How modern social networking technology is affecting views of personal identity


An introduction to the ideas and concepts behind the report on how modern social networking technology is affecting views of personal identity, and the manifestation of these effects within the world of art and creativity, with reference to contemporary exponents of theories on social networks.

In his 1990 essay The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard theorises that all the systems, functions and ideals of our western societies are losing their meaning and purpose.
He puts forward the idea that the liberation that these systems have been striving for has been at least in some bastardised way achieved, and that with no more goals to strive for, the systems and concepts continue to circulate, and to disseminate themselves, with no guiding purpose. He applies this model to all things that could be considered to be principal aspects of a society: politics, religion, sex, science, economics etc. But I am concerned with application of Baudrillard’s theories to the field of communication, and the implications this would have upon the concept of the self.

It is undeniable that over recent decades advances in communications technology have radically altered the speed with which we can connect with others, all over the world. Communications networks have spread incessantly to all parts of the western world and most other civilizations. They have also crept into every aspect of social organization and interaction. This would certainly seem to follow Baudrillard’s dissemination model. Instant communication with what is practically the entirety of the world is now an omnipresent aspect of daily life.

The use of all these new technologies, however, does not involve any direct connection between people, at least not in any traditional sense. This trend corresponds to the ideas raised by the Situationist movement in the 1960s, that everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.(Debord, 1967: 1). Instead of allowing an interaction with another person as there is in a face-to-face conversation (or indeed a telephone conversation) which flows organically from instant and instinctive reactions, these new forms of communication act as a technological mediator between people, allowing all that is communicated to be thoroughly edited before transmission.

I see modern communications technologies as a new kind of societal structure that we must all now inhabit. There is a famous quote of Winston Churchill relating to the physical structures that we occupy: We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. In essence, what we create then imposes certain conditions upon how we live our lives. Though they may not be intentional impositions, all structures that we inhabit will lend themselves to making certain patterns of action and certain patterns of thought either more or less easy, or more or less advantageous. As these patterns are repeated they will eventually become learned behaviours, acted out even when the conditions in which they are advantageous are no longer present.

This process of behavioural learning is one of the basic principles of all psychology, and of neuroscience.
In a world where our lives are increasingly mediated by artifices of simulation, then surely they can have the same sculpting affect upon us, as the patterns of thought and action that they make to be advantageous become a learned and engrained part of who we are.

In Blog chapter One of this essay I am going to explore how these new forms of ever-expanding, technological communications networks are changing the way in which people relate to the world, and how this new mode of living is affecting how we view the self and changing our idea of what the self might be. In this section I reference the work and writings of leading contemporary thinkers, this will include both philosophy and social and psychological theory and research e.g. Sherry Turkle and Jean Baudrillard.

In the second Blog chapter I am going to be looking at how this new vision of the self has manifested itself within the world of contemporary art. I will look at how the use of the self as a primary subject or medium has overtaken a large portion of what is perceived as the pinnacle of the art world through the examples of specific works by Jeff Koons, who it could be argued follows the new, simulated and mediated model, in both the nature and meaning (or lack thereof) of his work, and in the nature of the work dispersal.

I am also going to explore how the art world, when related to Baudrillard’s vision of transaesthetics (Baudrillard, 1990: 15) (a term that he uses to describe art and aesthetics in a world where all fields, be it art, politics, religion, advertising, sex etc. have become cross-contaminated with each others symbols and semiotic baggage) reflects new ideas about the nature of the self.

In Blog chapter three I will be detailing the final part of my investigation into the impacts of the new self upon the sphere of art and creativity. This is the way in which negative reactions to the phenomena associated with it have arisen in the work of certain creative practitioners, including how I have approached the problem in my own work. I will also be looking at the television mini-series Black Mirror as an indicator of a current, underlying zeitgeist: one that is being driven by many other cultural and societal elements. The essence of this zeitgeist is the general sense of unease with the way in which the nature of the self is being reinvented, and the systems that create the conditions that drive this reinvention.

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I'm an eCommerce Project Director at an agency in London and a consultant for a number of eCommerce start-ups. I founded Think etc 9 years ago which now lets me share my research and experience with all the interesting brands, people, places and projects that I have been privileged to work with. My work on crowdsourcing was published by Oxford as part of a journal article and I have been obsessing over eCommerce and Magento over the past several years.