Since its inception about 40 years ago, the Internet has revolutionised our lives in innumerable ways. It has made possible access to a huge amount of information on almost everything under the sun, from the latest news about a celebrity to instructions on how to make a bomb. The Internet has also enabled unprecedented connectivity, bringing together people separated by vast distances, with just a push of a button or a click of the mouse.
When wedded to the smartphone, the Internet has made information-gathering, chatting and texting the habits of billions of people in the world today.
But the Internet revolution has also brought about irreversible changes to the way we relate to one another. The instantaneous communication it has made possible has also introduced profound and disturbing distortions to human sociality. Some worry that these subtle transmutations would in the long run be harmful to society.
Round-the-clock connectivity has brought about what some writers have called “deboundarying”, where limits are no longer respected and are repeatedly transgressed.
Deboundarying has exploited two unsavoury aspects of our (fallen) social nature: voyeurism and exhibitionism. We love watching others, and we love being watched. This in part explains the success of talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show where guests unselfconsciously bare their souls in front of the cameras.
Facebook is arguably one of the most effective vehicles of deboundarying. By posting personal details, photos, relationships, likes and dislikes for public access, users have made the personal and the private public. As one writer puts it, “Now, one is exposed to the world, including friends of friends, and their friends.”
The overexposure that deboundarying encourages has often led to spinning or masking. To spin is to fabricate. It is to airbrush our flaws, tell ‘tall tales’ and lie. The spin is therefore a constructed identity, a fictionalised self that masquerades as the real self.
Spinning may sometimes be a form of hiding, a concealment of one’s inadequacies and vulnerabilities. But spinning can also be a form of fantasising, of transforming ourselves into the ‘selves’ we would like to be – what Freud calls wish-fulfilment. The upshot of this is that the real and the fabricated are blurred into each other. There is no True Self, just an endless series of interchangeable masks.
Some Internet utopians say that this ability to assume multiple identities is the ultimate manifestation of freedom. They decry the myth of the fixed identity. They celebrate the emergence of the ‘Promethean Self’ that the Internet has facilitated and the unlimited self-reinvention it has made possible.
In her fascinating book, Life on the Screen, Sherry Tuckle points out that interaction on the computer takes place in “boxed-off areas on the screen, commonly called windows”. This has led to the fractionalisation of the self, where one’s true identity can only be perceived when the different bits of one’s distributed presence are assembled.
The fractionalised self and the fictionalised self are not unrelated phenomena. In fact they can be said to be two sides of the same coin.
This brings us to that trite but still elusive concept: community. To be sure, smartphone and Internet users often speak of forming “communities”. To this end, Facebook has even transformed the noun “friend” into a verb: to friend.
But deboundarying has subverted traditional ways in which communities are formed and sustained, by deconstructing social boundaries. A good example is “disinhibition”, a term coined by Elizabeth Reid which denotes the obscuring of “boundaries that would generally separate acceptable and unacceptable behaviour”.
It must be pointed out that although the Internet can be said to be responsible for the phenomenon I have been describing, it should not be made to shoulder all the blame. As the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz notes: “The pornofication of culture and the political-economic push for increased transparency of private life has been on the rise for decades, and the Internet has only institutionalised these trends.”
It is equally important to stress that not everyone who uses the Internet is guilty of these aberrations. But the reality and corrupting influence of the darker side of cyberspace culture simply cannot be ignored.
This new sociality is worrying because it undermines what the Christian tradition has understood to be indispensable in any human relationship: truthfulness, authenticity, integrity and responsibility. Without the sense of self-obligation to be dependable so trust can be built, healthy human relationships cannot be maintained and society itself will atrophy.
“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg/).