The connectivity society

There’s a theory in the study of social relationships that became quite popular in the 1960s.  It was called “dramaturgical sociology.” Its author, Erving Goffman, adopted the Shakespearean insight that “all the world’s a stage,” and worked out a cool set of concepts that view human actions as sequences in the elaborate art of impression management.  We want other people, he said, to see us according to how we wish to portray ourselves.  Instead of leaving it entirely to chance, this is something we can control to some extent.  Success is never assured. But we are not crushed when we falter: the audience is usually polite and helpful.

Goffman would have found the new culture of instant digital connectivity in which many of us today are immersed fascinating.  Because of the radical changes in communications technology, our lives take place, more than ever, in what he called the “front stage.” In other words, we are constantly performing.  Between performances, we find that there’s less and less time to retreat to the “back stage,” to take a break and be ourselves.

Our solitudes become public.  The most intimate of our relationships, in which we used to be able to take refuge, can be viewed by people we hardly know but who are part of an ever-expanding social network.   We are trapped in roles from which increasingly we cannot take a rest.  We can no longer talk in whispers, or tell a joke that will not potentially be a scandal.  It has become difficult to indulge in private moments that we’re sure will not be photographed, or recorded, and posted on YouTube or somebody’s Facebook.

Mobile communication instantly connects us to an amazing number of people everywhere, all at the same time.  This has multiplied exponentially the power to do good and to spread the good news.  But it has also empowered meanness.  It has made bullying not just more vicious because of its capacity to be anonymous, it has also made it virulent. By providing easy access to the various media of public discourse, mass connectivity has democratized opinion-making no doubt, but it has not made it as easy to come to any agreement on what is to be regarded as true.  Indeed, it has also become the most effective tool for repeating and spreading a lie. We may keep a tally of the number of people who “like” a particular opinion, blog, tweet, or post.  But that only tells us what’s popular at any given moment, not necessarily what’s true.

This is not to ignore e-group forums that are focused on specific issues and that feature rational argumentation of a high quality.  But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.  Most discussions do not remain at the level of ideas; they invariably degenerate to namecalling.  The e-mail can still mimic the traditional letter, but when there’s so much incoming mail to respond to, e-mails inescapably become simpler and shorter.  In time they will look more like text messages, says Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg –  “seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal, and short.” This form of communication will be even more inhospitable to prudent discussion that is not in a hurry to make a point.

All this may sound like worthless griping against technology.  This is not a brief against technology.  It is rather an observation of how technology can easily overwhelm our capacity to manage it properly at the personal and the societal level. The new technology has made everyday communication easy, but it has also raised human relationships to a different level of complexity for which our current communicative habits and ethical instincts may not be adequate.

This is not just true for communications; this is true for all new tools that come into use in the world with such pervasiveness and intensity as to create a disturbing “cultural lag.”  “Right now,” says the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, “we have the problem of technological universality, which has the capacity to spread without bearing with it the value horizons that have made it possible in the West…”  One does not need to be Eurocentric to appreciate what Vattimo is saying here.  Western values, after all, failed to prevent the invention and the actual use of the nuclear bomb.  The point is that with their sheer accessibility and global spread, the new communications technologies have the power to completely overrun and destroy the fabric of existing societal systems.

For the moment, we tend to see mainly the new and benign opportunities they offer to old institutions. We are amused to learn that the Queen of England has opened a Facebook account, and that Pope Benedict XVI has urged the clergy to play an active role in evangelizing the new “digital continent” created by social media.  We are not surprised that the Vatican recently announced the launching of a new home page “that will serve as a point of connection between several news production centers of the Holy See.”  In many ways, they are following a trail that was blazed by business and politics.

But how the new social media are recasting social relations at the everyday level remains a largely unexplored field.  The rise of virtual identities has greatly complicated the game of impression management.  Goffman’s theory highlighted a world of face-to-face relationships from which human beings could appear and withdraw at will, and within which the individual could hope to nurture a private self different from the one that others assign to him. That world is gone; the connectivity society has taken its place.  How we can preserve our humanity in such a society is our biggest challenge.