Lusseyran, the existential philosopher and survivor of the Holocaust, penned an essay in 1971 about the ‘pollution of the I’ in the contemporary era. He argued that just as human activity ravished the outer, natural environment, so too has it taken hold of our precious internal realm. He called it a ‘civil war’ and one that was all the more dangerous because nobody was aware it was even happening.
Lusseyran distinguished the ‘I’ from the ‘ego’. For him, the ‘I’ is most similar to the concept of the ‘self’ or the true ‘soul’ of a human; containing depths, intricacies and complexities we aren’t capable of consciously comprehending. The ‘ego’, on the other hand, “is not the I, but only the most transient, quivering, arbitrary surface of the I”. It is a representation, but an innately imperfect one, of who we are. The ego is what we actively try to project out to the world, the ‘mask’ we wear throughout our lives for convenience and concision.
Though Lusseyran lived and wrote before the dawn of social media, I think his theory is more pertinent now than ever before. Because ultimately, social media perpetuates the pollution of the I and the proliferation of the ego.
Social media is inherently detached from reality, operating in a shadow realm of facades and temporality. The curation and constructed-ness inherent to its design means that actuality always eludes it. Instead of representing reality, social media creates its own version, manipulating and distorting truth to fit within its confines. The process of engaging in social media is therefore the process of confining the ‘I’, of shrinking it down to an easily digestible icon, a two dimensional representation, a shell of identity. People engage with illusions rather than actualities, and indulge in constructing egos rather than in actualising the I.
And if you don’t believe me, attempt the experiment that Lusseyran put forth:
“Tonight as we get ready for bed, let us stop for a couple of minutes. Two minutes will do; two minutes is a long time to be absolutely still. And let us ask ourselves what actually goes on inside us… What we shall find is… scenes from television (even though I watched for barely an hour); they will be pictures from all the signs, posters and placards that are thrust under my nose from earliest morning on, in the streets of the town; pictures like the ones on the front page of the paper, in the windows of the stores, even on the box of detergent I bought on my way home.”
As someone who mediates quite frequently, this type of “examination of consciousness” is not entirely foreign to me. Yet even when I meditate, my mind is often preoccupied with thoughts of social media. Even when I’ve deleted my instagram app, or haven’t checked facebook in days, my mind is always tilting towards this digital realm. Psychologists have done a lot of research into the ‘addictiveness’ of social media and how it exploits loops of instant gratification that suck us in deeper and deeper. There’s lots of concern about the impact of this on mental health or productivity – but have we really stopped to question it’s impact on our very identity?
“It is our ego that makes every one of us want to be different and, whatever the cost, to distinguish ourselves in some way.”
Social media fuels the ego. And with the growth of the ego comes the dissolution of the I. The more time we spend engaged in social media the more disillusioned we become with our own selfhood, until we eventually lose track of our I all together, floating, untethered, in a digital realm with nothing but the mask of the ego.