Sharing too much of your little black box makes you incapable of knowing yourself, maturing and developing as an independent entity.
What is it, really, at stake with all this sharing? How do new privacy norms affect the creation of an individual? These are the questions I aim to answer with the following article. Below, you will understand how data sharing and data consumption connect with the notion of prosumer, an important concept in explaining identity creation in the Big Data context. Further, I will describe two effects of data prosumption on identity creation. Lastly, the connection between relationship with oneself and that with the others will be made.
Prosumers of the attention economy
The notion of privacy is changing and with it, so does the one of sharing. More and more online users choose to show to the internet where they were at, with whom, how are they feeling, what are they eating, what are the thinking of. This creates the active digital footprint. Data is also shared involuntarily, without users actively deciding for this. Examples of such data are device ID, device location or search history. Such data forms the passive digital footprint.
It is sometimes difficult to understand how much data we leave behind on a daily basis. It is even more difficult to visualize this process. A digital footprint incorporates many elements and even mapping out just one of these elements might be challenging. But worry not, ShareLab made a great job to solve this issue. Among others, they looked at Facebook's data collection, one of the most intrusive there is, and summed up their findings in a nice, high-quality map. By reading their article, you will be able to better differentiate between which data we share voluntarily with Facebook and which data gets collected without us deciding for it.
Data is produced every time we do anything online, every time we consume a piece of information. In other words, every time we check a tweet, upload or scroll over a photo on Facebook, read a website, an article, an email or watch a film, we produce. As you understood from ShareLab's research, we produce consciously and unconsciously. The fact that we produce while consuming turns us into prosumers.
Once you get a grasp of the diversity and complexity of data we prosume online, go make yourself a cup of tea. Or a coffee, or anything that chills you out. Sit down on your sofa, turn off the TV, your laptop, your computer, your phone, your tablet, you xbox and the like. Spend 10-15 minutes enjoying your drink, think about whatever you wanna think about, gaze at the sky or count the bubbles in your fizzy drink, in case you got one. You get my point. Try to stay away from all of these distractions.
I don't know about you, but for me, that's an effort. And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. And now I ask myself...When did being completely alone with oneself become so intolerable? Sherry Turkle argues in her book Alone Together that
As we try to reclaim our concentration, we are literally at war with our selves.
I guess when we shifted towards an attention economy. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Messenger, Mail and a gazillion other distractions take most of our time in a day. We spend hours scrolling, without even realizing it. The attention economy trades attention. Our attention.
We are prosumers in an attention economy. Every time we consume online materials and give our attention away, our attention turns into data, valuable data for whoever collects it. The use of this data is to get more of our future attention. Such a loop has important effects on individual and society at large.
Some users see no problem with this loop and live their offline and online lives as they unfold, day by day, share by share. Some others see this loop as a surveillance capitalism, in which their status as prosumers sounds like someone digging their own hole. We will further look at attention economy's effects on identity creation for these two different types of online users. Let us start with the first type, the people who don't perceive any risks associated with online sharing.
Distracted from one's self
Being surrounded by so many distractions all the time got us used to this context. It is no longer unusual to spend hours online, multitasking and switching between platforms continuously. We even feel anxious without our mobile phones, a condition called nomophobia. We find it more and more difficult to reflect, to gaze, to wonder, to stare at the horizon, to find the time to know ourselves.
Knowing oneself is hard job, but not impossible. It needs dedication and willingness. Unfortunately, all that matters now is to capture that sunset in a picture, not in your mind. To post it online, rather than reflect upon it. To tell others who you are, rather than find out yourself what's really deep within. We end up more and more disconnected from ourselves.
Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a professor of Clinical Psychology at Stanford University where he runs the OCD clinic, comments on the topic of individuation - finding your true authentic self, maturing. In an interview with Manoush Zamorodi, he points at the necessity of a personal sacred space in the process of individuation. Psychologically speaking, privacy is a pre-requisite for finding one's true self. In a world where privacy is less and less appreciated, everybody is in everybody's business. Dr. Aboujaoude calls the phenomenon development in reverse, an inability to develop mature behaviour.
There are, however, people who understand these risks. They choose what to share and what not to share online, in an effort to preserve their personal sacred space.
In denial of one's self
During one of Opt in 4 Privacy's events, participants made relevant remarks for this topic. The event consisted in the broadcasting of researcher Charleyne Biondi's talk at the 33rd edition of Chaos Computing Club's annual congress. Her talk was titled The High Priests of Digital Age. and followed her research on surveillance mechanisms aimed at masturbators in the 18th century compared to those aimed at digital users in today's day and age. Once we finished broadcasting, one participant commented that Charleyne's conclusion stroke him most. For her, what's really at stake with surveillance and self-censorship is the self.
Another person disagreed. For him, a Google search did not feel like a confession at all. He felt that he had much more defining him than goofy or random google searches. He felt his black box was safe because it contained so much more than what he told Google it's in there. He felt he had a choice to make between what goes in the search engine, on his Facebook wall or Twitter feed and what stays in his head.
The problem is that many times people who choose to refrain themselves online for various reasons will end up refraining themselves in the offline world too. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1977) theorized the concept of spiral of silence. This mentions that individuals fear being isolated by their groups based on having different opinions than the group's consensus. As a result, individuals choose to refrain themselves from expressing such opinions all together. According to a 2013 study by Elizabeth Stoycheff, Facebook and Twitter users were less likely to discuss the Snowden story in offline environments, especially if they knew their online friends do not share similar views.
In time, the pressure of being constantly watched by a variety of online audiences at the same time ends up discouraging offline expression of one's true opinions. We cage ourselves. The filter one imposes upon itself is one dictated by the audience, rather than by one's own independent judgement. So rather than keeping the cage key and consciously deciding when it's safe to come out again, we surrender completely. We decide to let go of the key, stay in the safe cage forever and never risk getting offended or experience disagreement from the audience. We get used to it and, in time, forget about it.
Full transparency of your brain
As previous sections showed, sharing too much is a bad idea, in the end keeping us distracted from knowing our very own selves. Having too many filters online is also not so good. If one chooses to refrain online, one must ensure the filter is not imposed for the sake of approval from the audience. A conscious decision has to be made between what goes online, what goes offline and what stays in our heads.
Facebook seems to disagree though. At this year's Facebook F8 annual gathering, a new announcement has been made. It seems that, in the future, decision making in typing something out will be equal to thinking about something. Facebook aims to use your brain as an input device. While the project is still far from being finished, the company promises to allow “100 words per minute, straight from the speech center of your brain” to be typed in, like a neural keyboard. A spokesperson of the company was not able to make a commitment that such brain activity will not be used for advertisement purposes and mentioned that the software would only allow for
communications that you have already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain.
Facebook aims at making sure no person could self-censor themselves, even if decided on good grounds. They plan to make sure no second thoughts are allowed to what should be said/typed or not. Advertisement provided through Facebook will therefore be a lot more targeted and well, efficient. Efforts to redirect our attention away from such targeted content might be in vain. Not being able to opt out from continuous attention-seeking elements has great effects on how we relate to ourselves. With such degree of transparency enabled, we will be the best prosumers humanity has experienced so far.
Photo: Nick Statt / The Verge
Referring to the methods priests used to influence the behaviour of bad Catholics, Charleyne points at the importance of such thoughts transparency. It is therefore obvious that behaviour alteration has been historically based on co-operation between the changer and the changed. Yet when transparency is controlled by a corporation that profits from collected data, prospects are dark.
To be efficient in knowing if people are good Catholics or not, they could not just ask people as they have been doing before, because that was not enough. They had to know what was going on in their head, in their mind. - Charleyne Biondi
So far I have discussed identity creation as being influenced by lack of knowledge around ones' self or active choice for self-censorship. With brain waves activity data collection come other factors that can influence identity creation. U.S. Patent 3951134 A was filed in 1974 by Robert G. Malech regarding an Apparatus and method for remotely monitoring and altering brain waves. It is scary to think of Facebook's use of such patents in the light of their new announcement.
Relationship with self = relationships with others
Sharing data online does not only affect one's relationship with oneself. Alain de Botton states that knowing oneself is the basis of having meaningful relationships with others. Sherry Turkle makes another interesting point in her book: as we expect more from technology, we expect less from each other. She talks about trends such as offering our children and elderly robots to talk to and accepting seductive life simulations as perfect worlds to live in.
Creating a needs for constant online interaction deteriorates the value of substantial human interaction. Substantial human interaction is enhanced by, the contrary, being able to spend time with oneself in loneliness. In fact, Michael Harris talks about the art of being alone. Being able to handle oneself means being able to handle others, in their diversity and complexity, and appreciate them for these characteristics.
When we are no longer able to have a meaningful relationship with our self, we risk having shallow relations with others. A society made out of such individuals will leave us alienated from our social nature and turned into consumption-driven zombies. Perhaps the 'quality time' found in everyone's status updates and photo descriptions is not meant to be shared at all. Perhaps that's where quality comes from: internalizing the moment.
Cover Photo credit: Robert Poulin with a sculpture by Bruno Catalano
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