Reflections on the Self as Cultural Product, Never Fading Echoes and Digital Footprints

Recently I was asked to participate in a discussion of Julie Cohen’s new book, Configuring the Networked Self.  I took the opportunity to ask my students to read it too. I’ve posted this entry here and at in case you would like to follow that discussion there in more detail. Anyway, after reading the book I found myself in front of my communication technology policy class, many of whom are soon to be official members of the “cultural industries,” and asked: who or what are your influences in the creative process?  The class is a mixed bag of production students (sound and video for traditional and new media), writers (mostly for TV), film students, musicians and visual artists.    One comedy writer smiled wryly up at me and said, “No one, I am entirely original.”   So, I played along.  “What do you do when you get home and are ready to relax in front of the TV?”  He could have very well told me he does some yoga and then goes to bed, which would have scuttled the lesson plan.  But, he cut me a break and said, “I watch as much of the Simpsons, Family Guy and Seinfeld as I can.”  And so together we went, my class and I, on an exercise in self-reflexivity.    It turns out that, as Julie Cohen surmises in her book, creativity begins with consumption, great amounts of it.  That many creative processes involve imitation, copying, dis-assembly accompanied by creative reconstitution, phenomenologies, life histories, accidents of space and time and all the other ways in which we, all of us, begin to make sense of life. We talk to ourselves about life in the languages we have heard, seen and felt.  And given a particular inclination and the proper tools, we talk to others about it too.  From small, incidental retellings of lives, emerges a collective, multi-modal conversation about Life.  Some (myself included) would call that culture.

Inclinations and tools, often discussed by other names, are the preoccupations of those thinking about human beings and technology.  Technology not as a separate category within society, but as a re-constitution of it, and human beings, not as simply users/makers of tools, but awash in their architectures.  My students are no exception.  Because of their particular aspirations, they are acutely aware of their need, their desire, to speak in singular or mixed forms via media, extant or in need of invention.   They hold within them the spirit of a sentence or the essence of a sound and only through its writing or recording or filming is that ephemeral form realized, their desire, if only partially, fulfilled.    They continuously are bumping into things as they play with form and medium.  They bump into discourses, they crash into history and sometimes are mired in medium.

But one does not need to be a formal student of production in mass communication to crash about in creative playgrounds.  If you’ve ever made a mix tape (yes I’m that old) for a friend, family member or a significant other, you’ve done some crashing around of your own.  You dismantled professionally made albums and reconstituted them. You’ve recorded and re-recorded, to capture with a higher fidelity your own musical narrative that retells a story, that remembers, that relives.

Importantly, our creative inclinations are not just a means through which we may configure mass culture to tell our personal story.  Creativity is a pathway to our identities. We craft identities (through practice and discourse), present those identities to the world (again through practice and discourse), and then respond and adapt.   The self, in many ways, is the foundational, creatively crafted cultural product, a mash-up made out of life worlds, personal histories, symphonies, and Michael Bay films.

Decentering creativity and repositioning it within a situated epistemology is an important contribution from Configuring the Networked Self and opens up the possibility of talking about it  (creativity) not as an ingredient for some mythical creative genius but as a universally human, everyday practice.  In the microcosm of you, me and my neighbor, Bob, and how we might creatively come together to figure out who we are, lies the key to seeing legal structures such as copyright, not only as economic policy regulating a market in the expression of ideas, but as powerful cultural policy that cross cuts from Time Warner, through my students, down to little old me, my neighbor Bob, and you, the reader.  At a very basic level, if communication is necessary to iteratively and creatively configure the self, then laws and technologies that structure means of communication/production implicate our ability to fully realize our identities.  And such laws should be assessed on those terms primarily.  Copyright law may not have started as cultural policy [a cultural history might tease that out] but has become so as it has penetrated deeper into human communication and its tools.

This perspective has some important consequences.  It may, for example, be a stepping-stone in crafting a legitimating epistemology for “creative rights.”  The free culture movement, the digital rights movement and the free software movement all seem to circle around such a discourse.  And it may also expand how access to knowledge proponents talk about the outcomes access.   Creative rights imply disassembling, copying, and reconstituting mass culture and unique phenomonologies for ourselves and others not only as a key for cultural vitality but as a key to the formulation of identity.

As an STS and communication scholar, some questions regarding technology remain ripe for exploration.  Creatively configuring identity through communication implies an audience, communities, individuals, texts to serve as sounding boards that may reinforce or reject, that may push away or welcome.  The means for reaching those communities and for having them reach back are varied.  For an American teenager that might mean joining a baseball team, taking a poetry class, playing video games with friends, hanging out at the local park, joining Facebook, or posting on YouTube or Twitter.  Often these architectures are spoken of as separate, but they are intertwined and reach a number of sometimes but not always interconnected reference groups.  They are also means of mass communication where single individuals reach their many networks and those networks reach back.  To what degree identity configured through a network (not necessarily in a network) is shaped by the various technological architectures of platforms, protocols, and affordances designed to be conduits for personal creativity remains largely black boxed.  Julie discusses transparency as a standard, but what I mean here is a transparency of impact on people and their practices.  Can we know the adjustments and anthropological balancing acts that those moving identity through an ICT network must perform in order to comply to, challenge and re-constitute architecture?

To what degree do footprints left on the network (images, posts, “likes,” links, etc.) capture a self long lost or intentionally forgotten and so remain a configuring force on an individual and his or her community is not known.  People forget and memory is often a pliable substrate, but networks and databases have lingering impressions and subjectivities.  Network and database owners are often loath to let go of data or worse forget they are still in possession of it.  An identity configured through a digital communication network is subject to forces not present elsewhere. Commodification of social processes within web platforms like Facebook or YouTube compels the owners of technological architectures to fix them in place, to repackage and mine them for bits that might inform targeted advertising or behavior prediction.  A self, configured through a network, is potentially confronted with echoes that never fade and, as much as copyright might be considered cultural policy, so too can privacy policy.  In many ways, the creativity of every day life that renders individuals is captured in ICT networks where the product is you (or me).

Along with calls for a change in epistemologies or different regulatory mandates that allow for expanded protected spaces for creativity and identity, I wonder if it is possible to imagine a set of elegant hacks (both social and technological) that create systems based on alternative epistemologies.  I’ve always thought creative commons (CC) was such a system.  Critiques not withstanding, CC is a neat bit of ju-jitsu where the logic of private ordering and market organization are placed on the foundations of open source/free software ideologies.  Under that frame, technological systems traditionally spoken of as “hacks” or “circumventions” are remapped and consistent with the underlying “contract” between creator and user and even the meaning of those terms shifts and is ultimately blurred.   I think an analog in privacy still remains to be imagined.  Perhaps a user initiated remapping of privacy enhancing technologies onto existing platforms like Facebook or the like?  Or a form of activism that disrupts network owners’ hold on data when they capture and know (or think they know) identity on their platforms; a “semantic discontinuity,” to use a concept from the book, initiated and imposed by users.  We cannot ignore the role that technologies, that hacks and circumventions, for example, have had on the discourse of creativity and digital networks. In many ways they are the material architecture of that discourse.   Much of what has realized and influenced the theoretical thinking on user-centered views of culture and its production came hand-in-hand with hacks that established architectures that made the theory a narrative rooted in practice.  Can we imagine the same for privacy?