Who are you? What do you want?
Everywhere we go, these questions come to us, surrounding us like a magnetic field, our hyperconnected movements creating lines of force, as the world aligns to our presence, like so many iron filings. It makes no matter how we answer either of these challenges, for our actions betray us completely. We make a dent in the world just by observing it. Presence alone is entirely enough.
Like finds like. You can lie about your name or age or race or nationality or political persuasion or sexual preference or culinary taste or fashion peccadillo, but incongruent with your actions, that falsehood will be ignored, thrown out as noise amongst the growing body of data. Queers know queers. Liberals know liberals. Foodies know foodies. Jews know Jews. Our network of relationships tells anyone who cares to look everything they would ever need to know about who we are. Things we would never willingly reveal to another human being resolve into unmistakable clarity, because our relations speak louder than our declarations.
This information, captured and recorded, becomes the foundation for a simulacrum of the self. Who we know is who we are, so relationship provides the key that answers all other questions. We can not help this, nor can we prevent it; wired to communicate, compelled to share, we define ourselves in greater detail with each act of sharing.
Those who watch – and they are watching – know more about us than we do about ourselves, for cool and dispassionate, they do not ignore the uncomfortable truths that our unconscious elbows aside. Warts and all, they see us as we are, in our relations and actions. Their simulacra, more honest than we ourselves can choose to be, takes on a life of its own, because it is more faithful to reality. Shadow overwhelms substance.
Who are you? What do you want? Someone else knows. Someone else cares because possession of your simulacrum turns you into a puppet of sorts. Where you are known, your actions can be predicted and your needs met. At the scale of the individual, this is basic social grace. Hyperconnected, this becomes a force in its own right, a sort of governance that is not outward directed, nor democratic, but seeks to envelop and control through a perfect knowledge of appetites and fears.
Everything that Edward Bernays began comes to its culmination in Facebook. Where crowd psychology gave birth to modern public relations, Facebook amplifies and inverts the process, disaggregating the crowd into individual simulacra, each such a faithful representation that responses can be known with perfect accuracy. Behavioral targeting isn’t a side-effect of the digitalization of our network of relations; it is the entire point.
Nor is there any escape in withdrawal. Delete your Facebook profile and leave other traces, just as distinct, in Twitter and text messages. All of our communication betrays us. All of it flows through Facebook and Google, either through search requests and the constant indexing of web pages, or the ubiquitous ‘like’ buttons, which serve as the smiling outposts of a global force of secret police.
The Stasi never had it so good.
Carefully tended, our simulacra, like hungry ghosts, have endless needs. They require food, clothing, shelter, the gadgets and accoutrements of hyperconnectivity, and endless entertainment. We act, and they express our needs to those who seek to satisfy them. We never get precisely what we want, but rather, what they care to offer. Caged, we are not allowed to see the world as it is, instead provided a narrow view that fulfills the commercial imperatives of those who have incarcerated our shadows. Nailed down and boxed in, we lose the freedom to move.
This is the paradox of cyberspace, the high price of sharing: the more we are known, the less free we become. This unbounded environment for human expression has become the perfect cudgel, a velvet glove covering an adamantine fist.
That shadow of our collective selves has many of the same qualities of our individual simulacra: it has both appetites and fears, centering on the same phantom: control. With a population of billions of hyperconnected simulacra, a type of practical psychohistory becomes possible, a dream beyond the grasp of Bernays, but well within reach of Zuckerberg. The masses can be driven to buy, driven to fear, driven to believe. It can all be done far more dependably – on an individual basis – simply by redecorating the bars on the cage.
Imagine a smoker who, under the influence of friends, decides to quit – then faces a deluge of images of attractive individuals, smoking? Or an obese person, confronted by an unending vision of delicious food? Consider the believer, losing faith, reminded constantly of the pain of hellfire? This is all possible, and this is all happening right now, if with less obvious maliciousness – the goal generally being to get people to consume something. When it acquires a political dimension – as it has in Syria and Iran – it becomes something more obviously repugnant, though no different in essential nature.
We must connect and share. It is who we are. Yet these profoundly human acts open us to dangers we find ourselves unprepared for. Not very long ago, our simulacra existed only in one another’s heads. Today they sit in databases, the private province of those driven to control, hungry ghosts tending feedlots of hungry ghosts. We can not withdraw without sacrificing our essential nature, but engagement inevitably leads to entrapment.
Gilmore’s Law points the way forward: no censor can withstand hyperconnectivity. But our hyperconnectivity itself creates the conditions for this censorship. To be connected is to be observed, and this feeds the simulacra. We appear to be trapped in a loop of our own making, products of a process of accelerated nature, dragged down to earth by our shadows.