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Digital-Analogue Media and the (re)Emergence of Relational Selves

This section begins with a warning against our focusing overly much on “the digital” in our analyses, insofar as the analogue—most especially in the form of humans' embodied sensation and perception—does not disappear in the age of hyperconnected realities (3.1). Analogue embodiment further correlates with a stubborn insistence in contemporary philosophy and Internet Studies on singular identities (3.2). At the same time, there is strong evidence suggesting foundational shifts towards more relational and affective emphases of selfhood and identity in Western societies—along with correlative changes in our understandings and expectations of “privacy” (3.3). These shifts have enormous political consequences: most simply, where the individual-rational emphases of Western (high) modernity correlate with liberal-democratic institutions and core norms such as equality—historically, relational (and more affective) emphases have correlated with less egalitarian and more authoritarian forms of power and control (3.4).

3.1 Digital Media and Digital Futures?

A developing European “onlife” implicates at least two digitally-based technologies. The first (a) includes the multiple forms of (analogue-) digital media, where 'media' refers to both (i) familiar technologies such as digital cameras and similar recording/storing technologies, often as embedded in smartphones, for the production and distribution of diverse forms of media qua content, as this content is (ii) distributed through (analogue-) digital media qua channels (computers and computer networks, but also more “traditional” radio and TV broadcasts, film, print, etc.) and devices (including “mobile-locative” devices such as smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices that are both connected to the Internet/Web and are GPSenabled). In these directions, the “mobility revolution” (better, in my view, 'evolution') is a primary locus of the sorts of developments that we may anticipate to be central to the further evolution of onlife.

I think it increasingly critical to notice, however, that these technologies remain analogue technologies, beginning with their inputs (voice, light, etc.) and outputs (sound, image, etc.). This is important for two reasons: (a) just as we rightly concern ourselves with the affordances of digital technologies qua digital—so we need to attend to the affordances of the analogue components of these technologies as well, or otherwise risk a potentially misleading myopia in our focus, and (b) highlighting the analogue side of these technologies thereby highlights the embodied character of their designers, consumers, and users—i.e., as human beings whose sensory and enkinaesthetic engagement with the world remains deeply analogue (cf. Massumi 2002). (As various schemes of human enhancement and re-engineering are realized, all of this may well change.)

(Analogue-) digital media are at work in other aspects of contemporary and future onlife, including (b) the development of “social robots” such as “telenoids.[1]” A telenoid is designed to convey embodied forms of communication, including “hugs”—while being remotely controlled through Internet and other forms of digital connections. Robots in various forms—including “care-bots,” “warrior-bots,” and, of course, “sex-bots”—will become increasingly commonplace appliances in an analogue-digital future, for better and for worse (Turkle 2011).

3.2 Trust, Identity, and Polity

A synthesis of philosophical approaches to trust has issued in a philosophical anthropology that highlights the role of embodiment in our knowing and navigating the world, including a phenomenologically-rooted emphasis on the Husserlian “I” or first-person perspective (indexicality) as anchoring our sense of experience in the world (Ess and Thorseth 2012). There emerges here a stubborn insistence on singular identity as rooted in the body, as well as in a Kantian epistemology that foregrounds the role of a transcendental unity of apperception in the construction of a coherent experience out of the otherwise fragmented and incoherent data stream—a unity expressed in the phrase and epistemological requirement of the “I think.” More recent work in philosophy on “personal identity online” has reinforced these onceptions of identity, specifically with regard to online communicative engagements (Ess 2012a). A broad range of empirical findings from Internet Studies over the past decade or so likewise highlights the primacy of a singular identity—one that spans precisely the increasingly blurred distinction between online and offline, as our phrase “Onlife” suggests (Ess and Consalvo 2011; Ess and Dutton 2013).

3.3 Changing Selves, Changing Privacies

On the other hand, the particular emphases defining such selves and identities appear to be in flux. In “Western” societies, the affordances of what McLuhan and others call “electric media,” including contemporary ICTs, appear to foster a shift from the modern Western emphases on the self as primarily rational, individual, and thereby an ethically autonomous moral agent towards greater (and classically “Eastern” and pre-modern) emphases on the self as primarily emotive, and relational—i.e., as constituted exclusively in terms of one's multiple relationships, beginning with the family and extending through the larger society and (super)natural orders. This can be seen in the first instance in the movement, especially among the young, from strongly individual notions of privacy towards “publicly private/ privately public” sharing of information on social networking sites (Facebook et al.) as well as in illegal sharing of copyrighted materials. These moves are followed by correlative shifts in privacy and copyright laws, i.e., away from laws built around earlier media and strongly individual and exclusive senses of privacy and property. So, for example, Helen Nissenbaum builds her account of privacy as “contextual integrity” on the clearly relational sense of selfhood articulated by James Rachels, as we have seen. This account is further coherent with the language and conceptualizations of “privacy” in Denmark and Norway, for example. To be sure, strongly individual rights to privacy are protected here—in part, as these countries hold closely to European Union regulations of individual data privacy protection. At the same time, however, “privacy” is discussed here more in terms of privatlivet (“private life”) and the intimsfære (“intimate sphere”). These are understood in both individual and relational terms. In particular, Norway's research ethics guidelines make explicit the requirement that researchers not only to protect the privacy of individual subjects, but also that of their close relationships, i.e., those who constitute the individual's intimate sphere and private life (NESH 2006; Ess and Fossheim 2013). Similar comments hold with regard to property notions. The political program of the Pirate Party, for example, criticizes current intellectual property rights regimes as too individual and too exclusive, and thereby, as no longer suitable to contemporary attitudes towards and practices of sharing digital files—most notably, entertainment materials such as music and movies (Ess 2013, p. 92).

Par contra, in especially North Asian societies, the shifts go in the opposite direction—namely from strongly relational emphases in selfhood and identity towards increasingly individual emphases (Yan 2010; Hansen and Svarverud 2010). These shifts are reflected not only in radical changes in social practices, such as younger people demanding individual privacy (Japan, Thailand) as well as “privacy” shifting from an originally negative concept to a more Western concept of privacy as a positive good (China): they are further reflected in changing privacy laws, including the encoding of individual privacy rights in the Chinese constitution in recent years—so much so, in fact, as to include discussions of introducing due process rights (Sui 2011; Greenleaf 2011). (And this after a decade of the loss of due process rights in the U.S. and the E.U.: Cohen 2012.)

3.4 Changing Selves, Changing Polities?

Given the foundational importance of the rational-autonomous individual to not only classical conceptions of privacy, but also to modern Western conceptions of liberal democracies, these shifts are of enormous political moment as well. Specifically, as highlighted again in Medium Theory, classically relational selves correlate with hierarchical social structures and non-democratic regimes.

Given important caveats[2], a key question is how far these correlations will reappear—perhaps in the hybridized forms suggested by Walter Ong's (1988) notion of the “secondary orality” of electric media (i.e., one that hybridizes primary orality with subsequent communication modalities of literacy and print—where these last two correlate with the rise of the modern rational individual and liberal-democratic governance)? On the one hand, “Eastern” movement (at least in North Asia, along with, perhaps, analogous movements in the Islamic world, as manifest most dramatically in the “Arab Springs” of 2011) appears to indeed be towards more democratic forms of governance, as correlates of more rational-individual-autonomous conceptions of self and stronger individual conceptions of privacy. On the other hand, “Western” movement towards more relational (and emotive) emphases of selfhood correlate with, e.g., the erosion of due process rights for privacy, as well as increasing economic and political hierarchies in Western societies.

These developments may point towards a convergence between “Western” and “Eastern” societies of basic assumptions regarding identity and selfhood. This convergence may appear, for example, in recently developed notions of relational autonomy (Mackenzie 2008) and what Luciano Floridi has circumscribed as distributed morality and distributed responsibility (2012) . These notions further overlap with our Onlife colleague Judith Simon's work on “Distributed epistemic responsibility,” included here. All of this taken together represents important new developments in our understanding of what moral agency and responsibility might look like for selfhood and identity that conjoins both rational-individual and relationalaffective emphases—and where the relationality in play here includes the multiple relationships shared and embodied in the online networks that constitute much of our hyperconnected reality.

Ideally, such hybrid individual-relational selves will be able to sustain the democratic processes and norms—including equality—that correlate with modern emphases on rational-individual selves as cultivated through the communication technologies of literacy and print. But the rise of the relational self and shifts away from individual notions of privacy necessarily evokes a critical question: how far may equality and democratic processes survive in future societies as constituted by increasingly relational selves?

  • [1] E.g., < newest-and-strangest-android>. Telenoids have been used in a pilot project on eldercare in Denmark, for example, with promising initial results.
  • [2] Our Onlife colleague Mireille Hildebrandt has generously shared a wealth of relevant references that offer careful refinement and important revision regarding how we best characterize power relations in non-state societies.
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