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Digital hyperconnectivity and the self

Abstract

Digital hyperconnectivity is a defining fact of our time. In addition to recasting social interaction, culture, economics, and politics, it has profoundly transformed the self. It has created new ways of being and constructing a self, but also new ways of being constructed as a self from the outside, new ways of being configured, represented, and governed as a self by sociotechnical systems. Rather than analyze theories of the self, I focus on practices of the self, using this expression in a looser, more general sense than that used by Foucault. I begin by considering and reformulating two early lines of argument about the web as a medium for exploring and emancipating the self. Subsequent sections show how digital hyperconnectivity has engendered new ways of objectifying, quantifying, producing, and regulating the self—considered both as active, reflexive practices and as systemic, data- and algorithm-driven processes. I conclude by reflecting on the broader implications of contemporary modes of governing the self and by underscoring the ways in which hyperconnectivity has colonized the territories of the self, conscripting the self into the service of techno-social systems.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In the United States, the share of the population over age 14 with a smartphone soared from a mere 11% at the end of 2008 to 75% just six years later (https://www.comscore.com/Insights/Blog/US-Smartphone-Penetration-Surpassed-80-Percent-in-2016). Regular Facebook users amounted to only 14% of the US population at the end of 2008, but just three years later they made up more than half the population (and of course a much higher fraction among younger people): https://www.nickburcher.com/2012/01/facebook-usage-statistics-by-country.html.

  2. 2.

    Nakamura’s 1995 essay is reprinted in Nakamura (2002; the quotations are from pp. 35 and 49).

  3. 3.

    Marwick (2005, pp. 37–47) provides a useful overview of “critical cyberculture studies” and its challenge to the notion of cyberspace as intrinsically liberatory.

  4. 4.

    On counter-publics in the ultra-orthodox case, see Fader (2017a).

  5. 5.

    To be sure, some formulations of these arguments have a postmodern inflection (Gergen 1991; Turkle 1995). But there is no hard and fast line between characterizations of postmodernity and characterizations of contemporary modernity. Many aspects of the alleged postmodern condition are treated by theorists like Giddens (1991) or Beck et al. (1994) as aspects of “late,” “high,” or “reflexive” modernity.

  6. 6.

    For a clear account of such disembedding and re-embedding that criticizes as sociologically unfounded laments about the alleged contribution of digital connectivity to the “destruction of community,” see Rainie and Wellman (2012, especially pp. 117–131).

  7. 7.

    My concern here is not with the initial formation of the self in early childhood—although digital technologies of objectification figure increasingly in that process as well—but rather with the ongoing process of the social shaping and reshaping of selves.

  8. 8.

    For a critique of “digital dualism,” see Jurgenson (2013).

  9. 9.

    The formulation in the text is a bit too strong. Objectification is not a necessary corollary of digitally mediated interaction. But it is the default option, thanks to the cheap and declining cost of preserving digital traces and the various actual or ostensible benefits of doing so. Some platforms do not objectify users’ interactions. Photos sent by Snapchat, for example, disappear after 10 seconds (though users can alter this default setting). But even when communication is designed to be evanescent to users, as with Snapchat, the business model of the platform depends on turning digital traces into monetizable data-objects.

  10. 10.

    Many platforms allow users to see their digital selves from the outside, as others see them.

  11. 11.

    On the digital gaze, see Floridi (2014, pp. 73–74).

  12. 12.

    On new modes of alertness and attentiveness to experiences that might be converted into enduring, shareable digital objects, see Schwarz (2012). Similarly, on the “Facebook eye,” which leads us to experience things, even when we are not connected, with a view to their postability and likely interest to an audience, see Jurgenson (2012) and Jurgenson (2019, pp. 12, 27–28, 36–38).

  13. 13.

    On “everyday self-trackers,” see Didžiokaitė et al. (2018). On enthusiastic participants in the quantified self community, see Nafus and Sherman (2014); Sharon (2017); Schüll (2019). These ethnographic studies offer nuanced accounts of participants’ tentative, exploratory, and often self-critical stance toward self-tracking and the data it yields.

  14. 14.

    For an early critique of the limits of self-knowledge through numbers, see Morozov (2013, chapter 7).

  15. 15.

    The wide range of contemporary self-tracking devices and practices is described in Lupton (2016, pp. 16–30); see also Mau (2019, chapter 6).

  16. 16.

    On the converging technological and social developments that have enabled self-tracking to flourish, see Wolf (2010). On sharing, social support, and gamification, see Lupton (2016, p. 23).

  17. 17.

    Hull and Pasquale (2018, p. 191) suggest that corporate wellness programs, including those that involve self-tracking technologies, do not reduce employers’ costs but rather discipline and condition workers.

  18. 18.

    Oral Roberts University, for example, has required entering students to purchase and wear a Fitbit tracker since 2016 (Frischman and Selinger 2018, pp. 17–18).

  19. 19.

    On “pushed” and “imposed” self-tracking, see Lupton (2016:, pp. 121–125). On “surveillance creep” in connection with health tracking, see Frischman and (Selinger 2018, pp. 20–28). For a nuanced discussion of the issue of autonomy, see Sharon (2017).

  20. 20.

    Quantification is of course a much more general tendency that goes well beyond social media platforms (Muller 2018; Mau 2019).

  21. 21.

    Artist Benjmain Grosser created the “Facebook Demetricator” (https://bengrosser.com/projects/facebook-demetricator/) in response to the pervasiveness of Facebook’s metrics (Grosser 2014).

  22. 22.

    On the “like economy” and the role of the like button in reorganizing the fabric of the web, see Gerlitz and Helmond (2013). On the contribution of the like button to platform interoperability and the creation of an integrated platform ecosystem, see Van Dijck (2013, chapters 3, 8). For the figure of 8 million external websites, see Stimson (2018).

  23. 23.

    The term “data doubles” was introduced by Haggerty and Ericson (2000) in their account, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, of “surveillant assemblages”; it has subsequently been widely adopted.

  24. 24.

    The pioneering paper of Kosinski et al. (2013, p. 5802) showed that Facebook likes could be used “to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender.” See also Tufekci (2014).

  25. 25.

    For a recent review of the ways in which “machines can infer information about our psychological traits or mental states by observing samples of our behaviour gathered from our online activities,” see Burr and Cristianini (2019).

  26. 26.

    Of course it is also the case that such external knowledge may be riddled with errors.

  27. 27.

    On the distinction between “giving” and unintentionally “giving off” information, see Goffman (1959, p. 2); on front and backstage regions, see ibid., (pp. 106–140).

  28. 28.

    On the practices of constructing a digital self to be consumed by others, see Marwick and Boyd (2011b, p. 140); Ibrahim (2018, chapter 3).

  29. 29.

    The vast majority of aspiring influencers, of course, do not strike it rich. See Duffy (2017) for a study of the “aspirational labor” of fashion and style bloggers as “a mode of (mostly) uncompensated, independent work that is propelled by the much-venerated ideal of getting paid to do what you love” (p. 4, italics in the original).

  30. 30.

    Although self-branding was popularized before the rise of social media, the web was an important point of reference; see the key statement by Peters (1997). On self-branding in the context of the transformation of capitalism, see Hearn (2008). On self-branding in social media, see Marwick (2010). On self-branding as a form of affective labor, see (Genz 2015). On the democratization and universalization of self-branding, see Khamis (2017).

  31. 31.

    In their influential Habits of the Heart (1985, pp. 32–35), Robert Bellah and his colleagues distinguished two strands of individualism with long histories in American culture: “utilitarian individualism,” epitomized by Benjamin Franklin’s maxims about getting ahead through thrift, diligence, discipline, and calculation, and “expressive individualism,” epitomized by Walt Whitman’s expansive sense of self, identification with nature and the universe, and embrace of broad experience, deep feeling, unconstrained sensuality, and self-expression.

  32. 32.

    On the “authenticity work” of lifestyle bloggers and the chronic risk of being perceived as inauthentic, see McRae (2017). On the labor involved in “branding the authentic self” in the context of fashion blogging, see Duffy (2017, chapter 4). The term “authenticity work” goes back to sociologist of culture Richard Peterson’s (1997) work on country music.

  33. 33.

    Even the discourse and practice of self-branding invoke expressive individualism: a successful brand cannot be arbitrary or manufactured ex nihilo; it must be seen as expressing one’s authentic and unique self. See McRae (2017, especially pp. 21–22).

  34. 34.

    For the notion of “communicative abundance,” see Keane (1999).

  35. 35.

    As McRae (2017) notes, fans have substantial genre knowledge that enables them to identify standard moves that they then deem inauthentic.

  36. 36.

    On algorithmic personalization, see Weinberg (2018) and Lury and Day (2019). As Weinberg notes (2018, p. 47), such personalization is itself homogenizing—a form of “mass production by other means.”

  37. 37.

    In one widely used instrument for assessing such problematic use, “mood regulation”—captured by agreement with such statements as “I have used the Internet to make myself feel better when I was down”—is one of four conceptual components of problematic Internet use (the others being “preference for online social interaction,” “deficient self-regulation,” and “negative outcomes”) (Caplan 2010).

  38. 38.

    For music, see J. C. Wang et al. (2015); for analogous work on video, see S. Wang and Q. Ji (2015); Tripathi et al. (2019). On the automated detection of boredom from patterns of smartphone usage, enabling “boredom-triggered proactive recommender systems,” see Pielot et al. (2015). On “affective computing,” “emotion analytics,” and “sentiment analysis” more generally, see Zuboff (2019, pp. 282ff).

  39. 39.

    On the role of dopamine in the “hub of reward, anticipation, and motivation,” see Sapolsky (2017, pp. 64–76 ; the quotation is from p. 76). On dopamine and social media, see Haynes (2018); Weinschenk (2012).

  40. 40.

    Foucault (1988, p. 18) discussed technologies of the self and technologies of power in connection with two other types of “technologies,” conceptualizing each as a “matrix of practical reason”: technologies of production and technologies of sign systems. Digital hyperconnectivity involves all four: for a preliminary canvassing of their interrelations, see Bakardjieva and Gaden (2012).

  41. 41.

    While Turkle (1995) does not use the Foucauldian language of “technologies of self,” her pioneering study shows how people can use anonymous online role-playing games as a way of working on the self. On blogging as a technology of self, see Bakardjieva and Gaden (2012) and, on academic blogging during the writing of a dissertation, Mewburn and Thomson (2018). For Foucauldian perspectives on life-logging and self-tracking, see Buongiorno (2016); Schüll (2019). On digital content curation as a modern analog of the ancient Greek hupomnemata, characterized by Foucault as a “material record of things read, heard, or thought,” see Weisgerber and Butler (2016).

  42. 42.

    On the shaping and governing of choice on the web, see Graham (2016).

  43. 43.

    On the notion of “empty choice,” see Kingori (2015).

  44. 44.

    As Mittelstadt et al. (2016, p. 9) note, personalization algorithms might be claimed to enhance decision-making autonomy, in a context of information overload, by filtering out irrelevant information. But since it is the algorithm that decides what information is irrelevant, such algorithmic filtering may in fact abridge decision-making autonomy and nudge individuals toward “institutionally preferred action.”

  45. 45.

    The tension comes into sharp relief when one considers similarities of structure, if not of scope, between Sunstein and Thaler-style nudging in liberal democratic settings and the much more comprehensive system of authoritarian digital nudging embodied in China’s emerging “social credit” system, which likewise seeks to “responsibilize” individuals so as to create more “social trust” and likewise governs individuals “at a distance,” through the choices they make. On the social credit system, see Larson (2018); Mitchell and Diamond (2018); Loubere and Brehm (2018).

  46. 46.

    On “predictive shopping” generally, see Sunstein (2015, chapter 7). On the outsourcing of taste to algorithms through retail subscription boxes, see Hu (2019). On the crucial role of algorithms that learn from experience and improve over time, making better predictions about which items the consumer is likely to keep, see Sinha et al. (2016).

  47. 47.

    For an analysis of “data colonialism,” suggesting, at p. xi, that colonialism is not just a metaphor, see Couldry and Mejias (2019).

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Acknowledgments

For excellent research assistance, I thank Morgan Boutilier and Alexander Ferrer; for helpful comments on earlier versions of the paper I thank Elizabeth Brubaker, Jessica Collett, Jaeeun Kim, Gail Kligman, Rebecca Lin, Juliane Vogel, and Kaiting Zhou. I am grateful to Julia Adams for the opportunity to present an earlier version of the paper to the Comparative Research Workshop of the Yale Sociology Department.

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Brubaker, R. Digital hyperconnectivity and the self. Theor Soc 49, 771–801 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-020-09405-1

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Keywords

  • Connectivity
  • Digital
  • Internet
  • Self
  • Social media
  • Surveillance