Contested Boundaries and Saturated Selves

October 12th, 2014 | Category: Essays, Reviews

In her book The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Judith Donath outlines designs for living online. Echoing George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), she writes, “We are embodied beings, who have evolved in the physical world; our thoughts and imagination are rooted in the sensory experience of our physical surroundings. Online, there is no body; there is only information. We comprehend abstract ideas by reframing them in metaphoric terms that ultimately derive from physical experience” (p. 9). One needn’t look any further that a computer’s desktop to see this in action. “Immersion” was once a strong notion in computer-mediated communication studies, online communities, and virtual reality. Now we are not so much immersed in media as we are saturated by it.

The Social MachineDonath points out that these are boundary issues. Walls, fences, locked doors, online moderators—“the doormen of discussions” (p. 159), spam filters, and other gate-keeping contrivances protect the private from the public and vice versa. Even with such boundaries in place, our embodiedness is still at risk. We are as sieves, filtering news from noise, or as sponges, soaking up information and influence of all kinds. The latter evokes Psychologist Kenneth Gergen’s “saturated self”:

Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become a part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self (1991, p. 6).

Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Negroponte (1995) pontificated on the fading boundaries of the “post-information age,” writing,

In the same ways that hypertext removes the limitations of the printed page, the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in specific place at specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible. In the post-information age, since you may live and work at one or many locations, the concept of an “address” now takes on new meaning (p. 163).

The history of the internet is largely a story of broken-down boundaries (see Grodin & Lindolof, 1996; Jenkins, 2006; van Dijck, 2013). Its architecture “rests upon principles of convergence, which enable multiple and overlapping connections between varieties of distinct social spheres” (Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305). The inherent irony of Negroponte’s observation is that since physical location no longer matters in the digital, post-geographic workday, it makes it matter even more. If you can work from anywhere, where you live means more than ever. You can live wherever you want regardless of where your work is. The old boundaries are gone.

The End of AbsenceThe overwhelming irony now is that where we are matters less than the digital wares with which we saturate our selves. On the commute, at school, at work, at home, on a trip, visiting friends—the smartphone usurps all of these with a persistent and precise hold on our attention. In William Gibson‘s term, the online world has “everted” itself into physical space. The fact that it is now inescapable is what writer Michael Harris calls “the end of absence.” His is an example of what I have called the Advent Horizon. We feel a sense of loss when we cross one of these lines. From the Socratic shift from speaking to writing, to the transition from writing to typing, we’re comfortable—differently on an individual and collective level—in one of these phases. As we adopt and assimilate new devices, our horizon of comfort drifts further out while our media vocabulary increases. It takes 30 years for a full, generational change and with that a full shift in advent horizons. Harris notes, “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After” (p. 15).

Reaching across one of these divides, Thomas de Zengotita (2005) writes of digitally zombified youth,

… It was if they were somnambulating, hypnotized, into some newborn zone of being where hallowed custom and bizarre context were so surreally fused that the whole tableau seemed poised to shimmer off into the ether at any moment (p. 155).

Ours is a chronic presence in a chronic present. Donath (2014), writes of our online personal presences, “The stranger, as we think of him now, may cease to exist” (p. 336). But Harris (2014) adds, “Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something…?” (p. 8).

Well, was there?


de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Donath, Judith. (2014). The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gergen, Kenneth. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.

Grodin, Debra & Lindlof, Thomas R. (1996). Constructing the Self in a Mediated World. Thosand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Harros, Michael. (2014). The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. New York: Current.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lakoff, George, & Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995). Being Digital.  New York: Knopf.

Papacharissi, Zizi. (2011). A Networked Self. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 304-317). New York: Routledge.

van Dijck, José. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

Further Posting: