FROM ANCIENT GREEKS TO KANT TO MODERN THINKERS, THIS ILLUMINATING CONVERSATION QUESTIONS THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE SELF IN THE DIGITAL AND POST PANDEMIC WORLD
Concept and Art Direction by Andrea Cammarosano, Aybüke Barkçin
Photography by Winter Vandenbrink
Text by Aybüke Barkçin
in conversation with Sandy Berkovski, Bayram Ünal and Atilla Altınsaçan
As we reflect on the recent issues that have been affecting the world; the bushfires in Australia, the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Black Lives Matter marches… despite the state of instability, we can say in confidence that the world is more connected than ever. The last months have been some of the most challenging times as we have and still are experiencing the loss of our loved ones, the importance of health care and public services, the aggravated inequality between classes and the continuing racism towards the people of color. Important lessons have surfaced despite the darkness and though we cannot see the end of the tunnel, we have accepted for the time being, we all must adapt to the new normal. For the sake of our health and survival, we must change the way we communicate and engage with each other. Thanks to the developments of information technologies, the possibilities of forming relationships in the digital dimension are infinite. However, the question still remains as to what consequences these technologies bring to our lives, specifically to the youth and if we are as connected as we all think.
I sat down with three of my professors from my university – Sandy Berkovski, Bayram Ünal and Atilla Altınsaçan – to have a conversation about the challenges that lay ahead of the upcoming generations in the Age of Information and what the new normal will be. Fashion magazines are often not the place where a conversation like such can be found, but I think the place of fashion – now more than ever – is not only about creating products but provoking conversations and being critical to its times.
AYBÜKE BARKÇİN: Bayram Ünal, Sandy Berkovski and Atilla Altınsaçan thank you all for joining me. I want to start the conversation with the notions of self and identity, something we are constantly in search of. Turning the question to Bayram; as a professor of sociological studies, how are the concepts of “self”and “identity” formed and defined?
BAYRAM ÜNAL: Self is relational. According to the Western notion, self appears as something that has no connection with anyone, independent of everything, an existence on its own. But this is not what self is. In order to be “self”, you first must be an “other”. Before you can identify yourself, you must define the person you enter the relationship with. Self is not an independent and fixed entity as discussed in liberal terms. We define “self” with its social dimension and in relation with the “other”, it must be in a dialectical relationship where it constantly develops. Identity on the other hand, is created in the relational dimension of the self, therefore after you define the person you are in a relationship with, you slowly start creating your identity.
As information and communication technologies increase our dialectical relationships, do they change the way we experience the “self”?
B.Ü.: In the past, we acted with social and traditional modeling. Our relationships were very slow, depending on the physical space. Digital technologies have changed this by transcending the physical and allowing communication on a digital level. Due to this change, you have been exposed to a higher number of “others”, meaning those who are not like you. Now, the concept you call digital has begun to take you out of the relationships that used to depend on space. Through these technologies, our values start to overlap on top of each other. As we are being exposed to “others”, a shift occurs in our values. Certain notions intrude into our social structure and equalize their meanings in our minds, creating a loss of cultural definitions. The digital structure is able to displace you from your physical space which contains your way of living, relationships and networks, culture, etc. It breaks space and time as time starts to crush the space. To give you an example; let’s say you’re at a wedding and you have a phone in your hand. You are physically in the space of the wedding but in accordance to time, you are outside of it because with the use of your phone, you are forming dialogues with people living in different places through social media at the same time.
What is the “time” you are referring to?
B.Ü.: It is the measurement unit of the space we are in. Time is what you measure your daily life with. Society that does not engage with digital media cannot extend and advance their concept of time. However, with digital media’s intrusion, the notion of time changes. It alienates man from his own culture, what he has been taught by his elders and brings him to a different point in time from his physical environment.
Apart from the “self” and “other”, there is also the construction of the community, I want to direct the question towards Sandy, how would you evaluate the concepts of “individual” versus “community” which are deeply rooted in the arguments made by philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes?
SANDY BERKOVSKI: Right, so one point to begin with is that modern thinkers promoted the value of the community that I believe we can trace to Rousseau; these thinkers were at one hand fathers of modern nationalism. In this tradition, they associated a nation with a particular land, having its own moral codes, cultures traditions etc. For them, the individual only existed within the community. These thinkers emphasized the small number of people living in a community. So, for them to think of a state, that would encompass a huge area was not something they imagined. They had the Greek idea of city-states where everyone could vouch for another citizen. The communal way of living and the value put on the life of the community was motivated by the Greek ideals. A different idea of the political community was the idea of the political community as an association for solving tasks, where people are not defined by their membership and are not the organic parts of a community but defined as individuals as argued by Hobbes. They are defined by their desires, purposes and they unite to solve a task such as prosperity, security etc. But now we are talking about states that are anonymous and huge.
We are as far from the Greek idea of city states as possible and the similarities that unite us are eroding; our communities are now made up of people from different cultures, ethnicities, languages etc. For some of us, this brings a sense of alienation. But with the introduction of digital technologies, we are all experiencing alienation as though we detach ourselves further from our physical reality and away from who we are. Is it possible to experience alienation from the “self” ?
B.Ü.:There is no alienation from the self. You create the self through becoming alienated and you can only grow through alienation. When a child is born, he has no sense of meaning and acts in accordance to pure human nature. We alienate him from his own nature by imposing concepts such as; right, wrong, sin, shame…around him. As he grows, he starts to take in culture and goes against his natural structure, becoming civilized. Society puts him in a frame and makes him accept their values. Digital media takes him out of this frame and puts him in another one by alienating him from society’s values. By increasing his relationships and connections, he begins to change his rationality. Digital media takes him from one frame of reference to another. He, therefore, becomes an interpreter of the information he receives.
Interpretation in which sense?
B.Ü.: Interpretation means the process of questioning. An intelligent individual will use and develop the information given. While for some, the use of these technologies will produce common and artificial information. Rather than information being a tool controlled and developed by the individual, it may instead be accepted unquestionably as the truth.
How would you define alienation then?
B.Ü.: Those who lived before us have experience in life. They coded these experiences and created a framework calling it culture, tradition, religion and civilized behavior etc. But as a consequence of digitalization; the frameworks we use for decision making are eroding. The previous knowledge and experiences passed on from generations lose significance. As a sociologist, I interpret alienation as; the elimination of the frame of references which form the basis of life.
S.B.: This is the function of technology right. Technology allows accessibility in all levels, democratizing information. But it creates alienation from what you are. Because you remain a particular product of your social class. Your income is not mixed as easily as your artistic tastes. But you still don’t fully understand who you are in this sense. There are no proper set of values that you follow.
I want to move the conversation to escapism and technology. It is a weird paradox between having the desire to exhibit ourselves in one space while at the same time trying to escape from another space. A contrast between the physical and virtual… Atilla, as you are not only a professor of political science but also interested in etymology, how do you define space?
ATILLA ALTINSAÇAN: There is an interesting linguistic fact in English. “Space” means “emptiness, void.” Yet, for example, in all Islamic languages the equivalent is the Arabic word “makaan” which means “what is created.” Unlike space, makaan is not a void to be filled. It is created by the same Creator who created you as well. Therefore, you should respect makaan as you are supposed to respect all creations. Respect brings responsibility, so all other creations are entrusted to the man. You cannot exploit or abuse them. Not a fellow human being, not a tree, nor the air or sea.
What do you think motivates the youth’s desire to escape from the physical space?
A.A.: I think the youth is not running away from the physical space, they are emptying themselves from the space. They shut themselves between their eyes and ears. Laptop and smartphone screens blind them to other people. Earphones make them deaf to outside sounds including their own inner voice. None of us want to be left alone at home, work, on the metro or plane. We have to keep ourselves busy. Social media and invasion of technologies in our material as well as spiritual life keep us busy. They keep us away from pausing just a moment and think about ourselves because pausing for a moment puts you in self-reflection and this is hard for us. Then we will realize our faults and dark alleys within ourselves. We’d better off ignoring them. So, social media and constant preoccupation with the outside world is yet another addiction. Unfortunately, this escape can’t produce a salvation. It results in yet another imprisonment. I see no encouraging prospect in this regard except that I hope we break off from their unnatural and immoral chains that we put on ourselves under the false claims of humanism, naturalism and moralism. We have to go back to our nature. We have to value our moral creation and try to live by it. Digital tools like any other conventional tools may be useful by the scale of the intent and effort by their users. Sure, they certainly do good as well. But you need to change the instrumentalist before the instrument if you want to play a different song. So, we need to change the way we conceive ourselves.
From a sociological point of view, why has technology become a tool to escape for the youth?
B.Ü.: Youth escapes as they question the information given, they interpret and refuse the physical space. By forming relationships and connections, they begin to refuse the information and rules coming from their family, environment, society… When they are faced with pressure from their physical space, escapism and the creation of new identities occur.
We all have some knowledge on the consequences of these tools, but we sometimes forget to search the ethical and moral side of the ungoverned digital space we are all part of. What are the moral obligations in producing and using such technologies?
A.A.: Today, brands are the ones with power. Human touch has long been erased from the very nature of the product. Machines and people who don’t question the morality of their creations produce them. The product is now more than what it is meant to be. You can divide people based on whether they are loyal to Apple or Samsung products. People debate about the best one as if they are debating about an existential or religious issue. They have become the crusaders of that product. Can you imagine, people showing off the logo of a brand on the product to claim almost a certain supremacy? The man has become what he consumes. The means have become the ends. Something has gone terribly wrong here. This is not a natural extension of welfare, wellbeing or wellness that many philosophers and economists discussed centuries ago. When we place technology into this debate, we realize that production, use and misuse of technologies fall under the same problem of immorality disguised as ethics. “Techne” overrides human life now. Technology as a tool has already become a modern sacred object. It has become, like science and art, a tool for the greedy to better exploit and deceive. It is not the fault of the tool, but of the toolmaker. Therefore, the toolmaker must collect himself and understand the consequences of his creations in order to know what he is becoming and creating.
Then what must be done in order to prevent becoming what we consume?
A.A.: We’ve got to go back to the fundamentals. Being human obliges morality. Morality is innate. But morality when disunited from the being begins to produce hypocrisy. Here when I refer to “being”, I mean all layers and intertwined circles of life. We need an existential understanding of morality. This means accepting and defending that man is moral by nature, in creation and disposition. Contrary to the modern understanding, we cannot see morality as a conflict management tool, a tactical measure, a cliché. Today social, cultural and political elites constantly interfere and misinterpret codes, laws and norms of morality to their own advantage. Even the most beautiful ideas can be subjected to what we call “power distortion.” So, besides ethically, legally and politically, power needs to be morally checked. But then the question remains: “what morality”? My answer is within existential ethics which unites each and every human being with the understanding “I exist because of you.” All kinds of othering, exclusion, hatred and manipulation can only be eliminated on this basis.
As for the philosophers that have argued on the topics of ethics and morality, how would some of the great thinkers of the past comment on the moral obligations of using social media and other forms of digital communication?
S.B.: If you look at someone like Kant, he would identify “duty” to yourself. One duty to yourself is to develop your talents. The duties to yourself include avoiding negative ones such as harming yourself and positive ones such as developing your talents. So, the way you use technology becomes part of your duty. If your attention span shortens, your tastes are bombarded with irrelevant content then, technology helps to prevent your higher capacities from employing your reason. It shortens your artistic and aesthetic capacities. A hundred years ago, educated people were listening and appreciating classical music while lower classes had their own music, mainly folk. Of course, 20th century sees the explosion of different musical genres and I don’t want to pass any judgements but if you take something like pop music; then of course pop music is something easier to enjoy. By design, you don’t need much education to enjoy it. It is easier to make and disseminate so forth. But classical music, by necessity is more difficult, with very few exceptions to appreciate. It requires an effort. So nowadays, classical music would be seen as something elitist among the educated classes. But it wasn’t supposed to be elitist. It was supposed to be the only music available to the educated classes. Educated classes can of course be corrupted and have been corrupted easily by the influx of easier genres and no one is immune. Therefore, if you ask someone like Kant, he would look at it from a moral perspective. Because he will see this change as dumping yourself down, unless you keep yourself out of it. Therefore, he would perceive it as a violation of a duty to yourself, as it does not contribute to the development of yourself and it would be immoral.
Because you are not improving your talents…
S.B.: Yes, not only improving but also not developing your human potential, which for Kant means developing your rational and artistic potential. But on the other hand, you have someone like John Stuart Mill. For Mill, you have different types of pleasures or different qualities of pleasure related to morality. The higher pleasures can be enjoyed only through higher activities; rational activities like science and art. But of course, in order to enjoy higher pleasures, you need to educate yourself and the state must also have the obligation to educate its citizens.
What is pleasure as Mill refers to?
S.B.: Here, Mill takes as some say an elitist view, that on the evaluation of pleasure, one should not only look at the time that you can enjoy the activity or the frequency and intensity of the pleasure, but also the quality. By quality, he understands the correspondence between this sort of activity and your human capacity. Therefore, the activity that does not engage your intrinsic human capacity, meaning; rationality and capacity for artistic endeavors is not moral. These activities are maybe going to be pleasant momentarily. But it will have lower pleasure in the long run, and it will not be equivalent to an activity that engages with your rationality and artistic capacity. For example, let’s say you like watching reality tv and I say I like documentaries. We are both enjoying and having pleasure in the activity. But Mill says, though the activity must provide a subjective satisfaction to the person, we must also take into consideration the objective features of it; meaning the quality. Therefore, for Mill, he would declare that watching documentaries will give you a much higher pleasure compared to reality television because it contributes to your development, hence will be more moral.
We have spoken about how the digital space has become a place for us to escape, but there is also a growing desire to escape to nature. To go back to the past ways of living and reconnect with what we were…
B.Ü.: Yes, we miss places like the village where life with nature is intact, we miss that lifestyle. But we give a new meaning to those places because we imagine that we will get rid of our obstacles when we are present in nature. People from the village give a very different meaning to those coming from the outside of it. Nature is never important for humans because of simply being nature. Nature does not make sense unless you form a connection with it. The reason you love nature is because you have no responsibilities towards it. A girl living in a village has responsibilities in that environment because she earns her living there; she has to farm the land, graze the animals, prepare wood for the winter… But you are someone who lives in the city; hence you don’t understand the relationship between nature and labor. That’s why you miss nature, because your social responsibilities do not involve it, while the girl in the village yearns for the city.
What moral obligations do humans have towards nature?
S.B.: One problem that rises has to do with damaging creatures, the other with what we leave for future generations and third has to do with pollution of the environment itself. The question about the environment, coming from Rousseau, is that our natural habitat is nature in forests and pawns. This is where we belong, where the purest form of life exists. Civilization is a disease according to Rousseau. We live in civilization outside of nature and we are not getting better, we are getting worse. Therefore, we have to protect our natural habitat because it is the only place where we can be happy. It is a concern for nature for the sake of nature. The building and cities we live is not our home but a perversion as he argues.
But Rousseau did not believe that we can go back to living in organic nature…
S.B.: Yes, he agrees that that we cannot live in nature anymore, but we must protect it and also continue to be in touch with nature as much as we can. Humans shouldn’t be alienated from nature. When I am walking in a forest I should not listen to my iPhone, I should be physically present with nature. Rousseau was aware of the problem of alienation from nature during his times. Because even then, people weren’t happy with it. They were more comfortable in a society and city where civilization existed. Therefore, he knew the more civilization developed, the more we would be alienated. We can’t go back to forests, but for him we have to go back to villages or small communities where we have green spaces and organic food. We should imitate life in nature, not because it is pretty or fashionable but simply because this is what makes us.
A.A.: The nature is a divine one. We have to go back to our origin, our nature. Connected to our Creator and all the creation from angels to plants, animals to human beings that bear no resemblance to us. This back-to-the-roots argument does not imply that we have to get rid of all instruments, aids, and media. But it requires a reevaluation of our presumptions and perceptions on who we really are. Only then morality and humanity that have been destroyed by the deceptive power structures can again become the rule and not the exception.
After the Coronavirus Pandemic, we continued our interview with Bayram Ünal, to understand the challenges that lay ahead of our lives.
We are currently living in very strange times, the whole world seems to have come to a stop. We are facing a global pandemic that has taken thousands of people’s lives and have left us at our homes, afraid of becoming a danger to our loved ones. Therefore I think one of the questions we all have is, what happens when a person is left without physical touch or interactions for long periods of time due to social distancing?
B.Ü.: First of all, we must not forget that this pandemic is a temporary period. Though, we do not know when the rules of social distancing and self-quarantining will end, we can still reflect and try to understand what kind of consequences and results it may bring to society. Now, regarding your question, the terms social distancing and physical touch are very different concepts. Social distancing is a sign of authority and public sphere while physical touch is a sign of trust and personal sphere.
To begin with, social distancing is actually a term used to express the chain of authority in a society. A child’s social distance from his mom is different from his dad, because he places them in different orders of authority. When we communicate with other people, our speech and actions are in fact coded by certain cultural and social features which is an indication of the social distance we apply to people. But when you apply the rules of social distancing due to this pandemic, the relationships we have formed based on authority all equalize, meaning that the distance you have with your loved ones becomes equal to the distance you apply to strangers. Which as a result, will push people to establish and maintain small scaled relationships without being able to expand it.
On the other hand, physical touch in sociological terms, becomes very important when it comes to the formation of societies and relationships because in its essence carries trust. The individual, by touching others creates a trust chain where he/she places each individual, like a child’s touch to his mother differs from his father’s. The lack of touch creates a problem of trust among individuals and may cause the individual to alienate himself further from people he had formed trust relationships with. We should mention that at the moment, when we are in public spheres, we are also not able to touch ourselves unless certain conditions are met in our environment. We try to restrict our physical actions so that we decrease the risk of spreading the virus, but as a result this causes the individual to break the physical connection not just from his environment but also himself, letting him to push himself away from the public spheres and further into isolation.
There could be an illusion that everybody is equal, especially during the times when the pandemic is uncontrolled and strong. However, equality is a political and economic term, it comes from the division of labor that positions people according to a certain class. Therefore, the equality statement we are making upon this pandemic, covers the risk of infection, the rules that must be obeyed, prevention methods etc… Being equal does not mean being the same. We do not share similar experiences to the pandemic as others do. Even the spread of the virus is affected by cultural, traditional, relational factors of the particular society it is in. I can continue to do my work from my home with a computer, however this is not valid for other people. There are millions of people who have to go to work despite the pandemic, who have lost their jobs and who can’t maintain their life with decreasing wages.
Yes, Covid-19 is a collective trauma. However, though the trauma is collective, the experience is personal. At first, an event may seem collective as everyone starts to show the same reflexes, but even similar reflexes belong to people of similar cultures. We cannot feel the trauma in the same way due to the cultural differences and individual experiences we develop towards it. In the beginning, it may seem as if we are standing in solidarity, but an individual can never interpret something collectively. Interpretation is personal, it acts according to the needs and interests of each person. Over time, the individual actions and solutions against the trauma will cause it to lose its collective meaning. For example, if you are Italian then you may no longer be sad for the people dying in China because of the virus. Because you have developed your own individual memory and experience towards the pandemic.
The reason why it is a trauma, is because it damages the collective memory. (Collective memory is the memory of a certain group of people that has been passed down from generation to generation to guide an individual) It can be the way of thinking, walking, worshipping etc. As the pandemic has collectively brought new rules and conditions to all aspects of our lives, over time the individual interpretation towards the event increases, causing the old social structure to break and change. A new way of life, new relationships, new identities may be created, increasingly legitimizing individuality. Hence, our collective memory may change…what has been accepted before, may be history today.
After this pandemic ends, what sort of changes do you think will occur in our social lives and in the way we form relationships?
Due to Covid-19, most of us who are afraid of the virus will choose not to form or continue relationships with people who are present in crowds, have to be around strangers, go to work in crowded places… Because they will be considered as possible carriers of the virus, hence the way we act around them may change. Social clusters will become narrower as we restrict and stay away from people who may be a risk to our health that may further lead to the dissolution and isolation of the individual from society.
Another topic of discussion that has come to light again due to pandemic is permanent unemployment. Unemployment is an important factor for the capitalist system to continue functioning. Constant availability of labor, low wages, and a competitive environment all depend on the existence of unemployment. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic I believe the lower classes will be suppressed, causing inequality among people to increase further. Governments must continue to work to stabilize their economies and provide financial help to those who are in need.
What changes do you observe in the youth amid Covid-19?
Covid-19 accelerated the separation of young people from society and made it legitimate. While the past generations had rejected information technologies, now everyone has to establish their relationships on these platforms. The new generations had understood the concept of social distancing and were already applying it by forming their relations in the virtual space. Today a child is more distant and gives less importance to the physical relationships it develops in its surroundings, compared to how the past generations had acted. Social distancing traditionally is present in the physical space. However, the emergence of the virtual/digital changed this concept as it has become a space where the youth forms new identities, gains knowledge and meets each other. Therefore, the youth’s understanding of social distancing breaks the traditional definition.
As I had mentioned before, the pandemic also accelerated the diminish of frame of references and collective memory. In other words, some of the activities that are performed by the society, similar to rituals, traditions, practices may lose their value due to hygienic concerns, which will cause the public spheres to increasingly shrink while personal spaces become more frequent and tighter. While each individual tries to satisfy its own interests, it will also interfere or eliminate the opponent’s space, what we call public sphere will disappear. I am sure that Covid-19 will not leave a collective effect. On the contrary, it will reach a point where individual interests are at the forefront, where a loss of the self is experienced as we continue to isolate. The loss of self will create an understanding that the individual is correct, complete and absolute. In an environment where values are diminishing, the individual loses his own self and adapts the right and wrong accordingly. This outcome is not just attributed to the youth but also to other generations as well.
Atilla Altınşaçan is a Professor of Political Science. He received his PhD from The Johns Hopkins University on global theory and history. His research fields include; political ethics, cultural studies and music.
Bayram Ünal is a Professor of Sociology. He received his PhD in State University of New York in Binghamton and orld systems, historical sociology, labor, migration, inequality and gender.
Sandy Berkovski is a Professor of Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics and Ethics. He received his PhD in Oxford University and his research interests straddle the issues in ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of science, and metaphysics.
Aybüke Barkçin is an art director, photographer, curator and writer that looks at fashion through the lens of political and societal dynamics. She completed her master’s in Creative Direction in Polimoda and has a background in International Relations and Graphic Design.