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Citizen Accountability Projects

Self-Reflection vs. Self-Expression

How does technology’s facilitation of self-expression, instant communication and constant connectivity affect our inclination and ability to think for ourselves, assume personal responsibility and unite for social action? Sherry Turkle explores these and other questions in an interview with Liz Else published in a September 2006 New Scientist article entitled "Living Online: I'll Have to Ask My Friends" ([also] available online here), republished in the current issue of Utne Reader as “Our Blackberries, Ourselves” (where I read it), and not to be confused with, but very much in alignment with, "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" by Christine Rosen, published in the Summer 2004 issue of The New Atlantis.

According to Turkle, the increasing prevalence of talk culture, wherein "people share the feeling to see if they have the feeling", comes at the expense of introspection and probing more deeply into complex thoughts and emotions. Questioning society's tendency toward breathless techno-enthusiasm, with the increasing means available to quickly communicate our state, she champions self-reflection: "having an emotion, experiencing it, taking one's time to think it through and understand it, but only sometimes electing to share it."

The first thing that occurred to me upon reading this short, but inspiring, article, was "Wow, I can't wait to blog about this!" ... whereupon I realized that, in my haste to express myself (or what my self had read), I was not taking the time to reflect further upon these ideas.  So I decided to stop, look [within], and listen. And what came up? Well, mostly other stuff I've read.

Stuff like Kathy Sierra's blog post on The Dumbness of Crowds, where, in expressing her reflections on James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, she notes

Art isn't made by committee.

Great design isn't made by consensus.

True wisdom isn't captured from a crowd.

Referring to Surowiecki's talk at eTech 2005, she notes that

According to Surowiecki, even just sharing too much of your own specialized knowledge with others in the group is enough to taint the wisdom and dumb-down the group.

It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work, yet the trendy (and misinterpreted) vision of Web 2.0 is just the opposite--get us all collborating and communicating and conversing all together as one big happy collborating, communicating, conversing thing until our individual differences become superficial.

I suspect that it is, in part, due to the process of self-reflection that these individual differences arise ... although if this individual knowledge is never expressed (through actions, if not through words), then it doesn't do anyone much good.

Reflecting further, I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's distinctions between Mavens (people who know a lot), Connectors (people who know a lot of people), and Salesmen (people who can persuade a lot of people) in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. At first, I was thinking that Connectors and Salesmen tend to veer more toward expression than reflection, whereas Mavens may tend more toward reflection, but a quick review of the book reveals that Gladwell claims that "Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know", so that even they have a pronounced tendency toward self-expression.

I am still reflecting on (and expressing) elements of Living Without A Goal. James Ogilvy also has insights to share on the [precious] self:

The self is a process of reflection, one that lacks a substantial, originary core. ... Hegel put it this way: "Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that, it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or 'recognized'". More simply, there is a certain Tinkerbell effect for self-consciousness. You remember Peter Pan's little sidekick whose life and light threatened to flicker out unless the audience clapped. We're all a little like that.

... self-love must finally spread itself across the social pattern of reflections that constitute the self. When privacy goes public you see the self as a pattern of relations of mutual recognition. The celebration of self becomes a song for the ears of the other, not for the sake of self-aggrandizement but for the benefit of shared acts of artful self-creation.

So, perhaps self-reflection and self-expression are more closely related than Turkle makes them out to be.

For me, anything to do with self, reflection and expression immediately evokes Dan Oestreich, and his Unfolding Leadership Blog, in which every entry has elements of all three. In a recent comment on one of my blog entries (on Work, Liberty and the Pursuit of Pleasure), Dan observed that "the one who waits for you, the one you yearn for is none other than yourSelf", leading me to wonder who or what is this "self" that is reflecting or expressing or yearning? And who or what is the object of its reflection, or the audience for its expression? In his most recent blog entry, Going In, Dan expresses his reflections on "the 'beingless being' at the center of Self", inviting us to "Rest then, at the center, and learn to receive what insight may come."

Ah, receiving! That's what has been missing from all of this. I have often reflected upon (and sometimes expressed) the notion, or perhaps model, of input, processing and output, as applied to the self. If self-reflection is "processing" and self-expression is "output", the dimension of "input" needs to be accounted for. But what suffix can we affix to "self" to express this concept of accepting input? Self-reception? Self-acceptance?  Self-perception? Self-impression? In any case, the issue I raised in my earlier "IPO" model is still a quandary (for me): how does one allocate time and other resources among these three dimensions?

Returning to the interview with Turkle, I often wonder about claims regarding social or cultural trends. Has self-reflection really decreased? How would one measure this phenomenon? I do agree that the mechanisms for self-expression have become more widely available (and used), but it is not at all clear to me that this has come at the expense of self-reflection. Indeed, if Ogilvy is correct in his analysis, the proliferation of platforms for easy self-expression may well be essential for achieving greater levels of self-reflection. As time spent on the Internet overtakes time spent watching TV, and a greater proportion of Internet time is spent creating, not just consuming content, I think we are in a stronger position to achieve a greater sense of responsibility and community (two concerns that Turkle raises).

Perhaps I should think more and write less. But I think that blogging is different than the other socio-technical practices that Turkle is highlighting as mechanisms to "quickly communicate a state" (e.g., instant messaging, "check-in" cell calls and emoticon graphics) at the expense of "open[ing] a dialogue about complexity of feeling". Indeed, writing this blog entry has not been quick, and I'm not sure it communicates any particular state (save, perhaps, for a state of confusion). I find that the practice of blogging, by forcing me to be [more] explicit, helps me gain greater clarity about issues (self-reflection through self-expression?) ... and that through comments and trackbacks occasionally contributed by others, it opens up a dialogue that ultimately helps me achieve a deeper and/or broader understanding.


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