Saturday 30 April 2022

Digital Shadow

Carl Jung always warned us not to overlook "the shadow" - the archetype of the subconscious from which the conscious mind disassociates itself. Doing so will inevitably mean that at some point the shadow will take over and cause a crisis of far greater proportions than that which might have resulted had it been negotiated with sooner. Recent events and world history suggest that these shadow dynamics are reliable. There is no world which doesn't cast a shadow. This is why Shakespeare remains our most reliable guide to human behaviour. 

Its curious perhaps that our digital technologies exist through light. We may understand well enough that the shadow that is cast by the light of the screen lies within us. But how do we negotiate our shadow in this digital light? The psychoanalytic answer is to talk about it. Perhaps drama and storytelling are ways we can share experiences of the shadow (just as it was in the classical world) - but it can objectify the shadow in the collective imagination in a way where we can become complacent that we have put the shadow in its place. This "collective shadow" can be manipulated - which is something we are seeing very clearly in Russian state propaganda at the moment.  The shadow becomes the "other" rather than part of each of us. We see this "othering" online.  

The problems of fake news in the Trump campaign, Brexit, etc are striking examples of this kind of "othering" of the shadow. When Everett Hughes asked of the Germans during the 2nd world war "How could such dirty work be done among and, in a sense, by the millions of ordinary, civilized German people?", his answer is that if the dynamics of "in- and out-groups" are organised such that one group is "in" and everyone else "out", then the capacity for good people to do dirty work is increased. Hughes argues that in a richly developed society, there are many small social groups, all of which have their "in" and "out" dynamics (see Good People and Dirty Work on JSTOR)

"A society without smaller, rule-making and disciplining powers would be no society at all. There would be nothing but law and police; and this is what the Nazis strove for, at the expense of family, church, professional groups, parties and other such nuclei of spontaneous control. But apparently the only way to do this, for good as well as for evil ends, is to give power into the hands of some fanatical small group which will have a far greater power of self-discipline and a far greater immunity from outside control than the traditional groups. The problem is, then, not of trying to get rid of all the self- disciplining, protecting groups within society, but one of keeping them integrated with one another and as sensitive as can be to a public opinion which transcends them all. It is a matter of checks and balances, of what we might call the social and moral constitution of society"

It is not the beliefs of individuals which blind them to the shadow, but the dynamics of society. Here it is important to reflect on what the internet has done to those dynamics. The disembodied Balkanisation and digital othering which characterises online communities does not constitute the "nuclei of spontaneous control".  As we have seen, instead it renders communities susceptible to fanatical control because each community objectifies its shadow as "other", rather than being able to see it in themselves. If Elon Musk is really serious about improving Twitter, this is what should be understood. Importantly, it is not specifically about "algorithmic control", "AI" or even "confirmation bias". Indeed those critiques are an example of "othering" of technology - which itself contributes to the problem. 

One of the deepest challenges I think we face today is that confronting our shadows cannot be done without understanding of technics. Digitalisation is almost always presented in its light - we do this to "innovate" and "create". But no innovation and creative process comes without confronting our shadows, and education pays scant regard to this. 

The essence of digital creativity - like the essence of creativity in general - is the breakdown that occurs as we dig beneath the interface and try to grapple with the raw bits of mechanism that sit behind it. It's a psychological struggle - what was working, becomes broken. Often communication and sometimes motivation breaks down as we feel our way in the dark. In this digital shadow land, distinctions become blurred, but in the process, new communications are produced which gradually reconstruct something. And even if what is reconstructed is little different to what existed before, the confrontation with the shadow changes us. 

Online communities are susceptible to fanatical control because they have no way of talking to each other about their shadows. To dig beneath the digital interface is to recognise that, not only are we made of one physiology, but our communications are mediated through a unified computational architecture which ultimately is created by that physiology. More importantly, it is not the only technological architecture that is possible, and ours is not the only feasible technological world. The shadow lurks at all levels: the social media shadows are reflections of the shadows of each cell in our body. Our cells are rather better at dealing with their "shadows" than we are, with all our technology and communication. Understanding why and how is urgent - far more so than when Ivan Illich expressed similar arguments to politicise technology in the 1970s. That call has been misinterpreted: politicising technology is about getting technical.