James C. Banks

The Imperialism of Personality

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2011 at 12:57 am

The internet is a crucible of schizophrenia. I do not mean this literally (and I am defining schizophrenia by its common rather than clinical definition). The majority of individuals who use it are not at risk of mental disorders. But I do not know of any technology that has bifurcated the human psyche in the way that the internet has done. Visiting my facebook page, for instance, isn’t going to tell anyone much about who I am; the narrative of my life as presented in the stream of social media—short of the constant fear of having my identity stolen—is mine to control. While there are quite a few individuals who have chosen to “over-share,” to put it mildly, I somehow doubt that anyone is entirely sincere in the persona that he or she presents.

Irony, hypocrisy and insincerity are old enough to be time-honored traditions. I am not arguing for abandoning them. A glance at the graffiti on the inside of a public restroom stall is enough to turn anyone against total honesty. But there is cause for concern as the public persona becomes increasingly invasive—not only pushing out into the morass of blogosphere, social media and networks but also pushing back into the home office and living room.

Insincerity may have always been a hallmark of public life, but the instruments of it have changed.  The powdered wigs and pancake makeup of Versailles have morphed into the JPEG photographs and HTML texts of Palo Alto. Individuals can build relationships without ever seeing their new acquaintances in the flesh and, conversely, they can stay in their room under lock-and-key without ever really being alone, as acquaintances prowl their public personas online.

While it is always dangerous to predict where these new technologies are taking us, it is likely that this schism between the private and the public life will increase in the 21st century. While companies now buy themselves credibility by renting enormous office buildings in strategic locations, entrepreneurs may discover that they can perform their essential services while contracting their work out to independent consultants who provide managerial work on a computer screen and never get out of their pajamas. At least, it would remove the off-loaded cost of office overhead.

Because of grocery and Chinese food deliveries, consultants like these could stay indoors for weeks at a time, except for holidays when they might take an occasional trip to visit their grandparents or date a girl whom they met in an online matching site. But, if individuals like these were to have no interaction with the world—no identity apart from their electronic identity—what would become of their ever-shrinking sphere of neglected individualism—the self that isn’t constantly seeking to connect or pair up with the mediate invasiveness of the world?

It remains to be seen, but, if nothing else, this trend probably won’t make restroom stall graffiti much more enjoyable.

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