In the Depths of the Digital Age

Attendees of the Qingdao International Beer Festival taking a selfie with a smartphone, Shandong province, China, August 2015
Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
Attendees of the Qingdao International Beer Festival taking a selfie with a smartphone, Shandong province, China, August 2015

1.

Whether we gain or not by this habit of profuse communication it is not for us to say.
—Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)

Every technological revolution coincides with changes in what it means to be a human being, in the kinds of psychological borders that divide the inner life from the world outside. Those changes in sensibility and consciousness never correspond exactly with changes in technology, and many aspects of today’s digital world were already taking shape before the age of the personal computer and the smartphone. But the digital revolution suddenly increased the rate and scale of change in almost everyone’s lives. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s exhilaratingly ambitious historical study The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) may overstate its argument that the press was the initiating cause of the great changes in culture in the early sixteenth century, but her book pointed to the many ways in which new means of communication can amplify slow, preexisting changes into an overwhelming, transforming wave.

In The Changing Nature of Man (1956), the Dutch psychiatrist J.H. van den Berg described four centuries of Western life, from Montaigne to Freud, as a long inward journey. The inner meanings of thought and actions became increasingly significant, while many outward acts became understood as symptoms of inner neuroses rooted in everyone’s distant childhood past; a cigar was no longer merely a cigar. A half-century later, at the start of the digital era in the late twentieth century, these changes reversed direction, and life became increasingly public, open, external, immediate, and exposed.

Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” was a hundred years premature. Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone. For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.

Many probing and intelligent books have recently helped to make sense of psychological life in the digital age. Some of these analyze the unprecedented levels of surveillance of ordinary citizens, others the unprecedented collective choice of those citizens, especially younger ones, to expose their lives on social media; some explore the moods and emotions performed and observed on social networks, or celebrate the Internet as a vast aesthetic and commercial spectacle, even as a focus of spiritual awe, or…


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