The Objectification of the Body

Silicon Valley, not content with external devices, has pivoted to the self as its next great frontier. And in order for its vision of your body to take hold, it needs you to speak its language. Dieting is no longer a necessary problem of vanity, as it has been historically termed, but a problem of knowledge and efficiency—a rhetorical shift with broad implications for how people think of themselves. Where bodies might have previously been idealized as personal temples, they’re now just another device to be managed, and one whose use people are expected to master. We’re optimizing our performances instead of watching our figure, biohacking our personal ecosystem instead of eating salads.

“The Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger Language of Dieting”

When I think of Kierkegaard’s distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, I’m most often thinking of knowledge, and how we, as individuals treat those objects of knowledge with which we interact. I wonder, though, if the objective/subjective divide can be applied elsewhere — not only internally, but externally.

Here would be a prime example: the body. The ever-growing tech industry demands that our very selves be quantified, measured in bits, and analyzed for optimization. This was  and is true for Facebook, the ad industry, Amazon, and so on; now it seems to be true for how we think of our very bodies. The human person, body and mind, is simply a complex set of algorithms — code that can be re-written with the right amount of objective understanding.

Maybe Kierkegaard’s objective/subjective distinction can be appropriated here, in defense against the quantification (and thus, the objectification) of our own bodies. [An aside: we often speak of objectification and bodies as if the only way to objectify bodies is “sexually.” Although I am not denying this is a reality, it seems as if the current health trends in tech show that we are moving towards the objectification of our own bodies.] We are not computers. We are not programs. We are whole human beings, with wills and hearts and minds and bodies, more than the sum of our parts. Therefore, instead, maybe we need a subjectification of the body: a being-in and enjoying-of the body.

On Concentration and Dopamine

With our heavy use of digital media, it could be said that we have taken multitasking to new heights, but we’re not actually multitasking; rather, we are switching rapidly between different activities. Adrenaline and cortisol are designed to support us through bursts of intense activity, but in the long term cortisol can knock out the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which help us feel calm and happy, affecting our sleep and heart rate and making us feel jittery.

Harriet Griffey – “The Lost Are of Concentration: Being Distracted in a Digital World

Interesting — the thought that our actions on social media and our inability to concentrate on one task could theoretically cause the rise of depression and anxiety via hormones. It’s long been known that heavy use of social media has a direct effect whether we feel anxious or happy, but the thought that our actions are replacing one set of hormones (dopamine and serotonin) with another (adrenaline and cortisol), and that’s the cause, actually brings me some hope. This would mean that behavioral/habit changes could bring us back to the point where we want to be — focused, creative, calm.

What we need, then, is communities and social groups that help us to form habits over and against the prevailing, standard habits that a society plagued by technocracy sort of “automatically” gives us.

Alan Jacobs on Technocracy

Their great fear is that, if the war is won by technological prowess, then why shouldn’t the technocrats who won the war be given the task of rebuilding society after the war? And this is what all the figures in the book were afraid of — that the winning of the war would actually inaugurate a technocracy that would be extremely difficult to displace from its throne. And they were exactly right. That’s what we got. If they wanted to prevent that from happening, they started too late. The technocracy was already largely in place, and as soon as the major American universities — and Harvard is the signal case here, under James Bryant Conant — explicitly put themselves in service to what Eisenhower would later call the “military-industrial complex,” then technocracy had a death-grip on our social order.

“Christianity and Resistance – An Interview with Alan Jacobs”

The question for us, post-technocracy, is: how ought we resist technocracy as all-consuming, and is that even possible?

Are We Adults, or Not?

From Cal Newport, on the “digital wellness” movement:

I’m a grown man. If I’m checking my phone every 5 minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits, I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say “get your act together.”

Earlier in the post, he calls this whole movement “infantilizing,” and I have to say that I agree. Some things in our lives can’t be taken care of by sheer willpower — I recognize that addiction is a real problem for some people as it relates to sex and pornography, drugs, food, and gambling. But does all this focus on “digital wellness” that Apple and other companies are focusing on really fix the problem we’re talking about? Or does it just treat bad habits and laziness as a kind of addiction that needs to be solved by taking away our power to make decisions for ourselves?

I fear it may be the latter. If we are adults, and we know that our (digital) actions are not conducive to making good work and living good lives and cultivating good character, we ought to have the wherewithal — no, the conviction — to put away those childish things and pursue a better, fuller life.

The Pain of Leaving Facebook (And Why I’m Doing It Anyway)

Leaving any social media platform comes with its own set of baggage. As much of an idealist as I am about privacy and relationships and the ability of humans to participate in civil discourse and thoughtful conversation together, I can’t help but feel the pain of fully deleting an account on a platform like Facebook (which I’ll be doing shortly). And Facebook – along with the rest of its smaller counterparts and competition – knows this. My history on the service stretches back to 2007, almost exactly 11 years ago to the day. There are photos there of my last year of high school, all of college, my wedding, the day our two daughters were born, and all the moments in between. There are conversations, moments in time that I thought were valuable to recount, history that I will necessarily lose when I delete my account, no matter how much I try to archive all the content I have housed there.

So why do such a thing? Many reasons come to mind, which I’ll get to shortly. The challenge with taking a step like this, however, runs the risk of my sounding awfully self-righteous, as if I know better than the masses how one ought to manage social relationships and personal memory. So before I embark on giving my reasons, let me say this: this decision is purely about myself. If my reasons for leaving Facebook (and, perhaps, other services that I’m having a slightly more difficult time letting go) sound good to you, great! Consider leaving. If you disagree with me, great! Perhaps the benefits outweigh the negatives for you; I hope it continues to do so. In any case, here are a few reasons I think Facebook is worth leaving:

  1. Our social lives have changed drastically since the introduction of social media, and I don’t think it’s for the better. Isn’t it strange that many of our conversations now start with “Hey, I saw your post on Facebook about your trip [or your new baby, or your new job, etc.]!” Worse yet, I think there are events that we don’t recount with one another because we assume people already know about them because we posted that information on social media. What have we lost here? Discovery, the “natural” flow of conversation when talking to close friends, wondering how people are doing and have a person-to-person interaction. On the other side of this, because we give and get updates about our lives on social media, when we physically interact with a friend or family member, we assume we know their current life-happenings. This stunts social interaction further, preventing depth and intimacy.
  2. I have proven to myself, time and time again, that I lack self-control when I have access to social media. I have a vision in my head of the kind of person that I want to be. A writer, a thinker, a caring, loving father and husband. I want to be a coffee roaster, I want to be an insatiable reader. I want to research deeply, become obsessed with a topic and delve as far into it as is possible. The reality is, I am barely any of those things, if at all. I cannot fully blame this on social media – this is largely a self-discipline issue. Nevertheless, my access to a service like Facebook, with its never-ending feed of things that are going on in my family and friends’ lives, is a black hole for my attention. I may be able to resist it for months at a time by deactivating my account or simply by virtue of losing interest in the service. But at some point, I always, always come back to the service, and slowly lose my ability to focus on that which I find most important. I don’t want to look back on my life in ten, or twenty, or thirty years, and regret that I spent time looking at a screen, hoping to catch glimpses of what others’ lives were like instead of doing my very best to live the life I want to live.
  3. Civil discourse, persuasive debate, and thoughtful dialogue simply cannot happen consistently on Facebook, and yet we continue to try to shoehorn Facebook into a service that provides a space for those things. A lot of people smarter than me have already made this point, many times over. Suffice it to say that I think Facebook and services like it lend themselves to the dehumanization of individuals too easily. We get angry or upset or worked up about something going on in the public sphere, and we write a post about it on Facebook. Soon enough, people are piling on with their own opinions, either in agreement or disagreement, and because Facebook’s algorithms are bent toward outrage, that’s the post everyone sees that day. This may not be so bad if our participation in these conversations were thoughtful and caring. But because of the nature of digital space, we have no social, physical context within which we can make judgments about the intent of dialogue. Further, we too easily write scathing, mean-spirited responses that we would never say in person. Why? Because a picture with a name attached to it does not register socially the same way that a physical human body in front of our eyes does. I believe in civil discourse and the necessity of thoughtful conversation, and in its necessity for the future of our local and global communities; Facebook stands in direct opposition to that ideal.
  4. (This is my nerdy point, so skip it if you want to.) I believe in an open internet, and Facebook and services like it are working directly against such an understanding of the internet. I was introduced to the idea of the “open internet” recently, although I experienced the internet as “open” in my earliest days of internet access. What do I mean when I say “open internet”? I mean I want an internet that isn’t wholly controlled and owned by any single service. I mean I want people to be able to speak from their own “digital turf,” while interacting with other people on theirs. As of right now, everything that I have uploaded to Facebook, including images, text posts, videos, and blog posts (through their “Notes” feature) is owned by Facebook. I have no way of knowing what they’ll do with my information once I delete my profile. What I do know is that there are parts of my life that I think should be mine but that, once the profile is deleted, I will lose access to those things, for good. As of right now, this website (cdbaca.org) won’t do what Facebook did, but I hope that it will continue to grow into a space I find personally meaningful, and I will own and control all of that content on my own. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram function like “walled gardens,” where users’ access is controlled and defined by the service they are using – that’s not the future internet I want to see.

Too often, people leave services like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram out of anger or cynicism or apathy. I don’t want to be that person. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and despite the losses I’ll face when deleting my profile for good, my bigger concern about the continued use of the service is how we can best become good, thoughtful, rational human beings. Facebook may offer a shadow version of those things, but I doubt whether it can ever reach that ideal. I’ll do my best to find it elsewhere.