This quote from an article by recently-deceased Jean Baudrillard haunts me. I was hoping to ask him about it during a planned seminar on April 2 he was going to lead in Paris for my graduate schoool, EGS, but unfortunately, he died beforehand. As I think about digital identity and what social media (or whatever we want to call it) means, it is important to think about the negative as well as the positive.
"We are no longer alienated and passive spectators but interactive extras [figurants interactifs]; we are the meek lyophilized members of this huge "reality show." It is no longer a spectacular logic of alienation but a spectral logic of disincarnation; no longer a fantastic logic of diversion, but a corpuscular logic of transfusion and transubstantiation of all our cells; an enterprise of radical deterrence of the world from the inside and no longer from outside, similar to the quasi-nostalgic universe of capitalistic reality today. Being an extra [figurant] in virtual reality is no longer being an actor or a spectator. It is to be out of the scene [hors-scene], to be obscene."
The question(s) is/are: are we just extras, we who participate in the burgeoning blogosphere, socialnetworksphere, virtualworldsphere, *sphere? Is what we are doing really real, or are we fooling ourselves? Are we really building something different? An augmentation to our physical lives? Or are we constructing a mind prison?
There is so much utopianism around what is happening online these days that I am forced to ask questions about what might be the downside of it all. I did so a couple of weeks ago, and I will continue to do so. Personally, I think what is happening is a positive thing. I believe that what we are doing in constructing our digital identies (how I characterize everything we are doing), is adding to our humanity, is, in fact, perhaps the only way forward for the human species (a risky statement, I know). I am trying to work out the arguments, support and so forth for this hunch. However, there exist real dangers as well, as Baudrillard has seen. It is terrifyingly easy to fool ourselves into thinking what we are doing is significant, when perhaps we are simply playing another game. Adorno constantly warned us about this as well.
Some random musings:
We are "no longer alienated and passive", Adorno's complaint, but "interactive extras." This word "extras" deserves thought. If we are extras, who represents the main cast? The same power structures (corporate/goverment) as before? Something/one else? Extra implies superfluous, but surely we are more needed (by the powers, by each other) than not. Maybe it is this idea of "each other" that allows us to escape the implications of "extra". If we are all a community of extras, conversing with each other, perhaps outside the powersphere, perhaps unknowingly subject to it, perhaps ignored, does that make what we are doing less real/worthy/effective/etc.? And yet, even if we are extras, we are pursing something profoundly human (designing ourselves) and authentic. If we are constructing our own mind prison, is this so bad (a la the Matrix - if you don't know you are a slave, then it doesn't matter, etc.)? Or are we fooling the powers that be? They think they should be our jailers (seeking to become so by rules, regulations, surveillance, etc.), they believe they are, yet we look at them as if they are in their own bubble world that in reality has little effect on us, comfy in our virtual selves.
We need to think about "interactive" as well. I always think active is better than passive. Active implies will, ability to effect the world, dynamism, and so forth. What about "interactive"? How can we distinguish this from "active"? Does interactive connote impotent action? Hmmm...I really need to think about this, but I will spare you for the moment! I just felt like thinking aloud a little, and as always welcome your reactions.