WASHINGTON, D.C. - Monica Lewinsky might seem an unlikely source of wisdom – yes, wisdom – about contemporary culture, but she is.
She recently gave a talk at the epicenter of intellectual hipness, TED. But her talk was more than a curiosity and more then a personal “re-branding.” It was a genuinely insightful analysis of a creepy part of our media-soaked social and cultural lives – and it pointed to something even creepier.
In fact, she has earned the courtesy of being referred to as Lewinsky, not Monica.
Lewinsky’s wisdom was hard earned.
“I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously,” Lewinsky said. The story she told seemed honest and was, as it always will be, vicariously fascinating. She is now using it not to cash in but to make a point.
Her important observation is not that she was patient zero; the medium, scale and velocity of her shaming was new, the phenomenon is ancient. Rather, it is the understanding that the cyber process of being “Monica-ed” has since infiltrated the private lives of private people.
“The landscape has sadly become much more populated with instances like mine, whether or not someone actually makes a mistake, and now it's for both public and private people,” she said. “The consequences for some have become dire, very dire.” She went on to talk about the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate posted spy videos of him with another boy.
Cyber-bullying, trolling, stalking – all variants of emotional vandalism -- are almost ubiquitous, enabled not just by the instant reach of the Internet, but by the anonymity, impersonality and cattiness of online pseudo-social life.
All this is so obvious to young people as to go almost unnoticed but it is appalling, for example, to parents who have steered kids through junior high and high school. Adolescent cannibalism is, again, ancient. In my junior high years, “phony phone calls” were the chosen weapon; anonymously we could pick on the fragile and the different.
That is vinegar to the sulfuric acid of cyber-sadism. “Cruelty to others is nothing new, but online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained, and permanently accessible,” as Lewinsky noted.
Lewinsky has a sophisticated understanding of how this kind of psycho-sport is the stuff of profits and a magnet for venture capital and tech talent. She says:
This invasion of others is a raw material, efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged and sold at a profit. A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We're in a dangerous cycle.
But there is a flip side of this album that is even more ubiquitous, subtly destructive and that we volunteer for again and again. It is the way contemporary culture stealthily encourages us to be marketers of our own selves.
An acquaintance around 40, an early adopter and first generation digital journalist, said recently he was getting off of Facebook. Why? Simple: It makes me feel bad about myself.
That is because people put manicured versions of themselves on Facebook, Twitter and the rest. You’d be nuts not to. “Carmine is 15 and he still wets the bed!” You don’t see that. What you see is our best bits, the most glam pictures, the funniest wisecracks – the flattering. Everyone has a “passion”: artisanal shampoo, heirloom kohlrabi, collecting Hogan’s Heroes lunchboxes or Croatian electro-pop.
Silicon Valley and Wall Street are eager to monetize our marketed selves.
Most Americans would be shocked if they saw an accurate audit of how much time they spend with screens – TVs, computers, mobile phones, pads, gaming devices – and not with people. It is time spent with objects -- mediated reality, faceless others – not people, not alone either. This is no longer virtual reality; it is just reality.
We are molded by the technology, yes, but also by the culture it carries, often a culture of celebrity, marketing, advertising, consumerism, self-promotion and subliminal coaxing to get one click, one more upcharge out of us.
Social scientists, neuroscientists and technologists are trying to study this empirically and scientifically. The cultural and spiritual aspects, however, are not reducible to data.
Monica Lewinsky seems to understand that. And she might also see that it is not just shame that is becoming a commodity, but our selves.
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