Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Brave New World, Part II: The Objectification of a Generation

(This is the second of three blog entries about possible cultural ramifications of growing up in the age of instant communications)

The internet is a powerful communication tool that allows us express ourselves and to respond to other people's expressions by sending emails or posting comments on websites (theirs, ours, or some other website). Our self-expressions are shared through the internet with friends and family, and often with a nameless, faceless audience.

Combine this communication power with the uncommonly strong desire of young people to be seen and heard—to be noticed and to have an effect. To feel as if they're having an effect, teenagers may skirt (or cross over) the edge of appropriate behavior just to see what happens: Will anyone notice? And if people do, what will they do? On top of it all, teenagers are constantly "connected"—it's almost as if they think they don't exist if they're not connected. When they post photos of themselves or (yet again) update their profiles, it's almost as if it's more about being seen by other than about how they actually feel or how they experience themselves. That is, it's about being an object rather than a subject.

I think that that the way these new tools are used promotes a way of thinking about themselves predominantly as "seen by others"—from the outside—and less based on an internal awareness of themselves. This process is referred to as objectification, where the experience of being treated as an object results in coming to see oneself that way. Objectification theory was originally conceived of as primarily pertaining to females (original article by Barbara Frederickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts in 1997 is here:).

Unfortunately, the internet is propagating an extreme focus on appearance and the objectification of males as well as females. Both sexes are increasingly undergoing medical procedures to alter their appearance. Consider that in 2007 almost 11.7 million cosmetic procedures were performed compared to 2.1 million in 1997. Although females receive most of the procedures, the number of men is increasing (nearly 1 million in 2007), and will undoubtedly continue to increase.

It's not only about appearance; it's about being noticed in any way—standing out in the cacophony of the crowd. And what's clearer then it's ever been is that there's no such thing as bad news. Talking heads get noticed by being ever-more controversial and outrageous. When people want to comment on some topic, they may not necessarily set out to write/say what they think; instead, they write/say to make other people notice. So they're thinking about their own opinions as object rather than subject.

What this means is that a generation (and likely subsequent generations) may well develop a self-concept that is more about how they appear to others than how they feel inside to themselves. Current internet-based communications amplify the tendency for teens to be exhibitionists; they are reinforced—with attention—for being revealing. The attention, in turn, keeps them focused on how they are seen by others. They thus are less likely to "know" themselves--What they like, need, how they work best—except through the eyes of others.

I'm reminded of the old philosophy question: If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a sound? Will those raised in the wake of the internet feel they don't really exist if they are not seen/heard (online)? Are we raising a generation of exhibitionists—people who only feel alive when they are observed or heard by others? And if so, will that lead to an ever greater cacophony of "self-expression," with increased outrageousness in order to be noticed above the din? What can we, as a society, do to help upcoming generations feel alive even when no one is seeing or hearing them?

Coming up in Brave New World, Part III: Is the Internet raising a generation of people who will have problems regulating their feelings and impulses?

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