In a series of pithy posts, Joshua Glenn, the brand analyst with a penchant for Roland Barthes, has been cataloguing cultural codes. Each code, embodied in advertisements or pop-cultural imagery, is a single, meaning-laden node in the complex, often imperceptible matrix “structuring our perception of the everyday world.” Glenn’s codes range from the child-adult, “a holy fool who speaks truth to power,” to the cool engineer, a visionary designer who sees “into things more acutely and penetratingly than ordinary mortals.”
But one code seems particularly of our moment: wired self-potentiation. This code, central to the advertising campaigns of technology companies, celebrates a new, digitally enabled self. For the networked person of today, extended beyond time and space with their smartphones and gadgets, “multitasking [is] re-imagined as existential branching-out. Breaking the mold. Demonstrating vitality, multiplicity, and proactive refusal to conform to stereotyped expectations. All thanks to networked technology.” This is the potentiated self, the self raised to a higher power.
The idea of technologically enabled self-improvement is widespread. James Surowiecki recently described a “performance revolution” in sports, in which athletes aren’t just practicing harder but smarter, “using science and technology to enhance the way they train and perform.” Long hours in the gym or on the pitch won’t cut it anymore. Today’s elite athletes are monitored, analyzed, and reshaped by a matrix of biometric sensors and training regimes, all supervised by a phalanx of sports experts and coaches. Training methods for contemporary MLB, NFL, and NBA players are data-driven, networked systems designed to perfect not just athletes but the exercises and disciplines that make them better.
But if the improved, technologically enhanced training regimes of professional sports focus on improving people, the Internet of Things (IoT), another vision of the connected, networked age, seems altogether different. The Internet of Things, as one of its biggest proponents Jeremy Rifkin claims,
will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform, continually feeding Big Data to every node—businesses, homes, vehicles—moment to moment, in real time. Big Data, in turn, will be processed with advanced analytics, transformed into predictive algorithms, and programmed into automated systems to improve thermodynamic efficiencies, dramatically increase productivity, and reduce the marginal cost of producing and delivering a full range of goods and services to near zero across the entire economy.
The Internet of Things is all about connectivity. In this digital network everything, whether you or your thermostat, is a node and, thus, just another source of data. The Internet of Things, as Sue Halpern writes in the New York Review of Books, is
about the “dataization” of our bodies, ourselves, and our environment. As a post on the tech website Gigaom put it, “The Internet of Things isn’t about things. It’s about cheap data.” Lots and lots of it. “The more you tell the world about yourself, the more the world can give you what you want,” says Sam Lessin, the head of Facebook’s Identity Product Group.
In Rifkin’s vision of the Internet of Things, humans are just elements of a network organized around the endless circulation of information. In such a system, the networked self is little more than the self as networked, as a node in a complex system. This is one vision of the networked, potentiated self, a notion that Glenn takes from the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis. But Novalis, despite his image as the frail, romantic poet who died of a broken heart, would have had more sympathy for Surowiecki’s jocks than Rifkin’s automated systems.
In 1798, Novalis wrote a short dialogue in which two figures, named simply A and B, debated the effects of the proliferation of print. Interlocutor A lamented the modern “book plague,” especially those marks of black that fill their pages: “What burden are these letters!” The modern human being, he complains, is characterized by his “fatal habituation to the printed nature.” There was so much print that modern readers had begun to mistake it for nature itself.
Interlocutor B wasn’t nearly as worried about book plagues and floods of ink, however. The key to dealing with media surplus lay not in acquiring better tools but in becoming a better reader. Like any art, “reading” required “practice” and, as Novalis put it, “practice makes perfect, even in the reading of books.” Technologies like print were good only insofar as they were engaged as elements of a human discipline, repetitive exercises tied to a person acting according to settled purposes.
For Novalis, a potentiated self would result not from technologies unmoored from human purposes but from the perfection of excellent habits. “The world must be romanticised,” he wrote. “Romanticising is nothing but a qualitative intensification. Through this operation the lower self becomes identified with a better self. Just as we ourselves are a sequence of such qualitative powers. [. . .] By giving the everday a higher meaning, the habitual a mysterious appearance, the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite a semblance of the infinite, I romanticise it.”
Raising the self to a higher power is grounded not in the liberating promises of technology, then, but in the more mundane pursuit of excellent habits. It’s about, as Surowiecki puts it, “getting better at getting better.” Sometimes data can help. But only with coaches and teachers skilled enough to help us make sense of it—and to help us learn how to practice.
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