Technological Determinism & the Myth of Self-Reinvention

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


December 6, 2012

Technological Determinism & the Myth of Self-Reinvention

Twitter is a machine for continual self-reinvention, says Jason Kottke, in a kind of mashup argument of the work of different authors. First, MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey’s post Why I Love Twitter and Barely Tolerate Facebook:

Twitter put simply is fun, fantastic, and all about the here and now. The fact that I can’t even search my own feed for past things I’ve said makes it exist almost entirely in the present tense… There’s no memory at Twitter: everything is fleeting… Facebook is mired in the past.

Second, a link to Scott Schuman’s post on The Sartorialist, a popular fashion photography blog. Schuman runs into a woman, Kara, who he photographed several months earlier, but her look has changed so dramatically that he takes her for a stranger. He emails her later to find out how this happened:

Actually the line that I think was the most telling but that she said like a throw-away qualifier was “I didn’t know anyone in New York when I moved here…” I think that is such a huge factor. To move to a city where you are not afraid to try something new because all the people that labeled who THEY think you are (parents, childhood friends) are not their to say “that’s not you” or “you’ve changed”. Well, maybe that person didn’t change but finally became who they really are. I totally relate to this as a fellow Midwesterner even though my changes were not as quick or as dramatic. I bet if you ask most people what keeps them from being who they really want to be (at least stylistically or maybe even more), the answer would not be money but the fear of peer pressure – fear of embarrassing themselves in front of a group of people that they might not actually even like anyway.

Finally, the concluding synthesis from Kottke:

[I]n the social media world, Twitter feels like continually moving to NYC without knowing anyone whereas Facebook feels like you’re living in your hometown and hanging with everyone you went to high school with. Twitter’s we’re-all-here-in-the-moment thing that Matt talks about is what makes it possible for people to continually reinvent themselves on Twitter. You don’t have any of that Facebook baggage, the peer pressure from a lifetime of friends, holding you back.

Schuman theorizes that excessive concern for how you appear to others is holding you back from changing into who you want to be, and of course this has a certain appealing logic to it, but it has its limits, which are easily detected in the very same example. It is true that Kara has changed her outward appearance, to the point that Schuman no longer recognized her on the street as the same woman, but at another level, he did recognize her again.

He approaches fashionable people on the street and asks for their photo, and for this woman he approached her twice, identifying her as fashionable and worthy of a photo in both cases. The original photo was taken because they happened to meet at the grand opening of a clothes store. So in what sense then has she really changed? She is now, as she was then, a person of fashionable taste, so in the sense of “What kind of a person am I?” she hasn’t changed at all. It is only change as judged from the perspective of an outside observer.

So there’s a profound ambiguity in the gaze of the Other, and perhaps something like the Derridean condition of possibility which is paradoxically also the condition of impossibility. The Other appears at first as the obstacle to becoming who you want to be – they stop you by saying “You’ve changed! That’s not you!” At the same time, it is precisely this reaction that’s sought after when we dramatically change our appearance. While it may be frustrating to have friends and family refuse to let you change, imagine the disappointment of putting together a whole new look and finding that everyone barely notices. The shocked reaction of the Other “You’ve changed!” now has a different meaning, signaling that the desired effect has been achieved, and in a way, making change possible in the first place.

Identity is caught up in the mirror-gaze of the Other, and flips between recognition and misrecognition. Although we might object to restrictive recognition by others, in the exact moment when we feel most free of it, we are secretly dependent on it.

It can’t be denied that friends and family who object to identity changes are reacting to the way such changes provoke a feeling of loss or separation. If you adopt a look, or a mode of consumption, that sharply diverges from theirs, they may experience that as a rejection. But that is because they are already caught in narcissistic imaginary identification with you (and of course, you with them). The groundwork has already been laid: the sense of similarity which forms the basis of a relationship also undoes it by generating aggressivity and envy.

Kottke implies that moving to New York allows you to erase your history, a possibility that Schuman seems to reject, saying of Kara:

All the big smile and Midwestern charm (she is from Oakbrook, Chicago) from the first picture are still there but now they are wrapped in a more sophisticated, urbane exterior.

It’s interesting that Schuman seems to back away from this possibilty of erasing one’s history while celebrating the possibilities of self reinvention. He marvels at the “New York effect” that transformed Kara, feeling that something similar happened to him. And yet he calls himself a fellow Midwesterner. For him they’ve changed, but at the same time remain rooted in their pasts. She is both dramatically different and yet fundamentally the same, only wrapped in a different exterior.

Recognition and unrecognition overlap. It’s not so strange that Schuman moved from Indiana to New York and reinvented himself as a Midwesterner, partly because you can’t really be one in Indiana—everyone in Indiana is a Midwesterner, so you simply disappear into the background. But mostly because leaving town to reinventing yourself can end up being a highly conservative move. Away from the disapproving gaze of your friends and family, you are seemingly free to try on an endless variety of guises to find what’s most comfortable for you, but you also find that certain things don’t change, and these are reinscribed as the hard kernel of who you are.

The American cultural narrative of self-reinvention is a powerful one. The phrase “self-made man” carries connotations of wealth and entrepreneurial spirit, but when the phrase was first popularized in the 19th century, it had a less business-oriented meaning. It stood for the ideal of the autonomous individual with a voluntarily chosen identity, free of the symbolic bonds and debts of one’s historical identity. In a country of immigrants founded on rejecting the traditions of Old Europe, this has obvious appeal and is often repeated in the popular trope of the hero who leaves the family farm and strikes out on his own, often to the big city. But with the rise of consumerism in the 20th century, the American Dream is reimagined as the endless production and reproduction of self-identity through consumer products.

In his paper Film Noir and the American Dream, Ken Hillis says:

The post-war period witnesses the emergence of an economic model connecting identity with consumption. The act of consumption increasingly is linked to the production of one’s individual identity as a shiny commodity without a past. The past, whether tainted by fated indiscretion or polished by nostalgia, occupies a less and less central role in the new consumer economy than in an earlier pre-war economy predicated on an understanding of personal identity as productive, responsible, and continuous in time. An identity too firmly linked to a past, like an outmoded commodity, becomes superfluous…

The ideal of a history-less self is clearly at work in Matt Haughey’s embrace of Twitter and by Kottke, who explicitly draws the analogy of Twitter as leaving your hometown for the city. In a way, the self-invention dream is radicalized even further: Twitter is not merely the city where we can reinvent ourselves, it is an experience of continually moving to the city.

“You are who your last dozen tweets say you are,” says Kottke, but I don’t really buy this. I think Matt Haughey’s essay makes clear that the primary problem, the obstacle to self-reinvention on Facebook, is the people who are on Facebook: your family, your high school or college friends, colleagues from old jobs and so on. Facebook collects history mostly as a side effect of its position as the dominant medium of online social connection, not because of any special effort to constrain users’ freedom to reinvent themselves.

If it did, it might even be a positive thing.

Film noir sometimes functions as a kind of critique of the claims of ahistoricity of the consumer subject. Noir protagonists are often on the run from their pasts, and we are there to witness the moment when it finally catches up to them, often ending in their death. So the genre stages the failure of individual self-reinvention, and implicitly offers a critique of consumer capitalism and the American Dream. Could this tradition of critique be advanced in the context of today’s subjectivities? What history is repressed by social media?

Matt Haughey’s complaints that Facebook exposes his history seems almost like this, as the classic noir protagonist whose history has finally caught up to him. The erasure of history (or other kinds of contexts) comes up frequently for techno-fetishists. John Perry Barlow’s famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace might be its original expression, both as a recapitulation of the American declaration of independence and even more explicitly in its opening lines: “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.”

What could that possibly mean? Can you just ask the past to leave you alone? In practice, it means an optimistic belief that everything is different on the internet because it has no contexts: no history, no politics, no law, no economy, no social antagonisms, no race, class or gender. We are who our last dozen tweets say we are, and what a feeling of freedom that is. Unless it isn’t really true.

The internet is no longer marginal phenomenon, and the social context you thought you left behind is back with a vengance. The internet turns out to be a wonderful surveillance device, which certainly doesn’t help those who really need to get away from their families or evade authoritarian governments. Silicon Valley startups like Airbnb and Uber operate like web startups, existing only in the supposed void of cyberspace, until it turns out that you actually need licenses from city governments to run a taxi service, and maybe asking people to run illegal boarding houses could result in large fines for them. Others, like Khan Academy make fatuous claims that their simple websites solve problems that have vexed educators for decades, if not centuries.

This arrogance comes from the belief that they have liberated themselves from their contexts. Only they have the courage to break with the old-fashioned ways of doing things. If any problems arise with using their inventions, the source is almost always located in society, as a failure to adapt. They believe in the premise of technological determinism, that technology is ethically neutral – it lacks yet another context.

In the abstract, the supposition of technology as context-less and the American myth of self-reinvention seem to have little in common. One comes from science and technology studies, the other an American cultural ethos. They have a kind of structural similarity, but is the connection spurious? To me, the overlap is so strong and it is hard for me to just dismiss it. There are no doubt other points of connection that I haven’t even mentioned, like how startups adopt the philosophy of continuous innovation, a version of the same injunction to reinvent oneself that we hear constantly from advertising agencies. This allows Linkedin founders to write the Thomas-Friendman-approved career advice book The Start-Up of You which advises white collar workers to think of themselves as in permanent beta, implicitly as forms of technology that undergoes non-stop innovation and development.

It’s strange and fascinating to think that technological determinism might have a strong connection to the ideal of self-reinvention. Hillis understands identity as on the consumer side, like a commodity which can become outmoded. But modeling identity as technology puts a different, complementary spin on it. Identity innovation becomes an economically exploitable activity just like technology.

Previous generations believed that the problem with technology was that it was homogenizing and inhospitable to individuality. In fact, the problem turns out to be the opposite: technology reaches deep into our souls, and we form libidinal investments and ground our being in private, for-profit entities.