What if you are walking through a leafy neighborhood in, say Atlanta Georgia, while using Facebook to message your friend living in Ames Iowa. Where are you?
The answer at first glance seems simple. There are the houses with the wrap around porches. There are the trees, and the humidity, and the sounds of twigs under your shoes, and the cracks in the sidewalk. And there is you.
But being human encompasses much more than body sensations. We have a mind that is constantly generating and evaluating symbols, especially social ones. It ‘s that social side that separates us from other animals.
So with that in mind, we have this: There are the images scrolling down the white background of Facebook. There are the letters and the emoticons, and the ads. There is the image of your friend, a rich image built up through years of social interaction. And then there is you.
So again, you are walking through a leafy neighborhood in Atlanta while talking to your friend living in Ames. Where are you?
Up until recently I would have privileged the physical and and I would said: “well yeah but still you would be in Atlanta”. But I think the answer is a bit more complicated. I thank sociologist/philosopher George Herbert Mead for muddying the waters.
The I and the Me
Here’s Mead’s idea of the social self in a few sentences.
Mead argued that how you understand your “self” is developed over time through interacting with others and exchanging symbols. Through this interaction – watching, imitating, conversing, playing games – we come to understand that the people in our lives have minds that are different than our own. Consider the toddler who doesn’t realize that everyone doesn’t want gummy bears with their toast. We have to learn that other people have different desires and motivations. As we understand that there are “others” out there we develop the skills necessary to see others as they see us. We can, in Mead’s oft-quoted language, “take the role of the other”. You may have heard of this as “theory of mind” and it can get quite complex: I know that he knows that I know that he knows, and so on.
We are always taking the role of the other, trying to decide how we should act. If you think the person sitting across from you sees you as an idiot, and (presumably) you don’t like it, you will try and burnish your intellectual bona fides. If you like the vegan girl sitting across from you, you will talk about how healthy you are eating these days, imagining that this will earn you brownie points. All this taking the role of the other leads to us constructing a general picture of how the world sees us, what Mead calls a “generalized other”. And so when the zaftig woman walks around town, she knows that she does not fit society’s ideal of beauty.
Now here is where it gets really interesting.
Mead posited that the “self” – that thing we learn through interacting with others and taking the role of the other – is split into two parts. The “me” is, for simplicity, how you think society sees you and how you think you should react in society. The heavy-set gal may be a bit hesitant to put on those revealing clothes. Meanwhile the “I” is what reacts to the “me”. It is our individual personality. And so one woman bows to convention and rotates in and out of a series of curtains each day while another doesn’t give a damn and wears hot pants.
Any social interaction requires an understanding of the “me” and an ability to take the role of the other. Makes things very complex, but fun. We think about what society thinks, and we think about what the person thinks, and we think about what we think…and then we act.
If we believe that Mead’s ideas conform with reality, as I do, then it sets up some interesting answers to our Atlanta/Ames question. When you are on Facebook, your mind is oriented towards the social milieu of the people you are interacting with. Your “me” is made up of your friend in Iowa and all the people that share social circles with you and him. Your I, then, reacts to the “others” in Iowa. And so “you” are somewhere….maybe not in Iowa, but also not in Georgia.
There is evidence to support this idea. Consider the times when, sitting in a meeting or a classroom, you go onto Twitter or Facebook, or check your email. Try to be metta for second and think about what your thinking about. Isn’t your entire mind devoted towards that email or Twitter feed? Even if it is just for a second. Your mind has no choice. This is what your mind must wrestle with:
- The symbols – the words, the images, the emoticons, and any pertinent connotations that go along with those symbols
- The person sending the symbols – their history with you, their social status vis-à-vis you, what they think of you and what you think of them
- The social context within which those words were sent
This is lightweight stuff for us to do. But it is a necessity. In order to be our “selves” we have process all that information about the “other” and the “me” so that we can react with our “I”.
Importantly…we can’t multi-task it. We must either orient our social selves to interacting in the digital environment, or the physical environment, but it is impossible to do both. There is a PBS documentary, a bit dated now, called Digital Nation that explores the research behind this. When you decide that you want to return to the physical world – maybe you hear voices rising or your subconscious telling you to pay attention – you have to yank your “self” out of the digital environment and quickly bone up on what has been happening in the physical: “What did she say?” Your head swivels from side to side. “What’s funny?”
Betwixt and Between
And so the person who is in Atlanta talking to someone in Ames is somewhere betwixt and between Iowa and Georgia, in a mental space powered by computer networks. But they are certainly not in Georgia. They are not aware of the person on the porch staring at them. And they don’t need to be, because their “I” is oriented towards a “me” in a wholly different place.
I am writing this right now in a cave. I am choosing my words based upon an imagined audience, and as I write this this is all I can focus on. I would never try to write this and attend a meeting and hope to do both effectively at the same time. I smile sometimes when I walk in on someone and they slightly furrow their brow, finish the email they were sending, and then turn to face me. These people know that they can’t be in two places at one time.
I have a hard time explaining to my students that they cannot multitask once they (inevitably) get on Facebook while trying to take notes. I’m sure parents face this same uphill battle with their children. The problem, I think, is not that they don’t know they can’t do two things at once. It’s that the portability and even wearability of new technology gives us a false sense of being in two places at once. For the young, the notion of straddling two environments, being betwixt and between the digital and the physical, has been normalized. It is a false notion, but a powerful one.