Modern life as a performance
Enabled by the technologies of our time, life today has become a performance, subjected to the public gaze, enacted in relation to a virtual “other.” In this present — and ever-expanding — dispensation, the modern individual emerges as the producer, director, cinematographer and actor of their own lives.
Of course, people have been “performing” their roles in society since time immemorial. As the sociologist Erving Goffman noted, when an individual enters the presence of others, he “will have to act so that he intentionally or unintentionally expresses himself, and the others will in turn have to be impressed in some way by him.”
This “presentation of the self,” however, has expanded dramatically in the past years. Whereas before, people only “performed” themselves when they were in public, individuals today are perpetually visible to the virtual public through social media and smartphones. There is always an “audience” that one can instantly reach through tweets, posts and even “live” videos.
Consider, for instance, the way people travel. In the past, people would take photos of their trips and share them with friends through photo albums and picture frames. Today, however, the traveler can instantly share their photos to everyone. The entire act of traveling is photographed and “performed” — from getting a boarding pass to arriving home, shaping people’s itineraries. As one travel agent lamented to me, I hope half-jokingly, people no longer travel so that they can see the world, but so that the world can see them.
Consider, secondly, the way people conduct ceremonies, like weddings. In the past, people have always dressed for these occasions, but today, everything must be photographically and cinematographically stunning — from the flower girl’s movements to the musicians’ falsetto; from the garden venue to the dresses and faces that can be scrutinized in high resolution. Fully documented, (same-day-)edited and rapidly shared, weddings today are as much a production as they are a ceremony.
Finally, consider the mundanities of life previously hidden from public view, but are now available for sharing. From taking “action shots” of one’s workout to making “screenshots” of one’s private conversations, from posting videos of our pets to tweeting about our taxi drivers’ love lives, all of these are realities of our time, and so are people’s “press releases” in times of momentous occasions, whether personal, national or global.
Needless to say, the performativity of life has numerous implications in our society. Let me just identify a few:
First, this is changing the way we engage with the world. If our lives are performances, we may end up spending the time treating the world as a stage instead of experiencing it more fully. We may end up being overly concerned about the appearance rather than the substance, both of ourselves and of others.
Secondly, it is (over)exposing people’s lives. Like celebrities whose every move is documented, individuals today have successfully chronicled their innermost thoughts and most intimate moments without necessarily reflecting on their ramifications. As surveillance systems become more sophisticated, this raises the possibility, if not the reality, that states and tech giants alike now know more about us than we do, thanks in part to our performed lives. The consequences of an error — or a scandal — is multiplied and rendered indelible.
Thirdly, it engenders the need for external validation, diminishing our ability to validate ourselves. If “likes” and “shares” are the measure of the value of our ideas, achievements and even physical appearances, then we render ourselves vulnerable to disappointment. Ditto if a photograph is our means to affirm our experience of a beautiful moment. Doubtless, all of this is contributing to the feelings of self-doubt and depression that many are experiencing today.
As the technologies of self-presentation become even more sophisticated, so should efforts to reflect on and respond to the problematics they raise. I would like to think that the way we present ourselves, whether offline or online, remains a matter of choice. But if life has indeed become a performance, then perhaps the least we can do is to take a break — or take a bow.
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