Feed on

Self Expression

An article in the New Scientist draws attention to a curious development in the Galapagos. In the 1960s a species of finch on the islands could be found divided into populations of birds with either large or small bills, reflecting their enduring tendency to eat either large or small seeds. Forty years later this distinction within the species had almost vanished – medium-sized bills had become the most common. Human intervention is the cause: people had been providing bird feeders filled with rice, the finches were no longer subjected to an evolutionary force that compelled specialisation to ensure survival, the medium size bill would now cover the reduced diversity of the situation. This is ‘reverse speciation’.

It is possible that comparable processes are unfolding in our contemporary culture. If we substitute a cornucopia of consumer goods for rice feeders and our consuming selves for the Galapagoan finch then it becomes interesting to ask whether there’s any human equivalent to unconventional speciation going on. Humans and their prosthetic technologies appear to have both sidestepped and frustrated the standard issue evolutionary process to such an extent that, while many of us are taller than our grandparents (better food, better health care) we have become resigned to the absence, in the playground, of children whose facial features reflect generations of increasingly prolonged exposure to screen-based media by developing square eyes.

Evolution describes the emergence and subsequent success of promising differences within species adapting to non-ideal environments. In the case of the finches it seems as if the environment, untypically, moved towards, rather than away from, an ideal state. Differences were no longer useful. Given that human bodies do not change shape so readily, if we’re looking for evidence of ongoing speciation we must shift to another frame of reference altogether.

Articles about the success of MySpace.com tend to feature two main sets of issues. The site is seen either as amiable, democratic fun or a domain for the grooming and enticement of unsuspecting youth by paedophiles and other sexual predators. In July, 2005, Rupert Murdoch bought the site for $580 million. Some commentators have registered their suspicions about the magnate’s intentions for his new acquisition. In the words of Wired magazine’s Spencer Reiss, Murdoch plans ‘to turn MySpace’s teeming masses into a wholly new kind of media entity, an advertising, marketing, and distribution vehicle that gives News Corp. a hand on the steering wheel of popular culture worldwide.’

On the 8th September, however, The Register dispelled some of the speculation. ‘ “The goal is to be one of the biggest digital music stores out there,” MySpace co-founder Chris DeWolfe told Reuters. “Everyone we’ve spoken to definitely wants an alternative to iTunes and the iPod. MySpace could be that alternative.” We think the idea is to sell the music without any content protection, and let the bands decide how much each track or album will sell for.’ The music industry is, of course, thoroughly engrossed in MySpace and both unsigned bands and major labels are continually finding ways of extending the viral marketing potentials of the network.

It would be interesting to know just how the teeming MySpace masses are viewed by their new owners. To what extent are are they seen as people? For sure, they generate many signs of vitality and their youthful unpredictability is spoken of with a degree of awe even by Murdoch himself. MySpace is a thriving social network but the act of engagement with the site seems actually to divest users of their identity at the point of entry. To be a ‘person’ or, in MySpace’s terminology, a ‘friend’, is to be defined in a very particular way.

Data entered into the standard MySpace templates establishes a profile that acts as a point of departure for correspondence-based relationships that may be enhanced by music, video clips and photo sets. The outer limits of what may be achieved are determined by the ingenuity and design skills of the users but at the front end the user’s online persona is defined largely in terms of consumer preferences – after basic details including name or nickname, age, approximate location and, in many cases, zodiac sign are entered, standard categories offered for data entry include favourites lists for music, films and television.

While it’s largely up to the user how the profiles of strangers are interpreted and reciprocated – they constitute a way of getting multiple and multiply branching relationships started – the options on offer reflect the priorities of a consumer culture rather than a relationship culture. The latter term would have to describe a milieu in which people saw each other as likeable or interesting rather than primarily concerned with liking consumer goods. The individual defined in terms of his or her consumer preferences is an individual waiting to be consumed.

If someone asks you what your mother is like you tend not to itemise her favourite DVDs. You have probably known her for a while and therefore might feel able to describe her in terms of characteristics and qualities rather than her possessions or her inclinations to possess. It’s likely that you extend a comparable richness of description to your offline friends.

It’s no surprise that Murdoch and his ilk (who didn’t originate the MySpace profiling parameters) favour profiling that is consumerised, elicited under the guise of social networking, within a network that replaces the evolved, distinguishing characteristics of the user with a much narrower range of indicators. This is reverse cultural speciation. That the members of the online community, 111 million of them at the time of writing, succeed in keeping MySpace vibrant is testimony to their spirit of resistance, even if membership of the network has become almost conventional for a certain age group.

In the absence of resistance, however, the effects of reverse cultural speciation can be dramatic. When people submit to a profile of themselves based on what they buy, they may begin to define themselves in terms of qualities ascribed to the products – a Stockholm Syndrome effect in which the hostage starts to identify with the values of whatever it is that constrains him. A kind of liberation then becomes possible. I am not a person, I am a pair of characterful shoes. Or, more precisely, I am all the qualities that the shoe’s brand has made available to me.

Another New Scientist article describes the research of roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, who has built a robotic replica of himself. The android double has no artificial intelligence, it is rather an extraordinary extension of what, in special effects movies, used to be called animatronics. The highly realistic facial features are animated by remote control, to produce an eery and momentarily convincing likeness. The android’s designers feel that the lip movements of Geminoid HI-1, as it is known, are still slightly slow and unnatural and are trying to adjust the control system so that proper sync with Ishiguro’s lips is achieved. This should avert the further development of a problem with HI-1’s creator for, as the article’s author writes, ‘Ishiguro has discovered that he is adapting his own lip movements by speaking more slowly.’
A human is adapting himself, initially unconsciously, to the shortcomings of an android. In this particular case, it’s not hard to understand: the guy wants to optimise his research project. In the broader frame of things we seem to be seeing a technologised version of the Stockholm Syndrome again. The nice thing about androids is that they will always be simpler than we are. That’s not a good reason, however, for trying to please them. Does the hand control the hammer or the hammer control the hand? Perhaps when technologies are exceptionally bewitching it seems impolite not to put them at ease.

An odd possibility suggests itself: as the apparatus of mimickry grows more and more sophisticated its development is held back by the decreasing sophistication of the objects that are being mimicked. A Zeno’s Paradox is raised – in Ishiguro’s case this would result in the development of an android that faithfully captured qualities derived from an original that imitated its imitator. Humannness recedes infinitely. Reverse speciation: a languid descent into the warm and soporific billows that you came from.

Reversal is not always characterised by the diminution of affect, however. A late 20th century variant on this back-to-frontness runs ‘I do not feel like what I suspect feeling like a person must feel like – so I’ll turn the volume up.’ When, on ‘The X Factor’, contestants stridently yet plaintively declare that they know they have the factor in question, their conviction is unsettling. Apparently oblivious to the conventional links between assertion and proof, some contestants are possessed by a rage of belief that bears absolutely no relation to their capacities. This is part of the legacy of Thatcherism: the notion that instead of having qualities you simply tell everybody you’ve got them and Lo – you’ve got them! Pure magic.

In the 80s this style of bragging was a response to a prolapse of the psyche occasioned by the extinction of job futures and the comprehensive privatisation of state assets. The workless underclass more than tripled in size in the course of the eighteen year Thatcher reign (19.1% of British households were workless in 1994). Middle class careerists learned that they were to become portfolio persons. Dependency culture blossomed. A sense of worthlessness, we must assume, was widespread. The cure for such emptiness is fullness and if it cannot be acquired it must be mimicked. To brag is to mimic the voice that recognises and praises your substance. It is to dispense with the person or persons who might volunteer such a response. It is to suck one’s own tits.

Bragging in 2007 is so much a part of the cultural landscape that one almost forgets it’s out of order. In my own lifetime I can recall the magnificent, partly ironic, wholly amiable poetic boasting of Muhammad Ali, the ‘Louisville Lip’, who, in the early 60s, mesmerised white and black crowds alike not just with his butterfly float and his bee sting but his witty, rhymed match forecasts. That the match featured himself and the forecasts were largely accurate transformed the bragging into ornate statements of fact. The racial factors added to the spectacle a political dimension that made bragging seem an exceptionally radical act.

But that was Ali. Two decades later, a few years into the Thatcher regime, bragging had become so thoroughly integrated into the behavioural vocabulary that the braggart seemed on the brink of achieving the impossible: the uncritical acceptance of his nonsense. The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm had, in the mid 50s, seen the ground being laid for just such a re-modelling of the contours of self-expression. In his book ‘The Sane Society’ (1955) Fromm suggested that capitalism had spawned a new character type to suit its purposes. The Marketing Character is one for whom “everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles”. When “the person himself” is commodified then the subject acquires certain user privileges, not the least of which is permission to evaluate, in a frank and dispassionate manner, the person himself. The portal to braggartry yawns wide. It’s not me I’m praising – it’s this character that lives nearby.

There was the braggart, trumpeting messages whose essential content was something along the lines of “I am skilled/clever/loveable” and there were the listeners, not nodding their agreement but certainly withholding their dissent. In the olden days, one dimly recalls, a member of the public other than oneself would say something along the lines of “You are skilled/clever/ loveable” and a warm feeling would ensue. This other person, an inhabitant of the fabled ‘Out There’, was steadily eliminated from the equation as the century moved to millennium and character grew ever more marketable.

There is, of course, bragging derived from an incontinent pride in genuine achievement. It’s tedious but not fundamentally assailable. The late 20th century bragging of which I speak was not, however, tied to achievement. This may well derive from the removal of the possibility of achievement that was visited upon swathes of youth in the Thatcher era. In 1987 the Prime Minister said “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Faced with this endorsement of atomistic loneliness the individual man and woman might ruefully conclude “All right then, given that I am clearly not loveable I will make up for it by loving myself and being seen to do so.”

Celebrity worship is essential in this scheme of things. Nine years after the fall of John Major’s government, New Labour’s policies of lying and endangerment have further underscored the disposability of the citizen. They don’t love the citizens and they don’t want them to feel like citizens. Again, the solution lies in mimickry. Time for the dressing up box, time for the much vaunted ‘reinvention’. The modern world has shown me that my version is obsolete – let’s get to work! Role models model roles that may be applied in the course of this process.

Reinvention is that amusing idea that if you don’t like yourself you can build a better one. Not possible. Immutable personal characteristics prevent it. Immovable social conditions hobble it. But let’s not be despondent. It appears that some people are exceptionally loveable and are celebrated for it. Leaves may, therefore, be taken from their books. Such as their hair. Or body shape. Or manner. Etc etc. That many of them are actors is suggestive. It suggests that not only is acting loveable but that acting is being, it’s all that anyone ever does anyway. That’s a relief.

Reinvention is not speciation. Moving the furniture around doesn’t change the shape of the room – unless we are content to be merely the sum of the furniture we own. If that’s the case then we can generate new versions at the speed of a haircut. Whatever the substance of the reinvented person may be, the emergence of a novel online broadcasting facility such as MySpace is uncannily timely. It is as if the breadth of the broadcast were proportionate to the degree of artifice required in the contemporary personality. The greater the artifice the more widely must it be bruited in order that contact with those of like mind can be consolidated. Self expression becomes synonymous with publishing.

It’s not that the kids aren’t alright, it’s that as these marvellous democratising networks expand they inevitably dilute the vocabulary that describes what it is, or could be, to be a person. As a consequence feedback from the world to the person becomes a force for reduction. One beak fits all.

Comments are closed.