In this article, Chandra Mukerji discusses the struggles for and questions of agency and self-identity in the digital age, paying particular concern for the types of mental/physical environments we create and perpetuate. She describes how the study of humans as individuals and as parts of a society can be understood in a digital sense, and how all of this can and must be tied to the analog, the continuously evolving human histories in all aspects.
After reading this article, three of Mukerji’s points stood out to me, including the following:
Mukerji mentions the idea of impersonal power as it relates to logistical power. He states that the digital “has restructured selves, social identities, and global relations of power through material innovation,” much like analog influences of power (Mukerji 41). She remarks several times throughout the text that we should not dismiss the history that brought us as a society to this point, as there is much we can learn about our current state of affairs through examining it. With this in mind, she describes how systems of impersonal power have taken a tight hold over our society today. In essence, this system of impersonal power stems from the things that we let society do for us, how we have created it to perform certain functions so that we don’t have to concern ourselves with it. Mukerji describes how when we go on Google, our searches are often auto-completed; the server seems to know what we want before we do. She notes that this causes the phenomenon where “[p]recisely because the Web is an impersonal source of information, it treats information as detached from human learning” (Mukerji 47). We, as humans, are removed from the equation on a more personal, affective and subjective level. These kinds of actions, though they stemmed from creativity and innovation, now work against us it seems to cultivate these impersonal systems of power, ones where, in a way, the digital media have supremacy over the rest of society, though, not explicitly. This idea functions to establish and perpetuate the current system of logistical power we are now dealing with as a society, one where it becomes increasing difficult to discern and assert one’s agency as an individual, as well as a unique personal identity.
As means of cultivating and maintain these power systems, as well as how we determine and assert our own unique agencies and self-identities, Mukerji describes what she terms as the “memory palace” (Mukerji 43). She describes how this idea operates in a physical and digital sense. These “memory palaces” seem to function largely as the more subjective of the two systems Mukerji describes. It deals more with how we come to know and understand ourselves as a sort of unique social being. She states that these memory palaces are full of the real and imaging makings of our worlds and we use these artifacts as a way to stimulate the thoughts and memories that aid in the cultivation of our self-identities. Mukerji notes that “[t]heir social contexts help deter- mine the significance of actions, affecting the formation of the self as actor. Memory palaces affect what G. H. Mead (1962) would call the formation of social identity through the history of the ‘I” (Mukerji 43). She notes how historically, physical environments have been manipulated by certain individuals in order to establish and maintain the validity of systems of logistical power. At Versailles, the artwork, architecture, and gardens called back to the grand and respected Roman age. Though the king never had to come right out and state that his power matched that of Rome, the artifacts that surrounded courtiers evoked certain memories, thoughts, and emotions that helped them to understand their place in society and who they were as individuals within that larger context. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the idea of these memory palaces comes when the author describes how they work in the not only in the physical sense, but the digital one as well. Mukerji describes how Wikipedia and Facebook work as novel memory palaces, because we work as a society to decide the supremacy of certain facts in terms of their veracity and interest/pertinence to our society as opposed to others. The ones we choose will be chronicled on these platforms as they come to function as data-based societal memory palaces. Facebook works in a very similar way, as we scroll through our friends and family’s posts to take stock of their lives and to relay ours to them. We, according to Mukerji, use these sites to take stock of and assert our identities. She notes:
Facebook pages are clearly designed as sites for attaching identity to online activity. They are full of memorabilia, mainly pictures, music, and quotes, that define persons according to cultural categories of taste and distinction. The “timelines” now organized on Facebook explicitly call on users to create a history of the “I,” and to know each other and themselves as historical beings that continually invent them- selves through online postings. It is also a place where people recount their lives through software that consults them on the important components of an (online) identity (Mukerji 47).
It is in these digital environments that we can come to re-discover ourselves and heal. This sense of control becomes evident when the author describes the video game designed to help veterans understand and reclaim their past, even if they cannot remember it at the start. They come out stronger, renewed. This digital society helps the analog, the human, to find itself anew.
- The second part to this idea of perpetuating power systems and findings oneself in that roots itself in what Mukerji describes as a maze or labyrinth. This labyrinth/maze, I believe, represents the larger context, the society in which we navigate in hopes of establishing our agency in this (implicitly) digitally dominated world. Mukerji states that these mazes help to show just how much power our environments have over us in terms of how we go about finding ourselves and cultivating, maintaining, and revolutionizing these systems of logistical and impersonal power. She notes that these labyrinths “are immersive environments that test personal agency against an organized system of constraints that people must navigate. Their structures lie (mainly) outside the control and understanding of the people who enter them, challenging “players” to analyze their structures to make effective decisions” (Mukerji 43). She says that we are always striving to be free in these kinds of systems, to find a spot that we can call our own and establish a vantage point from which we can view the world with clarity and dominance of understanding. However, in order to accomplish this, we need to take stock of our surroundings on a very detailed and nuanced level; we need to play the system if you will, in order to succeed. Just as the gardens at Versailles spoke to the opulence and power of the king, the digital world has developed into a sort of abstract environment where a new kind of society has taken shape. Mukerji takes this discussion of a physical environment to a digital level when he discusses the evolution of online games. Even characters and storylines evolve and progress, they are still subject to the limits and whims of place, the location and time in which they game is set and the society that constitutes. In order to “level-up,” to develop a better understanding and assertion of one’s unique identity, Mukerji states that “Over time players could come to predict the actions of game figures because they had stable characteristics, and use their technical features against them” (Mukerji 50). Just as the men and women at Versailles would look at the maze in the garden as representations of how they ought to understand court and conduct themselves accordingly, gamers must look at how their enemies within the game function as perpetuating a certain style of play. Only then can they come to know their weaknesses and affect any real change, internally or externally.
There are two aspects of this article that I would like more information on, including the following:
- Is Mukerji suggesting that this state of societal being is, on the whole, bad, for lack of a better word? If so, why? Is there any way we can go about fixing it especially now that we are aware of it?
- Her very specific use of Versailles and the Roman/Greek mythology fascinated me. I just wondered if he considered these ideas universally applicable both throughout history in regards to these internal struggles and external power dynamics and also in the current age. By this, I mean to ask if Mukerji might dismiss the nature/nurture distinction, as it seems that he states that who we are, how we find ourselves, is dependent on our surroundings and that any internal perspective may be tainted by this so it would not be strong enough to stand as a cultivating force on its own.
I would like to offer this question up for debate:
Why are we so interested in perpetuating these systems of impersonal power? What do we stand to gain from them? Will we, either as a class or as a society, change anything now that we are more aware of the operational intricacies of these digital and analog systems of power?