My first face-to-face interview with Krista took place on a Friday afternoon in a local coffee shop. We had “chatted” several times on Facebook, and since she lived in my area I suggested that we talk in “real” time. I explained that I was gathering material on how the proliferation of social media was reshaping the lives of Americans, especially those who, like her, had grown up immersed in virtual environments. She readily agreed to meet. This was gratifying because over the course of several months I had spoken (mostly online) to dozens of social-media users, and Krista had been among the most articulate. So I was prepared for a lively discussion. In my experience, meeting someone “in the flesh” after speaking exclusively online can be disconcerting. One forms impressions of the person that often prove to be misleading or patently false. Or, as was the case on this occasion, the physical presence of the person can transform one’s impression of him or her dramatically. I had seen only a single picture of Krista, a rather shadowy likeness posted on her Facebook page, one in which she was posed wearing a hoodie with most of her face obscured. But what I saw across the table that afternoon was a strikingly beautiful young woman of 24, dressed fashionably in designer jeans and a modest blouse, with no tattoos in evidence. Nor did she display any of the sometimes annoying speech habits of her generation. Outwardly, she was warm and engaging, yet in that encounter and during several subsequent talks, it became apparent to me that Krista shares with many of her peers a certain troubling “depthlessness” of character.
Krista is truly a child of the Internet Age. Born in 1990 and reared in an affluent household by well-educated parents, she has been immersed in online media and a variety of digital role-playing games for most of her life, and, like so many “twentysomethings,” she manipulates her cellphone so adeptly that it seems more like a prosthesis than a communications tool—though she was polite enough to keep it mostly concealed during our talks. She maintains profiles on a number of social-media sites, including Facebook, of course, and much of her social life is conducted online with “friends” whom she sees, if at all, only rarely. Indeed, she admitted that her “best” friend is another young woman about her age who spends much of her time traveling the globe; they maintain frequent contact on Facebook, but have not met face-to-face for over a year. My impression is that much of Krista’s leisure time is spent in her room at the house where she still lives with her parents, playing video games like Fallout: New Vegas and World of Warcraft. Her ambition is to attend graduate school in astrophysics, but her greatest passion is gaming. I expressed some surprise about that. I had naively supposed that video “gamers” were predominantly males in their teens and early 20’s, but it seems that the gamer world is increasingly populated by women, many of them well beyond Krista in years. What appeals to them, Krista insisted, is the role-playing, the adoption of an “avatar,” while shedding one’s usual identity. “I dislike most people, real people,” she stated matter-of-factly, displaying a moue of distaste before switching on another of her captivating smiles. To slip into the virtual skin of an avatar, I gathered, was a kind of release for her, a reprieve from the demands and expectations of others.
As my talks with Krista continued over several weeks, I found that I was at once fascinated and disturbed. She was unfailingly gracious and good humored, but evasive about anything touching too closely upon her personal relations. I sensed that this was not the natural reticence of a reserved person, but a wariness, a fear of exposure. Still, she did offer me a few glimpses, enough to suggest that beneath the articulate and charming veneer, there was an emotional void. When I asked whether she had hopes of marrying one day and starting a family, she said, “Sure, if I meet the right person,” but the answer was pat, like the kind of thing you might jot down on a questionnaire. I expected her to explain, like so many intelligent young women of her age, that she was too focused on her career ambitions to think about marriage and family yet. But she didn’t. Later, I came back to the point. Have you had any memorable romantic experiences? Have you ever been in love? Her answer was inapposite, but suggestive: “Oh, men won’t leave me alone. I hate it. That’s why I wear the hoodie, so they won’t see my face and approach me.” Had she had lasting relationships? She shrugged, “It depends on what you mean by ‘lasting.’” Eventually, she admitted that she habitually moves from one man to the next, usually men older than her, frequently in their 30’s and early 40’s. These encounters typically last for a month or two, and often no more than a few weeks. “I always tell them right up front,” she said, “that I am hazardous, selfish, and easily bored.” Somewhat taken aback I hinted that it wouldn’t be surprising if some of those men developed feelings for her despite her candor. She replied with just a hint of irritation: “I do what I want to do. If they don’t like it when I break things off, they can’t say they haven’t been warned.” When I probed further, asking whether she had any regrets about the absence of any emotional intimacy in her life, she said more emphatically, “I do what I want to do,” as if that were an adequate answer.
And perhaps it was an answer of sorts. Emotional intimacy, the establishment of deeply rooted bonds, whether with friends or romantic “partners,” poses a threat to the fragile “I” that insists upon its lonely sovereignty, regardless of the emotional devastation that it might inflict on others along the way. Cocooned in her virtual world, Krista seems to possess only a flickering awareness that her incapacity or unwillingness to reflect on her motives is a moral and psychological problem. Of course, it could be argued that Krista’s fear of emotional intimacy is rooted in other factors. The psychological literature generally locates the origin of such fears in childhood—in the trauma of divorce, in the lack of an “affective” bond with parents, or in some form of mental or psychological abuse. However, in Krista’s case, such explanations fall short. She has never experienced the turmoil of a parental divorce, and her repeated references to her family revealed nothing but genuine warmth. Given that stable and loving environment, one would expect her to experience little difficulty in forming emotionally satisfying connections with others outside the family circle. Yet Krista seems to be a case of what, in the most recent jargon, is termed narcissistic personality disorder. She is capable of forming career plans, of some degree of self-discipline, but she remains largely oblivious to the feelings of others, much like an adolescent. Adolescence has traditionally (in the modern era) been understood as a period of experimentation with identity, with the goal of forming what will eventually become a stable, unified adult self. More recently that pattern has begun to change. Much of what is called postmodern consumerist culture today encourages the indefinite postponement of adulthood and celebrates the malleability of the self. Indeed, the “self” increasingly becomes just another disposable commodity, something all too easily adopted and then discarded, like an avatar in the popular online virtual world known as Second Life.
Many of the best-known advocates of online socialization have trumpeted in utopian terms the emancipatory potential of virtual technologies. A central thread in their discourse involves an attack on the “fiction” of the Cartesian self—the self understood as a unitary, autonomous “subject.” In cyberspace, they argue (following the lead of Howard Rheingold in his widely read The Virtual Community), identity is always “fluid.” According to the oft-quoted Mark Poster, “The internet is the freedom to express the indecency of being indefinite, having indefinite selves.” Even more radical apologists for a fragmented and discontinuous model of the self, like Sandy Stone, argue that the internet is ushering in a “posthuman” age, one in which the Enlightenment notion of an autonomous self is rapidly being displaced by what she calls the “technosocial self,” a self without foundation or essence, mediated by technology. Of course, as more than one critic of these writers has pointed out, there are a number of problems with such claims. Despite their occasional disavowals, Stone, Poster, and their fellow traveler Sherry Turkle often imply a somewhat deterministic relationship between virtual technologies and the emergent fluidity of the self which they celebrate. Yet establishing a clear causal relationship between exposure to virtual technology and the evolution of a radical shift in our understanding of the self (assuming that such a shift is occurring at all) is problematic. Moreover, the Enlightenment model of the self under attack is not as pervasive in our culture as is usually assumed. True, it underwrites much of our legal and political thought, but other models of selfhood have been equally influential: The Romantic conception of self-knowledge as a quest for “authenticity,” to some extent a revolt against the rigidity of the Enlightenment model, is still very much with us, particularly in the argot of the New Age and self-help movements. More importantly, one must point to the rich tradition of Christian thought and praxis, which assumes that each person is the unique creation and image of a loving God, a duality of body and soul destined for immortality. There are many variants of the Christian discourse on the self, but none of them has ever posited a purely autonomous paradigm of selfhood. Indeed, one might suggest that the postmodern, decentered self is simply the all but inevitable outcome of a process of secularization that began in the 17th century. Robbed of its metaphysical foundation, the Enlightenment or, later, the Romantic self has grown increasingly attenuated and subject to disintegration.
At the very least, I suspect that virtual technology is enabling the emergence of a new kind of self—call it a fragmentary self, a fluid self, a technosocial self, or, to my mind more ominous, a depthless and disembodied self. Beginning in the late 1950’s we began to see a number of commentaries on the shift from “print” to “electronic” cultures. Sometimes this shift was cause for rejoicing, as in the work of Marshall McLuhan; just as often it begat a concern for the gradual loss of “inwardness” or “depth” in the development of the personality. As recently as 1994 Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, lamented precisely this loss when he wrote, “Being online and having the subjective experience of depth, of existential coherence, are mutually exclusive situations. . . . [E]lectricity and inwardness are fundamentally discordant.” Despite some rhetorical exaggeration here, I would argue that Birkerts is essentially correct. Constant immersion in virtual worlds, the ephemerality of online “friendships,” the narcissistic posturing of much that passes for interaction on Twitter—none of these can be conducive to the growth of even that modicum of inwardness necessary for maturity. Even more disturbing, though, is the disembodied nature of virtual socialization. Stone, Poster, Turkle, and their ilk have little to say about the body as a locus of the self. Or, rather, they seem to regard the body as a negotiable entity. For Stone the self, whether the imagined autonomous self or the multivalent postmodern self, is entirely a social fabrication. The self “inhabits” the body, but merely as a kind of spectral presence. Poster draws out the implications of this when he writes, “The body is no longer an effective limit on the subject’s position.” As virtual technology proliferates, the “nervous system [is extended] as it enwraps the planet in a noosphere.” In short, our virtual selves are free-floating projections of desire, bounded by no geographical location, cut adrift from race, sex, age, or any other biological reality. In traditional Christian thought, by contrast, body and soul are a metaphysical unity, though the body is subject to mortality. Indeed, the mortality of the body has always been understood as a crucial limitation on the desires of the self. Our bodies instruct us daily, especially as we grow older, that we are finite creatures.
Our techno-utopians imagine a world of virtual selves freed from the mortal coil of the body, a world in which the realization of our desires is potentially infinite. But in such a world, how could there be any moral accountability? All of our traditional moral systems assume the existence of a continuous and, to some degree, unitary self. They assume that some desires require repression, not only because the fulfillment of some desires may hurt others (and ourselves), but because the growth of what we used to call “character” demands a willingness to submit our desires to lawful authority, whether the authority of parents, of the state, of the Church, or simply the reasonable expectations of the various communities or institutions that we inhabit. Lacking such traditional sources of authority, the virtual world that we are busily creating is increasingly vulnerable to another source of control. I am speaking of the neocapitalist Leviathan that has financed the technological instruments of the virtual world, and which daily incorporates us more insidiously into its universal system of exchange. The jargon of virtual emancipation is little more than an advertising jingle, and the price we pay for its illusory promise of freedom is the vacancy of our hearts.