In the article “How modern social networking technology is affecting views of personal identity”, Baudrillard states that in the world as it is today, nothing ends in the conventional sense anymore, but instead things disappear through proliferation or as a result of their transfer into the secondary existence of simulation. (Baudrillard, 1990: 4). I have been exploring the possibility that this vision of a things destruction through its over-extension, and its cross-contamination can now broadly be applied to the very concept of the self.
I believe that allusions to the root causes of the changes taking place in the concept of the self can be found in the writings of Guy Debord, and the ideas of the 1960s Situationist Movement. They can be, if not entirely explained, then at least rationalised by the exploration of the Situationist concept of the Spectacle: a world reduced to the use of an ever more complicated system of symbols, used to represent and replace all things which used to be experienced as a physical reality. Debord describes this spectacular state as being geared to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly) (Debord, 1967: 18), which would appear to be a statement that is entirely applicable to current communications networks.
With the advent of personal computing in the 1980s, and then of personal communications devices over the following decades, people have been increasingly gleaning data and experience through many different kinds of specialized machines which, by their nature, mediate the transfer of these pieces of data and experience.
Indeed, it is entirely reasonable to argue that our societies have been gripped by a great shift away from direct action. Physical labour and toil the carrying out of which, throughout all but the most recent parts of history has been essential for survival is now, for most people, a choice rather than a necessity. As society has reorganised itself, giving primacy to the industries (I use this world not entirely wholeheartedly, as the defined meaning of industry is concerned with manufacturing and technical production of physical objects) of entertainment and finance, the need for people to act directly upon and within the physical world has diminished significantly. When the primary aspects of society, including the fields in which most people work, become based entirely in theory and representation (as is intrinsic in the entertainment and finance sectors, the latter being based in artificial mathematical systems, and the former in bureaucratic organisational structures and imagery) then it is only possible to work within them via some method of mediation.
They have no tangible substance and must be represented by mediating symbols. So now we live in a world that is over-populated with signs and distractions, and the physical real is now but one thing in our crowded field of vision. (Turkle, 2011: 152) The most important aspect of this to my subject, though, is that all these new models and symbols at work in society, and the technologies that we use to engage with them also mediate our interactions and communications with other people.
There are many and varied communications technologies that we now live with, and as the functions of these devices has begun to cross over and bleed into one another (as surmised in Baudrillard’s theories), they have formed a completely interlinked web of indistinct and vague formats of communication, a global network that has now grown beyond the confines of the internet. This network until very recently only readily accessible within the confines of desktop personal computing has now entered every sphere of life.
Following the Situationist model, the network now mediates a substantial proportion of our contact with other people. As such, in being connected to it, we often allow ourselves to be switched off from reality, instead giving preference to our networked mobile devices. Connected to our devices we are offered access to a new mode of existence on the network. Now we can spread ourselves across it.
Despite the way in which it has, to an extent, cut us off from one another in the first-hand and physical sense, the rise of the global communications network has also fostered a new kind of exhibitionism. The structure of social networks primarily facilitates the communication of small amounts, or snapshots, of information to a large number of people.
In this system, the emphasis is placed upon presenting an image of oneself to a larger social sphere. They are put together in a way that encourages users to display information that implies facets of their tastes and personality for all to see. A good example of this practice is the option given to users of Facebook to like a subject, celebrity, activity, etc, an action that takes less than a second.