Sunday, July 25, 2010

Re-Inventing Oneself in America and the Digital Age

From Jeffrey Rosen, The New York Times

... For most of human history, the idea of reinventing yourself or freely shaping your identity — of presenting different selves in different contexts (at home, at work, at play) — was hard to fathom, because people’s identities were fixed by their roles in a rigid social hierarchy. With little geographic or social mobility, you were defined not as an individual but by your village, your class, your job or your guild. But that started to change in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with a growing individualism that came to redefine human identity. As people perceived themselves increasingly as individuals, their status became a function not of inherited categories but of their own efforts and achievements. This new conception of malleable and fluid identity found its fullest and purest expression in the American ideal of the self-made man, a term popularized by Henry Clay in 1832. From the late 18th to the early 20th century, millions of Europeans moved from the Old World to the New World and then continued to move westward across America, a development that led to what the historian Frederick Jackson Turner called “the significance of the frontier,” in which the possibility of constant migration from civilization to the wilderness made Americans distrustful of hierarchy and committed to inventing and reinventing themselves.

In the 20th century, however, the ideal of the self-made man came under siege. The end of the Western frontier led to worries that Americans could no longer seek a fresh start and leave their past behind, a kind of reinvention associated with the phrase “G.T.T.,” or “Gone to Texas.” But the dawning of the Internet age promised to resurrect the ideal of what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called the “protean self.” If you couldn’t flee to Texas, you could always seek out a new chat room and create a new screen name. For some technology enthusiasts, the Web was supposed to be the second flowering of the open frontier, and the ability to segment our identities with an endless supply of pseudonyms, avatars and categories of friendship was supposed to let people present different sides of their personalities in different contexts. What seemed within our grasp was a power that only Proteus possessed: namely, perfect control over our shifting identities.

But the hope that we could carefully control how others view us in different contexts has proved to be another myth. As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable. In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.

A personal note: Throughout the years I have been giving a lecture, "Reinventing Oneself in America," to participants in the "Open World" program. The talk starts with Ben Franklin as the epitome of American reinvention, then goes on to talk about the two types of reinvention in the U.S. today: in the workplace and in people's personal lives. An American can have many jobs/careers; and he/she can have many "selves" throughout his/her life. The talk provides examples of American reinvention: The Great Gatsby; Arnold, the California gubernator; and Las Vegas. The presentation ends with reasons why Americans keep reinventing themselves, and asks the following concluding questions: Has natural, historical evolution been replaced by technological, future-oriented reinvention? To what extent does humanity want to reinvent itself and still remain "human"?

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