The cloudy self, or, what technology has done to us

Clouds_ii What it’s like being you right now?

Feeling a little cloudy? Of course you are. 

Because, I mean, to be fair, and let’s be honest, you are a cloud.  You are an aggregation of interests, connections, and contacts, tagged in several ways, linked in all directions, changing in real time.  I mean your mental world.  It’s  all hints and hunches, guesses and glimpses, shifting perspectives, tumbling assumptions.  You take on clarity for clients. Then you’re all "let’s get on with it" pragmatism.  But normally, and for most purposes, you’re as cloudy as can be.

How do I know this?  Call me your consulting anthropologist.  (No, don’t call me.  Try a blog aggregator and call me in the morning.)   Anthropologists have an old question: how does a culture define the self and the group.1   And now they have a new question: what difference does it make to the self and the group that they are now mediated by electronic connections (email, internet, SMS, IM, MMS, blogs, aggregators, shared search engines, social networks, p2p file sharing, online game play, etc.)

I think cloudiness might be an answer to the first question and especially to the second.  My guess is that new selves and groups are richly heterogeneous, loosely and variously boundaried, capable of expansion, contraction and sudden reorganization, not very well governed, but still quite navigable and quite mobile, and, in still other respects, dynamic in content, form and operation.2

I think cloudiness was an emerging property of selves and groups in the late 20th century, but that cloudiness has been intensified by the new electronic technologies of the last 10 years.  So the third anthropological question is now, "Where does cloudiness come from and how does it intensify?"  Or to put this in a more pressing form: how’d ja get so cloudy?

For sake of argument, we need a working model of the self.  Let’s posit the one proposed by Clifford Geertz who described the Western concept of a person as a

bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background. 

Wave goodbye.  That was you before you bought a computer and signed up for an email account.  Those were the good old days, when people could still complain about anomie and being locked in the lonely confines of their selfhood…because they still had a selfhood, something impermeable that kept the world out and the precious self in. 

That was then.  This is now.  We are no longer "bounded," "integrated," "centered," "organized" or "contrasted."  We are now blurred, decentered, disorganized, and, well, a little vague.  We are, I prefer to say, cloud-like.  (It’s just so much more flattering.  I mean otherwise we are the proverbial dog’s breakfast.)

Back to the third question: Where does cloudiness come from and how does it intensify?"

[ok, sorry, but I have run out of time, and I will have to finish up tomorrow.]

Footnotes

1 This question used to send us to other cultures.  Now it makes us stay home.  Our culture is changing selves, groups, and the groupings of groups at light speed.

2. This is the recognition that sent the post-modernists screaming into the night, epistemologically speaking.  Or perhaps it was merely a culling exercise, a way to get the sheep away from the important questions. Too bad they ended up so near the students.

Acknowledgments

Stefan Hellvkist here for the magnificent cloud.

To a cloud of friends and connections: John Deighton, Tom Guarriello, Leora Kornfeld, Pip Coburn, Jerry Michalski, and Terry Gross, all of whom over the last couple of days forced the issue or at least raised the question: what is a self and what is a group now that we are so electronically mediated?  Forgive the provincial anthropological phrasing.   

3 thoughts on “The cloudy self, or, what technology has done to us”

  1. Sitting here in the intermission, the popcorn is cold and the soda long finished,. Before the man in the projector booth replaces the reel and dims the house lights once again here’s a thought bubble emerging from auditorium and floating somewhat awkwardly on account of its size towards the ceiling.

    ‘Cloud’ is an appropriate description for consciousness and the machinery that houses it – the brain. The mind is a vast reservoir of experiences, knowledge and associations that can and are drawn together into urgent focus in response to outside stimulus, or inner demand. When playing on old parlor game in which across 12 different categories a word beginning with the same letter must be identified, the mind is forced to reorganize its content in a spontaneous and unfamiliar way. At no other time does the mind behave in this way, but there are many instances in which the cloud re-orients around a different organizing principle, in daily life. How organic and flexible this connection is depends on the individual, technology and the pervading mores of the time, particularly those among generational cohorts.

    Gen Ys for example are comfortable with using electronic media, not just as channel of communication supportive a relationship sustained elsewhere, but as the predominate basis for its existence and continuity. Within their active social circle there are people who they’ve never met yet consider their friendships as real as from the off-line world. Perhaps the most interesting impact of technology upon our neurological cloud is in the opportunity it affords to play and experiment as different characters, with different personalities. With so many dimensions that the ‘self’ consists of, we are arguably living in an age that offers far greater personal fulfillment because of the opportunity to spend time actively engaged in each psychological state.

    While this is an emerging as still relatively new territory facilitated through two-way electronic communications media, brands – a form of cloud themselves – have been acting in this capacity for several centuries. By affiliating with a specific brand an individual gains fulfillment of a particular order and magnitude. The constellation of brands an individual embraces is likely to show some telling contrasts (if not outright contradictions) which reflect both the personality and relative comfort in public vs. private displays of consumption. This is why the woman who wears Ann Taylor clothes to work and drives a Camry, a practical car that doesn’t draw much attention to herself, could also wear La Perla underwear during the day to fulfill her more racy side. Or the man in his mid 20s driving a Mitsubishi eclipse tricked out with accessories also buys a lot of Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese dinners and pizza because of surrogate comfort it brings.

  2. Grant —

    While I think you (and commentor Quqoda) are correct to stress the impact of electronic mediation on the sense of self, I am not so sure this phenomenon is new. My mother was a telephonist, working from the late 1940s. Connecting international calls from Australia (where she was employed) to the rest of the world, she would talk regularly with the international operators at the other end, in, say, London or New York. She did this so often that she could recognize these people by their voices, along with those of her regular customers, and even became friends with many of them. As a result, she had numerous “online” friendships with other telephonists, with telecoms engineers, and with customers from around the world, most of whom she has never met. This was quite common among her colleagues in the industry. Indeed, I expect the phenomenon goes back at least to the days of the inter-continental telegraph. (In Australia’s case, that was 1872.) So I believe there’s a history of electronic mediation of the self, at least in one segment of the population, which perhaps would make a good PhD thesis in social-anthro, and help in understanding the impacts of our current online society.

    I think it may be a defining feature of us baby-boomers to imagine that whatever we do is being done for the first time in human history. I think that we are usually wrong to assume that.

  3. Grant

    An interesting post, as ever. And two interesting comments (so far).

    But I too wonder whether what you see is really there, or whether it is an artefact you see because you are trained to look for such things.

    I see little real evidence that we humans are changing significantly. Not at the fundamental biological-neurobiological-psychological level. But I do see that sometimes – at least for those of us with access to new communications technology – we express ourselves in new ways enabled by that technology. This blog for example.

    The cloud metaphor is a good one but for a different reason. It is not so much that we sit at the centre of an information cloud (which we increasingly do, but that is an outside-in view not directly related to self), but that we sit at the centre of a relationship cloud. Close to us and in pretty much full visibility are our family and close friends. A bit further out are our work colleagues and other acquaintances. Further out still are people we met who me may remember if we should meet them again. And so on. Newer electronically-enabled relationships are just another variation upon the same old theme. The only real differences are the medium and what you might call the non-physical nature of the relationship. But none of this significantly changes things at the fundamental biological-neurobiological-psychological level.

    Perhaps we should take more care to ensure that the mediun does not become too much of the message.

    Graham Hill

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