Friday, February 20, 2009


Do you ever wonder what the meaning is behind the words that we use everyday? I admit that I’m a geek when it comes to etymology. My fetish is word origins and especially tracking down the roots of words that we just toss off, often without thinking much about them. I like to rustle through the OED and various etymological dictionaries, lexicons of slang, clichés, and the like at random, just to see what turns up.

The Internet has been widely acclaimed as possibly the greatest social transformer since Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and moveable type. Among other things, the Web has made community, interactivity, and personalization standard features if not demands, and even requirements of contemporary life—at least for many of the billion people who are now online.

I’ve read a lot about social media in the last year—whether in The Economist or in such books as Wired writer, Jeff Howe’s Crowd Sourcing: Why The Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business, Clay Shirky’s classic Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations , and John Clippinger’s A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity . Now the power of group think and action is not new as Howe points out. Early hunter societies quickly learned that two brains—or at least two atl atls—were better than one (a basic meaning of “crowd sourcing”), in striking down Pleistocene prey. Even though all of these books are about leveraging the many, they have made me think about what “personalization”of the individual—in the context of the Internet and technology—really means.

MySpace, iPhone, YouTube. It’s all about the individual one might think at first blush. Ostensibly, “personalization” means customizing features to suit an individual’s taste and style. But, are we really being bamboozled a bit here? When you’re setting up your Facebook or LinkedIn profiles, for example, aren’t you being crammed and compartmentalized into convenient categories of somewhat generalized interest? I mean, netvibes and other RSS aggregators offer the convenience of creating a semblance of your very own newsstand. Maybe there’s a precedent even in print media for The New York Times masthead still announces, “All The News That’s Fit To Print”, which some cynical, if insightful soul once suggested should really read, “All The News That Fits.” But, at the end of the day, isn’t a lot of information being left out for the sake of making it all fit—whether it’s in The New York Times or our social network profiles?

When you look up “personalization” in The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, you are guided to its root in the word, “personal”. The use of the word apparently goes back to before 1387 when it was borrowed from the Old French word, “personel”, which came from the Latin word “persona”, which we are told meant to describe “a person”. More interesting is that its use to describe individuality or a distinctive character, was first recorded in 1795. Before the tide of European and American revolutions, which occurred just prior to that time the only individuals of note were generally monarchs and the royal classes who worked for them. Otherwise, there were the great masses or “commons”.

Even in the field of astrology, natal readings for individuals--excepting monarchs and royals--were relatively unknown prior to the 18th century. Mundane Astrology, as it was called, was the province of figuring out the future for countries and rulers, but the Average Joe was of little consequence in the prognostications of court astrologers. The rise of the individual, then, may be echoed in the actual need for the word “personal” to describe something more than just “a person”.

So, in describing ourselves within the social network “city limits” of a profile page, something has to go. Clippinger’s book provides a perspective from "social physics" with a debt to anthropology and sociology that says we are defined as individuals, in part, by our desire to be part of the crowd—and by what is reflected back to us by others and what they think.

It reminds me of something John Densmore, the drummer of The Doors, said to me once when I asked him shortly after the release of Oliver Stone’s biopic, what he thought of the movie. Given the troubled production during which the three “surviving” members of the band were all consultants—and then decided to bail “due to creative differences” with the director—John was quite diplomatic. “Well,” he answered, “I guess when they make a movie of your life in two-and-a-half hours, they’ve got to leave something out…”

Maybe when you are trying to personalize a medium that is far more than a mass medium—arguably the first truly global medium, you don’t want to design a network that will unravel out of accommodating too much uniqueness or the truly customized. Are we then losing anything of our originality in the process of being conscripted by the need for interactivity and community socialization that the Web indulges and has made de rigeur?

Jeremy Rifkin described to me how the Baby Boomers’ parents were the last generation who had a historical frame of reference—in other words, they defined themselves by looking back at World War II and the Great Depression. By contrast, Jeremy said that starting with the Boomers, the generations following were all defined by the Self and self-reference. The Boomers and those to follow are all “therapeutic generations”.

Western Psychiatry and Tibetan Buddhism would say that the Battle of Ego is one that we all face as human beings. In this Battle, we are thrown into an ongoing war that in essence seeks a balance of power between a healthy sense of self and the egoistic behavior at the root of neurosis and psychosis that damages others and therefore, ultimately ourselves. Who knows that the Web is now providing us with a playground where we will lose the Battle as our personal identities become branded by misleading marketing prefixes like “My” and “i” or by fitting ourselves neatly onto a profile page.

While Salvador Dali once remarked, “Perfection is to get lost!”, I don’t think we should give up the ghost without a good fight because technology undoubtedly brings with it benefits and progress, but when machines create efficiencies for us, what do we lose in the process? Is there another kind of "identity theft" at work here? There is no free lunch when we are not only consumers, but what is consumed.

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