I was listening to a Digital Human podcast on the way into work (#digihuman). The episode was about the imprint that we leave on the world and how this manifests in the on-line world as well. The examples given in the podcast included: A man in his 80s who has kept a written diary over most of his lifetime, an artist seeking to destroy all of his physical property (including passport and tax returns, which apparently could have had legal consequences…), and finally a young woman (who had a previous online role as a gender and transgender rights activist) seeking to ‘go dark’ – that is, to erase her digital presence. .
The implication of all this was to consider the footprint that we all leave on the social fields that we walk through. At the risk of stretching an analogy too far – I’m thinking here of my footprints on damp grass as I walk the Dog in the morning. But what interests me here is the manner in which our passing through social fields marks not only the field itself, but also ourselves (or our psyche perhaps). Returning to the analogy of walking, and footprints on grass, I’m thinking of Robert Macfarlane’s book, ‘The Old Ways’, where he comments that every step taken in the world leaves a mark not only on the world, but on the person taking that step – a footprint cuts both ways.
To return to the podcast – the discussion focussed on the the act by which individual’s could destroy traces of themselves in the world, but also commented on the impossibility of selectively destroying memory in the same manner. I was struck by the symbolism of this – the man destroying his property (I’m picturing a bonfire here – with obvious links to Phoenix imagery), for example is perhaps seeking a form of re-birth; as is the activist – seeking to leave behind a digital life that she perceived as having come to dominate her.
Escaping a spoiled image
There is a link here, I think, to my previous post.There is a contrast to be drawn here between an image that we might choose to project into the world (the diarist, this blog) and one that can be ‘forced’ onto us – a process of stigmatisation perhaps (as in the case of the gender rights activist who finds that her on-line presence came to dominate her). There is something then about the manner in which we choose to adopt a strategy for self-projection, which presumably, in many cases, represents some form of capital development in our chosen social field – allowing us to exercise our own internal anxiety through projecting a form of control into the world. However, when that projection begins to ‘cut both ways’, like the footprint on the ground.
Being able to move beyond a historical image of ourselves presumably therefore demands a plastic nature both of the social spaces around us and our own sense of self. Both of these though seem to be able to hold quite firm records of behaviours – and this process could be problematic.
This is becoming something of a theme emerging for me in my thought – both from the conference I attended and also that I’m observing in my clinical practice at the moment. Many people seem to find that both their social milieu and themselves can become more brittle than malleable in their efforts at change. As I’ve said – this can produce some paradoxical or violent responses at times; including efforts at self-destruction, or at fading from view in some way. Another strategy that I’ve seen employed is to literally adopt the strategy of becoming ‘reborn’ – sometimes through an act of Faith or revelation.
Regardless of the strategy employed though, whether by the two people trying to erase a legacy in the podcast, or for people I meet trying to move beyond an identity that they have come to dislike for a variety of reasons, Returning to the imagery of a footprint – being a mark that can last long after our passing through the space. Footprints cut both ways then – leaving a mark both in us that can last for a protracted time, as well as in the social world around us: Our ‘ghost’, whether digital or in the memory of others, may, it seems, long survive us; and perhaps echoes of our past can similarly continue to haunt us.