When’s the last time you looked in a mirror? When’s the last time you looked at yourself in your digital mirror? I know Facebook didn’t invent the idea of the curated self and that the Internet doesn’t know everything (including, most obviously, the basics of civil discourse). All that granted, our digital selves are becoming a larger part of who we are and it’s a part of ourselves that is as awkward and full of often un-focused energy as a stereotypical teenager. One could hope we’ll get through this awkward Digital adolescence and emerge to be more productive, well-adjusted, and… well, what? Digital Adults? What exactly would that look like?
In the walking around world, only the most privileged get to defer confronting the basic realities of living in a physical world. Gotta get food, gotta get shelter. Oh and a little companionship ain’t so bad. Most of us aren’t waiting for the trust fund to mature. We have to take on at least some level of accountability for our actions and guide them towards activities that produce the necessities (and yes the niceties) of life.
I think the jury’s still out on whether or not our Digital selves will face the same imperatives. Part of the almost addictive allure is the hyper-elastic (often to the point of non-existence) connection between the digital action and a physical consequence. Whether in stratospheric valuations of companies with no line of sight to revenue, or the album of super fabulous pictures of our infant’s latest gas-induced funny face, we see the possibility of worlds that seem totally frictionless and fail to draw the connection to the social black-ice it creates. Faster and faster we go right up until we don’t.
It’s common chatter at the Analog Underground offices that individual identity brings our lives into being, but attachment gives that life meaning. In a Digital context, the raw content of our profiles, our email, our web pages, and yes, all those selfie albums bring our Digital selves into being. What gives that being meaning? The number of likes? A count of the “connections?” How many followers you have? Even stratospheric numbers there don’t matter much on a cold rainy evening when your car won’t start if you don’t have someone you can call (or more likely text) to come pick you up and take you home.
Well, duh. Nature, after all, does bat last. Which is not to assert a belief in some kind of earth-mother, kumbaya moment of civil and ecological reconciliation. Nature, red of tooth and claw, is fully expressed in human nature. That expression is only amplified in every direction when dragged across the divide from Analog to Digital and released from immediate physical constraints. With every moment of yik yak induced anonymous irresponsibility, every troll filled comment thread, each incidence of cyber-bulling and the whole idea of hacktivists, I can’t help but have this image of night riders in pointy little white hoods and dirty white robes galloping up out of the dark hell they live in to drawl out their seriously impoverished world views. That all seems to be getting worse, not better over time.
So what do we, of good heart and mind, do? Should we shut down the computer, turn off the monitor, unplug the home router and cable modem? Leave that Digital world to stew in its own vitriolic juices? Bake a batch of cookies and take them across the street to that neighbor who never gets any visitors?
Well, the cookies do sound good, but… We’re probably well past the point of just unplugging being a viable route towards a more civil society. Skynet may not be self-aware yet, but there is no firm boundary, no glass wall anymore between the machine room and the outer office of society and civil life. Like it or not our Digital selves do exist and do manifest themselves in the walking around world if only in our emotions and changed sense of what’s normal. If we abandon those Digital adolescents, allow them to indulge every whim and instinct, we get what we deserve, a kind of Lord of the Flies, ISIS vigilantism run rampant in every interaction.
Perhaps a more reasonable way forward is to assume that as the Digital world gets more nuanced, it will become more like the Analog world with all its glory and imperfections, that what works in the Analog world, will have some replication in the Digital one. Where is our Digital Gandhi or King? Does the Digital world have to get as messed up as the realities they faced before we see them emerge? I hope not, but I also know the Universe does love balance and symmetry. And that the first step to being a Gandhi or King is being involved. Log on, brothers and sisters, log on.