Acknowledging absence: The mental demands of our digitised world

“The demands of modern adult life”, wrote Robert Kegan in 1994, “may require a qualitative transformation in the complexity of mind every bit as fundamental as the transformation from magical thinking to concrete thinking required of the school-age child, or the transformation from concrete thinking to abstract thinking required of the adolescent”. Kegan wrote this when the internet was barely learning to crawl[1]: In 1993, only 1 percent of information flowing through two-way telecommunication went through its channels; in 2007 this number was estimated to have reached 97 percent[2]. Today, about 4 billion people – roughly half of the world population – have online access, and numbers are steadily rising[3].

There is plenty of thinking, talking, and writing about the risks and opportunities arising from our digitised world – from (individual) distraction and addiction to access to information and services, from (business) threats to companies’ and industries’ competitiveness to new business models and markets, from (society’s) shortage of appropriate rules and regulations to models for distributed participation, from (politics’) attitude towards security and surveillance to mechanisms for real-time, bottom-up decision making[4].

At the same time, there is a growing unrest about how we as human beings behave within the digitised universe developing around and through us moment by moment[5]. How do we decide whether to trust a seemingly appealing internet offer and which sources to believe on the circumstances of an incident or on the severity of a natural catastrophe? What do we do when we feel personally offended, stalked, trolled, or threatened online? How do we construct and live with our own internet personalities across different platforms and across time? What do we share and how and with whom and how do we interact with what is being shared by others?

Giving answers to these questions implies, I want to argue, demands on the complexity of our minds that we are not born with, but that we can only develop through time, growth, and practice. In terms of content, the underlying theme of these demands is the ability and the need to acknowledge absence: In order to live in and with our digitised world, we’ll have to become expedient explorers of what is not shown, said, explained, or even indirectly implied. We’ll have to accept that the features of what we meet with are always also a result of absence – and we have to heighten both our willingness and our capabilities to look at this absence through what appears.

What does this mean? Let me elaborate on four hallmarks of the digitised world and what they denote for the way we apply our minds to what swirls around us in our online lives[6]:

All information is partial. Growing up in Western Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, an important part of my literary experience at school consisted in reading and interpreting newspaper articles, short stories, and novels in the context of the political attitude and personal experience of their respective authors: Newspapers were “right” (FAZ) or “left” (Der Spiegel), Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa turned into a beetle because of the inner turmoil of European societies in the early 19th century, and Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach died because his author was tormented by unfulfilled homosexual desires[7]. While I’m not suggesting that these interpretations themselves matter to our digitised lives, I do believe in the relevance of implied meta-learning, namely that any information we get is always partial – both in the sense of being incomplete and of being (consciously or unconsciously) biased. In other words: What is missing is as important as what is present.

Just as all information transported through whatever media in the past was partial, the same is and will be valid for all information we find on the internet today and tomorrow. The demand that this calamity puts on our minds is that we have to actively look and ask for what is not there, be that complementary or contradictory data, insights about the source of information, or basic knowledge about statistics[8]. Now, we all know that babies see a ball physically disappearing when it is covered by a blanket, small children see houses and trees shrinking when we go on a plane, and even as grown-ups we occasionally like to console ourselves with a laconic: “Out of sight, out of mind”[9]. The constant attention to the fact that what we see might not the full picture of what is therefore not only requires a certain mental maturity to be reached in the first place, but beyond that puts a continuous demand on our concentration. In addition to this general challenge, the constant noise on our digitised channels does not exactly stimulate us to look for even more beyond what is already there. Online, it’s all too easy to take for real (only) what is front of our senses right now.

All emotions are personal. As human beings, we have emotions. The full spectrum from love, joy, and compassion to being mad, sad, or angry. We all know this, and in our daily face-to-face interactions most of us have developed a relatively well-functioning radar that tells us whether the person we’re walking towards is about to hug or to mug us. Many of us have also grown up to a point where we assume that other people’s emotions are different from ours, and some of us are even trying to live up to the insight that our emotions are our emotions, concluding that the responsibility for what we feel (and how we deal with it) lies with us, and that no amount of criticising, blaming, or pleading others is ever going to unburden us from this responsibility[10].

Roaming online doesn’t change our make up as human beings having emotions, and it doesn’t change the fact that emotions are deeply personal experiences of each of us individually. What does change, however, are the ways in which we can spot and decipher other people’s emotions. Online, other people are at the same time further away (because, even in a video conference, we hardly ever experience the full human presence of somebody else), and much, much closer (because people’s words and visible actions enter right into our offices and apartments, all way to the smartphone next to our pillow at night). This confusion of distance and closeness makes it a lot more critical (and, at the same time, a lot harder) to remember that others have their own emotional makeup (most likely different from ours) or, beyond that, to take full responsibility for our own emotions all the time. After all, how can the rush of adrenaline to the head that I feel as I a particular message catches my attention be my responsibility when it was so clearly caused by that message (and therefore by the person who sent it)? How can they dare do something so infuriating? They must be mean, thoroughly bad inside-out, and after me[11]. Online, it’s all too easy to offload our emotions to others.

Nothing is reliable. I’m a regular user of a car sharing scheme in my home town. Recently, I reserved a car through the corresponding app on my smartphone; the car was marked as standing a mere 5 minutes walk from my apartment. When I got to the place where the parked car was shown on the app’s map, there was no car on the street. After a bit of back and forth between me and the car sharing company (through social media, of course), it turned out that the car had been towed in the morning – but this information had not found its way from my analogue reality on the street into my digitised reality on the smartphone app. This is but a small example of the dissonances we experience all the time as we stroll through our online worlds: We think we know something (or someone) from one perspective – and then are utterly surprised (and sometimes also disappointed or shocked) to find that it is very different from another perspective.

The fundamental non-reliability of everything digitised[12] – from the web pages we quoted yesterday that have disappeared today to streets that are no longer (or not yet) included in our GPS systems, from tweets we favorited that have vanished over night to friends who unfriend us or switch off their virtual identities – requires a constant juggling of different perspectives. And, in addition, the very reference point of these perspectives is shifting, as the various versions of our selves that we construct in our overlapping online lives between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram, and their friends and cousins are themselves unreliable over time and in space[13]. Online, we’re walking on quicksand. Online, it’s all too easy to lose ourselves in a kaleidoscope of contradictions.

Freedom is radical. The digitised world devours, chews, and regurgitates all that it is being fed. The smallest thing ever recorded, sent, or posted survives in some nook of the web, regardless of whether the original sender still wants it around. The freedom we enjoy in our digitised world is the freedom to share, potentially with practically every human being on this planet, but never the full freedom to take back, reabsorb, or delete[14]. This is a radical version of freedom in which everything I disclose immediately escapes my control and becomes free in its own right, regardless of my own (or any codes’  and regulations’) attempts to fence in secrecy, privacy, or ownership. Freedom as we used to know it in its manifestations conjured up by the various revolutions and declarations of independence that helped shape the concept, used to be freedom of people, endowed with a mind to make judgements and the ability to speak and act (or not speak and not act)[15]. Now, the freedom that arises in our digitised world is a freedom of data wrestling away from their human originators.

This radical type of freedom lays a double burden on our minds: On the one hand, we need to learn to separate from what we share as soon as we share it – in a way, we are not longer what we send, the moment we send it. On the other hand, we have to be painfully aware that this separation will often not work – practically, emotionally, intellectually – neither for ourselves nor for others. In another way, we will always remain what we sent, because it stays alive, somewhere. As a consequence, we need to learn to meet data and information with the same empathic attitude we used to reserve for other human beings, generally assuming positive (or at least neutral) intention, a golden rule à la “Don’t do with any data what you wouldn’t want to see done with your own data”, and the willingness to forgive mistakes and misunderstandings[16]. All this implies that we need to step out of who we think we are whenever we send and whenever we receive information. A tall order of complexity of mind, in particular in an online world that is a the same time closing in around us by offering us what it calculates confirms our identify. Online, it’s all too easy to solidify who we think we are.

The absence of information from the information we get, the absence of other people from the emotions we feel, the absence of coherence from how we appear and act in the world, and the absence of a distinction between what we are and what we are not from a digitised universe of radical freedom: Those are the dimensions of absence we have to acknowledge on a daily basis as individuals navigating our online lives. Not an easy task, for sure, especially not given the very practical challenges we also face as our private, professional, and public existence is infused with the spirit of digitisation. At the same time, I’m optimistic that our minds can handle these demands just as, over the centuries, human beings found ways to live in peace with gods and ghosts, religions and ideologies, technologies, corporations, and political systems.

As King Henry V said – or rather: As he was quoted by William Shakespeare: “All things are ready if our minds be so”[17].


[1] Robert Kegan, “In Over Our Heads. The Mental Demands of Modern Life” (1994), p. 134. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Quoted from the information-heavy article “Internet” on Wikipedia (here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet [retrieved May 7, 2015]), referring to an article by Martin Hilbert & Priscilla Lopéz in Science (April 2011), “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information”, Science 332 (6025): 60–65.BACK TO TEXT

[3] Which, of course, brings up the question what this means for those who are not online – however, that is not our topic here. For background analyses on this, see McKinsey & Company’s excellent report “Offline and Falling behind: Barriers to Internet adoption” (2014), accessible here http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/offline_and_falling_behind_barriers_to_internet_adoption [retrieved May 7, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[4] Any attempt to single out specific sources for these aspects appears futile to me at this point in time. This, I believe, has a lot to do with the fact that we’re all shaken and stirred by the waves of an ongoing transformation the patterns of which will only truly emerge from a distance in time or in space. And those who dare take a mental step away from the storm to observe and describe are few and far between. A number of inspiring attempts at this can be found in the compilations from this year’s re:publica here https://re-publica.de and in the thinking inspired by the DLD Conferences here http://www.dld-conference.com [retrieved May 7, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[5] Two quite different examples – both in German, apologies to non-German speakers, and also apologies to all those who voice similar thoughts in other languages and are by pure accident not quoted here – are Elisabeth Rank’s beautiful recent blog post about respect, responsibility, and forgiveness in a digitised world that doesn’t forget (http://mevme.com/lizblog/so-einen-menschen-hat-jeder/ [retrieved May 7, 2015] and Antje Neubauer’s article on how social networks confuse the traditional lines of journalism and corporate communications (http://www.manager-magazin.de/politik/meinungen/das-social-web-braucht-einen-verhaltenskodex-a-1030256.html [retrieved May 7, 2015]. I do not agree with everything written in those articles, at the same time, the thinking in both inspired me in writing this blog post. BACK TO TEXT

[6] Connaisseurs of Robert Kegan’s constructive-developmental theories will easily recognise elements of the different developmental stages in the following paragraphs. Avid students of Buddhist writings will notice a faint similarity with what is commonly called the “Four Seals” of Buddhism, apparently first formulated as such by Longchen Rabjam in the 14th century (relying on Rigpa Wiki here http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Four_seals [retrieved May 7, 2015]. For the latter, a very accessible, modern commentary is Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s “What makes you not a Buddhist” (2007). I readily accept all allegations of ruthlessly stealing from all sources just mentioned.BACK TO TEXT

[7] An unrelated movie recommendation: For me, Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” (1971) remains one of the most beautiful and haunting movies ever made. BACK TO TEXT

[8] I’ve said this before, and I’m happy to repeat it: The two unquestionable authorities on what can go wrong when we misunderstand statistics are Daniel Kahnemann and Nicolas Taleb. Read their books, in case they’re not yet sitting on your desk for daily reference. BACK TO TEXT

[9] For an entertaining variation on this theme, see James Brown’s timeless “Out of Sight” (1964), for example here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGdmY0N1qZA. BACK TO TEXT

[10] A thorough study of how these complexities developed can be found in Robert Kegan’s “In Over Our Heads” (cited above in footnote 1), in particular in part II and III. BACK TO TEXT

[11] Of course, there was and is an offline version of this behaviour, too. It is brilliantly described in Paul Watzlawick’s famous story about borrowing your neighbour’s hammer, from his “Anleitung zum Unglücklichsein” (1983). BACK TO TEXT

[12] With this, I’m not saying that the non-digitised world was or is any more reliable; it’s just not what I’m talking about here.BACK TO TEXT

[13] The challenge reminds me of the hero of George Perec’s novel “La vie mode d’emploi” (1978), Bartlebooth, who set out to paint 500 watercolours of ports around the world to then turn them into jigsaw puzzles that he reassembled only to have them finally sent back to the port where they were painted where, then, the paint is removed from the paper. Unfortunately, Barthlebooth died while finishing his 439th puzzle, holding a letter X when the last piece missing was W-shaped. George Perec, of course, is a master of absence. BACK TO TEXT

[14] My favourite summary reading on this (and on other aspects of what happens to our world, businesses, and lives in the digitised age) is Erik Brynjolfsson’s and Andrew McAfee’s “The Second Machine Age” (2014).BACK TO TEXT

[15] There’s no lack of philosophical, practical, and poetic treatments of the topic – if you want to remind yourself of the (almost demanding) spirit of how we like to think about our freedom, listen to Gloria Gaynor’s classic “I am what I am”, e.g. here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zreTvtpTeoU [retrieved May 7, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[16] Continuing this train of thought would actually lead us to ask whether we should think and talk about “data rights” in the way we think and talk about human rights (or animal rights) – a daunting idea at first, but maybe not the worst approach to (re-) introduce dignity, humility, and careful consideration into an otherwise (over-) heated debate. Regardless of how we answer this question, our human ability to be able to forgive is key to a responsible and sustainable way of dealing with data set free. This ability itself was masterfully described (and put into context) by Hannah Arendt: “Das Heilmittel gegen Unwiderruflichkeit – dagegen, dass man Getanes nicht rückgängig machen kann, obwohl man nicht wusste, und nicht wissen konnte, was man tat – liegt in der menschlichen Fähigkeit zu verzeihen”, in “Vita Activa oder vom tätigen Leben” (1967), cited from the 1981 edition, p. 231 (the English edition appeared as “The Human Condition”, 1958). As an aside: I believe that we have a lot to learn from Hannah Arendt’s thinking and writing in the way we accommodate ourselves in the world today. But that’s for another post.BACK TO TEXT

[17] William Shakespeare, King Henry V (1599), Act 4, Scene 3. BACK TO TEXT

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