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When I begin to work with a person, one of the first things that we focus on is the nature of the virtual representation that is put forth as the ‘true’ representation – the mask that they wear when dealing with the world as they find it. Most of them begin by steadfastly affirming that “this is the real me”. But there quickly arises a tension between that contention and the experience of their life as they are living it. Mentoring is about helping people make transformational journeys – about helping them find and follow the path that they were meant to tread.
The early mentoring sessions tend to focus on the dissatisfaction that underlies a feeling that what they are doing with their life is not what they should be doing with it. The goal is not to directly attack the dissatisfaction – it is to find the underlying cause. Henry David Thoreau said it well. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” People come to me for help in letting the song out – of finding the purpose and meaning of their life.
One of the first areas that we focus on is the Avatar – no, not the movie but the synthetic representation of self that most people project as a purely defense mechanism in order to maintain control and a comfortable distance from the rest of the world. It’s tough to get this into focus for many people and initially a source of destabilizing vertigo for most for it represents a direct challenge to the vision that we carry around of our self and our presence in the world.
One way that I have found to ease this part of the journey is to focus on anti-humanism. Under the theory that sometimes starting off left to get right is a good approach, we spend time thinking about and discussing the impact of advancing technology on human relationships. Here is something of how I approach it.
Not There, Nowhere
Much is made these days of the extended reach that all of us have gained because of the development of ‘communications tools’ like the internet, e-mail, social marketing sites and professional and social networking organizations. But there are costs that don’t seem to find their way into discussions about this brave new world of interconnectivity.
It seems to me that several important components of human relationships have taken a beating over the last several decades and that the denigration of their importance and value is directly related to the anti-humanist nature of the new technologies and new vision of how humans develop and maintain healthy relationships.
For my purposes here I am using the term anti-humanism to mean an individual’s preference for technology-mediated relationships which insulate them from direct contact with other individuals. Elsewhere I have written about the tendencies which result in this preference but here I want to focus on some of the collateral damage that it causes to the very fabric of any culture and to the people who inhabit it.
Freedom to be an Avatar
Probably the most notable [advantage] of technology-mediated relationships is the incredible flexibility that it allows when it comes to self-definition.This advantage comes from the ease with which a person can ‘make up’ a personality or history and promulgate it with relative impunity.
At the core of this [freedom] is the proposition that who you represent yourself to be should have more to do with who you should be or need to be than who you are or ought to be.The ease of this creation induces a tendency towards larceny – sometime on a truly epic scale.
This behavior is ‘empowered’ by the very nature of internet-based technologies and the fact that most of the people participating are simply stretched too thin to be bothered with the efforts of verification let alone disclosure. To say it another way, the relationships simply do not have sufficient substance or importance to make it worth the effort to verify the truth or lies. The internet, in all its incarnations, prefers the avatar to the person – the digital representation to the messy details that each human represents. And those who use it are forced into this value proposition or marginalized as static.
Pretty much since the 60s Americans in particular have been worshiping in this anti-humanist temple. At the same time that traditional culture was dissolving – families were breaking up and dispersing – and a vocal generation was insisting that they had a new vision for society – technology was advancing in ways which would allow the refinement of this new anti-humanist vision of human relationships.
You see, the real challenge of direct human contact and deep personal relationships is to a person’s vision of self-worth. In the anti-humanist vision of reality, the difficulties of building and maintaining such relationships came to be seen as unnecessary overhead – there is an easier, far less painful and exposing way.
Veracity Where Are Thou?
When Avatars define existence one of the first casualties is the idea of veracity. If you can make up whom it is that you present yourself to be then why not take a bit of literary license and embellish?
The transition here is from the traditional idea that every individual is the author of their own life to the idea that every individual is the author of the virtual representation of their virtual life. Once that leap has been made the entire idea of non-virtual veracity becomes an inconvenience.
Think about it this way – what are you really to an avatar with whom you have [connected]? Mostly you represent an occasional e-mail – a stream of ones and zeros – a co-conspirator in the game of mutually agreed upon self-deception and self-denial – a consenting player in the great anti-humanist game – a safe haven from the reality that refuses to cooperate or play the game by the rules.
Within the confines of the virtual, relationships become disposable and the threshold for their abandonment becomes very low indeed. Because there are so many opportunities for new, fresh avatar-to-avatar [connections], why fuss over one that has become a bother. A click and it is gone.
One of the surest triggers for that ‘click’ is the request for veracity – an effort to see behind the mask that is the avatar. The entire anti-humanist project is to provide protection from the prying eyes of others – a mask that hides the naked truth. And to understand why that is such an offensive request, we need to take a look at the relative values of the real and virtual.
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