The digital age – technology, information and what it means to be human?
As accurately described by Eriksen “nowhere else has exponential growth been more visible and tangible since the late 1980s than in the domain of information” (Eriksen, 2016, p.117) and technology. However, this development generated various new challenges. Inequal access to technology, anxiety about consequences of technological progress and information overload are just a few discussed in the public and academic debate. On the other hand, advanced technology holds beneficial aspects such as eased communication, enhanced freedom of speech, gaining and sharing knowledge on a broader scale. I would like to focus on the Internet and on what it means to be human according to a hermeneutic phenomenological approach, using the concept of the self and relating to Csordas article on the paradigm of embodiment.
The use of the Internet varies from person to person, but a main use of the Internet especially under the younger generation focuses on the use of social media. While social media is aimed for communication purposes, it is important to keep in mind that it is also a form of self-representation and expression. Instagram for example is a platform mainly based on the uploading of photos of oneself or of one´s personal life. Indeed, the emergence of the selfie (self-portrait photograph) is a prime example of this form of self-representation.
Psychological and philosophical anthropology has been exploring questions of how we make sense of ourselves in the world, but nowadays we need to question how we make sense of ourselves in the digital world or cyber space. Many studies in the field of understanding human beings, their perception and behavior in our world start from the body and with the concept of embodiment. The methodological orientation towards embodiment was predominantly marked by a principle of duality, in particular in the domain of perception by subject-object (Csordas, 1990). In his article, Csordas (1990) accounts for a non-dualistic approach and for a paradigm of embodiment, meaning a collapse of the subject-object distinction within the analysis of perception and practice on culture and self.
“Within a paradigm of embodiment, analysis would shift from perceptual categories and questions of classification and differentiation, to perceptual process and questions of objectification and attention/apperception.” (Csordas, 1990, p.35)
The paradigm of embodiment is a valid approach in the analysis of understanding what it means to be human in an age of technological domination. As it is exactly this form of collapse of the subject-object distinction that is manifested and witnessed in the representation of the self in social media – the digital self is simultaneously object and subject.
The study of Know and Know (2015) on the use of selfies in social media reveals exactly this phenomenon. They evaluate that “the social media creates a virtual space in which the self is explicitly consumed” (ibid., p. 301-302) by being objectified and exposed to the public. But at the same time, it is this virtual objectification of oneself in the Internet that becomes a subject and agent in the digital world through communication and action with other users (by commenting, liking and following).
However, when Csordas refers to the paradigm of embodiment he literally puts forward the body as a starting point of analyzing culture and self – how can we analyze culture and self in a virtual space which the body cannot enter? Anthropology may have to rethink what it means to be human in a virtual space and to conceive new concepts to explain ongoing processes in the digital world.
Csordas, T. J. (1990). Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology. Ethos, 18 (1), 5-47.
Eriksen, T. H. (2016). Overheating : An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. London: Pluto Press.
Kwon, Y. J. and Kwon K-N. (2015). Consuming the Objectified Self: The Quest for Authentic Self. Asian Social Science, 11 (2), 301-312. doi:10.5539/ass.v11n2p301
Spada, M. M. (2014). An overview of problematic Internet use. Addictive Behaviors, 39, 3-6. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2013.09.007