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CFP'93 - Nelson-Kilger

CFP'93 - The Digital Individual

by Max Nelson-Kilger

San Jose State University


Digital technology currently has a nontrivial impact on the cognitive structure of the individual. It is changing the way we think about ourselves, other individuals and computing entities. Future digital technologies are likely to hold even more significant consequences for the way we structure our social reality. Analyzing these changes from a social psychological perspective can provide us with a better understanding of how we as individuals will evolve.

Nature of Reality for the Individual

In order to discuss how digital technology affects the world of the individual it is necessary to make some assumptions about how that world comes to exist. I take a theoretical position similar to that of Berger and Luckmann (1967) in that individuals construct their own social reality. Each person perceives, interprets and defines information, physical objects and other individuals into their own version of reality. This "definition of the situation" that individuals construct delineates the tangible world and dictates the actions that they take.

Without the process of the construction of a social reality digital technology in itself is no more than an information source or at best a nonsocial object. It is how humans utilize this information in the construction of their social reality that truly determines the impact of digital technology.

Structure of the Self

It is important to understand how individuals view themselves before we can understand how they view "virtual copies" of themselves that exist in the digital world. There are many theoretical approaches to this issue - the one I have chosen for this discussion originates in the work of George Herbert Mead. His discussion of Mind, Self and Society (1934) includes three important terms for our investigation of the digital individual: I, Me and the Generalized Other.

The Me is the image of the self that is constructed from the attitudes of other individuals and social institutions towards that particular person (Mead, 1934:194). It is how a person feels other individuals see him or herself. This reflected image of self depends solely upon information the individual gathers from sources outside of themselves.

The I is the response that the individual makes to the social world (Mead, 1934:196). It is the unique evaluation and expression of the self given the information present in the Me. It is important to note that the response of the I to the social world is not a mirror-image reflection of the Me but rather is the result of unique, individual evaluation processes of information available from the Me.

The Generalized Other is the entity that individuals construct that take into account the generalized attitudes of society and the social group itself (Mead, 1934:155). Through the Generalized Other an individual can construct expectations of what other individuals will think and do in various social situations. It allows the construction of various potential future social situations without actually having experienced them. These constructions of future situations permits individuals to anticipate the consequences of their actions so that they may plan social interaction in advance of it actually taking place. This generalized other also allows people to construct expectations of behaviors of strangers - that is, individuals about whom we know little or nothing about.

Taken together the I, Me and Generalized Other form a recursive cognitive system that allows the individual to form an image of themselves, permits them to act in the social world and allows them to construct social "futures" in which they may play out potential actions and anticipate reactions.

The Effect of Digital Technology on the Construction of the Self (i.e. the Me)

Traditionally the information collected by individuals in forming an image of themselves (forming the Me) has been in face-to-face social interaction. Verbal and nonverbal cues in interpersonal interaction make up the majority of sources from which our self image is constructed. Eye gaze (Dovidio and Ellyson, 1982), verbal latency (Rosa and Mazur, 1979), loudness (Kimble, Yoshikawa and Zehr, 1981), interruptions and touching (Leffler, Gillespie and Conaty, 1982), and seating arrangement (Nemeth and Wachtler, 1974) are just a few examples of the many verbal and nonverbal cues that have been studied.

Face-to-face interaction has tremendous bandwidth in terms of the amount of information that is carried. Each of the five senses (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling) in and of themselves can transport large amounts of social information between two or more individuals. Furthermore research into verbal and nonverbal cues has shown that individuals are cognitively capable of simultaneously processing this information to form impressions about themselves (construction of a Me) and of others (i.e. construction of a Generalized Other).

The current state of digital communication puts severe bandwidth limits on the communication channels available. Digitial communication is typically limited to sight (example: email). One human response to this limited bandwidth is the use of emoticons in an attempt to increase the communication bandwidth. However emoticons are limited in scope and can convey only primitive, primarily affective behaviors such as happiness, sadness, or the occasional lusty thought.

Another attempt to broaden the bandwidth with much more serious consequences is the use of multiple information sources. Individuals may consciously or on a cognitive level build a image of the self through explicit use of information. The exchange of status information is one such example. A prestigious or powerful email address ( would be one example of an individual activating a status process. Addressing an individual in a familiar form of address (especially in languages such as German or Spanish where there are distinct forms of formal and informal address) would be an example of attempting to activate a friendship process. Although this multi- dimensional approach appears to be an innocuous one there are some serious consequences to privacy and freedom that may result as will be explicated in the next section.

Digital Technology and the Construction of the Virtual Self

With advances in digital technology comes the realization that more and more social interaction between individuals will take a digital form while there will be a trend towards less and less face-to-face communication. Combine this with the fact that humans are voracious information gatherers as well as the limited bandwidth of digital communication and the result is that they will rely more and more heavily on multidimensional digital information sources to form images of themselves (a Me) and images of others (both specific others and Generalized Other).

One consequence of this transformation is the formation of a virtual self - that is, a virtual Me outside of the direct control and knowledge of the individual. Additionally it is possible for there to be multiple virtual selves in existence at any one given time. These multiple selves may originate from the individual or perhaps more interestingly, virtual selves may form through digital technology construction of "clones" of themselves - i.e. additional virtual selves.

In addition, Mead viewed a social individual as an exchanger of meaningful symbols. If we apply that definition to the virtual self we can see that virtual selves may be seen as true members of the social world - exchanging meaningful symbols in virtual-to-virtual self as well as virtual-to- human self interaction. In next section I will discuss just a couple of the possible consequences of this and will leave further exploration to the discussion among panel members and the audience.

Several Examples of the Digital Individual

I would like to take a moment to briefly discuss several digital persona that one might construct out of our discussions here. These are by no means limiting examples.

The Digital Homeless

As social interaction among individuals develops through digital technology there may become a class of "digitally homeless". As additional spheres of everyday life such finances, food gathering, talk, work, sex (I had to put that one in for the virtual reality folks...) perhaps even sleep become enhanced through digital technology. Those with limited or no access to digital technology will become isolated from "digital society". They become a new class of social problem.

The Digital Morph

In non-digital face-to-face communication as it exists today individuals "stage" performances for others - that is, they act out roles and preplanned behaviors with others in the course of day-to-day social interaction (Goffman, 1967; Hare, 1985; Sarbin, 1986). Digital technology will allow individuals to continue these staging and role enactments by allowing the individual to construct digital images of oneself. I would propose a current example of a digital morph in its early stages of development would be a cracker. In essence, an individual who morphs their digital identity in order to gain access to digital information that allows them to create new virtual selves in other computer systems.

An Additional Consequence of the Digital Individual

The emergence of the virtual self may in fact transform the experience of face-to-face interaction. For example, it may become the norm that before engaging in a face-to-face meeting individuals may consult virtual images of the other person to gather information about them beforehand. One consequence of this may be that the face-to-face meeting of individuals without consulting a virtual image of the other or projecting a self virtual image to the other may produce "a thrill" or sense of adventure. A game of "meeting Mr. Goodbar" with all its accompanying excitement and risk.

What Can We Do

For the most part I would like to leave this question to the panel and the audience. However I would like to make several general comments. With apologies to the legal profession I seriously doubt that legislation or laws will be of tremendous assistance in controlling the consequences of digital communications to the individual. The field of digital technology is developing too quickly for the mass of the legal system to keep step with it. Some social scientists have proposed "technological citizenship" with rights and obligations given to individuals in society (Frankenfeld, 1992). His plan, although noble is in practicality unworkable by legal, political or social process. I think at best we can study the consequences of digital communication on the individual and provide some basic guidance to the legal and political societal institutions which may keep us from at least "running off the track". The best and perhaps only answer to this question may be summarized in the phrase "hang on for the ride".


1967 Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

1982 Dovido, J. and S. Ellyson. "Decoding Visual Dominance: Attributions of Power Based on Relative Percentages of Looking While Speaking and Looking While Listening." Social Psychology Quarterly 45: 106-114.

1992 Frankenfeld, Philip. "Technological Citizenship: A Normative Framework for Risk Studies." Science, Technology, & Human Values, 17:4, 459-484.

1967 Goffman, E. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-To- Face Behavior. Garden CIty, NY: Doubleday.

1985 Hare, P. Social Interaction as Drama: Applications from Conflict Resolution. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

1981 Kimble, C., J. Yoshikawa, and H. Zehr. "Vocal and Verbal Assertiveness in Same-Sex and Mixed-Sex Groups." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40: 1047-1054.

1982 Leffler, A., D. Gillespie, and J. Conaty. "The Effects of Status Differentiation on Nonverbal Behavior." Social Psychology Quarterly 45: 153-161.

1934 Mead, George H. Mind, Self and Society. Charles Morris, editor. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

1974 Nemeth, C. and J. Wachtler. "Creating the Perceptions of Consistency and Confidence: A Necessary Condition for Minority Influence." Sociometry 4: 529-540.

1979 Rosa, E. and A. Mazur."Incipient Status in Small Groups." Social Forces 58: 18-37.

Sarbin, T. Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct. New York: Praeger.

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