How Today’s Technological Renaissance is Affecting our Idea of the Self
In an age where the dividing line between our digital and “real world” selves is blurring at an alarming rate, it’s probably not a terrible idea to take the briefest moment to think about how our growing dependence on technology and interconnectedness is affecting our notion of “the individual.” In just over 50 years, we’ve gone from push-button telephones to “phones” that not only contain all of the world’s collective information at the touch of a button, but that have the ability to connect us, instantly, with nearly half of the world’s entire population.
How have smartphones, devices that would have probably gotten you burned at the stake a couple hundred years ago, affected our ability to express ourselves? How have the connections we’ve sought out through social media networks affected how we view ourselves and others? It would be hard to argue that we aren’t living in a technological renaissance. The problem is, we’re not exactly emerging from the dark ages either.
With millions upon millions of people — both young and old — now fully immersed in the global hive mind that is social media, and with both virtual and altered reality emerging as new frontiers of technology, it’s hard to say how the human element will be affected. Without a doubt there is plenty to be gained from a technology rich, ultra-connected society, but what is there to be lost?
Let’s travel back about 500 years. What western society now calls “The Renaissance” was in full bloom during this time. Filled with a renewed spirit of classical thought, the greatest minds in art, science, music and philosophy were creating magnificent, innovative works that would shape the future of human history. Looking to the classical Greeks and the Roman Empire at its height, the key figures of The Renaissance sought to rebuild what was lost during a time that is widely considered to be the “cultural bridge” between modern history and the dark ages.
What was running through Michelangelo’s mind as he stared up at the blank canvas of the newly created Sistine Chapel? Could he have possibly imagined that what he was about to create would have such an enormous impact on future generations? Did Da Vinci or Botticelli truly understand their places in the far-stretching timeline of human expression? Well…probably not.
What they likely realized, however, was that they were all contributing to a period of rebirth and rejuvenation, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since antiquity. From Raphael to Donatello, these great figures of the Renaissance were primarily driven by the guiding principles of humanism, or the philosophy that there is great potential in the power and beauty of human expression. The resulting movement brought about the greatest “rebirth” in the history of western civilization, propelling Europe out of hundreds of years of cultural stagnation and setting the stage for the world we now live in.
Fast forward to the present day, to the technological revolution that’s occurring all around us. It’s a bit ironic that, standing on the shoulders of the great thinkers of the past, we’ve managed to create a global culture that runs counter to that of our enlightened predecessors. The single voice is being drowned in a sea of unending noise. Instead of fostering self expression and individualism, our now hyperconnected society has given rise to a collective consciousness that would rival Star Trek’s Borg. Hoping to fight back against net neutrality by posting about your personal objections to Big Cable on your Facebook page? Resistance is Futile. You’d be better off sending your complaints tied to the foot of a nearsighted carrier pigeon.
Our individual thoughts and opinions are being sent out into vast echo chambers of like-minded internet users and amplified as a single voice. Social media platforms that were originally intended to provide a way to share our lives with the world have instead opened up new ways to lose ourselves in the sea of digital humanity. And while it would be foolish to dismiss the many benefits of having instant access to the minds and hearts of individuals spanning the globe, a healthy skepticism can go a long way when it comes to civilization’s newfound superpowers in communication.
2017 served as a great example of just how influential the collective voice of society via social media has become. In a year rife with Hollywood scandals, political tension, and social unrest, our reliance on social media to either validate or discredit the actions of others on an enormous scale has redefined the original function of social giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Rather than serving as places to showcase the charm and beauty of our everyday lives, mainstream social media platforms have grown and evolved into ideal places for mass opinions, mass outrage, and mass identity.
Is it too late to salvage the human element in the face of ever-evolving social technology? It’s tough to say, though there are definitely those who are trying their damnedest. Some up-and-coming mobile startups are doing what they can to bring the “soul” back into the social media equation. I’ve had the pleasure of working with the team that is behind a new social social sharing app called Sistina. The photo-centric mobile app is, as I write this, still in early beta testing (follow the above link for a chance to get on the beta invite list). Sistina is a pretty fascinating concept, with an emphasis on sorting and sharing thoughtful, authentic photos with the world. Its abstract name actually hearkens to the Italian words for Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, “La Cappella Sistina.”
A reaction to mainstream social media services that have pushed aside simplicity and genuine self-expression as they’ve grown over the years, Sistina hopes to offer a safe haven for those who still want the benefits of sharing photos in connection with others without so many of the added side effects.
At its heart, it’s a place to share “the self” through carefully curated photos. No cluttered news feed full of ads, memes, and public outrage. No obnoxious “likes,” downvotes or hashtags. By cutting out the noise and amplifying the individual, Sistina has created an atmosphere that fosters the ideals that the great minds of the Renaissance once found so admirable. It’s a simpler option to be sure, but as Leonardo da Vinci famously said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
It might be worth checking out if you’re stumbling through a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to your digital or real-world persona. Or maybe you’re just sick of the traditional social media fare. Regardless of your own opinions on the current state of social media and its overall effect on society, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a growing vacuum within the industry for new and innovative options to inhabit.
Yes, we may be smack dab in the middle of the greatest era of technological change in human history, but it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye on the human cost. With any luck, we won’t find ourselves on the wrong side of history by offering up the potential of the individual as a sacrifice to the gods of digital conformity. For now, keep your head above the water as best as you can, and look for better options if you find yourself using the word “We” instead of “I” when describing your opinions on the latest Star Wars movie.