Narrativity and the self in the digital era

One of the common grounds of contemporary critique of technology, particularly digital technology, is that it makes us think horizontally rather than vertically. Because of that, we are also less predisposed to engage with narratives, and we are living what Douglas Rushkoff has called a “Narrative Collapse.” Following the same line, in his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr insists on the fact that Google is making us less capable of concentrating on something for extended periods of time, that is, of creating deep and lasting mental connections. Furthermore, Carr also points out that, in part, our society is shallower because of the endless expansion of the present through newsfeeds, social networks and email, which are diminishing the possibility of long-term narrativity.

In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle recalls Winston Churchill’s words according to which: first we shape our buildings, and then they shape us. She claims that the same happens with technology; once it is out there, it modifies us through its structures, and more so with the web 2.0. When at the beginning of his book You Are Not a Gadget Jaron Lanier asks the question “What is a person?” he tries to answer by not reducing us to the ready-made formulas offered by social networks: “When it comes to people, we technologists must use a completely different methodology (…) When we ask people to live their lives through our models, we are potentially reducing life itself,” and further on he also says that [and I quote again] “The most effective young Facebook users – the ones who will probably be winners if Facebook turns out to be a model of the future they will inhabit as adults – are the ones who create successful online fictions about themselves (…) Insincerity is rewarded, while sincerity creates a life long taint.”[1]

Facebook and LinkedIn, for example, are affordances that enable users to create specific types of identities that one can share with others and project to virtual reality. These kinds of websites give us the new terms and conditions of our personalities, and set up the rules for social interaction. Even though we could think that there is a big gap between the virtual and the real world, Stanford University researcher Jeremy Bailenson has proved that changing the height of one’s avatar in virtual reality, for example, modifies social self-perception and self-esteem. There is therefore a strong connection between both realities, and we have to accept the fact that the bridge between them will only shrink in the future. In fact, in a recent interview, with his characteristic polemic style, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, pointed out that the fictional character that we project as our avatar tells more about ourselves than the person we are in “real life” – with all the perverse psychoanalytic implications this may have…

In Present Shock, Donald Rushkoff uses the aforementioned term “narrative collapse” to refer to the historical stasis that already Francis Fukuyama preconized in 1992. We were sustained economically, politically, and even spiritually, by stories, but all the ideologies fell with the Berlin wall, and. “As a result, our culture becomes an entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment. Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate.”[2] After certifying this collapse, Rushkoff reminds us of the fact that in prehistory human beings also lived in a permanent present, and it was through writing, that they started to have, first, narratives, and later on, a sense of history. Paradoxically, it is yet another technological iteration what has brought mankind to live in a state of permanent present again.

According to Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee, Rushkoff’s main references for storytelling, the idea of “story” is essentially true to life; but in order to create our own true-life stories we must keep a deep and engaged long-term relationship with ourselves. On that matter, the renowned autobiography specialist Philippe Lejeune considers that:

“The devalued past collapses and the future disappears, because tomorrow is already today. We are losing our long-term connections, our rootedness in the past, and the ability to project ourselves into the future, all of which allowed us to construct a narrative identity. We are skating along swiftly in a present that annihilates the past and denies the future.”[3]

But Lejeune also points out that digital technologies offer new forms to express troubled and problematic identities, which is very much the reason for the existence of autobiography. Hybridization and fragmentation of the narrative are the very form of autobiography, and that makes Lejeune think that the genre, after all, is in good health for the times in which we are living.

However, it is undeniable that there is a fragmentation of narrativity, and that the web 2.0 has increased the dispersion of the narrative fragments. In many ways it has made us more narcissistic and self-centered, but at the same time it has impaired the possibility of making sense of our lives as a whole. The question today is how to unify and draw wisdom out of our own life-stories, accepting not only the “other”, but also the conflict with the “other” as an integral part of our lives.

As I said earlier on, in his book You are not a gadget, Jaron Lanier sets off asking “What is a person?” The word “person” (persona-prosopon) comes from the Latin and Greek words for mask, which tells us that any definition of character is imposed or attached to an underlying surface that we can’t reach. The social media have given us the possibility of creating more masks for our multiple personas. We are constantly shifting personalities on the web, as if it were yet another stage of the human comedy. In relation to that Philippe Lejeune reminds us that the multiplication of media registers are diffusing the unity of life in a single narration, and that the result may be a breakdown of narrative identity in which the idea of life no longer depends on a connection between the past and the future.

But after all, changes in technology have always meant changes to the idea of the self. The appearance of the book, for example, substituted memory as the main source for life narration. Writing allowed people to look back on their life paths and unify them in a single story that made some sort of sense. The web 2.0, in which we constantly upload personal material, is expanding our narrativity to multiple self-narrations. What used to be a private diary is now a semi-public Facebook wall that may make our life “richer”, in some ways, but also less unified and harder to understand as a single phenomenon. Let alone if we include LinkedIn profiles, Instagram, Second Life, etc. in the mix.

The new web has brought up a new kind of human interaction, many times frenetic, but less personal, and more fragmentary. According to Lanier, there is a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of whom each person might become. Granted we feel more free and empowered to manifest ourselves in every way, but it might become harder to understand our own motivations and ourselves. The public image we try to project is already informing our character in a loop that leaves little space for introspection and deep knowledge of ourselves.

As with everything else, the new paradigm has changed the conditions of production of autobiography and memoirs. It has, for the first time in human history, enabled everyone to have a recorded autobiography. When the Facebook generation gets to an old age we will look back on our profiles and have a life informed by them. Actually, there are already applications being designed to help sort out the unorganized information accumulated on social networks, emails, whatsaps, etc. The key question here will be to figure out which moments, which states of mind, which relationships and which turning points, are the most meaningful and worth recording for posterity. Paradoxically, the way we are creating theses autobiographies on a daily basis is not precisely very well thought out, but rather arbitrary. Some may claim that such is life, but what matters here is: What is a qualified life? Paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, the question is whether one wants to be a satisfied pig or an unsatisfied Socrates.

And that leads us to the question of Aristotelian Eudaimonia: What is a well-lived life? Which at its turn expands towards: What is a life worth living? All these questions are immemorial and, obviously, existed before the Interntet, but its appearance has broadened the scope from which we can tackle them and perhaps lost us in a myriad of possibilities. According to the chronically unsatisfied Socrates, a life worth living is an examined life. Following the thread of Greek wisdom, we could also bring up the idea that one can’t declare her or himself happy until the moment before death. However when in the near future we look back to the past we will find such a multiplicity of paths, versions and iterations of our life, that it might be too confusing to try to make sense of it all in a unified narrativity.

But again, none of that is necessarily bad if we are able to extract some wisdom out of it. The problem may be that, given the instantaneous satisfaction that we crave from the digital technologies, the reflection of our lives will merely be a shallow representation of the moments and circumstances that we decided to share with the digital community in order to create a certain public image (and maybe, also, a particular self-perception). At the end of the day, as has happened since the generalization of the printing technology, everybody will be able to put together an autobiography, but only those who have had an examined life will actually do so. To that end, it is crucial to keep a critical eye on technology and on how it affects us.

[1] Lanier, Jaron. You are not a gadget. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2010. p. 71

[2] Rushkoff, Douglas. Present Shock. Penguin. New York. 2014. p. 6

[3] Lejeune, Phlippe. “Autobiography and New Communication Tools” in Identity technologies. Constructing the self online. Poletti, Anna and Rak, Julie. Eds. The University of Wisconsin Press. 2014. p. 250