of social media. Snark is the style of the all-too-self-aware; it is the easiest voice to assume when earnest straightforwardness is ruled out by the nature of the mediated rhetorical situation.

The nature of social media is such that we cannot forget the artificiality of our situation. The added layer of mediation materializes immaterial internal and social dynamics making them subject to analysis and manipulation. That is to say that social media, like the technology of writing in Walter Ong’s words, “heightens consciousness.” I would suggest that it hypertrophies consciousness. To take another pass at the same idea, we might say that social media grants access to the social unconscious as Walter Benjamin proposed that photography did for the optical unconscious.

Social media platforms inevitably present themselves as a stage before an audience. We cannot but be actors playing the role we believe the audience desires us to play.

There is another wrinkle as well. We are surrounded by other actors on this stage who are likewise playing their parts. We are, however, tempted to forget our co-performers are also acting their part, and we take their performances to be authentic representations of their condition, while we ourselves are haunted by our own seeming inauthenticity. This means that that we are co-ordinating our own performances on the basis of misread and misunderstood signals. The online intersubjective web thus suspends and entraps us. It generates self-defeating efforts to achieve authenticity, and these efforts only manage to spin more of the web that ensnares us.

It is true, of course, that it is not only on social media that we become who we imagine others or Another wants us to be. I would only suggest that the conditions that accompany the online variations of this dynamic are primed for unhealthy outcomes. These condition include the abstract and indeterminate nature of the gaze we encounter, the peculiar psycho-social reward mechanisms social media platforms deploy, the disembodied character of our interactions, etc.

Eight Theses Regarding Social Media

1. Social media are the fidget spinners of the soul.

2. Each social media platform is a drug we self-prescribe and consume in order to regulate our emotional life, and we are constantly experimenting with the cocktail.

3. Law of Digital Relativity: Perception of space and time is relative to the digital density of the observer’s experience.

4. Affect overload is a more serious problem than information overload. The product of both is moral apathy and mental exhaustion.

5. While text and image flourish online, the psycho-dynamics of digital culture are most akin to those of oral cultures (per Walter Ong).

6. Just as the consumer economy was boundless in its power to commodify, so the attention economy is boundless in its power to render reality standing reserve for the project of identity construction/performance. The two processes, of course, are not unrelated.

7. In the attention economy, strategic silence is power. But, because of the above, it is also a deeply demanding practice of self-denial.

8. Virtue is self-forgetting. The structures of social media make it impossible to forget yourself.


A Form of Madness

Bertrand Russell (A History of Western Philosophy) adumbrating Ellul on technology:

Meanwhile science as technique was building up in practical men a quite different outlook from any that was to be found among theoretical philosophers. Technique conferred a sense of power: man is now much less at the mercy of his environment than he was in former times. But the power conferred by technique is social, not individual; an average individual wrecked on a desert island could have achieved more in the seventeenth century than he could now. Scientific technique requires the cooperation of a large number of individuals organized under a single direction. Its tendency, therefore, is against anarchism and even individualism, since it demands a well-knit social structure. Unlike religion, it is ethically neutral: it assures men that they can perform wonders but does not tell them what wonders to perform. In this way it is incomplete. In practice, the purposes to which scientific skill will be devoted depend largely on chance. The men at the head of the vast organizations which it necessitates can, within limits, turn it this way or that as they please. The power impulse thus has a scope which it never had before. The philosophies that have been inspired by scientific technique are power philosophies, and tend to regard everything non-human as mere raw material. Ends are no longer considered; only the skillfulness of the process is valued. This also is a form of madness. It is, in our day, the most dangerous form, and the one against which a sane philosophy should provide an antidote.”

At least one quibble: technology/technique is not ethically neutral, in part precisely because it is not unlike religion.

News and Links

Elizabeth hospital.jpgIt’s been awhile since my last post, indeed writing has been generally sporadic here for some time. Not sure that it will get any better, although I would like it to. It’s been challenging to find the time to write with a toddler running about. Some of you will remember that my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world a little over nineteen months ago. A week ago tomorrow, we welcomed our second. That’s the news. Mom and baby girl are doing very well. Dad and big sister are grateful and delighted.

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but despite the newborn and toddler I do hope to write a bit more regularly, especially during the forthcoming summer months. I’ve had half a dozen or so posts partially composed in my mind for some time now; hopefully those will find their way to your screen some time soon. Maybe.

For what it’s worth, a few months ago I gave a some talks in the Pittsburgh area under the auspices of CSET and the Greystone Theological Institute. The topics of the talks will be familiar to readers:  thinking about technology and its obstacles, tech criticism, ethics of technology, memory and digital documentation, etc. They were offered as a mini-course introducing students to a variety of issues regarding technology, the self, and society. If you’re interested you can download the course here. It’s not free, but neither is it very pricey and yours truly will see a good bit of the proceeds.

Finally, as I’ve finally been able to do some reading of late, here are a few links that may be of interest.

Ghost in the Cloud: Transhumanism’s simulation theology.

Nostalgia For Now: How digital and social media blur the lines of memory, history, and reality (Some of you will remember that nostalgia was a recurring theme here a while ago.)

The Distracted Mind: Multitasking, task switching, and continuous partial attention

Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

The next three links have a common theme: narrative. Narrative and the unconscious, narrative and information, narrative and the work of science.

The Kekulé Problem: Where did language come from?

The Limits of Information

Science and the Story That We Need

That last one, by the way, is an older essay (1997) by the late Neil Postman. I’ll leave you with the opening of Postman’s essay:

The principal spiritual problem confronting those of us who live in a technological age was spoken of some years ago in a prophetic poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her collection Huntsman, What Quarry?

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.

A Lost World

Human beings have two ways, generally speaking, of going about the business of living with one another: through speech or violence. One of the comforting stories we tell each other about the modern world is that we have, for the most part, set violence aside. Indeed, one of modernity’s founding myths is that it arose as a rational alternative to the inevitable violence of a religious and unenlightened world. The truth of the matter is more complicated, of course. In any case, we would do well to recall that it was popularly believed at the turn of the twentieth century that western civilization had seen the end of large scale conflict among nations.

Setting to one side the historical validity of modernity’s myths, let us at least acknowledge that a social order grounded in the power of speech is a precarious one. Speech can be powerful, but it is also fragile. It requires hospitable structures and institutions that are able to sustain the possibility of intelligibility, meaning, and action–all of which are necessary in order for a political order premised on the debate and deliberation to exist and flourish. This is why emerging technologies of the word–writing, the printing press, the television, the Internet–always adumbrate profound political and cultural transformations.

A crisis of the word can all too easily become a political crisis. This insight, which we might associate with George Orwell, is, in fact, ancient.

Consider the following: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member,” so wrote, not Orwell but Thucydides in the first half of the fifth century BC. He goes on as follows:

… to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime.”

I came across a portion of this paragraph on to separate occasions during the past week or two, first in a tweet and then again while reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics.

The passage, taken from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, speaks with arresting power to our present state of affairs. We should note, however, that what Thucydides is describing is not primarily a situation of pervasive deceitfulness, one in which people knowingly betray the ordinary and commonly accepted meaning of a word. Rather, it is a situation in which moral evaluations themselves have shifted. It is not that some people now lied and called an act of thoughtless aggression a courageous act. It is that what had before been commonly judged to be an act of thoughtless aggression was now judged by some to be a courageous act. In other words, it would appear that in very short order, moral judgments and the moral vocabulary in which they were expressed shifted dramatically.

It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequent observation about how quickly the self-evidence of long-standing moral principles were overturned in Nazi Germany: “… it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”

It is shortsighted, at this juncture, to ask how we can find agreement or even compromise. We do not, now, even know how to disagree well; nothing like an argument in the traditional sense is being had. It is an open question whether anyone can even be said to be speaking intelligibly to anyone who does not already fully agree with their positions and premises. The common world that is both the condition of speech and its gift to us is withering away. A rift has opened up in our political culture that will not be mended until we figure out how to reconstruct the conditions under which speech can once again become meaningful. Until then, I fear, the worst is still before us.