Yeah, but how’s your digital self doing?

I’ve been thinking about my “digital self.” Perhaps he and I will set a time to meet.

Adri Mehra

According to a recent glut of media coverage spearheaded by the work of American “techie sociologist” Sherry Turkle, your “digital self” is your computer-based personality – the composite of what you present via e-mail, chat and personal online sites, a cyber alter ego.

However, researchers like Turkle argue that your virtual identity might be becoming less and less distinct from your actual persona.

It’s been more than 20 years since Turkle published her groundbreaking thesis “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit,” in which she predicted not only the imminent saturation of the computer culture, but also the onset of hackers, viruses and other consequences of massive computer-based interaction.

“Technology,” Turkle claimed in 1984, “catalyzes changes not only in what we do, but how we think.”

Today, Turkle, who is also a professor in the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, particularly is interested in the millennial generation.

These kids – the Kaiser Family Foundation calls them Generation M for being so media-hungry – are so fascinating to social scientists because they are the first demographic to have had the Internet and cell phones pervasive throughout their childhood.

The typical daily “media diary” of a Generation M boy or girl begins with a bit of breakfast TV or radio, followed by maybe a cursory glance at a newspaper (the only nondigitized information they might encounter voluntarily all day), and then it’s off to the duties of the day, no doubt plugged into music from their iPod en route to and between their activities. This, of course, is to say nothing of the hours they will log on the Internet and yap on their cell.

Again, The New York Times, which along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology appears to be a partner in the documenting of technology’s social implications, also have commented on the troubling phenomenon of OCD – online compulsive disorder.

Everyone from grade-schoolers to venture capitalists is hooked by the lure of data. The differences with Generation M, says neuroscientist Jordan Grafman, are the long-term developmental consequences and the stresses it can place on time with the family at home.

“Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren’t going to do well in the long run,” Grafman said in an interview with Time Magazine.

Perhaps it’s obvious the digital age should so permeate our every waking moment. After all, as the great line of globalization goes, it’s bringing us closer together, right?

I find myself maintaining and keeping up my “digital self” nearly as much as I do my own physical body. I’ve noticed it in my peers, too. Whenever a friend’s marital status changes (as in single or not single), it seems that the first announcement of this news is on Facebook or MySpace. Weird. Humans spent tens of thousands of years creating a complex system of physical communication, from facial expressions to body language. Can we really replace all of that intimacy with e-mails and Webcams?

I don’t think so. Really, a snowball to the back of the head is about as instant a message one can receive.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]