Why You Don¬â„t Know Who You Are.

CWIdentity by Shaving Her Head.jpg
In preparation for a talk I will give to students on “Identity,” I came across an edition of Hedgehog Review a journal of critical reflections on contemporary culture.

In this one place you’ ll find a marvelous collection of academic pieces enlightening us as to why human identity has become so fragmented, why adolescence is delayed, why intimacy seems beyond our reach. The zeitgeist both reflects and contributes to this phenomenon.

My edification on the subject inures to your benefit by way of the following excerpts. I hope you enjoy them so much you order the volume yourself and read the pieces in their entirety,

Hedgehog Review Fall 1991: Identity

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

I. From The Introduction.

Shakespeare was not the first to make the point, but perhaps he can be credited with popularizing it. In his comedy, As You Like It, the exiled Jacques muses that “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts” (II, vii). As an observation about the nature of our identities, this is an unsettling insight into the pretensions and contingencies of social life.

In 1959 Erving Goffman turned this observation into an entire theory of human behavior and social relationships. Indeed, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life stretched the analogy of “life as theater” about as far as it could go. His analysis of impression management, frontstage and backstage behavior, the dynamics of individual and team performances, conduct out of character, and so on was comprehensive, convincing, and, though humorous in parts, more than a bit disturbing. Goffman himself was relentless in his application of the analogy, insisting that even alone we play out performances in our heads and that sincerity is “merely being taken in by one’s own act.” The self was not, as we had thought, the inner reality of each individual expressed as a stable, consistent, and unique personality, but rather the various surface roles we play in life and nothing more than that. The element of truth in Shakespeare’s adage became, with Goffman, pretty much the whole truth.

II. Glamour and the End of Irony. Harvie Ferguson
Personality, that is to say, is no longer that “deep” selfhood that can only be expressed indirectly and ironically, but has become an aspect of the network of relations in which it is implicated. Social and personal identities are reconciled in the unity of fashion. Personality and self-image are no longer fixed from within but easily adapt themselves to the continually changing circumstances of time and place. The personality, shiny and mirror-like, is a glamorous soul. This is not because the contemporary world has in some way lost sight of reality, or cut itself off from every form of humanly meaningful relation but, rather, that for the contemporary world, the surface of things has been consecrated as the paramount “reality.” The contemporary world is conceptualized as continuous with the self, an extended, energetic, and sensitive surface upon which is registered the continuous flux of experience. Identity, in such a world, cannot be a function of interior self-expression or the outcome of a process of actualization; there is no interior to express or to actualize.

The non-ironic mood melancholic still, but no longer detached and superior, no longer heavy with suppressed passion is very well expressed, for example, in the contemporary American writer Richard Ford. His celebration of the ordinariness of American life, or one section of it at any rate, seems, to a European reader still charmed by irony, to be so sincere that it must be ironic through and through; however, given that it might be read in two ways, Ford plausibly represents a non-ironic, and yet non-naive, central character who claims at one point, “I can’t bear all the complications, and long for something that is faƒ§ades-only. . .”2

He depicts the amorphous, and more or less anonymous, drifting soul and the contemporary world of appearances on which it floats: “And for a moment I find it is really quite easy and agreeable not to know what’s next . . .”3 Ford’s character experiences the serenity of finding pleasure without identity: “All we really want is to get to the point where the past can explain nothing about us and we can get on with life.”4 The abandonment of the personal past, more than any other aspect of the novel, makes it clear that he is serious about rejecting the unequal struggle of self-actualization.

Glamour is non-ironic non-identity a surface gloss, which, in fact, neither conceals nor reveals the “person.” Glamorous personal accessories are, in this sense, non-ironic commodity consumables, taken up and put down as is convenient. Once the ego-self relation is split apart, it becomes possible to parade quasi-self-identities like any other aspect of fashion. Glamour is exciting; in it the self loses itself, abandoning itself to appearance. Whereas the classical ego recognized itself in melancholy, in a gloomy despair, the contemporary self (non-self) recognizes itself in the despair of glamour. Glamour is the exclusiveness of money alone, and it requires no effort, no refinement of taste, to consume. Glamour does not expose the private it is not conspicuous consumption so much as it transforms the private into the visible innocence of the “man without qualities.”

Has, then, the “age of irony” passed to be replaced by an “age of glamour” in which appearance is consecrated as the only reality in which both personal and social identities are assimilated to a new culture of consumerism?6 Possibly. Where it does not matter what sort of person one is even to that person himself or herself then neither identity nor irony remains important, and there are only the continuously shifting boundaries of impersonal and transient life contents. In this context, identity is a transitory selfhood, momentarily distinguished from what might be termed the “background radiation” of self-presence. This hardly amounts to an alternative spectator ego, watching over the whole comedy. There remains not much more than a bare impersonal presence, a quality of hereness and nowness, which lends to the fleeting experience of conventionalized selfhoods their peculiar, but intermittent, primacy¢â‚¬¦ Modernity thus moves through a period of “authentic” selfhood to one of “ironic” selfhood to a contemporary culture of what might be termed “associative” selfhood a continuous “loosening” of the tie between an “inner” soul and an “outer” form of social relation. A certain contemporary infatuation with the notion of “irony” as the inauthentic is surely misplaced. The age of irony is primarily the age of high capitalism; the post-modern is, in contrast, the age of glamour.

III. Romantic Modernism and the Self. John Steadman Rice

These assumptions about human nature, and about the relationship between the individual and society, express a profoundly anti-institutional orientation. That orientation, moreover, translates into a clear course of action in which the self’s expressive and experiential freedom receives ultimate priority over conventional social expectations. Thus, the Transcendentalists called for “the liberation of [hu]mankind, the release of a power everywhere latent but everywhere suppressed or unawakened.”8 The assertion of the individual’s will the projection, as noted above, of that will onto the external world was, of course, an abiding theme in Transcendentalist essays and poetry. Thoreau, for one, repeatedly stressed precisely this theme. For example, in Civil Disobedience, he baldly asserts that “the only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right.”9 Emerson espoused precisely the same point even more succinctly: “The individual is the world.”10

One mechanism for cultivating and releasing the individual’s latent powers was expressed in Emanuel Swedenborg’s concept of “correspondence,” especially as that idea was interpreted and articulated by Swedenborg’s student, Sampson Reed. Emerson, in particular, was much taken with Reed’s Observations on the Growth of Mind, which, following Swedenborg, asserts that the basic endowments of self, when carefully and meticulously cultivated, correspond with a realm of divine truth. Reflecting this presumed equivalency between the divine and our true human nature, the moment at which correspondence ostensibly occurs is called “the experience of ¢â‚¬Ëœself-remembering,'” an experience in which “the perceiver not only records his perceptions but also experiences himself in the act of perception.”11

For the Transcendentalists, correspondence could be realized in and through exposure to and contemplation of the divine truths of nature a theme that plainly infused, for example, Thoreau’s Walden, and that was also expressed in Emerson’s famous “transparent eyeball,” featured in the essay, “The Oversoul”: “Standing on the bare ground my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

IV. The Self: Death By Technology. Kenneth Gergen.

Drawing from early Greek, Judaic, and Christian traditions, and particularly from the Enlightenment, we have typically viewed the single individual as the atom of the moral society. Whether we speak in terms of psyche, soul, agency, rational deliberation, or conscious choice, we generally hold that moral action is derived from particular conditions of the individual mind. Thus, philosophers seek to establish essential criteria for moral decision making, religious institutions are concerned with states of individual conscience, courts of law inquire into the individual’s capacity to know right from wrong, and parents are concerned with the moral education of their young. The general presumption is that the virtuous mind propels meritorious conduct, and that with sufficient numbers of individuals performing worthy acts, we achieve the good society.

Yet, as Walter Ong’s exploration of oral as opposed to literate or print societies suggests, our conception of individual minds is vitally dependent on the technological ethos.1 The shift from an oral to a print culture, Ong proposes, significantly alters the common forms of thought.

Given the potential dependency of conceptions of self on technological conditions, let us consider our contemporary ethos. In particular, what is to be said about the increasing insinuation of the technologies of sociation into our lives and its effects on our beliefs in individual minds? In my view the transformation of the technological ethos slowly undermines the intelligibility of the individual self as an originary source of moral action. The reasons are many and cumulative; I limit discussion here to several concatenating tendencies. (Polyvocality. Plasticity. Repetition. Transience).

Polyvocality. If one does acquire an increasingly diverse vocabulary of deliberation, how is a satisfactory decision to be reached? If immersion in a panoply of intelligibilities leaves one’s moral resources in a state of complex fragmentation, then to what degree are these resources guiding or directing? Or more cogently for the present analysis, if “inward looking” becomes increasingly less useful for matters of moral action, does the concern with “my state of mind” not lose its urgency?

Plasticity. As the technologies of sociation increase our immersion in information and evaluation, they also expand the scope and complexity of our activities. We engage in a greater range of relationships distributed over numerous and variegated sites, from the face-to-face encounters in the neighborhood and workplace, to professional and recreational relationships that often span continents. Further, because of the rapid movement of information and opinion, the half life of various products and policies is shortened, and the opportunities for novel departures expanded. The composition of the workplace is thus in continuous flux. The working person shifts jobs more frequently, often with an accompanying move to another location. In the early 1990s one out of three American workers had been with his or her employer for less than a year, and almost two out of three for less than five years.

As a result of these developments, the individual is challenged with an increasingly variegated array of behavioral demands. With each new performance site, new patterns of action may be required; dispositions, appetites, personas all may be acquired and abandoned and reappropriated as conditions invite or demand. With movements through time and space, oppositional accents may often be fashioned: firm here and soft there, commanding and then obedient, sophisticated and then crude, righteous and immoral, conventional and rebellious. For many people such chameleon-like shifts are now unremarkable; they constitute the normal hurly burly of daily life. At times the challenges may be enjoyed, even sought. It was only four decades ago that David Riesman’s celebrated book, The Lonely Crowd, championed the virtues of the inner-directed man and condemned the other-directed individual for lack of character a man without a gyroscopic center of being.4 In the new techno-based ethos there is little need for the inner-directed, one-style-for-all individual. Such a person is narrow, parochial, inflexible. In the fast pace of the technological society, concern with the inner life is a luxury if not a waste of time. We now celebrate protean being. In either case, the interior self recedes in significance.

How is it, for example, that a young couple, who for 20 years have been inundated by romance narratives on television and radio, in film, in magazines and books can utter a sweet word of endearment without a haunting sense of cliché? Or in Umberto Eco’s terms, how can a man who loves a cultivated woman say to her, “¢â‚¬ËœI love you madly,'” when “he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland”?6 In what sense can one stand out from the crowd in a singular display of moral fortitude, and not hear the voices of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Harrison Ford just over one’s shoulder?

Transience. However, with the accumulating effects of the technologies of sociation, one now becomes transient, a nomad or a “homeless mind.”7The continuous reminders of one’s identity of who one is and always has been no longer prevail. The internal standard grows pallid, and in the end, one must imagine that it counts for little in the generation of moral action.

V. The Self in a Consumer Society. Zygmunt Bauman.
ur postmodern society is a consumer society. When we call it a consumer society, we have in mind something more than the trivial and sedate circumstance that all members of that society are consumers all human beings, and not just human beings, have been consumers since time immemorial. What we do have in mind is that ours is a “consumer society” in the similarly profound and fundamental sense in which the society of our predecessors, modern society in its industrial phase, used to be a “producer society.” That older type of modern society once engaged its members primarily as producers and soldiers; society shaped its members by dictating the need to play those two roles, and the norm that society held up to its members was the ability and the willingness to play them. In its present late-modern (Giddens), second-modern (Beck), or post-modern stage, modern society has little need for mass industrial labor and conscript armies, but it needs and engages its members in their capacity as consumers.

The role that our present-day society holds up to its members is the role of the consumer, and the members of our society are likewise judged by their ability and willingness to play that role. The difference between our present-day society and its immediate predecessor is not as radical as abandoning one role and picking up another instead. In neither of its two stages could modern societies do without its members producing things to be consumed, and members of both societies do, of course, consume. The consumer of a consumer society, however, is a sharply different creature from the consumer of any other society thus far. The difference is one of emphasis and priorities a shift of emphasis that makes an enormous difference to virtually every aspect of society, culture, and individual life. The differences are so deep and multiform that they fully justify speaking of our society as a society of a separate and distinct kind a consumer society.

That all consumption takes time is in fact the bane of the consumer society and a major worry for the merchandisers of consumer goods. The consumer’s satisfaction ought to be instant and this in a double sense. Consumed goods should bring satisfaction immediately, requiring no learning of skills and no lengthy groundwork, but the satisfaction should end the moment the time needed for consumption is up, and that time ought to be reduced to bare minimum.

Consumers are first and foremost gatherers of sensations; they are collectors of things only in a secondary and derivative sense. As Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen put it, “Desire does not desire satisfaction. To the contrary, desire desires desire.”2 Such is the case at any rate with the ideal consumer. The prospect of the desire fading off, dissipating, and having nothing in sight to resurrect it, or the prospect of a world with nothing left in it to be desired, must be the most sinister of the ideal consumer’s horrors (and, of course, of the consumer-goods merchandiser’s horrors).

In a properly working consumer society, consumers seek actively to be seduced. They live from attraction to attraction, from temptation to temptation each attraction and each temptation being somewhat different and perhaps stronger than its predecessor. In many ways they are just like their fathers, the producers, who lived from one turn of the conveyer belt to an identical next.

It is the combination of the consumer, constantly greedy for new attractions and fast bored with attractions already had, and of the world in all its dimensions economic, political, personal transformed after the pattern of the consumer market and, like that market, ready to oblige and change its attractions with ever accelerating speed, that wipes out all fixed signposts from an individual map of the world or from the plans for a life itinerary. Indeed, traveling hopefully is in this situation much better than to arrive. Arrival has that musty smell of the end of the road, that bitter taste of monotony and stagnation that signals the end to everything for which the ideal consumer lives and considers the sense of living. To enjoy the best this world has to offer, you may do all sorts of things except one: to declare, after Goethe’s Faust, “O moment, you are beautiful, last forever!”

VI. The Body as Referent. David Harvey.

David Loew. “There still remains one referent apart from all the other destabilized referents, whose presence cannot be denied, and that is the body referent, our very own lived body. This body referent is in fact the referent of all referents, in the sense that ultimately all signifieds, values, or meanings refer to the delineation and satisfaction of the needs of the body. Precisely because all other referents are now destabilized, the body referent, our own body, has emerged as a problem.”

Viewing the body as the irreducible locus for the determination of all values, meanings, and significations is not new. It was fundamental to many strains of pre-Socratic philosophy, and the idea that “man” or “the body” is “the measure of all things” has had an extraordinarily long and interesting history. The contemporary return to “the body” as “the measure of all things” provides, therefore, an opportunity to reassert the bases (epistemological and ontological) of all forms of inquiry.

VII. Healing the Fragmented Self. Joseph E. Davis.

In affirming the “decentering of the subject,” and even the “death of the subject,” many seem to suggest that the question of personal identity is no longer important. Upon closer inspection, however, it appears that they have been sorely disappointed. For, despite predictions to the contrary, questions of subjectivity and multiple identities have reemerged with a new force and a new urgency.

We should not have expected otherwise. The destabilizing and uprooting social forces that created the “homeless mind,” that pervasive uncertainty about how to place oneself in an increasingly pluralistic environment, have, if anything, only intensified. The social conditions of advanced capitalist society have rather served to accentuate the plurality of authorities, the de-institutionalization of private life, the multiplicity of role expectations, the disembedding from geographical place, and the loss of overarching systems of meaning that so strained the task of establishing and maintaining a coherent sense of self in modern times. While by no means affecting everyone equally, many well-documented features of contemporary life, from consumerism to new technologies, can have a powerfully fragmenting and relativizing effect on personal experience and on the continuity and content of the self-narrative. Of course, some celebrate self-fragmentation and malleable identities as a form of personal liberation. Many postmodern thinkers champion a self characterized by variation, by change, by flux, by an irony toward life and a free-floating approach to work, ideas, attitudes, and feelings. This self is not stable and centered but multiple, and can, like Proteus, the sea god who could change his form into many shapes, resymbolize itself, linking disparate identity elements in a constant stream of new combinations.1 For many in the postmodern avant-garde, freedom is precisely the ability to transcend and reconstitute one’s self. Similarly, players in multiple-user fantasy games testify to the fulfillment enjoyed by the virtually limitless identities they can adopt on-line, and one segment of the multiple personality literature applauds the ability of some multiples to dissociate creatively, and, thus, in part, applauds multiplicity itself.2 Though what is meant by terms like “identity” and the “self” is not always clear in these discussions, the celebrated belief is that a fragmented “self” allows one at some level the experience of freedom. Despite the celebration, however, fragmented selves are often seen to constitute a disability, and in more extreme cases, a mental disorder. Nowhere is this more evident than in the proliferation of programs, shows, books, teachers, counselors, and guides on how to consolidate and hold the right identity.

VIII. Interview with Sherry Turkle, MIT.

I have found that the experience of cyberspace, the experience of playing selves in various cyber-contexts, perhaps even at the same time, on multiple windows, is a concretization of a way of thinking about the self, not as unitary but as multiple. In this view, we move among various self states, various aspects of self. It suggests that our sense of one self is a kind of illusion . . . one that we are able to sustain because we have learned to move fluidly among the self states. In this view of selfhood, psychological health is not tantamount to achieving a state of oneness, but the ability to make fluid transitions among the many and to reflect on our-selves by standing in a space between states. Life on the screen provides a new context for this psychological practice. One has a new context for negotiating the transitions. One has a new space for commenting on the complexities and contradictions among the selves. So, experiences in cyberspace encourage us to discover and find a new way to talk about the self as multiple and about psychological health not in terms of constructing a one but of negotiating the many.

We live an increasingly fragmented, multi-roled existence. A woman may wake up as a lover, have breakfast as a mother, and drive to work as a lawyer. A man might be a manager at the office and a nurturer at home. So even without computer networks, people are cycling through different roles and are challenged to think about their identities in terms of multiplicity. The Internet concretizes this experience of identity as multiplicity. It takes the fluidity of identity that is called for in everyday life and raises it to a higher power: People come to see themselves as being the sum of their distributed presence in all the windows they open on the screen. The technical metaphor of cycling through computer windows has become a metaphor for thinking about the relationship among aspects of the self.

Erikson’s ideas about stages did not suggest rigid sequences. His stages describe what people need to achieve before they can easily move ahead to another developmental task. For example, Erikson pointed out that successful intimacy in young adulthood is difficult if one does not come to it with a sense of who one is the challenge of adolescent identity building. In real life, however, people frequently move on with serious deficits. With incompletely resolved “stages,” they simply do the best they can. They use whatever materials they have at hand to get as much as they can of what they have missed. MUDs [multi user domains] are dramatic examples of how technology can play a role in these dramas of self-reparation. Time in cyberspace reworks the notion of vacation and moratoria because they may now exist on an always-available “window.”

ON BEING ALIVE: [Today’s adults grew up in a psychological culture that equated the idea of a unitary self with psychological health and in a scientific culture that taught that when a discipline achieves maturity, it has a unifying theory. When people find themselves cycling through varying perspectives on themselves ( “I am my chemicals” to “I am my history” to “I am my genes”) they usually become uncomfortable. But such alternations may strike the generation of children who are growing up today as “just the way things are.”

Children speak easily about factors that encourage them to see the “stuff” of computers as the same “stuff” of which life is made. You can see this in children’s discourse about the seemingly omnipresent “transformer toys,” which shift from being machines to being robots to being animals (and sometimes people). Children play with these plastic and metal objects, and in the process, they express themselves about how they see the fluid boundaries between mechanism and flesh.

For example, I observed a group of seven-year-olds playing with a set of plastic transformer toys that can take the shape of armored tanks, robots, or people. The transformers can also be put into intermediate states so that a “robot” arm can protrude from a human form or a human leg from a mechanical tank. Two of the children were playing with the toys in these intermediate states. A third child insisted that this was not right. The toys, he said, should not be placed in hybrid states: “You should play them as all tank or all people.” He was getting upset because the other two children were making a point of ignoring him. An eight-year-old girl comforted the upset child: “It’s okay to play with them when they are in between. It’s all the same stuff,” she said, “just yucky computer ¢â‚¬Ëœcy-dough-plasm.'”

Most adults today grew up thinking of the computer and the notion of “program” as linear and deterministic. Today’s children are growing up in a computer culture whose dominant metaphors borrow from evolution, genetics, and neural networks. This makes the line between how computers work and how our minds might work seem far less rigid.

When in the first half of the twentieth century the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget investigated how children thought about the question “What is alive,” he found that children sort this question out by making increasingly fine distinctions about motion. Aliveness was a property associated with “things that could move of their own accord.” As children grew older, the notion of moving on one’s own accord became refined into the idea of the “life movements” of metabolism and breathing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I found that the presence of a first generation of computational objects disrupted the classical Piagetian story for talking about aliveness. There was a new story: Children sorted out the question of what is alive by making reference to the computer’s psychology. They asked questions like: Could it know, could it learn, could it cheat, is knowing part of cheating? Children took a new world of objects and imposed a new world order, based not on physics but on psychology. In recent years, as children have been confronted with increasingly complex computational objects, that order has been strained to the breaking point. Children will now talk about computers as “just machines” but describe them as sentient and intentional. Children are now in the position of theoretical bricoleurs or tinkerers, “making do” with whatever materials are at hand, “making do” with whatever theory can fit a prevailing circumstance. They cycle through evolution and psychology and resurface ideas about motion in terms of the communication of bits.

My current collection of children’s comments about life includes: the robots are in control but not alive, would be alive if they had bodies, are alive because they have bodies, would be alive if they had feelings, are alive the way insects are alive but not the way people are alive; computer creatures are not alive because they are just in the computer, could be alive if they got out of the computer, are alive until you turn off the computer and then they’re dead, are not alive because nothing in the computer is real; the animals in a simulation game Sim are not alive but almost-alive, they would be alive if they spoke, they would be alive if they traveled, they’re alive but not “real,” they’re not alive because they don’t have bodies, they are alive because they can have babies, would be alive if they got out of the computer and onto America Online. There is a striking heterogeneity of theory here. Different children hold different theories and individual children are able to hold different theories at the same time.

In the short history of how the computer has changed the way we think, it has often been children who have led the way. So, in the early 1980s, children, prompted by computer toys that spoke, did math, and played tic-tac-toe, disassociated ideas about consciousness from ideas about life, something that historically had not been the case. These children were able to contemplate sentient computers that were not alive, a position that grownups are only now beginning to find comfortable. Today’s children are taking things even further; they are pointing the way towards a radical heterogeneity of theory in the presence of computational artifacts that evoke “life.”

But children are still faced with the question of what makes people special. Children traditionally have thought about this question by contrasting people with their “nearest neighbors.” When children saw people’s nearest neighbors as their pets, their dogs and cats, what made people special were their powers of reason. Thus, the Aristotelian definition of man as a “rational animal” made sense for even young children. Today, the question takes a rather different form. Computers, with their activity and interactivity, their powers of speech and reason, have come to be seen as the “nearest neighbors.” What people have in contrast to these neighbors are their emotions. One thirteen-year-old said, “When there are the robots that are just as smart as the people, the people will still cook the food, run the restaurants, have the families, I guess they’ll still be the only ones who’ll go to church.” In contrast with the computers, people are not special because they are rational animals, but because they are emotional machines. Or in other terms, “Simulated thinking may be real thinking, but simulated love is never real love.”

In my most recent work on digital pets such as the Furbies, which quite precisely express love and ask the child for nurturance (they need to be fed, they need to be amused, they get sick and need to be made well), I see children’s attitudes shifting once again. Now, they talk about different kinds of life and different kinds of love: the kind of life that Furbies have and the kind of life that animals and people have, the kind of love that Furbies have and need and the kind of love that people have and need.]

When Fredric Jameson wrote about the meaning of the postmodern, he included in his characterization of postmodernism the precedence of surface over depth, of simulation over the “real,” of play over seriousness many of the same qualities that characterize our current computer aesthetics. Jameson noted that the postmodern era lacked objects that could represent it. The turbine, smokestack, pipes, and conveyor belts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been powerful objects-to-think-with for imagining the nature of industrial modernity. They provided images of mechanical relationships between body and mind, time and space. The postmodern era had no such objects. Jameson suggested that what was needed was a new “aesthetic of cognitive mapping,” a new way of spatial thinking that would permit us at least to register the complexities of our world. I believe that in the contemporary computer culture postmodernism has found its objects. They exist in the information and connections of the Internet and the World Wide Web and in the windows, icons, and layers of personal computing. They exist in the creatures on a SimLife computer game and in the simulations of the quantum world that are routinely used in introductory physics courses. All of these are life on the screen. And with these objects, the abstract ideas in Jameson’s account of postmodernism become newly accessible, even consumable.

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described the process of theoretical tinkering bricolage by which individuals and cultures use the objects around them to develop and assimilate ideas. When I talk about computers as objects-to-think-with, saying for example that Macintosh-style computer interfaces have served as carriers for a way of knowing that depends on simulation and surface representation, I am extending the notion of bricolage to the uncanny (betwixt and between physical and mental) objects of the culture of simulation.

I believe that we should recast our thinking about computers in schools in terms of the need to develop in our children “readership skills for a culture of simulation.” This would take the cultural pervasiveness of simulation as a challenge to develop a new social criticism. This new criticism would discriminate among simulations. It would take as its goal the development of simulations that help their users understand and challenge their model’s built-in assumptions.

You have said that you object to the use of the phrase “Internet addiction.” Why? The term addiction is most usefully saved for experiences with substances like heroin, which are always dangerous, always bad, always something to turn away from. The Internet offers experiences in which people discover things about themselves, good and bad, usually complicated and hard to sort out. People grow and learn and discover good and new potential. People also discover preoccupations and fantasies that they may have never dealt with before and which may be very troubling. If you call the Internet addicting, then you have to call all powerful, evocative experience addicting. This is very different from saying that the online world is one of “truth and beauty.” It simply offers powerful, evocative experience that provokes self-reflection and self-discovery. This is not always positive, it just sometimes is. But it is not an addiction. The term addiction closes down the interesting questions about online life and ourselves that we need to explore. People don’t abuse their children “because of” the Internet. When mothers ignore their children because they prefer to spend hours talking on the phone, we never say that the phone “caused” bad parenting, even negligent parenting. The phone is the occasion for expressing a serious problem in the ability to parent. This latter is the problem that needs to be addressed, not the telephone as a technology.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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