The argument about the way digital technologies impact society is not new. Since the advent of the digital technologies, the relationship between them and the private self has been one of the most problematic aspects of society’s evolution. While digital communications create the basis for the continuous social progress, the dark side of the technological challenge can hardly be ignored. Sven Birkerts (2006) writes that, among the numerous effects of digital communications, one of the most imperative is the waning, destruction, and collectivization of the private self. Birkerts (2006) believes that the western world is in the very first stage of social collectivization that will, eventually, destroy the ideals of individuality, privacy, and autonomy. Definitely, digital technologies favor the rapid and, at times, irreversible reconstruction of individual identities that erase the boundaries of the private self and create an image of collective thinking. However, one of the most interesting questions is how exactly individuals will react to the social collectivization of their individual selves, and whether it is possible at all to stop these processes. It would be fair to say that technologies cause the rapid convergence of individualities into a collective digital organism, opening new venues for free communication and interactions and, simultaneously, generating opposition to the power of collectivization and the destruction of the private self.
Globalization and digital technologies have caused a profound shift in the individual and collective consciousness and the public perceptions of the private self. Today’s society can no longer imagine itself without computers, smartphones, cell phones, laptops, tablet devices, and data storage applications. For many years, the rapid evolution of digital technologies, coupled with the globalization processes, has been fostering the vision of freedom and autonomy, opening new venues for communication, interactions, and the development of networked relationships (Williams, n.d.). The emergence of the Internet and the diffusion of the digital media and mobile communications have eventually prompted the expansion of horizontal social networks, which favor the convergence of the global and local processes (Castells, 2007).
With the convergence between Internet and mobile communication and the gradual diffusion of broadband capacity, the communicating power of the Internet is being distributed in all realms of social life, as the electrical grid and the electrical engine distributed energy in the industrial society. (Castells, 2007, p.246)
Not surprisingly, these technologies change individuals’ perceptions of their real self, as well as their place in the digital reality. Birkerts (2006) is right, when saying that the change is upon everyone in today’s society, and nothing could be clearer than that. The printed word is being replaced by a new digital order, which successfully combines the features of societal compulsion, freedom and choice (Birkerts, 2006). The world is becoming more reliant on digital communications, turning electronic media into an invisible but unbelievably influential instrument of social change. The impacts caused by the digital revolution are pervasive and overwhelming; they are lasting and deep (McLuhan, 1969). The invisibility of digital technologies poses one of the greatest threats to the future of the private self: technologies slip deeply into the midst of everyone’s individuality (Birkerts, 2006), and throw this individuality into the whirl of contrasting meanings, from the conscious awareness of freedom to the subconscious shock, stress, and oppression to the collectivization of the self (McLuhan, 1969).
As mentioned previously, the effects of digital media on the private self are pervasive and, very often, stressful and irreversible. The enormity of these changes can hardly be overstated (Birkerts, 2006). On the one hand, digital technologies once again emphasize the unchangeable validity of the human-technology connection. Williams (n.d.) writes that, for decades and even centuries, humans and technologies had been intertwined. It is possible to say that the human self is technologically mediated (Williams, n.d.). Humans develop new digital communications tools and systems, which further strengthen this bond between them and their technologies. Digital technologies enable modern individuals to distinguish themselves from the rest of the society, and to make a difference between themselves and the rest of the social environment (Williams, n.d.). Digital technologies create new venues for the expression of one’s moral self, through the appropriate or inappropriate use of these communication instruments (Williams, n.d.). In this sense, technologies and the growing complexity of the cyberspace emphasize the humane side of each individual, thus reminding all society members that they are living beings, not machines.
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At the same time, digital technologies foster the construction and reconstruction of the new, multiple identities. Digital communication technologies create the boundary between the real self and its online presentation (Zhao, 2005). The online world is increasingly anonymous, and anonymity fosters the recreation of the individual self and the separation of the “online” self from the “real” self through role plays and different identities (Zhao, 2005). As long as others cannot see who individuals really are, they are free to assume any identity and try any role they wish to play in the online world. With time, this disembodied world leads to the destruction of personal identities and the private self. By discarding their individuality and assuming someone else’s identity or role, users in the digital world reduce the scope of individual diversity and reject the ideal of autonomy and independence (Birkerts, 2006). Identity turns into a commodity, and humans are bound to choose the most desired role from a limited range of options. Like companies rarely produce items for individual consumers, so does the digital world, whose range of individualities and role plays is quite limited. This is, probably, why Birkerts (2006) mentions the process of social collectivization, which is closely related to the growing scope of digital communications in the global world. Digital communications reduce what used to be irreducible: the unique and individual self transforms into an easily generalizable entity that catalogues humans, based on their standard behaviors and attitudes (Williams, n.d.).
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One of the key questions is how individuals are to react to the emergence of the so-called social collectivization trends. Most likely, the reaction will be two-fold. On the one hand, digital technologies with their impacts on the individuality and private self will be regarded as the instrument of freedom and unlimited communication capacity. One of the major contributions made by technologies to the evolution of society is through mass self-communication, a medium that enables individuals to express themselves freely and effectively. Mass self-communication is characterized by three dominant features. First, it is massive in scope and global in its outreach (Castells, 2007). Digital communications enable users to reach the target audience, regardless of its actual physical location. Second, mass self-communication is multimodal (Castells, 2007). Simply stated, the digital content created by individual users can be downloaded for free and easily reformatted to suit the unique communication needs of the digital consumers. This, in turn, fosters further spreading of the digital content across numerous social networks. Third, self-communication by itself means that the content distributed by users is self-generated and self-directed (Castells, 2007). It is also self-selected by other users (Castells, 2007). In this context, the presentation and transformation of the private self in the digital media can be rightly considered as the potent source of the public social counter-power, which empowers digital media users to challenge and restructure the existing patterns of power and social relations (Castells, 2007). It seems that, the private self, if reformulated appropriately, can greatly contribute to the expansion of these counter-forces.
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On the other hand, the potential power of the reflexive identity is not as great as the opposition against the collectivization of the private self. In the digital world, the postmodern private identity has become extremely reflexive and unstable. Individuals constantly recreate themselves through their daily communication activities, but digital communications do not allow them to keep their biographies stable, and their identity narratives going (McCullagh, 2008). Digital communication increases this real-virtual identity divide, where individuals engage in online communication games and give up their individuality for the sake of greater social acceptance and power (Castells, 2007). Globalization through the digital media erases the boundaries of communication, but it also erases the value of the individual self. Digital communications reduce the private self to a set of data presentations, but many individuals are not willing to reconcile with the new order of things (Williams, n.d.). Social collectivization mentioned by Birkerts (2006) can be compared to the Freudian concept of repression, described by McLuhan (1969). Social collectivization can also be compared to the unprecedented homogenization of the world that inevitably takes place under the influence of digital technologies: the homogeneity of markets, money, and transports eventually leads to the economic and political unity which, in turns, leaves no room for individuality and exclusivity (McLuhan, 1969). The digital media that foster the emergence of counter-powers and enable individuals to reproduce their individuals in diverse and much unexpected ways also favor resistance to these counter-powers and multiple individualities, which become too general, common, and commodified. Individuals become more disagreeable in the face of globalization and digitization of the society. As a result, the future of the collective cyberspaces is likely to be torn between the two extremes: the optimistic promotion of free communication, anonymity, and self-realization, and the pessimistic opposition to the social collectivization of the private self. The balance of these two extremes can hardly be achieved and, most likely, individuals will never agree to subject themselves to the overwhelming power of digital commodification in the cyberspace.
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It should be noted that, even if the evolution of the digital media follows the optimistic scenario, it will still be associated with waning of the private self. With the growing scope of the digital media, the society will hardly avoid the threat of the social collectivization, which Birkerts (2006) discusses in his work. The process of digital communication is not seasonal but continuous, and the world will keep sweeping through the wires (Birkerts, 2006). Even if certain features of today’s self remain untouched, digital technologies will motivate a profound reconceptualization of the self and privacy. At the same time, the limits of oppression to globalization and social collectivization are still to be determined. In a world where the subjective space is quickly losing its meaning (Birkerts, 2006), digital technologies may cause an opposite effect, throwing individuals into conscious isolation, where they can finally devote themselves to face-to-face interactions with their private self.
Digital media cause profound shifts in the public perceptions of individuality and the private self. Digital communication leads to the gradual waning of the self, and the social collectivization of the private identity. Technologies cause the rapid convergence of individualities into a collective digital organism, opening new venues for free communication and interactions and, simultaneously, generating opposition to the power of collectivization and the destruction of the private self. Most probably, future digital technologies will evolve between the two extremes. On the one hand, digital communication will keep opening new venues for social networking and interactions. Digital media have a remarkable potential to create a counter-force to the major social processes and help users challenge the established processes, patterns, and beliefs. Simultaneously, and most likely, the digital media will cause resistance to the loss of individuality. Digital communications will remain an essential element of people’s daily lives, but they may also cause an opposite effect, turning conscious isolation into the only way to engage in face-to-face interactions with one’s private self.