Cloudiness: of selves, groups, networks and ideas

Clouds_iiiWhat is it 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. Anthropologists have an old question: how does a culture define the self and the group.   And they have a new question: what difference does it make to the self and the group that they are mediated by electronic connections (email, internet, SMS, IM, MMS, blogs, aggregators, shared search engines, 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 was 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 the 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, of being locked in the lonely confines of their selfhood…because they still had a selfhood, something relatively 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 would prefer to say, cloud-like.  (It’s just so much more flattering.  No?  I mean otherwise we are merely the proverbial dog’s breakfast.)

Ok, back to the third question: Where does cloudiness come from and how does it intensify?” 

My father was a Geertzian man: centered, organized and contrasted, more or less.  His self was concentric rings: family, work, interests.  (Or maybe it was work, interests, family.)  His life stacked.  And it leaned.  Like all modernist families at midcentury, it leaned into the future, towards the good life, the next house, the next job, grown children.  His industry (printing) changed several times over his career, but I don’t think he was ever obliged to ask, “ok, what’s the business model?” or “ok, how does this industry work again?”   

There was lots of new in my father’s life, but it was mostly shared new: space races, hi fidelity, cold wars, wreck rooms, status competition, new cars.  Even the marginal stuff tended to “clot.”  Not everyone heard of Area 51, but those who had tended to agree on what it was. There weren’t lots of options (no Areas 52, 53, or 54, at it were). Even in its feeling for novelty and its embrace of dynamism, there was something redundant and folded about this world.  (This held until the late 60s, when many assumptions now were brought to the surface and contested.  He hated this.)

For purposes of contrast, here is a brief diary of my last few days.  (I offer my own example here, but I expect the reader can supply better examples of the new cloudiness.)

Friday, I had a conversation with John Deighton in which we tried to puzzle out what is an enterprise is now.  (Specifically, who has to be included, in the performance of which functions, with revenue coming from what sources, driving by creativity and innovation of what kind, using what channels, anticipating what consumers, etc.)  This ends up being an impossibly philosophical guestion, and just the kind of conversation to which John quickens.  But it is now a standard kind of conversation now that the business world is changing so much.  (Deep reflection, not just for eggheads anymore!) 

It was a cloudy conversation because we were called upon to reach down to see if we were standing on an assumption that was itself in need of rethinking.  It was a cloudy conversation because we were called upon to reach up and ask what, finally, was the unit of analysis and the point of the exercise.  It wasn’t ever clear what was fixed and what needed scrutiny.  Finally, it looked as if everything did.

Now John is a friend I have from the tradition networked world.  We knew one another from conferences.  Then we worked together.  It’s always been a face to face relationship, one that uses the new technologies merely to “stay in touch.”  But Friday, I also had occasion to see Tom Guarriello and Tom is someone I almost certainly would not know were we not fellow bloggers.  In other words, electronic mediation is the necessary condition of our relationship.  My relationship with John is precisely the kind that helped construct my father’s social world.  My relationship with Tom is one he never would have had.  Assuming similar dispositions, my social world is at least one person larger because of electronic mediation.

But we can’t proceed additively.  Because my connection to Tom leads to more connections, which connections make for still more cloudiness.  Friday, while talking to Tom, I had occasion to mention my long standing notion that pop music has crappy lyrics.  This is one of the little things that float in my cloud of opinions of the world.  It is almost always dormant, but talking to Tom, it lept into mind and speech

And this fleeting reconfiguration of mental world meant that I was primed to quicken to this line on an NPR website.

Meloy is known for using “10-dollar words” in his songs, and for “creating character studies that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Victorian novel.”

Hah, I thought, any artists who uses 10-dollar words must be departed from pop purility.  And this took me into an interview between NPR’s Terry Gross and the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, the artist in question. 

But before we go there, it is worth pointing out that the NPR connection came to me because I was trying out my new Google Reader, a technology that winnows the world in a way my father could never have done.  My family read Time, Life, U.S. News and World Report, the standard package, I guess, for a middle class family.  The number of news sources at my disposal has multiplied extraordinarily and this has encouraged the invention of things like Google Reader, which is now capable of searching this world for things I know I care about, and then to return things I have to care about.

More specifically, I used Reader to search for subscriptions by searching for “culture.” Hey, presto.  A conversation with Tom had set me up to zero in an passage returned by Reader.  This took me to the NPR website and the interview of Colin Meloy by Terry Gross. The cloud was multiplying.  A new contact activates an old interest which helps me acquire a new interest, and I would not be surprised if this in turn helps me acquire a new contact.  In a word, cloudy worlds get cloudier.  My world is not just one person larger than my father’s because of electronic mediation.  Each new person can have a multiplicative effect.  Cloudy worlds get cloudier fast. 

Now this thought (and indeed this post) is encouraged by a Yi Tan conducted by Jerry Michalski and Pip Coburn on Monday afternoon on the topic of social search.  (I recommend these “phonecasts” for people interested in technology and change.  They happen every Monday at 1:30 EST.)  I am not sure that I took anything in particular away from this conversation, except of course to note that Jerry is terrifyingly articulate, and that here is another topic about which thought is called for.  What kind of thought exactly?  Oh precisely, that now standard Deightonian reflection where all assumptions and all objectives are up for grabs.  In particular, this Yi Tan put an anthropologist on notice that social search will change the nature of the self and the group.

There is a double cloudiness. In one, let’s call it, social cloudiness, more contacts and interests open up, and more contacts and interests are made possible.  And this in turn sets in train the other cloudiness, let’s call it a conceptual cloudiness, in so far as expanding social network expose us to things like the Yi Tan contemplation of social search and the recognition that there are lots of new things the proper intellectual reckoning of which will likely take the substantial relocation and renovation of our existing conceptual categories. 

I don’t think my father very often got news of Yi Tan kind, of the kind that said, ok, this innovation (social search) has emerged, it is changing, we are not sure exactly which of these changes will take, and we are not sure what difference the ones that do take will make.  My father wasn’t confronted by cloudiness, except perhaps at the very end of his career, when computers began to change his printing presses.  (There is something magnificently literal about a mechanical press, and something equally mysterious about one that is computer based.)  Conceptual cloudiness of this order only happened once in his professional world (I think) and what was called in this circumstance was a period of contemplation that would reward him with a new clarity.  This moment of adjustment is precisely what is now missing.  There is no stop and go, now “ok, let’s sort this out, and then get back to business as usual.”  We are entering a world in which our moments of “clarificaton” are really only moments in which we are obliged to scrutinize assumptions below and objectives on high. 

Back to the interview between Gross and Meloy.  Part of the interview centered around a contest between Stephen Colbert and the Decemberists.  Both had asked people to complete the green screen of a video, and Colbert then has accused the Decemberists of stealing his idea.  The “conflict’ resulted in a “guitar challenge” that brought together the Colbert, the Decemberist’s Chris Funk, as contestants, Henry Kissenger, as a judge, Morley Safer, as the presiding 60 Minutes type host, and Peter Frampton as a ringer, filling in for the cowardly Colbert. 

This activated my long standing interest consumer created content, not to mention a kind of (Henry) Jenkinsian transmediation.  But because neither of these “tokens” is a perfect illustration of the “type” into which I wish to put it, I was obliged to scrutinize the difference.  Was this is a useful difference (that is, something that marketing cocreation can learn from) or a trivial one.  Plus, I couldn’t help but remark on that amazing little cloud of participants (Colbert, Funk, Kissinger, Safer and Frampton) and wonder: Was this one of those crazy constellations that the postmodernists say proves we are a culture in which the center does not hold.  Or, could the more sober minded anthropologist build a model that made it make more sense.  (Still thinking on both these questions.)

So that’s: Tom + Google Reader gives stray return from NPR website gives evidence of music, activities and constellations, any one (or all) of which can serve as an opportunity to glimpse new things, or old things in a new way.  At a minimum, more social contacts leads to more interests which lead to more social contacts which lead to a cloudier self…all of which exposes us to the possibility that our categories and assumptions are up for grabs.  Clearly, this is the cloudiness that bothers me most, as more and more ponderables take on the status of imponderables as we attempt to use them to get some thinking done. 

If there is a takeaway here (besides a tearful descent into the accusation that the world is too much for us, I mean), it is perhaps the importance of that touchstone question.  It’s good to have one.   

There is another takeaway.  Friday, I posted on the arrival of my new bright sticks.  These are wet erase markers that let us write on glass.  This post, it turns out, owes a lot to the fact that I got to scribbling on windows.   Getting things out of your head onto glass feels a little like the intellectual process of getting them out of their imponderable form into something more ponderable.  Sure, I frightened the neighbors, but here in Connecticut everything frightens the neighbors.  Plus, it’s charming that something so low tech should be useful in dealing with a world so high tech.

Oh, and one last point, as I was scratching my ideas of a cloudy selves, groups, networks, and concepts in fluorescence onto windows, a client phoned.  He wanted to know “what is a group?”  (He is thinking about brand communities and how to build them.)  I am so glad you asked. 

Summing up.  The self and the group, when electronically mediated, reaches out in all directions, embracing more topics and contacts that it might reach out and embrace still more topics and contacts.  Selfhood is expanding outwards, and this be much more exciting and fun, if we did not finding ourselves expanding into a certain conceptual, categorical cloudiness and the task of thinking down to test our assumptions and up to query our purposes. 

Or perhaps this is wrong.  There may be a model out there that could give cloudiness a “house that Jack build” clarity.  Perhaps all these things do go together and we just need to build the model that shows us how.  When it works best, culture doesn’t just make the world intelligible.  It gives the world a “just so” quality (and when it works really well it makes everything seems so just.)  Maybe there’s a way to make this happen.  Maybe you, dear reader, can explain this to me.


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.


More on the Yi-Tan here and here

The interview between Terry Gross and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists here


To Stefan Hellvkist for another magnificent cloud. 

To a cloud of friends and connections: John Deighton, Ton Guarriello, Leora Kornfeld, Pip Coburn, Jerry Michalski, Terry Gross, Colin Meloy, gugoda, and Peter 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.

7 thoughts on “Cloudiness: of selves, groups, networks and ideas

  1. Peter

    Not being an anthropologist, I was not familiar with Geertz’s western concept of a person. I find the definition you quote, Grant, to be fascinating:

    “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.”

    The non-western society I know best — maShona society in Zimbabwe — would have a very different definition. First, the boundary of the conceptual person would not be around the physical person but around his or her extended family. A physical person is, first, foremost and last, a representative of his/her wider family, and a physical person is in some sense not considered an autonomous entity. Depending on his/her position within it, a person may have greater or lesser ability to speak on behalf or to commit the family, but at all times he/she will be perceived by others as bringing credit or discredit upon the family as a whole. And the family includes the dead as well as the living, so that one’s bad behaviour may readily dishonour one’s dead ancestors (who will exact punishment in consequence). Shona personhood is like wearing at all times a tie which publicly identifies the school you went to.

    Not sure of the relevance to your post, although I think the idea of a wide boundary of personhood is certainly relevant to understanding the social dynamics of open source software development.

  2. Jonathan Steele, RN CBMC

    You know, every so often the cosmic gears all mesh with resulting rhyme and harmony happening.

    It is ironic that I was responding to a post in a forum on (1) Using Google Alerts and (2)what is SMO or Social Media Optimization. To give an example of the first I pulled the first Google Alet and your posting was it.

    I only read it after putting together the posting to make sure it would be appropriate for all ages.

    Even more ironic, your posting is perhaps a thought collage of what Social Media has or is becoming to each of us.

    Or is it how we reflect the Socialization of Media.

    Anyway, I had to let you know. As an Artist, a nurse and a professional Public Speaker (who used to be a general contractor and stone mason) your thoughts certainly touched me.

    Perhaps the question for the next generation is no longer ‘who am I and where am I going.’ It is ‘What is my manifestation and where will destiny take me.”

    You wrote…”Our culture is changing selves, groups, and the groupings of groups at light speed.”

    I for one believe that rather than the proverbial 15 minutes we each are entitled to will be only a moment. The cultural change is creating a future that is the past in a blink of an eye. We can only hope that we will be, in the thoughts of Max Headroom, famous for 27 seconds into the future.

  3. jens

    when i think about my own explorer’s experience with the internet the story goes like this: the fist thing i saw in the mid 90s was a netscape browser and through this we (design consultants) gathered information about prospective clients. then came all kinds of portals, rudimentary search machines packed with stupid advertisements, job search sites, discussion forums on an aesthetical level that made them impossible to read, and a vast amount of bizarre and obscure material. the message i got was clear: this is not my world.
    this all changed around the turn of the millennium when i started to use google. still after 9/11 i bought my first tv set, because i felt that there was so much crucial (visual) information out there that may not be missed. – the tv set did not stay. – the internet did.
    2004 was the year that i got social on the net. a friend of mine invited me to a gated internet community called asmallworld – somebody else told me that tom peters would have an online discussion forum where they also talk about design and the impact on management. that was it for me. – from there i followed so-called blogrolls and engaged in numerous of inspiring and fruitful conversations.
    did my self become cloudy? well occasionally – and it is definitely cloudier than my father’s – but that is how it is in our individualized world with all its given possibilities.
    how do you find yourself in all these possibilities? you clearly stick to the things that you like – to the things and people that are like you.
    having been a connector, traveller and communicator most of my life i found that people that you like mostly like you too. and that the people whose work you truly like are mostly a lot like yourself.
    long talk…
    is this the house that jack build? – no, it is my house. – maybe a little cloudy around the fringes but pretty clear in the center.

    and – to pull this back to the sociological aspect of the conversation: something that i noticed about myself with all the extended possibilities of connecting – i tend to get a little more blasé towards people and things that have nothing to do with me.

  4. steve

    I don’t feel cloudy at all. Information sources and other people (however our interactions are mediated) are other, not self. Admittedly, I’m not a user of social networking tools, just blogs, but i don’t see how my sense of selfhood could ever be altered by contact with other people.

    Perhaps I present a slightly different face to different audiences, but hasn’t everybody always done that in Western society? You act differently with your family than your friends, etc. But I don’t see how that makes you cloudy in the sense of having a vague boundary between self and other.

  5. Daniel

    As a fellow anthropology grad and life-long student, this series of blogs fascinated me. It reminds me of that old sci-fi story about lifeforms that wre electrical clouds containing consciousness. I agree in general with the characterization of cloudiness, but think a membrane would be a better metaphor as reflective of the personality conglomeration that information explosion has intensified. It seems that the trend of human growth has been towards abstraction, one occurence being something like transcendence. This might be due to the effects of symbolic media in general, but it fits in with the cloudiness concept. I think the most explicit representations of this “trend” is in technology. Externalizing the symbolic representations of who we are through technology and then spreading these symbols throughout our environment while absorbing any novel information that fits in with our personality conglomeration. Tools are now synthesizing with being. Of course this is just one way to look at it, but a fun and insightful one I think.

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