Identity Download: How the High-Tech Society Commits Suicide


Is this literacy? Is it thought?

Support for progressive causes among the under-thirties isn’t deliberate or considered: it’s an electronically projected identity.

Nobody  knows that you’re alive, and nobody cares very much if you stay that way.  The best photo of your life—the one that doesn’t really look like you—waves at the masthead of your Facebook page, where you upload selfies three or four times a week of a job interview, a trip to the zoo, a pizza party.  Of your 283 “friends”, perhaps five notice.  They write, “Cool!” in the “comments” box so that you, in fair turn around, will view their visit to Lake Squishamish and click “like”.  You cling to each other (speaking of water) like those huge floating islands of moss for which sailors of old named the Sargasso Sea.  No roots, no origin, no destination, no individual existence… just a temporary, collective reality woven of sheer numbers.

I was writing about the rootlessness of contemporary existence twenty years ago, building my arguments upon television and the nascent Internet.  Nobody cared about my message then.  (The heavy-hitting feminist scholar Daphne Patai graciously offered to publish a piece about electronic influences upon relativist literary criticism in an anthology—but her co-editor, unconsciously voicing a concern typical of homo electronicus, protested that it was too long!) In the meantime, everything I fruitlessly used to write about has multiplied geometrically.  Young people of even a very modest educational and economic level are raised on “smart” phones.  They have less face-to-face contact with each other than ever.  They also have less engagement with the exigencies of physical living than ever—by which I mean planting and harvesting crops, repairing domiciles, mending clothes, or even washing clothes or dishes.  Of course, they read less than ever, as well.  Even the minimal literacy required to function on Facebook is being commandeered by the forementioned uploads of “selfies”, token comments like “cool” and “OMG”, and pecks at the “like” button.  A “Tweet” passes for a philosophical treatise (a “Tweetise”?), and reading it consumes the attention once devoted to two or three pages of editorials.

They have the glazed, brooding stare of Romantic poets, these young people… but nothing much goes on behind the stare.  They are not meditative because they can’t be: their thoughts must parasitize images supplied to them by their surrounding “culture”.  They are in pain, but not hungry or thirsty or tired or cold, since all their creature comforts are met to a degree considered lavish in most of the world.  Some of them, in fact, are dimly aware of having profited from such privilege by an accident of birth; and that makes them more sullen than ever—because they are suffering, yet they appear to have no right to suffer.  They grow overweight in their sedentary ease, they long for an expressive medium yet haven’t been taught any honest and versatile language, and they burn to express a self yet exist to the world only as another of those images through which the world reaches them.  They might as well be sealed alive in a coffin.

The solution?  Identity download!  Press a button and become somebody.  Press the right button and become somebody really important, really worthwhile: a model human being, a saint!  Hit “like” on an article arguing for gay marriage and become a paragon of compassion!  Type “agree” in a comment box after a Tweet about the need for gay-bashing bakers and candlestick-makers to do jail time and become a social activist!  Now you’re marching in Selma!  Oh, and as for that… fight racism by flaming a “f*** you” after a piece defending the Confederate flag.  Show your sensitivity by Tweeting support for the rioters in Ferguson.  Show intelligence, humility, social activism, and dedication to planetary progress by signing an online petition to have climate-change deniers legally silenced.

Identity download.  A minute ago, you were nobody, nothing: now you belong to something big, are part of something good.  And you didn’t even have to grind out your own words!  It’s like role-playing in a video game—except that this game is the only important thing in your life.  It’s who you are.  And those who would assail your push-button positions with contradicting facts and logical subversion only offer you a welcome occasion to display the age’s supreme virtue: passion.  You double down on your patchwork case for sainthood.  The very fact that it makes little sense proves you to be a committed, passionate person.  It’s not about the position per se—about the coherence of its logic or the substance of its evidence: it’s about positions as ciphers, as tokens, as emblems.  To resist the Comfederate flag’s one-to-one correspondence with a pro-slavery attitude, for instance, would be to dispute your right to one of your identity’s building blocks.  You need that flag to mean what you say it does!  You need gay sex to be true love; you need partial birth abortion to be a woman’s disinfecting herself from a man’s touch.  You have a right to say who you are, and these pop-cultural associations are your language!

Identity download.  It has become the premier means of stabilizing an ego in the postmodern world of disgruntled, wired, and clueless under-thirties.  Michelle Malkin, Derek Hunter, and other clever wordsmiths whose principles do not depend upon the movement of photons nevertheless argue that the Right can only win over these clueless wonders by becoming much more active on “social media”.  Rush Limbaugh is the only commentator I have observed to emphasize the vital role of ego-definition in the progressive-lite, white middle class’s staking out of positions on key issues—and Rush little suspects, I think, that television, the Internet, the handy (as the Europeans call it), and the other constellations of the virtual universe are the disease’s root cause.  I say that the white middle class (and especially upper-middle class) is particularly affected because one of the most “productive” icons in ego-assembly is race.  Whites need non-whites to be oppressed so that opportunities for expressing solidarity arise—so that an occasion to vilify and separate from wicked, racist, mainstream white people is created.  The white needs the black to be still and ever a slave so that he—the enlightened white—can be different, special, and superior against the loathsome backdrop of his brethren.  He needs illegal immigrants to be impoverished manual laborers seeking only to feed their babies so that he, the superior being, can spring to their defense on Twitter.  He needs every gay couple to be Romeo and Juliet, kept apart by brutal prejudice, so that his exquisite sensitivity and radiant moral beacon may become apparent in a dark, corrupt world.

Pathetic little egotists, one and all, clicking on their Identity Downloads.  Sometimes their paternalized “designated victims” see through them: no one has done this better than Shelby Steele.  Yet in minority communities, such perspicacity is not welcome.  It jeopardizes the flow of benefits that comes without lifting a finger.  What such cynical opportunists fail to recognize behind their “keeping it real” paydays is the invisible but profound harm they do their self-respect.  Every time they accept the stereotypical part of “battered slave” or “infantile campesino” in the paternalist’s morality play, they rake in more compensation filched by the contrite white penitent from his neighbors’ pockets.  But the payment isn’t nearly enough for the degradation: they must know this deep down, and so they fume.  Who wouldn’t?  I would, in their place.

Their egos, too, are shaped by Identity Download, if only indirectly. In fact, I believe this to be the true source of the clearly mounting resentment in the black community, especially. The bitter words are aimed at the stingy, unregenerate conservative sector—as they would naturally be; for the conservative’s position implies that minorities are allowing themselves to be humiliated.  A man who does not want to follow the doctor’s harsh regimen for curing a cancer curses the doctor for a quack.

I would say to Michelle and Derek a) that more activity on social media will not solve a problem originally born of sound-bite thinking, and b) that I don’t have the solution.  That is to say, I have only the solution that none of us wants to imagine: social collapse.  Once our electronic house of cards comes toppling down—whether by terrorist attack on the power grid or EMP event or simply through overuse and expanding incompetence at the nerve center—things will get better.  They will get terribly worse, at first.  Then, for whoever survives, they will get much better.

I wish I could offer more.

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