our monstrous new selves

Greenberg_ftr Selves change. Not just in the course of our little lives, in ways that we therapists try to effect, but in the course of human history. The idea of what it means to be a human being, of what we should expect of ourselves, of what constitutes the good life and why it is good and how we ought to achieve it—this is transformed by time and circumstance, in a way that can be seen only in retrospect, and even then through a glass darkened by the prejudices of whatever kind of self is looking back. Hard as it is to spot our origins by peering into our collective past, it is even harder to glimpse ourselves as we live through epochal change, as our very understanding of who we are is transformed before our eyes. Hardest of all is to know what, if anything, to do about it.

Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, and William Powers, with Hamlet’s BlackBerry, have undertaken to tell us exactly that: who we are becoming now that we swim in an endless stream of digital data, what ails this new self and how its pathologies should be treated. Their books are in part confessional accounts of their discovery that something has gone wrong in their lives. For Powers, revelation comes when he leans too far over the transom of his motorboat and falls into the waters off Cape Cod. Clambering back aboard, he realizes that his cellphone went into the drink with him and is ruined. He’s immediately aware of the hassle and headache he’s in for—replacing the phone, restoring his contacts, being out of touch, mourning the loss of his photos. But then, on his way back to his mooring,

I notice something funny. It’s not anything I can see or hear. It’s an inner sensation, a subtle awareness. I’m completely unreachable…. Nobody anywhere on the planet can reach me right now, nor can I reach them…. Just minutes ago, I was embarrassed and angry at myself for drowning my phone. Now that it’s gone and connecting is no longer an option, I like what’s happening.

more from Gary Greenberg at The Nation here.