Monday, September 19, 2016

Jonathan Snow: Creating a Self Identity in a Social Media World - Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on the above excellent article.

If I have any criticisms, they would mostly pertain to the ambiguous use of the notions of identity, self, and human nature. A consistent point of Snow's essay is that technology "fundamentally changes" humans, leading to or, more weakly put, encouraging a "cyborgian form of being and self-identification." The exact extent of this modification on the level of being isn't explained although its influence on the level of action and reaction is, especially in the areas of "human emotions and traditional forms of communication" as well as the action of "autobiographical self-writing." Snow repeats several times throughout his essay that "our very human nature is fundamentally shifted through" our use of various social media technologies into "a cyborgian form of being," but the demonstration is not clearly made.

The notion of identity isn't explicated. Snow jumps immediately into the psychological effects of Facebook's algorithms on constructing a "coherent narrative" that presents certain bits of information for the user instead of others. The precise effect is that the range of possible identity formation is inhibited or directed by those algorithms in such a way as to prevent deep thought and more extensive forms of self-expression, reflection, and discursive thought characteristic of humans. The permanent effect of these technologies is not argued for; in fact, Snow gives an anecdotal account of how he was able to personally reverse some of the effects after limiting his own use of those technologies. His essay ends with a call to be more wary regarding the use, implying that the shift into a cyborgian mode of living is not permanent. This lack of permanence only raises the further question of what Snow means by saying that human nature is "fundamentally changed."

Part of the inhibition occurs through the use of templates either in the form of the message (text, pictures with a single line of text as in Snapchat) or in terms of length (Twitter's 140 characters, Vine's 6 seconds).

Traditional natural philosophy (and metaphysics) distinguishes between the orders of being and the orders of action, or between the entitative and the operative. The traditional axiom is that action follows or flows from being. In other words, the very essence or form of a being delineates the range of actions of which it is capable. If we wonder why a rock cannot see or fly or speak, we can answer simply that its nature or form prevents it from doing so. Furthermore, the range of actions that may flow from a being may be hindered in various ways from being exercised, either externally as from some violence or internally as from some defect within the subject.

A claim that human nature is fundamentally changed must ultimately be intelligible metaphysically, that is, explained with respect to a modification in human being or doing. My criticism is that Snow's essay shows only changes on the level of doing, of actions characteristic of humans yet not so fundamental as to change the very essence of humans. It would be hard to see how a person could undo the effects of such technology if his very essence were changed, if he were no longer the same kind of being.

The effects of habits on human action are thoroughly explained in traditional natural philosophy. Examples of communication, human emotion, and the ability to focus or reason in an extended, discursive fashion are all examples of operations that flow from human nature. The argument of the essay is that the changes in these activities indicate a change at the level of being. It is not clear, however, that these changes cannot be explained as the formation of certain habits, which are accidental or non-essential changes, that inhibit the full operations of human nature as mentioned above, hindrances coming either externally from some form of violence (whether physical or perhaps in the case of Facebook algorithms on the level of sensory and intellectual input) or some defect.

We know from a growing number of psychological studies that attention and reasoning abilities require training to improve and can deteriorate over time either through misuse or lack of use. It seems more reasonable to say that social media fosters this deterioration and encourages the formation of habits that inhibit the full functioning of actions proper to human nature, rather than effecting any change in human nature on the level of being. In other words, the cyborgian form of living is not an essential or fundamental change but rather an accidental and secondary change, one that admits of degrees and can even be reversed by a change in one's actions.

This criticism brings us to a second possible criticism of the essay, namely, a confusion between the orders of being and operation. For example, Snow writes, "Furthermore, technology inhibits the deep thought and work that makes humans unique." If action flows from being and is determined by being, then the above quotation gets things in the opposite order. Deep thought and work do not make humans unique but are manifestations of a fundamental nature, and it is the nature that makes humans unique, and from this nature flows certain actions, namely, deep thought and work. Deep thought is a work that only humans can do because of their nature and not because of their environments. Their environments either help or hinder the exercise of this form of activity but do not cause them. To suggest so could imply that humans don't have a proper, stable nature to themselves but are constituted wholly by environmental factors, at which point it no longer makes sense to speak of a collective human race but only individuals that reflect certain actions at some points that can be called "human" for an otherwise arbitrary reason.

The opposition between deep work and mindless boredom is interesting but again ambiguous. Strictly, boredom is a lack of interest, and deep work is more than interest but an application of rational activity on some object. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that boredom is a symptom of a person who does not engage regularly in deep work or lacks the opportunities or environments to do so. Our attraction to novel distraction is not strictly correlated with the lack of opportunities for deep work but may also reflect a profound crisis in the modern notion of one's self-identity being in contrast with the demands of reality, even on the unconscious level.

The relationship between characteristically human activities and existential boredom is not clearly explained either. The need to have a certain self-identity is certainly a contemporary dilemma, but the importance of identity was not stressed in the past when certainly much deep work was done by plenty of humans.

On the other hand, digital technologies afford a certain distraction that can legitimately be used as a form of leisure. The same cautions that St. Thomas gives to leisure in general certainly apply to modern technologies and even more so by their ability to stimulate our nervous system in ways that traditional, physical forms of leisure could not. Above all, the need for self-control in the use and engagement of these technologies stands at the forefront. So while one may not be able to "effect a fundamental change in existential temporality" while playing Doodle Jump, on the other hand there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with Doodle Jump in itself when certain restrictions are kept in mind and it is remembered that Doodle Jump (hopefully) isn't trying to effect such a fundamental, existential change or at least prevent it from happening in the rest of the user's life.

It is not clear the extent to which technology cannot aid us in participating in or entering into "something beautiful, powerful, or peaceful." Social media technologies don't claim to try to do this although they do try to provide a platform in which we can share such experiences with each other, such as sending a photograph or video of a sunset or sharing a poem that was particularly moving to us. The Internet is a polymorphous technology with many possibilities of action, but at the end of the day, it is only one form of technology. We have to remember that writing is a technology, and so are pianos and musical instruments, yet these latter certainly are regularly part of many beautiful, powerful, and peaceful experiences. Is it conceivable that digital technology might provide a similar experience? Perhaps we can find something close in movies that contain noble themes and artful craftsmanship.

An interesting counterpoint to Snow's essay is that it is precisely through the Internet that more and more people are being exposed to the findings of psychological studies stressing the need to relax and to strengthen our natural ability to focus through regular self-discipline, such as mindfulness practices. In other words, the very technologies that have been destroying the exercise of our natural capacities have also been the vehicle to warn us of that fact.

It is further unclear what the effects of networked and fragmented thinking are on human nature itself. Such broad statements as "what does this lost ability mean for our humanity" are too vague to give much of a response to. As indicated earlier, it is perfectly explicable that intrinsic actions flowing from an essence or nature may be inhibited by habits that deform the natural exercise of those activities, and although habits have a certain semi-permanent quality, they are reversible and do not alter a subject on the order of essence. It is uncertain that networked thinking is really possible without a linear process in the mind on the level of consciousness and that the ability to shift rapidly between multiple elements is really anything different than what humans have always done in discursive reasoning.

Speculative questions about the potential future of human thinking and evolution and the "hive mind" are almost always too ambiguous to respond to.

The importance or even nature of a self-identity are left without the needed explanation to understand their relationship to existing and living in our world. Snow's invoking of Crawford's autonomy/heteronomy distinction is confusing because its contribution to his thesis is unclear. It remains unclear why whether a subject "flits about" or pursues "settled purposes and ongoing projects" is a problem to be solved. The notion of a sense of self can occur on multiple levels of discourse, psychologically, philosophically, socially, etc. What sense Snow is using isn't clear.

Finally, the actual danger of technology-guided or aided self-reflection also remains unclear. While an unquestioning reliance on algorithms that we have no understanding of may strike a note of fear in those desiring to construct an autonomous identity, perhaps on the other hand we should recall that many forms of modern identity are constituted precisely by the intersection between the false individualism and the totalitarian consumerism existing in a social-media soaked culture, and the very attempt to preserve any notion of coherence to this sort of identity is merely an unconscious fantasy desire to continue promoting what is at its very root in opposition to the full demands of reality and human nature itself. Perhaps an embrace of human nature rather than the non-essentialism so prevalent in academia and now popular culture would remind us of the basic need for restraint in the leisurely use of our technologies, whether digital or mechanical, and that identity formation must firstly run the way of reality and not virtual reality before it can lead to any genuine promotion of human flourishing. Technologies can certainly aid us in the exercise of properly human operation, for technology in its traditional understanding falls under art, which is simply the production of things according to right reason (recta ratio factibilium), and as such technology ought already to be a reflection of the right order of things, extending and aiding our natural faculties and operations, the way a telescope aids our natural sight to see what is truly there but without which we could never discover, or a simple organization schema can put into order the jumbled and quasi-related elements of our thought as we try to form coherent discourse.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Traditionalism as Therapy for Late Capitalism

On the issue of politics, the article only discusses churches that take "leftwing" political stances, but at least anecdotally, it seems to me that many young people--even those with an interest in traditional liturgy and the like--are even more hostile to churches with "rightwing" politics. So, sure, they like the bells and smells, but that doesn't mean that they are all going to accept orthodox Christian positions on, say, homosexuality or contraception.

To be a little pessimistic, this sort of thing makes me wonder if for many of these people traditional liturgies and devotions are anything more than isolated, "authentic" aesthetic experiences like eating ethnic food or listening to indie music rather than practices that shape one's life in any sort of meaningful way.

In this case, traditional churches serve a sort of hygienic or therapeutic function, providing people with temporary relief from the pressures and unreality of late capitalism, but people who rely on traditional religious practices for these functions do not accept the idea that they have political and social consequences. Christopher Lasch had it right, I think: "A society that has made nostalgia a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present." Thus, we have people who are fascinated with past styles but who nevertheless angrily reject the idea that the societies in which those styles emerged might have anything meaningful to teach us.