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Posts Tagged ‘mask’

Jemima Kiss writes about how quickly and willingly we surrender our digital privacy. I’m not a campaigner for privacy issues. What interests me most is how our understanding of ‘the self’ is subtly transformed whenever some aspect of our personal identity becomes public property.

If everyone knows (and in some sense ‘possesses’) everything about me that I myself know, does that make me less free? Or does it just limit the scope of my freedom to the interior space that I manage to keep private? Or is it an invitation to identify even more fully with the public self that is available to others, and to recreate that self with abandon?

It’s helpful to remember that the word ‘personality’ comes from the Latin persona, which has the literal meaning of ‘mask’. I take from this the conclusion that it is not so easy or desirable to completely separate the inner self from the outer face that we present to the world. The one that is now pasted over the whole digital world.

Here are some of Jemima Kiss’s observations:

Five years ago a pseudonym was de rigueur, yet now we share the minutiae of what we’re reading and thinking, and who we’re seeing. We are all sliding up the adoption curve to a future where this behaviour will only become even more extensive, more normal. How did our perception of what is an appropriate public identity shift so far, so quickly?

Assuming none of us this side of the digital divide are willing to disenfranchise ourselves socially and professionally by giving up the internet altogether, we have to be prepared to give up something. The free lunch is over; we pay with money, time or behavioural data. There is a benefit, too, because sharing information about ourselves opens the door to the semantic web; the powerful, personalised internet of the future.

Already, from your internet connection to the sites you use, everything you share, search, comment, email, read and watch – every social signal you make – is recorded. The only rule you need to protect yourself online is to commit something to the web only if you would be happy for anyone to read it.

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You wire yourself up. You switch the computer on. You lie back in your leather recliner. And then your ‘surrogate’ steps out of the closet and steps into the world. This is a sophisticated robot that looks and sounds like you – without the wrinkles. Everything the surrogate experiences you also experience. Everything you choose to ‘do’ in your own mind is actually done through the surrogate in the real world. You have all of the experience without any of the risks: no disease, no knife crime, no car crashes; or rather, when the crashes happen you just get another surrogate.

tin robot by Dirty Bunny.

This is the premise of the latest Bruce Willis film Surrogates, which is far more entertaining and intriguing than most reviews let on. The special effects are unimpressive; the production values are not very high; the acting is almost non-existent. But it’s a very tightly constructed plot that keeps you thinking through every scene; and the twist at the end brings a kind of epiphany about what it is to be human that moved me far more than I expected.

The idea of living through a surrogate is a clever one. We hear so much today about the attractions and dangers of living in a ‘virtual’ world – when we ‘leave’ our physical environment and get lost in a digital reality that seems quite divorced from the real world. But this film is about something more subtle: living ‘virtually’ in the real world.

Of course we do this all the time. We show a certain face, we project a certain image. We choose our clothes, our hairstyle, the frames for our glasses. We walk and talk in a certain way. I choose a title and a banner photo for my blog! These are all good things. And we would be naive to think that people become more truly themselves if they are simply stripped of the external expressions of their personality. The very word ‘person’ means ‘mask’ in Greek – as if our innermost being is inseparable from the outward expressions of who we are.

Mask by liber.

But there is always the question of how much this mask helps someone to know me, and how much it hides me; whether it allows authenticity or stifles it. Bruce Willis faces a crisis when he realises that he and his wife are only capable of communicating with each other through their surrogates (I won’t give any more plot away…). I don’t think we should just abandon all the social habits we have adopted over the years – it’s these concrete aspects of culture that make us human. But it would be good to ask more often what is really helping us to communicate with others, and what is getting in the way.

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