We’re in the golden age of the self. So why does it feel like we’re barely here?
Every age has a grand, historic project. Ours is this: being yourself.
This is Youtopia; and you are the reason it exists.
Our systems and machines; social, political, economic; iPhones, apps, markets, brands, democracies, big-box stores. All these have a purpose and a reason. And that is to allow you to be yourself.
What could be nobler than that?
After all. If you are not yourself, who are you? You must be a sham; a lie; an impostor. Who can trust you? Who can respect you? Who will love you? Who should want you? No one.
And so you and I; we are not just true believers in the age of the self. We are also diligent workers in the great project. We are middle managers of individuality; we are front-line assemblers pulling endless shifts in what you might call self-work. The gruelling, relentless, ceaseless work of creating ourselves. We winnow our tastes to micro-genres. We polish our avatars to perfection. We take our selfies, posing just so. We brandish our designers. We groom and primp and advertise the selves we’ve created. We are our own greatest creations.
Here we are. True believers; hard workers; grasping for our piece of the pie of meaning; by toiling incessantly, relentlessly, gruellingly at being ourselves. We struggle, carefully, to make it all seem casual and carefree; instead of what it truly is: calculated, controlled, optimized. If leisure feels like work so often, perhaps that’s because it is: self-work.
What are you doing? I’m selfing. I’m creating a self that’s all my own. We differentiate ourselves as if we were products. We catalog ourselves as if we were warehouses. We store ourselves as if we were assets. We use ourselves as if we were resources. We polish ourselves as if we were objects. We peddle ourselves as if we were dealmakers. We “love” ourselves as if we were admirers.
Ah. But it is a tricky business; being yourself. Is that all there is to it? Why, then, we so often feel—and are so often seen to be—fake, artificial, inauthentic, counterfeit? Why doesn’t the furious pursuit of being ourselves seem to win us love, esteem, respect…meaning, purpose, passion we so earnestly desire?
What went wrong in Youtopia?
We answer the questions. We tick the boxes. We create the profiles. We wield the products.
The machines calculate. The screens glow. The algorithms pulse.
To be unique; to be different; to be distinctive. We’re told that’s what it means to be ourselves. And it’s as simple as this. Like. Favorite. Choose. Buy. Have. Use.
The Youtopian dream.
Do you wear Louboutins? I wear Prada. I’m myself. What’s your rating? Mine is higher. I’m myself. I use formulation 8, product range 34. You don’t, do you? I’m myself. Did you choose answer B for profile question 16? I chose answer C. I’m myself. I’m not you. I like sub-genre 47, category 17. I’m me.
Tap, click, swipe. Be unique, different, distinctive. Being yourself. It’s that easy. The creation of the self as shopping. Painless. Disposable. And perhaps just as meaningless.
We live in bubbles that we think “make” us ourselves. Our great calculators recommend lists of books, films, songs; tailored just for us. Our stores are packed full with ten thousand flavors of every trinket. Our screens glow with the light of a million would-be friends, lovers, acquaintances. The self, we think, is simply what we choose amidst this cornucopia.
This is the age of you. The perfect, gleaming you.
It is the perfect seduction. What could be more seductive than thinking that the act of being yourself is no more difficult than simply selecting what you like, want, desire…because you believe that will make you liked, wanted desired? What could be more tempting than believing that all one has to do to be one’s self is to like, want, choose a different set of products, properties, features, objects?
Youtopia is the cheap, easy illusion of conquest over the self. It lets us create our “selves” the same way that one might customize one’s fast food pizzas. Extra cheese here; jalapenos, there; onions on the side. No two ever quite alike. Each different. Each it’s own unique, umistakeable…self.
To be distinctive, unique, special, different. It’s never been easier. Or at least to think you are. And then to think that is all that being one’s self is.
And so. Here we are. True, fist-pumping believers in Youtopia. Proud, weary workers in the Youtopian project. And endlessly toiling away at self-work; we do not often stop to ask the uncomfortable question. Wait. Are we any truly being ourselves—or are we merely pimping and peddling selves?
I click, therefore I am. We have defined the self down. To performance. To execution. To acquisition. To consummation. Of the perfect score, life, partner, relationship, career, summer home, wardrobe, garage. And so we have reduced it. To insignificance; to futility; to meaninglessness. And that is why our lives so often feel meaningless. We have oversimplified the difficult, uncertain business of being yourself to a set of like and dislikes; that we may assemble and disassemble as easily as prefabricated furniture.
Youtopia is a lie.
A self is not a profile. A self is not an identity. A self is not a personality. The self is not a browser history, a job title, a collection of designer stuff slightly different than the one in the next apartment. The self is not an object, a product, a brand, a product, an integer, a calculation.
The self is none of these things. These are fractured reflections in broken mirrors. Not of beings; but of machines.
Like. Favorite. Choose. Buy. Have. Use. If we believe that is all there is to individuality, then we have committed the great crime that we fear most. We have failed to become ourselves.
We are clones. We think, proudly, that we are unique; but we are simply the same set of answers to OKCupid questions that another million people think make them unique. Busy pretending to be a set of choices, attributes, features, objects—those desired most by the most—we do not become who we truly are.
We wonder: I’m working so hard at being myself. Why isn’t it working?! Why don’t I have the career, lover, relationship, friends, riches I want? Why is it that the harder I work at being myself, the emptier and more useless and more worthless I feel? Because we have not become ourselves at all; we have merely chosen identities; selected personas; arranged our desires—according to what we think is desired most. And so we have failed the great challenge of selfhood entirely.
The machines. The filters. The processors. The calculators. The memory banks.
What do they do? They filter. They process. They compute. And so they reduce. Us. To bits. To surety, predictability, certainty, control. That is their job.
What does it mean to truly be one’s self?
To be more fully alive.
The self is not merely chosen. It is created. Through wonder and beauty; suffering and loss; through heartbreak and grief; exultation and consolation; by roaring back at the whirlwind, and stepping off the edge of the abyss. Not merely by clicking, tapping, swiping; liking, favoriting, choosing; buying, having, using. But by dreaming, loving, forgiving, daring, exploring, suffering, knowing, defying, rebelling.
We must unveil, act by difficult act, selves that mean something; which are more than nothing; because they are not just empty, disposable choices; they are truths we have lived, and learned, and have become a part of us.
The screen glows. You’re a profile. The machines calculate. You’re a recommendation. The cameras zoom. You’re a trace. The algorithms compute. You’re an integer. The databanks store. You’re a memory.
Tap. Click. Whir. Swipe.
Like. Favorite. Choose. Buy. Have. Use.
You’re what you want. You’re what you desire. You’re what you have. You’re what you store. You’re what you sell. You’re what you’re sold.
You are not a profile. You are not a history. You are not an attribute. You are not a ghost. You are not code. You are not a memory. You are not a download. You are not a program.
To all those, what you are is this. You are an error. You are a mistake. You are a violation. You are a breach. You are a rebellion. You are danger. You are disequilibrium. You are a flaw. You are imperfection.
And so what you truly are is this.
You are a revolution. You are impossible. You are life.
Like. Favorite. Choose. Buy. Have. Use.
You are what the machine will never be. Not just real. But alive.
This is mankind’s greatest era. The age of self. Where we are so busy choosing selves we have forgotten to be ourselves. We are egos without minds; limbs without bodies; desires without hearts. That is why life in Youtopia is suffocating us with futility.
Youtopia is a lie.