The Future of Intimacy Is But a Text Message Away

by Rob Horning

1 July 2010

One can't comfortably opt out of a social medium that has become part of everyone's standard reality, if you want to stay in their social sphere. With that in mind, I finally bought a cell phone.

For many years, I was a cell-phone holdout. It wasn’t until 2008 that I got my first cell phone, and even then it was because I was moving and it didn’t make sense to sign up for another landline. I knew I had been more than a little bit stubborn in my long refusal, and after I unboxed my first phone I expected to transition easily into a new era of connectedness and spontaneity from having mobile communications in my life.

It didn’t turn out like that. I had a hard time remembering to carry the phone with me and to check it to see if anyone had tried to reach me when the ringer was turned off (which is always, since the sound of my phone ringing in public makes me incredibly embarrassed, as if my pants had just fallen down or something). Suddenly, because I had a phone, I was responsible for fielding and sending out all sorts of reassuring and what seemed to me unnecessary messages, confirming my departures and arrivals, for example, and I had to send out or respond to messages celebrating or lamenting events in real-time, many of them sports related. Basically, carrying around a communication device meant I had to be doing a lot more communicating with people, and not really on my own terms.

So at first, this was all incredibly inconvenient—a surprise after having been lectured for years about how much easier my life would be with a cell phone. It turns out that my not having a phone was less inconvenient for me than it was for everyone else who had already adapted to the brave new world of perpetual accessibility. I had been blissfully backward, perfectly secure in my plans—no need to change the reservation/rendezvous I already agreed to—and happy without having a play-by-play account of random events vibrating in my shirt pocket. To everyone else I knew, without a cell phone number attached to my identity, I was an outlier, an annoying exception who had to be planned around, taken into account. In an ignorant, almost Mr. Magoo-ish fashion, I made everyone else I knew subtly change their way of going about things to accommodate me and my technological deficit while I blundered along happily.

In a small but significant way, my lack of a phone upset what everyone else had long since agreed was the normal way the social world should work. Furthermore, I was increasingly being cut out of that world by friends, not out malice or spite, but because it had become inconvenient to deal with me on my archaic terms. I had marginalized myself.

cover art

The Consequences of Modernity

Anthony Giddens

(Stanford University Press)
US: Mar 1991

Eventually, cell phone in hand, I got up to speed on texting and all that, and suddenly I was in that world along with everyone else, checking to see if I had messages as the subway train emerged from the tunnel and caught a signal, sending inane texts and/or redundant texts (“another slovenia goal? WTF”), and TK. Awareness of the device as a thing that had to be carried around receded in my mind; the cell phone became assimilated invisibly into my praxis and became a part of the familiar, reassuring fabric of everyday life. Indeed, it become a tool for keeping anxiety at bay in a myriad of simple, nearly thoughtless ways. Sometimes, just opening it up and looking at the wallpaper I have on it is calming to me, for reasons I no longer bother to interrogate.

So gradually, having a cell phone ceased to be something I thought of as something one has a choice about. One can’t comfortably opt out of a social medium that has become part of everyone’s standard reality, if you want to stay in their social sphere. However, at the same time, in the new standard reality, social life in general is no longer anchored in the same way; the cell phone, as a new medium for social behavior, has brought plans for socializing closer to the fluidity of real time, for better or worse. It seems altogether understandable, natural even, that plans mutate at the last minute, that meeting places get scuttled, that calls get screened, that the casual chatting in and around practical conversation gets dropped in favor of terse, no-nonsense texts.

Something similar seems to be happening with social networking; it’s becoming naturalized. Attempting to opt out of Facebook is beginning to have broader consequences than merely making a protest. For example, in an April post at O’Reilly Radar called Promiscuous Online Culture, Alistair Croll mentions how companies are evaluating social-networking pages of potential employees, noting that not having one is likely to make a person seem inherently suspicious. If you present an identity, but have no Facebook page to substantiate it, employers and other verifiers (i.e., the contractors/skip tracers/private-investigation firms that get hired to do background checks) might presume you have something that you are trying to hide. Croll calls this “peer-reviewed identity”:

Peer-reviewed identity in the era of open social graphs is a game changer. Consider, for example, the work involved in creating a false identity today: Photoshopping childhood pictures, friending complete strangers, maintaining multiple distinct Twitter feeds, and checking in from several cities. It’s enough to make Bond retire.

The implicit idea is that everyone should have a Facebook presence that is internally consistent with one’s current self. The absence of such a presence—now that it is considered “normal” to have a Facebook page—could signal to employers a potential risk. Croll notes that “if employers rely on social networks, they may be creating processes that disadvantage the part of the population that isn’t using social media.”

Apparently social networking is in the process of transforming from a helpful way to keep in touch and “share” amongst friends into an institutionalized means of identity verification—you need to act out an active online social life of detailed sharing in order convince others to believe that you are what you claim to be. So, failing to confess everything in advance to Facebook may cause potential employers to wonder what you are hiding. Protecting one’s privacy becomes a reason for suspicion.

In a recorded, shared world, the absence of records may be enough to sway a jury reared on Facebook or to throw suspicion on someone. In the court of public opinion, we’re increasingly expected to live our lives in public, and being too private is a slippery slope toward an admission of guilt.

Wow. How is this not like East Germany? I feel as though I’d better start working on my Potemkin profile. Yes, of course I love the flag! Apple pie! The local sports team! Please enjoy these photos of my college-educated, middle-class friends and my healthy, happy family. I love to share!

Peer-reviewed identity is nothing new, of course. Our sense of self has always been reflected back to us via the impression we make upon others in the course of our ordinary interactions. It requires a certain sort of society to prompt us to discover our individuality, to make self-absorption a seemingly more valuable activity than losing oneself in engagement with the world.

In some ways, as philosopher Louis Althusser argued, identity can be regarded as an effect of power singling us out for some particular form of scrutiny or flattering attention in the hopes of controlling us, telling us who we are and having us believe it. That is, he argued that institutions constitute our subjectivity; Facebook could be understood as one of his “ideological state apparatuses”. ( “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”, Louis Althusser, Monthly Review Press, 1971.)

For an identity of that sort to develop, we have to be recognized by a force outside of ourselves (marketers, the police, doctors, teachers, bosses, peers) in order to see our own uniqueness, otherwise we would simply be lost in the sensations of our own experience. The outside forces become the organizing principle for our inchoate sensations, structuring our ideas about which of those sensations and responses are “us” and which are incidental, contingent, irrelevant. The attention we get teaches us which responses and feelings we should regard as authentic, integral to the self, and which we should regard as roles, pretenses, strategies.

A related view is that our reflexive self-identity, as sociologist Anthony Giddens likes to call it, is an effect of the conditions of modern society. Modern society has unmoored us from the traditional sources of identity, which were rooted in local folkways, many of which were inflexible. You were born into an identity based on where you were born, who your parents are, what sort of local practices prevailed in your society. However modernity, in Giddens’s analysis, is in part the result of having the familiar no longer be the local but merely the local manifestation of something global, removed, abstract, transcendental.

The sense of the familiar is one often mediated by time-space distanciation. It does not derive from the particularities of localized place. And this experience, so far as it seeps into general awareness, is simultaneously disturbing and rewarding. The reassurance of the familiar, so important to a sense of ontological security, is coupled with the realization that what is comfortable and nearby is actually an expression of distant events and was “placed into” the local environment rather than forming an organic development within it. The local shopping mall is a milieu in which a sense of ease and security is cultivated by the layout of the buildings and the careful planning of public places. Yet everyone who shops there is aware that most of the shops are chain stores, which one might find in any city, and indeed that innumerable shopping malls of similar design exist elsewhere. (The Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens, Stanford University Press, 1991)

These days, we are integrated into a globalized community even as we are estranged from the local ones that our ancestors knew.

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//Mixed media

Authenticity Issues and the New Intimacies

// Marginal Utility

"The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.

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