Authenticity Issues and the New Intimacies

by Rob Horning

31 January 2012


Tom Slee recently began posting about MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together. Turkle, in some ways, is the chief theorist of digital dualism; her books The Second Self (1984) and Life on the Screen (1995) helped set the terms for talking about virtual selves in cyberspace as projections of some real self that exists outside it and is deleteriously affected by these interactions. Those books are more than a little dated, but in a way that makes their arguments more striking. Just substitute Facebook for MUD in Life on the Screen; after all, what is Facebook if not a MUD in which you create and play the character of yourself.

Turkle’s basic point was that computers change the people who use them (they are not neutral tools). Users begin to transfer programming metaphors to their interactions with people and psychological metaphors to the behavior of machines, and so on. This leakage between our conceptions of humans and nonhuman objects for Turkle threatens the integrity of the category of the human; reading her books sometimes feels like reading the anti-Donna Haraway. (I won’t even try to relate Turkle to OOO.) Here’s a typical declaration, from the introduction to the 20th anniversary edition off The Second Self:

we stand on the boundary between the physical and virtual. And increasingly, we stand on the boundary between worlds we understand through transparent algorithm and worlds we understand by manipulating opaque simulation.

That boundary seems very important to Turkle; her main concern often seems to be holding on to a firm definition of the “real” and bemoaning the encroachment of simulations on the preserves of genuine human experience. This deeply conservative standpoint stems from her theoretical grounding in Freud. In Alone Together she declares (in a quote Slee also highlights), “I am a psychoanalytically trained psychologist. Both by temperament and profession, I place high value on relationships of intimacy and authenticity.” But what can be the basis for determining what is authentic? It can often seem arbitrary, even in Turkle’s own anecdotes. (Her psychoanalytical background is surely what makes Turkle so interested in stories, the aspect of Alone Together that Slee focuses on in his post. The tendency of her examples to undermine themselves or dissolve into ambiguity is part of what he finds compelling about them.)

It often appears that Turkle is working with a preconceived, somewhat ahistorical notion of what identity and subjectivity must consist of, which leads her to take a condemnatory tone toward what her research unearths about human-machine hybridity. This tone tends to curtail the analysis—serve as its own conclusion. She can come across as a “What about the children?!” concern troll, deploying all sorts of rhetorical questions to try to persuade us of the psychological harm of technology’s current drift. (“In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?” “Are we comfortable with virtual environments that propose themselves not as places for recreation but as new worlds to live in?” “Why am I talking to a robot? and Why do I want this robot to like me?”)

Turkle sometimes seems to worry that “real” identity is being thwarted by online sociality, which fosters some sort of inauthentic identity. But I think the concern with authenticity is an expression of nostalgia for a period where it was easier to believe that one had total control over the development of one’s personality and that identity came from within. Networked sociality has made that much harder to sustain, and the ideological anchors for identity have also begun to change with the times (hence the legitimization of the data self). Authenticity is a pressing personal issue now for many not because it has been suddenly lost (it’s always already irrevocable), but because it has become one of the terms in the accounting system for a different form of mediated selfhood. “Authenticity” is another metric in the attention economy, measuring how believable one is to oneself in the process of broadcasting oneself. I’d expect that soon “authenticity” will be a literal metric, measuring the data trail one produces at one point of time with some earlier point to detect the degree of drift. (I know I should probably spin that out into an analysis of Lana Del Rey, but I’m thinking I’ll just let that ship sail without me.)

In Alone Together, Turkle fuses a section about sociable robots with a section about social media usage to basically argue this: social media accustom us to instrumentalized friendship, and once we are used to that, we are open to crypto-relationships with robots (the “new intimacies”), since they offer nothing more than instrumental value. Since we don’t want the “drama” of reciprocal real-time sociality anyway, there is basically no difference from our point of view between relating to another person and a robot. They are both merely mirrors for ourselves anyway. To a narcissist, every other person is always already a robot.

My favorite of Turkle’s anecdotal subjects is “Brad,” who talks about quitting Facebook and is highly articulate about the suffocating, stultifying reflexivity that social media induce. “Online life is about premeditation,” he tells Turkle. This is also true about any concern for authenticity—it involves a sort of deciding in advance what sort of spontaneous behavior to indulge in. We try to judge ourselves in terms of some ideal that is not supposed to be an ideal at all but one’s natural, revealed self. But there is nothing natural about checking in with yourself on how natural you are being. Direct experience of one’s authentic self is impossible, once it’s conceived as something that can be known in the abstract—as something fungible, malleable, deployable—rather than as a process, a mode of action. Assessing one’s authenticity, therefore is impossible too. It either makes no sense to ask (everything I do, I’m doing, and is thus authentic to me by definition) or involves paradoxes of reflexivity and observer bias (every time I try to see myself doing authentic things, my self-consciousness changes my behavior). Nevertheless, social media set themselves up (or, to be fair, are taken as) forums for authentic-self-assessment —one’ can’t judge the authenticity of the unmediated self in real time, but one can certainly evaluate the authenticity of one’s online profile or the impression others seem to have of you. That is the narcissistic trap social media sets out for us.

But it is a trap also to imagine one can have some sort of direct experience of others, as if you could see the “real” person outside social media. We can’t access the other’s consciousness; it is always an objective performance from the outside. Nobody can ever show you their “real” self.

Slee brings up one of Turkle’s anecdotes that gets at a different way of viewing things outside of authenticity:

Visiting Japan in the early 1990s, Turkle heard tales of adult children who, too distant and too busy to visit their aging and infirm parents, hired actors to visit in their stead, playing the part of the adult child. What’s more, the parents appreciated and enjoyed the gesture. It’s slightly shocking to western sensibilities, but once we hear a little more context it becomes more understandable.
First, the actors are not (in all cases, at least) a deception: the parents recognize them for what they are. Yet the parents “enjoyed the company and played the game”. In Japan, being elderly is a role, being a child is a role, and parental visits have a strong dose of ritual to them: the recital of scripts by each party. While the child may not be able to act out their role, at least this way the parent gets to enact theirs, and so to reinforce their identity as an elderly, respected person.

Traditional rituals of social interaction allow people a certain measure of ontological security with regard of their place in society and within familial networks. That relatively secure identity still had to be performed to be felt, but the performance is explicitly understood as a performance. The reality of the identity is guaranteed by the rootedness of traditions. Such role-playing doesn’t fit with the ideology of individual existential freedom and the glories of unrestricted personal consumer choice and living like a stranger among strangers in urban settings and so forth. And while I certainly wouldn’t want to be saddled with that sort of ritualized social life and have an identity assigned to me even more on the basis of the circumstances of my birth, I do wonder what it would be like to feel intrinsically the basis of my identity was secure and my “authenticity” could never be sullied by missteps of taste.

In social media there is a material basis for an alternative to ingrained tradition in anchoring identity; a networked self could have some solidity that renders the performative nature of identity operate beyond questions of genuineness or authenticity. From a resister’s perspective, this all looks as odd and mechanical as the idea of sending actors to love your parents for you. But adopters can take solace in sending out their “Profile” (to use Nathan Jurgenson’s term for aggrgate online presence) to perform our cemented identity within various social networks. Once you accept that Facebook’s data collection roots you, you are “free” to be absent from social rituals but be present nonetheless. Welcome to the new intimacy.

What’s dangerous about this is not that it has ruined some previous form of intimacy that was especially precious. The problem is that we believe that we construct this social-media identity autonomously and that it is therefore our responsibility, our fault if it’s limited. 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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