(Re-)Presentation of Self

I was reading an invigorating [to me] interview with Adam Greenfield about his upcoming book, Everyware : The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, and I ran across two consecutive question-and-answer sets that made me really think about the danger of what we’re all doing here on the Internet:

B&A: Then let’s talk about opting out. When we are in control, we have the option to hide, to consider which face to put forward, even to manipulate. Will we still have this ability? And if not, are people ready to lose this control?

AG: I’m not so sure we will retain much of this ability, which in sociology is generally referred to as “presentation of the self.” With so much information about our past and current activities available to be searched, cross-referenced, and made available in real time, when we meet someone for the first time, we are likely going to lose control over the image we present to them.

Imagine what this will look like in practice. Whether you are interviewing a prospective new hire, meeting a potential romantic interest for the first time, or simply sitting next to someone on a plane, you no longer have to take a person at face value. It’s easy to see that this can occasionally be very useful, if you happen to be on the empowered end of the transaction. The trouble is that this ambient intelligence—facilitated by a ubiquitous deployment of informatic systems—cuts both ways.

And with the ability to control how others see us, I believe that we lose also a certain protective and beneficial hypocrisy that allows us to function as a society. We all, without exception, have habits, behaviors, experiences that we don’t necessarily want to share with the wider world. When you evert these experiences, and archive them, and tag them with metadata, and make them persistently accessible, it gets very difficult indeed for anyone to maintain the unimpeachable public façade our current mores require of us.

This is something that people who consider ubiquitous computing from a purely instrumental or technical perspective frequently miss: it’s not just a change in the way we use computers, it’s an alteration in some of the very foundations of the self as it’s been constructed in the West for the last few centuries. We’re in for a wild ride.

B&A: You know that when we’re doing something “on the record,” we tend to act and speak a bit differently, even in contrived ways at times. So how will this awareness of everyware affect how we present ourselves?

AG: Well, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Anyone who’s had, for one reason or another, to get used to being in front of cameras or microphones with any degree of regularity knows how hard it is to be “natural” when confronted with the prospect of being recorded, or transmitted to a large audience, or both.

When artifacts like cameras and microphones (to say nothing of sensors capable of recording one’s position and location, and verifying one’s identity via unique biometric signatures like retinal patterns or even gait period) are embedded in the objects and surfaces of everyday life, we all potentially become subject to the most intense kind of mediation. Barring some regulatory or other intervention, we’ll be forced to assume that we’re at least potentially “on,” just about all the time. And the sheer ubiquity of output modes offered by the robust deployment of everyware means that whatever once goes into the network can come out again just about anywhere.

Among other complications, this strikes me as being very likely to give rise to many of what MIT sociology professor Gary T. Marx calls “border crossings”: irruptions of personal information at an unexpected place or a time, in an unexpected context. Again, I don’t think we’re even remotely prepared for what this is going to do to social cohesion.

[Emphasis mine on both parts.]

As I had folks over this weekend, I was interested, as usual, to hear Jeff and Adriene talk about marriage. Adriene related a hilarious anecdote from their second week of marriage regarding how Jeff likes his sandwiches made. It’s such a trivial thing, but … it’s important to us.

I sometimes write about the secrets that we keep from others and even ourselves. I’ve heard many folks—Jeff and Adriene, Stephen and Misty, Mark and Karyn—talk about how marriage is a refining process in their lives. The quote that sticks in my mind from Jeff this weekend is this: “It’s like you go through life with blinders on, and after that first year of marriage, you realize, ‘Oh man, I’m such a horrible person!‘ ”

One of the reason that people so judiciously defend privacy in this age of ubiquitous information is that there’s the risk of being burned. Having an illicit affair? You could be outed. Flirting with some chippie online? Hell, the guy you’re flirting with could be your son! [Try explaining that one to your husband.] We crave privacy because we’re afraid of our true self being rejected.

It’s obvious to me, though, that we want people to be real. When it’s clear in our society that people are being phony, they lose face; many folks believed Rafael Palmeiro’s stern statements about having never used steroids until he was caught by a drug test. Some people always felt Kobe Bryant was putting on a facade, and then he was busted for sexual misconduct. Alex Rodriguez was raked over the coals for his “will he, won’t he” approach to the World Baseball Classic until news came out that his mother wanted to play for the Dominican and his wife wanted him to play for the U.S. [Hey, as much as I’m not a fan of how A-Rod handles himself, that’s a shitty position to be in; either way, you’re going to make one of the women in your life unhappy.]

I think Greenfield has it right: it’s all about the sociological phenomenon of presentation of self. Some people have found this out firsthand: Mark Pilgrim got fired for writing about his addictions, and, yes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Heather Armstrong’s firing creating the term “Dooced”. Just as we’re all shocked, shocked, SHOCKED! to find out that we’ve been living next to a serial killer for fourteen years, or maybe even going to church with him, well … yeah. These things happen. Sometimes that guy you thought was a great friend turns out to be a … not-so-great guy.

Some people mourn this loss of privacy. I’m not sure that I do—even as I cover up the things that I want to cover up and keep hidden. Hypocritical, sure, but the answer is that I’m willing to be known as a hypocrite primarily because we could all easily be found out for being one!

I think that the fundamental tension in my writing here is being torn between a desire to flay myself open and the understanding of social norms that prevent me from doing so. Chew on that as you will…

3 thoughts on “(Re-)Presentation of Self”

  1. This is really interesting to me.

    Given the premise that information we want to remain secret is destined to become public knowledge, I agree that the potential consequences are major. However, I don’t necessarily accept the premise.

    There’s certainly a disturbing trend in information collection. There are possibilities for people being able to track certain of my movements, activities, purchases, etc. that I’m not entirely comfortable with.

    That being said, I think the majority of what’s being discussed here isn’t really violation of privacy as much as it is a misunderstanding of just how far the Internet can take our very public statements.

    Is it really that hard to understand that anything we put on the web is by definition very public? Part of what I see in that discussion is that people seem to have some expectation of privacy in what they put in a web log. I don’t understand that.

    The example Geof cited about Heather Armstrong seems a perfect example. I applaud her for owning up to the fact that she created the situation, but she still didn’t quite seem to understand:

    Would it be any different if someone found a notepad on which I had scribbled things about my job and turned it in to my boss?

    Is it not obvious that the answer to this question is “yes”? A notepad isn’t being published, indexed in search engines, and generally made available to anyone who cares to look.

    So, here’s my novel idea: don’t publish things that you don’t want the general public to know about you. *shrug* I think the revelation here is not that our privacy is destined to be violated, but that the Internet effectively creates a “rear view mirror” effect: the audience you see may be much larger than it appears. 🙂

  2. “So, here’s my novel idea: don’t publish things that you don’t want the general public to know about you.”

    So there was one thing I was thinking even before I reached Jeff’s comment. You still have your online privacy in that you don’t publish on your weblog what you don’t want the world to have access to.

    On the other hand, I think a lot of things would change in the world if everyone was completely honest with themselves and others and no one had anything to hide.

    Yes, I do like it up here in Maine with my rose-colored glasses. 🙂

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