We are constantly invited to curate ourselves—our bodies, our images, our emotions, our tastes, our “aesthetics.” Social media and digital technologies did not create this situation, but I view them as accelerating such processes, and saturating our lives with them in ways for which we’re underprepared. I don’t take this line because of general pessimism or technological determinism, but I do think that technological accomplishments (defined broadly) often outpace people’s abilities to cope with these developments morally (defined broadly, as well). Programs meant to achieve some good end constantly grow into counterproductivity.
Given all this, we can still try to move forward in ways that are free and aware. I’ll probably expand on this theme in future installments, and words like free and aware can be slippery, but as someone who puts stock in the precautionary principle, I think it’s worth noting that we aren’t in the best position to judge whether or not sweeping technological (and media) changes have been “good for us.” Moral panics over media technologies are often overblown, as media scholars are happy to point out, but that doesn’t prove they’re devoid of any rational and empirical basis whatsoever. If television or social media (or whatever) really affects our brains in negative, mutative, or “lossy,” ways, are we so certain we’d be reliable character witnesses to refute the claim that this happens?
This doesn’t have to be a moralizing question, but it does require that people accept just how little they might know. In an epoch of information overload and Whig history where people always fantasize themselves as being on the correct side of events, that kind of humility can be a big ask.
The long tail of data we are compelled to carry with us can limit some of the stories we can tell about our lives. (This is an interesting phenomenon; it’s a part of what has been theorized as social cooling, where we become risk-averse and homogeneous.) But it can also give us a wealth of material to consider our changes and our growth. I saw a comment the other day that if you don’t look back on certain photos of yourself when you were younger, and cringe at who you were then, you’re doing it all wrong—you want to be able to confirm your growth as a person. Wincing at the person you used to be is one way to be able to do this. I look back on almost everything I’ve written in my life, and hate most of it. It’s embarrassing. Even when I find a passage that makes me think, “Hey, I was actually kind of a smart 22-year-old here,” I am still embarrassed.
Why bother writing and sharing anything then? Well, to reformulate a famous quote from Kierkegaard: “Publish, and you will regret it; don’t publish, you will also regret it; publish or don’t publish, you will regret it either way.” I choose to share because my impulse to connect is ultimately stronger than my impulse to protect and cultivate my inner life in solitude. The rest is just a matter of unlearning anxiety over pointless regret.
I’m interested in other kinds of stories of how people manage their own sense-making with their personal “data” … so here are some disconnected notes:
In the TV show Work in Progress, the character Abby (played by Abby McEnany) has a closet is filled with boxes of composition notebooks she’s filled with her thoughts. Journaling, a therapeutic practice learned in youth, outgrew its original purpose and became a compulsion, with which middle-aged Abby struggles. I take it as a very moving thread about depending on things that can hurt or hinder us, and being undone by those practices that are meant to help us. (Work in Progress is an excellent show, highly recommended.)
R. Buckminster Fuller documented his life exhaustively in the Dymaxion Chronofile. Gordon Bell took on a similar project with MyLifeBits. When I read about experiments like these, they seem not only exhausting but also hugely time-consuming. But for a certain kind of personality, perhaps, they represent a rewarding structure.
In the last few months I’ve discovered a lot of interesting new people (online), and I’ve enjoyed noticing how their own identities are presented on, or across, the internet. Just one tip-of-the-iceberg example: the starterpack on Aaron Z. Lewis’ personal website.
The Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You?” dramatizes access to a long tail of media memory. That is, if media are prosthetics for our senses and our minds, literally using them to record and revisit our lived experience means that we can no longer forget in the way that we should. Horrifying!
The Australian writer Gerald Murnane keeps extensive files of his life activities. Murnane’s writing is in fact a passage of seemingly hermetic and obsessive reiterations of his experiences and the pictures in his head; imagine an entire story or chapter about a specific used book he ordered by mail in 1983 and where it sat on his shelf in his house and how many times he took it down off the shelf before he packed it up in a box and put that in his attack. Or the topic could be church windows or landscape or racehorse colors. (If I make Murnane sound tedious, I don’t mean to; he’s maybe an acquired taste but brilliant—here’s a sample.)
The reason for these notes is that they are part of a larger personal attempt to narrativize life in a way that focuses on internal coherence even when it appears to lack sensory, surface coherence. In other words, it lacks the kind of quick coherence that makes a life into a curated “aesthetic.” And in our media environment, this can seem like a failing. It’s like trying to piece together a picture of a lost culture through artifacts that don’t seem to make sense. But I don’t think it needs to be viewed as a failing, especially if there is, in fact, a sense to it which isn’t readily apparent. I’m talking about my own life and its particulars and its peculiarities, but I suspect this is something I share in common with others.