“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people” – Gilbert K. Chesterton
We are all public figures now. While the paparazzi aren’t camped out on your lawn, they have pitched a tent in your mindspace. I see no fewer than a dozen articles a day published on “image control” in the era of social media. Our desire for connectedness compels distance. The more people we let into our virtual world, the more effort we exert at mastering the presentation of the self. In some sense, identity has always been malleable, the instrument with which we validate ourselves against the universe, that fixed point around which the constellations of our social interactions revolve, a tangible, physical center which could with effort could be moved or reinvented, but represented our core. Now, in a data saturated environment, the fine-tuning of others’ perceptions has never been more necessary or easier. Of course, we live our lives as we always have, but we now express them in bits and bytes, tweaking our twerking for the best camera angle and captioning pointedly to ensure we are understood ironically. The sole distinction remaining between celebrity and anonymity seems to be whether you are paid for controlling your identity. Virginia Woolf presciently warned of this when she noted, “For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstractions, forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual, for they are inseparably connected”. Now, Ms. Woolf was a bit dramatic, but in this case prefigured a Hobbesian “information war of all against all”, a ubiquitous, conscious, and deliberate management of social identity, awareness of which explains a curious element present in most popular current monster fiction. That is, the monsters are hiding in plain sight.
Consider the common theme underlying Information Age horror-staples from precursors such as the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to current favorites like Supernatural, Grimm, and any number of the abundant vampire soap operas. The monsters don’t look like monsters, and wander among us unremarked as our friends, acquaintances, and neighbors (except to a chosen few gifted with preternatural logic or magic that allow them to pierce the veil). Of course, ultimately the good husband, loving wife, precocious child, or pillar of the community emerges from camouflage to eat a liver or two, steal a soul, or suck your life energy, but the point largely is that the monsters who are masters of identity management are sitting next to you on the bus, teaching your children, fixing your car, or trading your stocks, waiting for the moment when they have lulled you into a false sense of security, and are consumed by evil impulses and a burning desire to open up a can of nefarious “whoop-ass”.
Certainly, we’ve always been suspicious of our neighbors, but we increasingly fear a universal subterfuge precisely because in our own increasingly virtualized social interactions, we recognize the extent to which we ourselves engage in this kind of obfuscation. We look at our own stylization of our public persona, knowing it is often performance, and can’t help but feel a little self-loathing, demonstrating philosopher Francis Bacon’s suggestion that, “The correlative to loving our neighbors as ourselves is hating ourselves as we hate our neighbors.” The continuous, stage-managed social interactions that permeate the digital world, and which we all engage in (one shouldn’t play poker with cheaters, but if you insist, you better cheat too) must inevitably generate a certain paranoia, judgment always withheld at the precipice of catastrophe. We are all the meddling kids waiting for the mask to come off and the evil plot to be revealed. This undoubtedly translates into our fictional monster narratives, where malevolence is hidden in mundanity. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, in their seminal work The Social Life of Information suggested that the absence of social cues outside of language (which is endlessly manipulable) in a virtual environment are the root of our angst.
Think of the way people interact. Talk may deliver information—something that can be recorded, transcribed, digitized, and shipped in packets. But as you talk, listeners set what you say in a much larger context. Your appearance, your age, your accent, your background, and the setting all contribute to what they understand. Few people are like Sherlock Holmes, able to spot an ex-Indian Army soldier now working as a billiard marker across the street. But we are all remarkably good at picking up on clues and cues that underwrite or undermine what a speaker says. Con artists have to work for their living. Except, perhaps, in the digital world. It is no surprise, really, that cyberspace has become famous for “identity experiments” and con games. The world of information is often so thin, the cues and clues so few, that in many cases it’s easy to pose, even as an ex-Indian Army soldier now working as a billiard marker, and get away with it. In the tight restrictions of the information channel, without the corroboration that broader context offers (or refuses), the powerful detective skills that everyone relies on have little room to work (Brown & Duguid, 2000, p2).
We imagined that instant communication, ambient availability, and the digitization of all the world’s written knowledge would ultimately usher in a more democratic, more informed, more individualized society, but are rapidly discovering that as our social networks expand limitlessly, every human that has staked a claim to a little corner of the digital universe must run up a sophisticated public relations program in order to present the very best (or most relevant) version of themselves. But we fear the monster that lurks behind the mouse, and we structure our horrors accordingly, and where we see the potential for monstrosity in ourselves, we also imagine it in others. Marcel Proust once remarked, “Certain favorite roles are played by us so often before the public and rehearsed so carefully when we are alone that we find it easier to refer to their fictitious testimony than to that of a reality which we have almost entirely forgotten”. Then again, Proust would probably have enjoyed reality TV.
Brown, John Seely and Duguid, Paul. The Social Life of Information. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.