Inside out, outside in

Adam Gopnik surveys a year’s worth of books about the Internet in the new New Yorker. “A series of books explaining why books no longer matter is a paradox that Chesterton would have found implausible,” he says, and goes on from there. Like other such New Yorker surveys, reading this one feels something like taking a walk through the woods with a charming, clever, and jaded nature guide – “The squirrel is renowned as an industrious creature, but let’s not forget that it is also a flighty one” – but toward the end Gopnik makes a particularly penetrating point:

What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. … A social network is crucially different from a social circle, since the function of a social circle is to curb our appetites and of a network to extend them. Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet, and which all the Better-Nevers [that’s my clan!] rightly testify to, has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.

The idea that social networks have the effect of turning up rather than turning down the volume of our self-consciousness seems to me precisely right. The Net turns the social instinct inward, which ends up fencing in rather than freeing the self.

5 thoughts on “Inside out, outside in

  1. Yihong Ding


    I like your point. With the Web evolution, people gradually step into the deeper side of selves. The Web users are embodying themselves through their use of the Web. Because of the Web, the usually implicit end of the self-consciousness becomes more and more explicit. On the other hand, many of the traditionally explicit characters of human beings such as appearance becomes implicit. We do not recognize people on the Web by their appearance, but by what they speak and write.

    Something that is really subtle is changing not only the daily life of each of us but also the entire social culture as a whole.

    Always enjoy reading your posts!


  2. Tom Lord

    re: “The Net turns the social instinct inward, which ends up fencing in rather than freeing the self.”

    Surveille and punish.

    Social networks are perhaps the first big conceptual breakthrough since since the idea of the panopticon.

    The literal panopticon placed a few guards against a large number of prisoners such that while the guards could not observe each prisoner all of the time, no prisoner could tell when he was or was not being observed and thus must be constantly vigilent against the possibility.

    The social network diffuses the role of the guard across the broader society and across time. The HR representative investigating background of an employment candidate is a guard. The prospective, the shunned, the jealous, or the vindictive ex- lover are guards. The school district is a guard in the social network space, bringing formal discipline to bear as a result of “status updates”. The criminal stalker is a guard. Participation is, for most, de facto required just as the prisoners in the panopticon have no choice but to remain in their cells. But there is a crucial difference:

    In the panopticon, the prisoner can not tell when the guard might be looking, and must limit risk taking accordingly. In the social network, the prisoner knows that the guard is always looking at each moment, as it happens or from a future perspective, and that surveillance is total, perpetual, and subject to retroactive enhancement from the future.

    The Net turns the social instinct inward, which ends up fencing in rather than freeing the self.

    It is an evolutionary step in a long series of technologies.

    In part it reminds me of the technology of the totalitarian state in that “eyes are everywhere” and not all (or even necessarily most) informants are aparachniks. Even the totalitarian state, though it arguably somewhat achieved constant and near-total surveillance, is different because it still centralized punishment. In the social network, punishment is driven by entrepreneurs (as in someone peddling tools for HR types, or FB “apps” that tell you who is viewing your profile, or private investigators in divorce proceedings, or ….)

  3. Tom Lord

    It seems like a very productive line of thought here, if we contemplate the impact of social networks on the formation of the self and perhaps incidentally observe the post-panopticon innovation. (What’s a good name for this everyone-is-both-prisoner-and-guard situation?):

    The most obvious form Resistance might take (the “Better Never” clan) is the Great Flipping Off of the social network switch, so to speak. As in the punchline to the old “Doc, it hurts when I do this,” joke.

    Fair enough but look at what else is in today’s headlines: the social network as the essential catalyst of resistance to oppression. Participation is not mandatory only to be socially recognized, but also because the networks are sold as the very medium of resistance to power!

    If we are so boxed in by the social surveille-and-punish networks that we question its impact on the future of the formation of the self – what does it mean that at the same time we see these networks as an essential liberating force (e.g., in Egypt)?

  4. Joe

    This does work for me!

    As a communications consultant and copywriter in England, it feel it’s part of what I do to understand how social networks work and the value they bring.

    Unless I am willingly inside the network they are noise – a distraction from work and the ideas in my head. Their value appears arbitrary and random.

    But then the wiring in my head (which you brilliantly discuss in The Shallows) is very different from my 19 year old daughter who is willingly distracted by networks and other media. As her excellent exam grades show this has no negative impact on how she works. (Which regularly puzzles me…)

    However, as a result, some of her external social instincts are slower and more cautious than I would have expected at that age.

    So maybe this is behaviour is also driven by age, sex and social background?

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