New Media and Digital Self: What is the real self?
Submitted by: Muskaan Bhat
MAMC, 3rd Semester
“For the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, and representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane.”
? Ludwig Feuerbach, 1843
A person’s identity is very chaotic and the most confusing question is the way of defining one’s identity. Is it the body that makes us who we are? Or is it the integration of both mind and body that defines my identity? Does society define us or is our identity independent of all the social principles and structures? Similarly, the reality of this world is questionable. How does one perceive the “reality” of this world? Is there one singular reality, or are there different modes of reality? It is said that the reality of any subject is always singular, but the perception towards that singular reality can be many. But, what if there are many faces of reality? What if both the reality and the perception towards it are as many as the particles in this Universe? How does a thing “actually” exist? How can you separate thoughts and imaginations from your reality? The existence of this whole world has been ambiguous from the time man has discovered his rationality. He has always tried to know the reality of world. Reality is itself a wider sphere of discoveries and thoughts. What I think of reality is that it is an essence of any subject, it is both the reflection and the shadow of that subject. It can either be sensed through any sensory faculty, or can be conceptualized through thought processing.
Spectacle at times describes appearances that are claimed to be simultaneously deceptive, false and superficial. They tend to hide the realities of a society by attracting the attention of masses through their unusual characteristics and visually striking performances. According to me, spectacles both ‘image’ (represent) and ‘imagine’ (create) a realm of society. Thus, the cultivation of social thoughts is many a times impinged by spectacles. They affect the minds of the masses and play with their minds, thus creating a perspective of reality which is completely different from the image of true social reality. Spectacle of any situation or context holds a visual contact which appeals masses of a society and moulds the reality for them. By social reality, I mean the accepted principles and ethics of a society, involving certain social laws and representations. It is a collective product of uniformities among people.
The question of self is itself a debatable concept in terms of the way we perceive it. Is the image of self subjective and depends on the perspectives of the individuals or is it objective while being independent of its constituents? Spectacles can hide the objectivity of social realities, but the individualistic aspect of social realities may or may not be masked by the spectacles.
The ‘media’ and ‘societal truths’ share the relationship of ‘art’ and ‘reality’. Art is basically a representation of reality. Media is a collective form of art. The media is the art which represents reality prevailing in our society. But at the same time, media also cultivates our reality and ideas. It is not only the representation, but also the cause of reality. The ideologies expressed by the means of media can both cause and represent the conscience of an individual. It is mostly through media that a person becomes familiar to his cultural and social identity.
The reason why I tried to introduce the relationship between reality and spectacle, or media and art is to essentially understand one’s digital self/ identity which is the product of new media. Well, what is new media?
Today’s modern world which is layered with the digital technologies, has given rise to the use of computers and internet, providing variety of entertainment and information. New media constitutes of a whole world which is existing on its own through social media, video games, blogs and online outlets. New media has become a form of art where one can see the fluidity of self-images, identities, perspectives, and ideas. One can say that the age of 1920s, i.e., the Avant-garde age in art history is more relevant to new media than any other time period in history. Artists in this period introduced a new set of visual and spatial languages and communication techniques and these languages and techniques are used today. The art (be it films, paintings or music) experimented during the Avant-garde art movement worked as the catalyst in transforming the stagnant ideological vision to the thousands of different perspectives for a single thing. Likewise, new media and the technology surrounding it introduced the idea of multiple images of oneself and it was all possible by the idea of a “digital self”. New media represents the new avant-garde, which does not concern itself with capturing or reflecting the world in new ways; but, it seeks to access previously collected media. Thus, new media is essentially post-media or meta-media. “New media is basically the digital information that can be influenced by software. This allows automation for media operations to produce multiple versions of the same object. For example, a picture can be edited and altered automatically by working on the algorithmic data like sharpen, contrast, colorize or saturation.”
Despite the digital self, we all carry different personas and selves within our one concrete body. It is interesting to observe the fluidity of one’s identity through this one constructed body. All of us seem to need, and therefore have a distinct sense of self. Categorized as who we are, or whom we feel ourselves to be, it appears roughly defined as the consistent sensation of internal individual existence that remains a constant over time. But is that self-constant? Is our self-rigid and constant from the time we are born to the movement we die, or does it change through the passage of time? When we relate time with the notion of rigid self, language struggles to define the idea of “self”. And, the internalized definition of one “real self” tends to neglect the growth and evolution of self through the period of time. With the rise of digital technology and the new media, the definition of “self” seems to become more abstract and hard to comprehend. It has to lead us to the time where the singular perspective towards one’s self is highly challenged. New media tends to ask you, “What is the real self?”
Digital self is the manifestation of one’s ideal self that the person projects to engage with new media. Physician and Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, proposed a theory of self that posited there was a “true self” that is the instinctive core of our personality and must be nurtured and realized. Then there is the “false self” that is created to protect the “true self” in a society. According to him, the “inner self” which he calls the “true self” is the essence of one’s personality. The dichotomy between mind and body where the body is the external manifestation can be seen as an analogy for “true self” and “false self”. In an attempt to share your thoughts (true self) with the world, we engage our body (decoy selves) to maintain the balance. But is it an objective observation? Is the idea of the relationship between digital self and one’s “true self” this narrow?
Spike Jonze’s film, ‘Her’, comes along to provoke serious reflection on the relationship between digital self and new media. This award-winning film takes us to the merely-sci-fi world that closely resembles our own, but in which digital technologies like virtual-reality gaming, Artificial Intelligence, and Apple’s OS called Siri have shadowed their real-world counterparts in a discrete way. Despite its cinematically aesthetic blend of pastel hues and futuristic shine, this digital world begins to feel surrealistically eerie when the viewer finds out that the story revolves around a solitary, heartbroken and suffering writer, Theodore Twombly, (wonderfully played by Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his Operating System’s incorporeal entity i.e. Artificial Intelligence, called, “Samantha” (whose tragically enigmatic and alluring voice is conveyed by Scarlet Johansson). This movie asks you to take a step back and retrospect, “What is essentially the real self? Is there a necessity to differentiate between the digital and the real self? Samantha being the Operating system and the manifestation of the human thoughts bridges the gap between these two kinds of selves and it shows the interjection where the digital self and the other self merge together. This projects the abstract nature of “self”, while challenging the idea of one real self.
Similarly, in the first episode of Black mirror, Season 3, titled “Nosedive” which takes you to the post digital world where one’s existence in a society is influenced by the online social ratings and the status based on the “stars” given by the people for your physical appearance or behavior. This episode is a wonderful analogy of the digital self we are chasing in our own world through social media. The episode talks through metaphors while showing us the impact of the social media and digital self by adding some exaggerated twists. In the end, the viewer is spellbound while questioning his existence. “Who am I?”, “How do I separate my ‘real’ self from my ‘digital self?”, “Are they both just one, or different, or do they complement each other?” These questions start striking in your mind.
New media is a global network of individual selves that find expression that transcends all cultural restrictions. Something like recreational social media offers the platform to transfer their sense of self (an ideal self) into an environment without restrictions. The notion of self becomes both literal and surreal online, allowing for a greater expression from the individual. Social network is the tool for escapism and you might choose to appear as living an ideal life, irrespective of your “real” life. The dichotomy of the selvf between the “natural” real world and the digital is sort of dissolved by the genetic chains of body itself.
Being a defined platform in new media, videogames seem to have an almost monopolistic hold over the notion of defining a digital body and thus immersing your ‘self’ as its inhabitant. These interactive fields offer an increasing ability to express yourself as an entity, an individual, in an completely different reality, separate from the ‘natural’ physical world. Questions of escapism, along with the more mundane notions of social networking, combine to offer the individual an ability to express themselves i.e. their sense of ‘self’. The internet’s freedom from the rigidity of both physical space and cultural conformity present a tabula rasa to the individual, with which a ‘self’ can be constructed from the scratch.
New media seems to have offered us the greatest opportunity for freedom of self-expression, predicated upon self-knowledge through the passage of time. “The implications of which seem to me to be that the new media platforms confer a great responsibility on us all, which is to accept the responsibility of your own real ‘self’ and then to introduce that to exist in the collective spaces of the internet, that we might define a collective global culture more honestly and completely than any other previous cultural expression.”