Expansion of Self Through New Technologies

sgb90's picture



Online mediums have become so entangled in our lives as to form a living space in which we interact with one another, a space distinct from and yet interconnected with our physical world. In addition, a fascinating and ambiguous element of the Internet is how its elasticity as a medium allows for endless and continually evolving versions of self. The Internet, with all its possibilities for self-experimentation, throws open the door to new representations of self that actively counter the notion of singular identity. Our experiences via cyberspace blur the line between what we commonly hold as represented and real, challenging the divisions between human beings and their constructed technologies.

Some would argue that "the virtual" as embodied in the Internet and its interactive forums signifies a lesser, or secondary, mode of experience to our physical, "actual," existence. This raises the question of what makes one mode of experience superior. If one places precedence on the face-to-face, in person, encounter with others, and defines such experience as "more real," then one would claim that virtual existence is somehow superficial or less valid experientially. However, if one recognizes that online experience and communication allow for an active and engaged presence with others that in many ways models after and expands upon the possibilities of our "real" world existence, then it becomes more difficult to define our physical, actual existence as essentially superior. That our virtual, online reality has evolved from our physical reality, and possesses such evolved traits as vast interconnectivity, instantaneous connection, and the collapse of space/time boundaries suggests virtuality's complexity and widespread appeal as a medium.

In an article entitled, "Blurring Boundaries: the "Real and the "Virtual" in Hybrid Spaces," anthropologist Brigitte Jordan examines how people have come to live increasingly hybrid lives in which the real and virtual interact. As she claims:

"a growing number of people now live in a hybrid world where the boundaries between what is physical  (or actual) and what is digital (or electronic) continue to fade. This hybrid world is one where a person's  identity, experiences, and life possibilities begin to integrate physical and virtual facets of existence so    that consciousness is to some extent shared between an offline physical and online virtual self" (1).

Interestingly, the boundaries between the physical and the digital are blurring so that it is no longer accurate to claim a separation between the two. In other words, the real and the virtual are not separate categories but in active interaction with one another. As Jordan suggests, our consciousness encompasses both physical and virtual spaces. We exist in a "hybrid world" in which our selves and experiences take place.

In such a flexible space, is it still valid for us to claim a singular, or constant, self as opposed to a multiplicity of evolving selves? We have a self that takes place in physical space, one mediated and translated through social interactions. We also have a "virtual" self, or selves, represented through cyberspace. Our selves multiply according to the environment we find ourselves inhabiting, and the Internet offers an extensive network in which every online dialogue, every posting or comment made in a blog, and every status update or photo uploaded on Facebook alters our representation and sense of ourselves. The Internet has the capacity to trace our own personal evolution, to make visible what was previously lost or invisible, and make the passing moment into a permanent entity that becomes digitally archived. Parts of each of us-our represented identities and experiences--are now being digitally encoded.

In Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence, Andy Clark discusses the idea of "human-technology symbionts: thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and nonbiological circuitry" (3). According to Clark, the human mind has never been limited by its biological enclosure; rather, the mind has always been, and is increasingly, branching out and becoming present in our constructed technologies. The state of the Internet, in being such a vast, interconnected system, likewise creates the potential for the self to become similarly dispersed and far-reaching. With our burgeoning technology, it is now possible for a human being to be physically located in a single room, and yet simultaneously present in numerous other electronic domains. Clark makes the important claim that the self and such technologies as the Internet are not separate, disconnected forms. Instead, they exist in a complex relationship, a "symbiosis," whose source is uniquely human.

Though we have always relied on various technologies as tools in our daily lives, the rise of the Internet age has made our co-dependence with technology greater and more enmeshed. Whereas the self and its technological counterparts were formerly distinguishable, that is, the person using a pen on paper was more or less distinguishable from the tool, it is more difficult to tell where the person engaged in typing on their laptop and conversing online begins and ends. We cannot clearly delineate the self as an entity apart from all else. As Clark states: "The line between biological self and technological world was, in fact, never very firm. Plasticity and multiplicity are our true constants..." (8). Human beings and their constructed environment were perhaps never as separate as we like to claim. Our new technologies merely make evident and intensify what was a pre-existing phenomenon and attribute of human life: the expansiveness and multiplicity of the human mind beyond its biological limits.

Another distinguishing element of our new technologies, and in particular the Internet, is that rather than a tool merely serving an individual purpose, the Internet as technology becomes a shared virtual space in which we can actively interact with one another. Not only can we interact with people who are geographically remote, thus making the possibilities of communication increasingly limitless, but we can also portray ourselves in unlimited ways. What our biological framework does not facilitate, the mind as embodied in technology easily accommodates. One can represent oneself in endlessly varying ways online: one can alter one's gender, one's age, one's life history...Needless to say the possibilities for self-experimentation are endless, as are the possibilities for deception. The ethics of such self-representations as afforded by the Internet are a complex issue that I will not here address in detail, but as with all our actions, the ways in which we portray ourselves virtually are governed by the same sense of individual accountability that come with the rest of our freedoms. We have the capacity to abuse or take advantage of the widening opportunities for self-expression that the Internet offers.

Our new technologies, and the Internet in particular, blur the boundaries between our virtual and physical existence, creating a complex interconnectivity between the two. It is not just that we live in a hybrid world, as Jordan suggests, but that that world is representative of what Clark refers to as our "hybrid natures" (198). Each of us now exists both biologically and in continually multiplying nonbiological spaces. The perpetual myth of the delimited, contained self is challenged, and perhaps discredited, by the expansion of self evident in our growing technologies.


Works Cited

Clark, Andy. Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence.

          USA: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2004.

Jordan, Brigitte. "Blurring Boundaries: The 'Real' and the 'Virtual' in Hybrid Spaces." Human Organization 68.2

          (2009): 181-193. Research Library, ProQuest. Web. 14 Feb. 2010.


Anne Dalke's picture

Where is "one"?

Such a striking (and chilly!) image of an "expanding self" to introduce your paper--does this give us any insight into your own take on the topic you review so carefully? The faces in that image are so clearly "bounded," so little "blurred." Do they thus suggest that you are more troubled than heartened by the possibilities that the internet affords our expanding selves? You speak quite even-handedly of "the endless possibilities for self-experimentation," as well as the "possibilities for deception," but I find myself wondering whether you are (dis)encouraged by this range of different possibilities.

I'm also wondering what the sort of "blurring" you trace here does to conventional philosophical questions like the "sense of individual accountability" you invoke towards the end of your paper. If the self, as you show, can no longer be said to have "a singular identity," can you even continue to write papers in which "one" argues? If it is no longer valid for us to claim a "constant self," what become the new grounds for "integrity" (=integer: one)? For ethics?

I know you have philosophical inclinations...perhaps you'd like to go exploring in this direction? If so, Susan Oyama's The Ontology of Information may be of interest to you. The argument you develop here, with the help of Jordan and Clarke, goes "meta" in the hands of Oyama. What seems to me most interesting in her work is its refusal of any conceptual, dualistic distinction between organisms and their environment (and so between "nature" and "nurture," between "inherited" and "acquired," between "informative" and "intentional," between "inner" and "outer" causes):

"What I meant to communicate was the unwisdom of treating either independently of the other(s), the impossibility of having predefined natures or environments at all .... For me, what is salient about systems is the way that connectivity does away with in-principle and cleanly distinguishable causes and effects .... Mentality is increasingly being cast in ... terms ... of sociality, activity, and physiciality; of distributedness, embeddedness, and embodiment" (The Ontology of Information, p. 202, p. 214).

P.S. Be sure to also check out jrf's take on Andy Clark's work, in "We Are the Robots."

sgb90's picture


To address your first question regarding the image I start the paper with, I was actually torn between two different images. The first (that I didn't use) emphasized much more the blurring of self that I speak of in my paper. What stood out to me most about the image that I do use is more the multiplicity quality rather than the "bounded" quality of the faces. There is definitely an eerie aspect to the image, though this reflects less on my own feelings toward technology than on the somewhat disconcerting(?) idea that the self is not, and may never have been, singular but always multiple, changing, evolving...

As to whether or not writing a paper in which "one" argues is still possible given my claim that there is no constant, singular identity, that's definitely a tricky/somewhat paradoxical question, as is the question about ethics. Those are questions I will continue to think about. I tend toward believing that regardless of whether there is a constant self, there is always agency of some sort. "What" thinks or acts is difficult to define, and in fact I think we posit the self partly for the sake of convenience and as an organizing principle for a rather chaotic entity made up of particular thoughts, feelings, and impulses.

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