The money changers have come to the temple. The very places where we should be able to encounter our true selves, and, if you're Christian, Christ—our desires, longings, sorrows, joys, hopes—are subjected to the market of free enterprise like never before.
Plenty has been written on this phenomenon. One recent author that caught my eye is Paul Roberts, who addresses it in his most recent book, The ImpulseSociety: America in the Age of Instant Gratification, from which his recent article in The American Scholar was adapted. The problem of “instant gratification,” he argues, arises from the fusion of the marketplace and self, fueled by the rapid growth of technology and social media. He explains it as
…a dilemma that every citizen in postindustrial society will eventually confront: how to cope with a consumer culture almost too good at giving us what we want. I don’t just mean the way smartphones and search engines and Netflix and Amazon anticipate our preferences. I mean how the entire edifice of the consumer economy, digital and actual, has reoriented itself around our own agendas, self-images, and inner fantasies. In North America and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree in Europe and Japan, it is now entirely normal to demand a personally customized life. We fine-tune our moods with pharmaceuticals and Spotify. We craft our meals around our allergies and ideologies. We can choose a vehicle to express our hipness or hostility. We can move to a neighborhood that matches our social values, find a news outlet that mirrors our politics, and create a social network that “likes” everything we say or post. With each transaction and upgrade, each choice and click, life moves closer to us, and the world becomes our world.
He argues that this “impulse society” creates dangerously narcissistic, short-sighted individuals so intent on pursuing immediate self-expression that they cannot function in ways needed to sustain a healthy community. Roberts draws our attention to the economic and civic dangers that this society creates; I would like to focus on the issues it presents for our inner lives, and suggest a potential solution. Of course, it has to do with reading books…
The market, as it always has, relies on our elemental desires, which Aquinas identified as wealth, honor, power, and pleasure. Honor, I think, is most crucial to the market’s success in the frontier of our interior lives. It’s our desire for recognition, to be seen as worthy and needed, that drives social media. What do we all do, myself included, after posting a status or picture (or blog article)? We look to see how many views it received, how many people commented or retweeted, or “liked,” or whatever the case may be. We desire to be noticed.
Like the other three desires, honor is a good and natural thing to seek. But the more it takes over our lives, the more problematic it becomes, and it’s safe to say that now it’s starting to change the way most of us experience reality. Some people simply aren’t capable of going to an event or taking a trip without posting a photo of themselves in action or updating their friends on their whereabouts. This is especially the case if the event or location is seen as desirable or cool. Children are no exception—if your friends have reached baby-rearing age, I’m sure your Instagram or Facebook feed is plastered with videos of “baby’s first tooth” or the like. None of this is horrific in itself, of course. It’s good and healthy to want to connect with others, to share with them the things that move us. But what’s happened now is that our daily lives are more closely tied than ever to the opinions of others. We are rapidly losing the ability to have experiences that are unseen. Our biggest fear now is to be unnoticed. What if you post a picture of your cute kid and no one responds? That’s a dark place in the world of social media, and no one wishes that on their worst enemy. So we only share things about ourselves that will generate a response in others, things that will maximize views and “likes,” which, of course, is exactly what the keepers of the marketplace want us to do. We envision ourselves as they want us to be.
The efficacy of this new marketplace resides in its ability to understand human beings in terms of data, thus becoming compatible with the finely tuned metrics that maximize corporate profit. The marketplace, of course, cares to expend only as much energy as absolutely necessary to achieve its goal. Social media could care less about the quality of what one “likes,” or about the hurt that someone causes after posting something that humiliates or objectifies another. To the traders in this market, you are valuable insofar as you provide them with the golden data of your thoughts and inclinations, which they can now sell to other companies, who then will try to sell you their products, which you may or may not purchase, giving the market more refined data, and the cycle continues. The last two presidential elections bore witness to the effectiveness of this new, data-driven process. Campaign strategists used complex algorithms and collected massive amounts of data to calculate exactly which audiences to target, what ads to use, and when to use them to achieve the desired effect. Obama’s strategists were experts at this game, and the results speak for themselves.
The reduction of the human subject to various points of data allows the individuals or corporations in power to refashion the subject in their own image, for their own purposes. As the MIT Technology Review puts it, though without irony, Obama’s campaign “didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.” Facebook’s notorious emotional manipulation experiment occurred in the same vein—according to a company spokesperson, the social media organization controlled what postings people saw "to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible.” In other words, Facebook experimented to figure out how to maximize their users, increase advertising revenue and find out how to make their stocks go sky high. People felt violated in the process? A small price to pay for increased efficiency.
By and large, this fusion of marketplace and self attempts to get us to define ourselves on the market’s terms, not our own. This has been going on for millennia—salesman have always tried to get people to buy their products, but now it’s occurring at the level of those inner realities that we once considered sacrosanct: relationships, emotions, private thoughts. How does this work? For the marketplace, the manner in which we express ourselves must be made more efficient, the conceptions we use to understand ourselves must be those of only the most immediate and tactile orders of reality. For example, “friend” is now a verb, and constitutes everything from your brother to that kid you vaguely remember from 6th grade. Want to respond to news that your sister had her first child? Just click “like,” which is the same button you used to show your appreciation of the pictures your old college buddies posted when they were hammered at 2 a.m. “Newspeak,” Orwell’s great insight into the power of language, has arrived, only a few decades later than he guessed.
Ultimately, for the market to really succeed, we must see ourselves as a white-coated scientists sees a rat in a cage—as nothing more than discrete points of data. We must become quantifiable and therefore manipulable and predictable, our emotions, desires, longings, hopes, sorrows measured in a way no different than those of the dogs who responded to the ringing of a bell. With our interior lives deconstructed in such a manner, we become strangers to ourselves, for what are we but a jumble of data that we ourselves cannot understand? Then, of course, we’re at the mercy of those in power to tell us what we need, how we should conduct ourselves, and what products will make us happy. A Brave New World indeed.
I’m as guilty as any literature teacher in oversimplifying things and thinking that that the world's problems would vanish if everyone just read a good book. Yet literature does offer us a real antidote to the issues that arise from the marketplace of the self.
As a Catholic schoolteacher, I cannot change consumer culture. It is here to stay—all of us are neck deep in it, and our students are especially vulnerable to how it shapes the language they use and the ways they understand themselves. What I can do, though, is encourage those types of activities that directly contradict the vision of the human person put forth by the marketplace—that is, that we are nothing but data. What is the opposite of data, of things that are immediate, efficient, quantifiable? Stories, of course.
Narratives present human beings as only able to be understood in terms of a series of events with a beginning, middle, and end. Some argue (see Dana Stevens' argument in last month's NY Times) that the act of telling them is what makes us fully human. They were Christ’s method of teaching. Ultimately, they resist our attempts to reduce them to algorithms (although some are trying). How can we understand who Odysseus is, or what virtues he possessed or failed to embody, except through his journey? How can Graham Greene present Bendrix’s affair with Sarah without first, as the famous opening goes, choosing “that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead”? How can we know the true identities of Oedipus or Othello until we see the consequences of their actions and witness their tragic ends? I could go on, naming characters and stories, but the point would be the same. As humans we have always presented our identities as narratives.
For ages cultures have taken care to develop and pass down intricate visions of human identity. Hebrews defined themselves by the covenant, Greeks of the Academy by the pursuit of wisdom, Buddhists by the emptying of the self, Plains Indians by the vision quest, turn-of-the-century Brits by their duties to the empire. Now, for the first time in history, we have begun to define ourselves by what makes people rich.
What’s to be done? Give our students stories, good ones, and help them read them. Then, hopefully, they’ll see themselves as them.