One of Milan Kundera’s finest moments was the titling of his 1984 novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The “lightness” refers to several things, but mostly the transience and unpredictably of everything we hold dear: our loves, our work, our very lives. Being is light not only because it is pushed about by happenstance, but also because it ends far too soon, never to come again.
This a timeless issue. In fact it could be argued that unbearable lightness has fueled much of our religious thinking for millennia. The dilemma of death, the most fearsome feature, is attacked head on in religions promising an afterlife. Other aspects of lightness have made their way into religion as well. A central concept of Buddhism, for example, is the impermanence of everything in our daily existence--along with the suffering that usually follows.
Now, however, something in this arena has a slightly different flavor. It seems the digital era has introduced an insidious new twist on the venerable lightness motif. It has brought us the lightness of electronic selves.
The phenomenology of the digital world is rapidity, multiplicity, and intangibility. No other person is physically present, and everything comes and goes quickly, from everywhere. As is often the case, these features are both a strength and a weakness. They are the foundations of the digital contributions to contemporary life. But a multiple, rapid, intangible existence is also intrinsically “light”. It is a sparkle off the surface of the sea, split into a thousand brief flashes. It has its own beauty, indeed. But as a way of life it can become an insecure, even anxious path.
In the rapid digital world our speech, one of the primary ways the self is represented, can lose its impact, sometimes even its felt reality. One’s sense of agency can be eroded. Messages stream quickly, endlessly, indiscriminately. All of one’s good sense to the contrary, the most recent message, even if inept, can seem the most relevant.
And even if some message seems to have impact—-if it garners views, or likes, or "goes viral"—-the force of it can be dispersed through the unfathomable multiplicity of the digital community. As Mark Poster observes, the author moves “. . . from the center of the text to its margins, from the source of meaning to an offering”. Becoming, that is to say, just one more voice in the cacophony.
And then of course there is the intangibility of the digital world. To borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there”. One is never actually face to face with one’s correspondent. Even the person sitting next to you is not really there, but instead engaged in an intangible discourse with someone else, maybe half way around the world. We become somehow less situated. Multiply connected, perhaps, but ironically less engaged.
Although these dynamics affect all of us involved with the digital world, their impact is assuredly greatest for those at the earlier developmental stages. Some are calling our children and teens—those born roughly between 1995 and 2012—“iGen”. Indeed, what mostly sets these folks apart, aside from their youth? Unlike the rest of us, from the very first moment they got out in the world, it was already a digital world. It’s all they know.
Amidst all the advantages of this world, there are also many challenges. And one of those challenges, I think, is the unbearable lightness of the digital self.
At present all iGens are somewhere in the process of forming an identity. For them this might be a little tougher than it looks. Granted, there are now many, many more models than ever for developing elements of a self. But most flash by in an instantaneous culture of disembodied spectacle: rapid, multiple, intangible. They are not appropriated more slowly, more “heavily” if you will, by face to face interaction.
In the past even a shy child or adolescent could engage in at least one version of that slower, heavier process: namely, the vicarious experience of reading. Well written novels, in particular, offer a suitably sustained contact with a variety of character types, each a potential focus of empathy and identification.
But unfortunately reading books for pleasure has become a smaller counterweight for iGen. Instead the lightness of social media prevails. And even if an adolescent were briefly tempted to engage in the deep reading of a novel, such immersion might be difficult. As many have observed, the internet can promote flickering attention. The pace of the digital can come to colonize consciousness.
The dilemma of identity in the digital world extends well beyond what I have called lightness. For example, there is the disappearance of privacy. The social media norm of sharing everything about one's daily existence, while slavishly following similar details from others, puts pressure on the public/private boundary. And that, in turn, can be problematic for identity. We need to be recognized by others, of course. But to become fully ourselves we also need the shelter of privacy. Managing our secrets is an integral part of defining who we are.
And then, as a related but separate problem, there is the unrealistic skew evident in so many social media posts. These are often carefully curated sagas of adventure, achievement, beauty, and rewarding social connections. For vulnerable adolescents in particular, such unrelenting positivity can cast a pall over the humdrum days of their own existence. Alone in their rooms, scanning the evidence of their peers' sparkling lives, they can come to feel not only isolated, but somehow less than. For some the result can be significant depresion.
Still, it’s important to keep all of this in perspective, and not overstate the case. Every major technological advance has stimulated dire cultural predictions, and yet somehow we seem to have muddled through. Most iGens will of course form stable identities. In fact the challenges of the digital world might turn out to be an oddly character building force for this generation.
But for many along the way these challenges will still be a kind of chronic stress. They will continue as a source of unconscious, or perhaps just mysterious, agitation.