A popular slogan of freedom and individualism goes: “Think Outside The Box”. But what is the box? Where are its edges? What does it really mean to think outside it– and does anyone really know how?
I’ve been thinking about this slogan for a long time. It is, after all, one of the things philosophers claim to be able to do better than anyone else. Facebook’s “real name” policy, and how it affected friends of mine, prompted me to think about it in a new way.
The policy requires people to use their legal names, that is, the names on their birth certificates, with their FB profiles. The company says that they want people to use their real name for safety reasons. There is some sense to this: I don’t want anyone using the shield of anonymity to stalk, harass, bully, or threaten me, nor to try to pull a scam on me with multiple sock-puppet accounts and an ongoing campaign of manipulation. (This actually happened to me.) FB’s intention may be to reduce bullying by removing that shield. Therein bigger the problem is the bullying, not the naming, of course, but I do acknowledge FB’s general point.
To which it may be objected: the intention might be sound, but the practical result is that Facebook has effectively claimed the right and the power to tell you who you are. There were people who people objected to the policy for that very reason. Some were artists who wanted to be known by their stage names, or writers who used a nom-de-plume. Some were transfolk who had already begun using their new gendered names although the legal process of changing their names was incomplete. Some wanted to be known by a chosen name for religious reasons, or personal reasons.
It may look as if I’m late to this party. Drag queens have already won the right to use their stage names on Facebook; they even gained an apology from the company. Similar concessions have been made for other groups.
Here I’d like to point out that even before the aforementioned controversy, Facebook has been telling you who you are from the moment you signed on to it: and even before the aforementioned “real name” policy, Facebook had been doing this to its users since its creation. So has every social network out there. All of them, without exception.
The nature of any computerized social network is that it requires users to describe themselves in ways that are mathematically quantifiable. A social network is not in the business of telling stories of people’s lives—however much they may make it appear otherwise, for instance with “year in review” features that create photo streams set to cheerful music and graphics. Rather, they are in the business of managing a database of information which they rent to advertisers—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else, for better or worse. This means the only kind of knowledge about you that interests them is mathematically quantifiable data. They want a fill-in-the-blank list with one’s age, hometown, employer, or school; they want a checklist of “interests” such as the movies, musicians, sports, and books one likes—literally, since there’s a button marked “like” attached to everything, with which you add data to the database. All of these things certainly are part of anyone’s identity: they are the elements with which we build the stories of our lives. Your social network, however, treats you as if this checklist of quantifiable facts is all that you are. You might be the one who decides what to check off the list, but they define the list. You are nothing more, and nothing else, than that which you fill into the blanks they provide. In other words, that checklist is your “box”: it’s what that aforementioned slogan invites you to “think outside of”.
Think being a geek makes you a healthy, nonconforming, unique individual? Think again– because you, too, have a checklist to fill.
Where once we used to say “You are not the car you drive“, we now need to say “You are not your Facebook profile.”
(Although, as an aside, I think it’s interesting that we use the word “profile” to describe this digitized identity. A profile, after all, is a two-dimensional image: it’s flat, and it doesn’t face you head-on. It’s a simulated person, not a “real” person. Tuck that away in your mind for later.)
I wonder if the trend among writers and artists and geeks to assert that human life is a story has emerged precisely as a rebellion against the mathematical quantification of identity by means of computer networks.
You find this proposition in pop culture. “The soul’s made of stories, not atoms,” says Doctor Smith to Clara in The Rings of Akhaten. Award-winning fantasy author Charles de Lint wrote, “We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time.” You find it in academia, too: the earliest instance of which that I have found appeared in phenomenologist Wilhelm Schapp’s In Geschichten Verstrickt (“Entangled in Stories”, 1953); then Barbara Hardy’s 1968 masterwork “Towards a Poetics of Fiction”, a chapter in Alistair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”, and Paul Ricoeur’s 3-volume monstrosity “Time and Narrative”. Here’s Ricoeur on why stories matter:
Our own existence cannot be separated from the account we can give of ourselves. It is in telling our own stories that we give ourselves an identity. We recognize ourselves in the stories we tell about ourselves. It makes little difference whether these stories are true or false, fiction as well as verifiable history provides us with an identity.
“History as Narrative and Practice,” Philosophy Today 29 (1979).
Stories are what we ultimately care about, from the personal to the political. Stories are the foundation of that pagan form of immortality, apotheosis. They’re the foundation of justice and the proceedings of courtroom trials: it is why we demand victim’s impact statements for certain kinds of crimes. It is why we establish Truth and Reconciliation commissions, with senior court judges, to record the experiences of people under dictatorships or periods of state-sponsored injustice: South Africa’s Apartheid, Canada’s residential schools.
So when Facebook and other social networks turns your story into a mathematically quantifiable database entry, they decide what story to tell, and they decide how to tell it. Your story becomes nothing more than a mere variation of what is ultimately a banal and conformist consumer product: an arrangement of selections in a pre-defined checklist of pre-approved possibilities. In effect, again, they tell you who you are.
Let me “up the drama” in this argument– because for the problem as so far described is still only the easy version of the problem. There’s a harder version, which I think is far more serious, and it goes like this: people in general often prefer the mathematically quantified database-version of their stories, the profile, the simulation, the “avatar”. Further: the more we treat that database-avatar as the real person, the more we may become entirely unable to tell the difference between the profile, and the real person who stands somewhere behind it. Philosopher Eugene Beaudrillard’s idea of the HyperReal is appearing in our computer networks now. Beaudrillard saw the hyper-real in places like theme parks and shopping malls (especially Disneyland!)– places where we find the pre-packaged, available-on-demand, safely unthreatening simulation of things, instead of the messy, complicated, demanding, unpredictable, and labour-intensive reality. Think of the theme park safari ride, where the robot alligator jumps out of the swamp at just the right moment, every time: he scares the children, but never truly threatens them. Whereas a “real” alligator on a “real” safari ride might not jump out of the swamp at all– it’s asleep somewhere else– or it might overturn the boat and kill someone. Better to go to the theme park version. Then trick ourselves into thinking we’ve seen the real thing.
Now, with the social networks the hyperreal can simulate human persons with the consent and collaboration of the persons so simulated, and eventually take their places. You read someone’s “About” info, and peruse their checklist of “likes”, and then you think you know who he is. We no longer speak with people, but with the masks they wear. And people actually want this. They deliberately choose it. They become unable to distinguish their masks from their faces.
And we might still call them free, if only they design their own masks– but they don’t. The network does.
We now find ourselves in a society which celebrates itself as a “free”, yet is composed of people who lead profoundly conformist lives. We defend our freedom of expression with extraordinary gusto and desperation, but we have so little to actually express.
We tell our stories with pixels now. But pixels are sanitized, airbrushed, catalogued, unthreatening, unsurprising. Even someone whose FB profile is graphic design of the word “Fuck!” conforms to the basic pre-defined user-experience layout that the nature of the network provides. Stories told face to face are complicated, messy, demanding, full of ‘différance‘, and the weird. Better to deal with the hyperreal data-man, not with the reality, if there is such a thing anymore: the real person is somewhere out there, a tattered shadow of what he imagines himself to be, and he clings for dear life to his sharper-focused hologram, without which he fears he will cease to matter.
Thus we adapt to our “box”, become existentially identified with it, become cognitively unable to think outside it. The theme park and the shopping mall of Beaudrillard’s argument has moved to the internet, into the “cloud”, and from there into people’s minds.
This rant is taken from notes I’ve made over the last few months, in preparation for a nonfiction book I’m writing. I just thought I’d test the idea out on you. Please use the comments section below to reply.