Self-image Ideals

Ideals of self-image have varied over time. In pre-industrial times, when many people needed to work the land for a living, having a tan was a sign of labor, and pasty-white skin was considered a sign of privilege. These semiotics of melanin flipped after the Industrial Age: labor went indoors, so a tanned skin became a sign of leisure. In both cases, evidence of the person’s exposure to UV radiation was taken as a signifier of the degree to which he or she was free to determine how they spent their time.

This signifier is still with us in our post-industrial “Information” Age. This isn’t surprising since most of us still spend the bulk of our time indoors. That said, it’s becoming a less useful indicator over time: Many people now know that too much exposure to the sun can cause health problems, so even those who have lots of leisure opt to protect themselves. So there are other ways in which we project our status in the Information Age. Given that information is the focus of value in our time, the first ideal we’ve driven towards is proof of our ability to access information. This has manifested in our drive to possess and flaunt devices that allow us to do so: computers, smartphones, smartwatches, smart thermostats, etc. (As Bruce Sterling has said, today’s Apple makes jewelry.)

I expect this to switch at some point. As it becomes increasingly obvious to people that information environments are exploiting their attention and personal information (“If you’re not paying, you’re the product”), the degree of agency over access to networks will become the new ideal. Those who can afford to will control the means to claim​ their attention. Some may be very open to intrusion while others will be almost impossible to get to. The gist: it’ll be their call to make. The rest of society — the people using all the “free” and “cheap” services — will live subject to constant demands on their time and attention, their ability to sustain focus compromised by a psyche that is continually being yanked in seemingly random directions.

The question is not whether this will happen — it’s already here. (Ask yourself: are you able to turn off notifications for messages coming from your boss? Your ability to do so says something about your position in the pecking order of the Information Society.) The question, rather, is how we will indicate this elevated status. Perhaps it’ll become déclassé to flaunt devices like smartwatches or smartphones. (But again, the gist here is agency, not access. I can control what notifications I get on my watch, for example.) More likely, the signs will be psychological: a peaceful demeanor, an increased ability to listen for a minute or so without reacting, to reason calmly. A Zen personality will be the surest indicator that you’re dealing with a person of great power.