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Authenticity in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility

Do social technologies make us less sincere?
August 19, 2008

“Born Originals,” the 18th-century English divine and poet Edward Young, the author of Night Thoughts, once asked, “how comes it to Pass that we die Copies?”

I twitter–often, several times a day. Most of my 140-character posts to the microblogging service are gnomic little mutterings, many are telegraphic self-advertisements (the quotidian, new-media equivalents of “THE NILE IS SETTLED STOP SPEKE”), and some are bluntly promotional of stories on You’d think no one would read such stuff, but you’d be wrong. About 900 people follow me.

I Pownce, too–sharing images, music, or videos on the file-sharing service. I also have a Facebook profile, where more than 700 “friends,” most of whom I have never met, note my status updates, nod over the books I read, and peek at my photos. I Digg. Occasionally, I blog. And all my social-media activities are rolled up on FriendFeed. If you subscribed to my feed, you’d see how often I use social technologies: 24 times on Thursday, July 31.

I am not sure why I do all this. Anything I write for Tech­nology Review or other publications reaches a far larger audience. I began because I felt I shouldn’t write or edit stories about social technologies without having used them. Then, too, everyone young seemed to use social media all the time, and I didn’t want to be generation-gapped by the little freaks. But I persisted because social technologies allowed me to talk with readers and sources in new, interesting ways. Also, it was fun! By now, using social media has become habitual, like keeping a diary.

But I will never use social technologies quite as the young use them, because I do not thrill to continuous attention and I value my privacy. Thus, the Jason Pontin who occupies the social space is a constructed persona, designed to be unchallengingly personable, humorous, and thoughtful. I am none of those things very often. The preoccupations of that Jason Pontin are professional: he thinks about emerging technologies all the time. And I never broadcast the substance of my inner life, because I know it would become insubstantial the moment I did.

Social-media Jason Pontin, in short, is a function of my business life. I know that this identity is inauthentic, because there is so much about which I do not post or blog. Do other habitual users of social media, whose social identities are as carefully constructed to attract attention, but who blog and post about everything (and thus feel no alienation), not know that those identities are inauthentic? Bemused by the difference between themselves and their social-media selves, are they mere Copies, cast from a few popular molds, endlessly reproduced among false friends?

This month in Technology Review, two authors write that they are.

Emily Gould, a penitent, formerly inauthentic editor of the gossip site, reviews two books (see “’It’s Not a Revolution if No One Loses’): Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and a reprint of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Contrasting the living new-media critic and the dead Marxist cultural critic, she writes, “Maybe, in the same way that Benjamin says the difference between ‘follow[ing] with the eye, while resting on a summer afternoon, a mountain range on the horizon’ and experiencing that same mountain at a remove (imagine a picture postcard) makes it harder to appreciate the real thing, social-media technologies are creating simulacra of social connection, facsimiles of friendship.” Gould urges us, as “a pointless experiment,” to stop using social media for a time and see our “world opening back up again.”

Elsewhere (see “‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’), the novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen condemns cell phones for their power to amplify inauthentic utterances and for what he describes as a kind of emotional coercion: “If the mother’s declaration of love had genuine, private emotional weight, wouldn’t she take at least a little care to guard it from public hearing?”

In Sincerity and Authenticity, a lovely collection of lectures delivered at Harvard by Lionel Trilling in the spring of 1970, the literary critic made a profound case for the importance of authenticity, and for its newness and fragility in our culture: “If sincerity is the avoidance of being false to any man through being true to one’s own self, we can see that this state of personal existence is not to be attained without the most arduous effort.” What, Trilling asks, is the enemy of authenticity? “No one has much difficulty with the answer to this question. From Rousseau we learned that what destroys our authenticity is society–our sentiment of being depends upon the opinion of other people.”

Insofar as social technologies make us more dependent upon the opinion of others, they may be said to increase our inauthenticity and are to be deplored. But I am a technologist and an optimist about technology’s capacity to expand and improve our lives. However hesitantly, I will continue to use social media. We’ll work out the kinks. I choose to think that our private selves will survive and be enlarged by Twitter and Facebook as they were by earlier communications technologies. In his book, Shirky says that social technologies also increase the quantity of love in the world. Human nature, after all, is a movable feast, continuously evolving through technology. But write and tell me what you think at

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