restricted access The Self in the Age of Information
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The Washington Quarterly 23.1 (2000) 201-214

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Global Trends: A Glimpse Ahead

The Self in the Age of Information

Kenneth J. Gergen

As patterns of cultural life become increasingly dependent on technology, questions of cultural direction become paramount. How are our lives being shaped, what traditions are being eroded, what values and ways of life are being changed by technological developments, and to what extent is our capacity to determine our cultural future being undermined? These are only a few of the concerns now demanding attention.

I will focus here on an issue that is rapidly rising to prominence in the social sciences: How are we to understand the impact of emerging communication technologies on individual psychological functioning? In what ways are processes of cognition, motivation, and emotion, for example, reshaped by the increasing enmeshment of the individual in rapidly accumulating, ever-shifting, and increasingly complex arrays of information produced by the Internet, television, faxes, cellular phones, and more?

There is ample precedent for such inquiry. As is explored in Walter Ong's groundbreaking From Orality to Literacy, new forms of thought emerged in the Western cultural shift from a primary dependency on oral interchange to print technology. 1 Redundancy and simplification of thought, favored by face-to-face conversation, gave way to the kind of precision, coherence, and complex analysis that reading and writing make possible. Even today, the psychological capacities honored in contemporary, print-based educational systems are primarily those fostered by the technology of print.

Yet there is an important sense in which this concern about the impact of technology on psychological processes is premature. Setting out to trace the effects of, for instance, "information overload" on cognitive processes already [End Page 201] presumes the existence of cognitive processes. In the same way, research into technology's effects on motivation, emotion, or individual values is predicated on the assumption that motivation, emotion, and values are there to study. In effect, to embark on such study requires a set of preconceptions about the nature of human psychological functioning. In this light, we must ask, Is it possible that the technological milieu is transforming the grounding assumptions themselves, our very conceptions of the human self?

For example, as David Olson proposes in The World on Paper, the shift from oral culture to print technology may have changed cultural beliefs about human beings. 2 In ongoing, face-to-face conversation, we are little concerned with the mind behind the words; meaning is shaped before us in the course of the interchange. However, with the emergence of printed text, important questions were created about the "author's meaning." Thus, with the development of print culture, the mind behind the words became an important topic of discussion. This malleability in our beliefs about our human selves has interested numerous historians and cultural anthropologists. It should be addressed now in light of changes in the contemporary technological ethos.

So, I pose the following questions: In what respects are the emerging technologies transforming our fundamental understanding of the psychological self? And if our understanding of who we are is changing, what are the repercussions for cultural--and indeed global--life?

My particular concern here is with a core belief in contemporary U.S. culture, namely a belief in the self as a bounded and integral agent, capable of conscious self-direction and self-control. This view, largely coming into prominence during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has been a mainstay of Western cultural life. It is belief in the self as an integral agent that rationalizes our institutions of democratic governance ("one man, one vote"), our institutions of public education (the training of "individual minds"), and our practices of moral accountability that hold individuals responsible for their actions. As I shall discuss in this essay, the dramatic changes occurring in the technological ethos are, both directly and indirectly, undermining belief in such a self. The concept of the self as an integral, bounded agent is slowly becoming untenable. The outcomes of such a transformation deserve close attention. [End Page 202]

In my discussion of...