Echo-locating the digital self

Sep 26, 2017


I think, therefore I am;

I speak, therefore I am;

I am perceived, therefore I am;

I am responded to, therefore I am.

(paraphrased from my essay on the politics, methods, and ethics of representation in online ethnography, 2005)

In early days of the Internet, Richard McKinnon remarked that it is no longer adequate to say “I think, therefore I am” (invoking Descartes) or even “I speak, therefore I am” (invoking the linguistic turn, generally). In the internet age, he said, the more appropriate phrase is “I am perceived, therefore I am.” The symbolic interactionist in me pushed further to say that if we take the dialogic process seriously, the phrase should actually be: “I am responded to, therefore I am,” whereby we give full attention to the continual dynamic of the relational self. The social negotiation of self is made more visible by the traces of texts, tweets, and emojis that evidence this dynamic. The computational aspect of this social construction process is highlighted– but perhaps made more mysterious– through the appearance of advertisements that are well targeted to our interests

Vulnerability in this epoch is being disconnected1. Disconnecting from what is perceived as a steady stream of identity pings leaves us bereft of the continual marking of boundaries that mark the edges of the Self. This ontology of echo-locating the Self through constant “call and response” can be summarized in the quote above. When we have no response, and our self is identified through the flow of responses, we can feel bereft, vulnerable, non-existent.

Let me back up to summarize a bit2 of how I come to focus on disconnection as a way of getting closer to a key characteristic of digital existence.

In 1997, I finished an ethnographic study of users who described themselves as ‘heavy users’ of the internet. Based on my analysis of their everyday discourses, I developed a framework for thinking about everyday relations between humans and their (digital)(internet) technologies, which included three main categories of tool, place, and way of being. In 1996, it was easy to understand how people interpreted the internet as a “tool”, extending the senses or limbs in prosthetic fashion. The conceptualization of the internet as “place” was likewise common, fostered not least by popular depictions of ‘cyberspace’ in fiction and the use of architectural sensibilities to design community interactions. One could enter distinctive places of the internet and experience a “sense of presence.” In my 1994-1997 study, very few experienced the internet as a “way of being,” a term I chose to describe:

a transparent state wherein the self, information technology, everyday life, and other are vitally connected, co-existent. Technology does not hold a position as object outside the agency of the human.  Rather, the categories are collapsed, to varying degrees. (Markham, 2003, p. 11)

 It is now well understood that because digital technologies have become somewhat ubiquitous and banal, they have become both less visible and more influential. And as we rely more and more on them, they become a way of being. But what does this mean, separate from its categorization along some sort of spectrum from tool or place (externalized) to a way of being (naturalized)? How does the technical or digital function in the continual construction and negotiation of identity and selfhood?

We could say that the body (or the traditional (western) site of authenticity or reality) which is seen as separate from technology in both the tool and place frames, becomes seamlessly interwoven with the digital. At any and all points thereafter, the technological infrastructure must break down, be removed, or shift radically in order for it to be noticed. This could bring us to Haraway, Hayles, or other posthumanist/technofeminists, whose work over the years insists we have always been cyborgs.

But for me, the question is how the self in a digitally saturated society is negotiated through the processes and elements of connectivity. For me, the seemingly seamless ‘always on’ state of connectivity is, at the more granular level, a process of continual echolocation, in the way we might think of radar, whereby the outline of an object in space is determined by sending a steady stream of sound signals and listening to the quality of the echo.

At the micro-interactional level, we can see this constant radar pinging to find the self. As I have found in five years of ethnographic and phenomenological study of around 1,500 youth regarding their everyday digital media, this is not seen not, as expected, through the process of being connected (or swimming in water), but being disconnected. We know that disrupting the flow of affirmation and reaffirmation creates what in psychological terms we might label anxiety and cognitive dissonance, especially for youth. The fear of disconnection is sometimes simplified as FOMO, or fear of missing out. But in their poignant narratives, the vulnerability is more meaningful and disruptive3.

“I keep reaching for my phone, even though I know it’s not connected. I don’t know why.”

 “I just want people to know I’m out there, that I exist.”

“I’m so mad at myself. Why am I so obsessed with getting instant responses?”

Being disconnected doesn’t just cut off communication from others, it puts the body in doubt. This is not like removing one of our senses or having a limb ripped off. Rather, the body suddenly appears as a discrete, separate, and isolated object. Disconnecting can bring on a state of extreme vulnerability, then, since there’s no continual Other with whom you’re bouncing off continual information pings. Of course, one retains physical self/other interactions, but the core ontological delineation of Self is predicated on a continual differentiation through the continual call and response of echolocation.

These are early thoughts. I’m interested in pursuing this idea that in an era of constant connectivity and ‘always on’ or more importantly, ‘always available’ internet, mapping the body occurs as we receive feedback from continual flows of information. I’m also interested in whether or not the metaphor of ultrasound or radar might resonate. (update: read more here)


  1. I use this declarative phrase for provocation purposes only. I am aware and troubled by my focus here on vulnerability in what is essentially a privileged cycle of connectivity.
  2. sorry for all the glossing, I can provide sources on request.
  3. The quotes are representative of a common pattern, but hardly evocative in this limited space, in hundreds of stories from youth, I get a sense of intense cognitive dissonance and profound anxiety around disconnecting.