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Intimacy as a Defence

The new patterns of interaction that are emerging in highly digitized environments include the blurring of the boundaries between self and system and between self and others, and seem to engender a new typology of pathologies of which the most common is what is being described as 'burn out'. This is characterized by the paradoxical feelings of being permanently exhausted, overloaded, under pressure, and yet not being able to achieve what is expected and losing productivity. While not new as a set of symptoms, the expectations of permanent availability and self promotion associated with the professional model of the “entrepreneur of the self” has heightened the sense of disorientation. Controlling the attention of others, and dealing with the constant solicitation of others, is accompanied by a dramatic sense of loss of self-direction, intentionality and planning.

The French expression of for intérieur can help us understand the human issues at stake here. In Latin, 'for' means jurisdiction. The common understanding (not the ecclesiastic one) of the for intérieur is the jurisdiction that each person applies to her/himself; it corresponds to what in social sciences is called a sense of agency. Managers and employees in organizations that are heavily reliant on digital environments, such as banks, public administrations, large corporations, describe a sort of permanent blurring between their interior life and their life online. They describe the difficulty of making their for intérieur exist vividly in their daily lives. They talk of burning from the inside. This sense of disorientation is not unique to workplaces, and seems to be emerging in the home. The feeling of losing a sense of control when engaged with digital devices is described equally by gamers, online shoppers, video consumers or social media participants. Invariably, users talk of their devices as “time sucks”, as environments in which they lose their intentions and agency.

Another facet of the same problem is what R. Sennett (1977) describes as the current tyranny of intimacy—that is, the central position of intimate relations in the perception of self-realization. In contrast to traditional patterns of social interactions, organized through distinct roles where individuals were more easily categorized as workers, lovers, parents, citizens, we now observe a greater fluidity and confusion of boundaries. Nowadays, observes Sennett, the king is naked. Social distances, masks and shelters have disappeared. Individuals have no sanctuaries to retreat to and hide from the scrutiny of others, but feel always visible and transparent… raising obvious questions for the plurality of social identities. To some extent, this explains the increasing position of the home and of the inner circle of the family as a protective cocoon and the growing success of activities such as cooking and gardening, which restore the sense of duration, agency and privacy.

On the digital side, we also have evidence of a retreat into the private, intimate and controllable. There is ample evidence showing that all new digital communication channels, from texting to Skype, from Facebook to instant messaging, are being used to strengthen people's closest and most intimate relations (Baym 2010; Broadbent 2011; Madianou and Miller 2012). Contrary to common public discourse, people have not hugely extended their social network nor do they spend much time communicating with unknown digital acquaintances. Close scrutiny of what people actually do, with all the channels they have at their disposal, shows an intensification of exchanges with a few close ties, often less than five, leading to the strengthening of these relationships. A recent survey of 3,000 teenagers in Belgium (Gallez and Lobet-Maris 2011) confirmed the results of similar studies in the US (Ito 2010), showing that most of the participants had an 'between us' connectivity based on intense chatting and messaging with the small circle of the friends they have in 'real life'. The blurring of their offand online lives leads them to consider the virtual world as just another social space where they can entertain continuous contact with an intimate group of friends and relations. This constant and ubiquitous link between individuals and their loved ones is emotionally intense, and the feeling of always being within reach can provide a profound sense of safety and comfort. However, concentrating so intensely on a small set of relationships—especially when they also function as information filters, as is increasingly happening on social networking services—dramatically reduces the exposure to “others”.

Social media are playing a significant role in filtering information: news and content are chosen and filtered by friends. The much hailed principle of sharing interesting and relevant content with friends, a principle trumpeted as a way to actively participate in the making of news, is also, by a simple principle of homophily, reducing our exposure to diversity. The homogeneity of the social groups that compose the majority of people's close personal connections, ensures that the information circulated within the network is highly consensual and supportive of the values of the group.

In conclusion, we observe this retreat into the intimate as an attempt to regain a sense of mastery of attention and agency. This attempt is marked by the pursuit of a “protective cocoon”, which corresponds to an extreme form of filtering of social and relational information. When digital environments become too opaque, and experiences too abstract and remote, the solution is to fall back onto what is extremely familiar.

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