The Networked Individual

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Nokia's The Feature on 16 October 2008

The cell phone may be bringing us into a new renaissance, but it may end up differently than what we’re expecting. Instead of becoming more empowered as individuals, we may give up on the notion of individuality altogether.

The Renaissance – the great big one they taught us about in school – is known for a lot of great inventions: perspective painting, the printing press, ships that could circumnavigate the earth, modern banking and even the sonnet. What we tend to forget about the 15th and 16th centuries, though, is that this was also when we invented the “individual.”

Sure, we knew that people existed in their individual bodies for a long time. Even cavemen knew that hitting the guy over there meant hitting someone else. But people were so highly identified with their tribes, clans or fiefdoms, that they didn’t really think of themselves as individuals. Anyone who was a true individual was pretty much an outcast – either banished, mutant, a leper or, at best, a shaman, whose individuality was as much a curse as a blessing.

No, the real individual, as he or she is known today, was born as a ‘he’ during the renaissance. The mad genius Dr. Faustus is often cited as the first full-fledged individual character in drama; he’s the scientist who has reached the height of knowledge and capability and must make a deal with the devil in order to reach to even higher levels of power.

The Renaissance Man was understood as a person with many capabilities. What we may not fully appreciate, however, is that at that time, this meant embodying all these capabilities oneself. Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t friends with some people who thought about airplanes and with other ones who thought about human anatomy. He did all of these things himself. The fully realized person was very much a lone individual.

Largely because of this, media scholars from McLuhan to Ong think of the Renaissance as the beginning of our era of fragmentation. As we gained the ability to write things down and print them in great quantity, oral culture died out. We didn’t have to sit and breathe with one another in order to communicate. We could resort, instead, to the more abstract and utterly impersonal language of text. This separated us further, and replaced a culture built on abundance (a feminine archetype actively repressed during the renaissance) with one of scarcity (in support of high-interest banking and other centralized policies).

Compound this with the beginnings of the industrial age, where human beings devolved from craftsmen into laborers, and you get real disintegration of the communal unit. We stopped making things by hand, and became cogs in the mechanized factories. The more things we produced, the more individual customers we needed for them.

Mass production led to mass marketing which required a mass media. And the more individualized consumers became – the more separated in their own suburban homes, isolated from their communities and totally self-reliant – the more stuff they would need to buy. A community would be quite content with one big barbecue in the park at the end of the street. A neighborhood with no communal values requires one barbecue for each home. This made competition and isolation a better environment for mass production.

Finally, the original Renaissance launched the era of specialization. Why? Because, according to the historical analysis of thinkers like Buckminster Fuller, monarchs of early nation-states were afraid for any individual to know too much! So universities were divided into strictly separate disciplines. We became even more individualized, but without the (false) promise of ever becoming a true renaissance person. At best, we could become a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Eventually, however, every movement tends to become its opposite. Just as our religions told us that someone else had sacrificed himself so we wouldn’t have to, our commercial culture promoted the culture of the individual through commercials that insisted, “you are worth it!” Treat your “self” to this product or experience, because you are an individual and you deserve it. US Army commercials even encouraged young people to join the “Army of one.” Our media got so good at befriending and encouraging the individual, that we individuals – with no friends to call our own – fell in love with our media.

So we got better TV’s, with remotes, camcorders, and keyboards. We got cell phones, Wi-Fi connections, and messaging systems. What our marketers didn’t realize is that they had inadvertently sold us the very tools we could use to reverse this relentless drive towards individualism and steer our civilization towards something very different.

Yes, we got the ability to make our own media, which cannot be underestimated. Whether posting on a conference or writing an article for a blog, self-expression is a great key to understanding. But, more importantly, the interactive devices, which allow for what I’ve come to see as a second great renaissance, give us access to one another. They break down individualism as we know it, and help us redefine it as something very different: as our ability to forge connections with one another. To cooperate instead of compete.

The definition of an individual is changing, thanks in greatest part to wireless interactivity. While the Internet heralded this day, the wireless renaissance actually makes it a reality. Human beings are not who they are when they are sitting at their computers. In some ways, this only exacerbates our fragmentation. We are fully functioning human beings when we are fully animated, and capable of rejoining the many kinds of groups in which we like to gather - and haven’t, in some cases, for the past four or five hundred years.

No matter how much we like to talk about “freedom of the individual” here in the United States, that freedom comes down pretty much to the freedom to buy whatever we want, and to withdraw from pretty much any set of community values in order to protect or pay for our nuclear families (a value system, again, supported through distortions of democracy and religion).

There has been some good buzz about the idea that the Internet has led to a redefinition of individual agency. A number of academics have seized upon the idea of a Networked Individualism and the change that networking brings to the way we think of ourselves in relationship to citizenship.

I think we’re looking at a trend much bigger than this and, because these things fit in the palm of our hands, much smaller as well. The always-on and always-available quality of the emerging wireless universe changes what it means to be an individual. Increasingly, the power and agency of individuals is defined not by what they know – not what’s on the hard drive – but who and what they have access to – who is in their date book, or how readily they can find a link.

In a zen sense, the less present and opaque the individual, the greater ability he or she has to serve as a node in the network, and the more trusted the information and ideas that node provides. Even those individuals lucky enough to be valued for their opinions and assessments will increasingly be judged by the breadth of access they have to information.

No, an individual is no longer the sum total of his or her accumulated abilities and achievements. Hording data, stuff, even money, no longer makes sense in a world where such things are no longer measured in the scarcity of early Renaissance values, but are instead beginning to be understood in terms of sharing, social currency, and smart-mob-driven engagement.

The wireless renaissance brings us back to our pre-renaissance understanding of individuality. Indeed, the tribal shaman, that witch doctor who lived apart from the tribe, may have been an individual as far as the civilians were concerned, but he was most valued for his ability to network: he traveled through other realms, and retrieved information and messages from beings far away, or even the dead.

And that doesn’t sound so different from the un-wired, networked individual of the current renaissance, after all.