Carl Trueman’s award-winning 2020 book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and the more concise 2022 version Strange New World both offer a compelling philosophical genealogy of modern man. For anyone wanting to better understand contemporary selfhood, Trueman is one of the most incisive guides, tracing the understanding of what it means to be a person through a three-stage trajectory: first, the self was psychologized; then, psychology was sexualized; then, sex was politicized. This framework powerfully shows how we’ve become confused over identity, sexuality, politics, and what we consider constitutive of a human person today.
Yet I suggest adding a fourth adjective to Trueman’s psychologized, sexualized, politicized trifecta to account for the technological impacts on contemporary man: digitized. Trueman nods in this direction when he addresses how technologies, habits, and conditions of living create “a world in which it is increasingly easy to imagine that reality is something we can manipulate according to our own wills and desires, and not something that we necessarily conform ourselves to or passively accept.”
But I think the effects of technology on the self are so transformative that they warrant a separate category of their own. Hence the digitized self, when combined with the other three adjectives, more fully describes this emerging age of “meta-man,” with which I intend a double meaning. First, I use meta in the sense that man increasingly lives life in some form of augmented or virtual reality—perpetually logged on, surrounded by the internet of things (objects with software that connects to the internet and shares data), invaded by the internet of bodies (wearable or implanted data-gathering technologies like Apple Watches), with reality mediated through screen and device. As Kyle Chayka puts it in The New Yorker, “We Already Live in Facebook’s Metaverse.”
Second, I use meta in the sense of the original Greek word, meaning after or beyond. The era of after-man is upon us as the digital revolution consumes nearly everything in its path, including our basic understanding of the world. As reality is further bifurcated into bytes, parsed into pixels, dissected into digits, consider the words of the philosopher Byung-Chul Han from his newly released book, Non-Things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld: “digitalization de-reifies and disembodies the world,” which leads us toward a “post-human age in which human life will be a pure exchange of information. . . . [H]umans will abolish themselves in order to posit themselves as the absolute.”
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Meta-Man’s Digitized Ecosystem
We’ve long known that technology has the power to shape how we understand basic reality. Plato warned about writing’s effects on memory; Thoreau warned about the telegraph’s effects on local community. All technologies—from a plow to a pencil, from a calculator to a computer—affect how we think about ourselves and the world around us. This is the essence of Marshall McLuhan’s maxim that the medium is the message.
McLuhan’s protégé Neil Postman extended the argument further: the medium is the metaphor. Technology doesn’t just send a message; it shapes the horizon of what seems possible. Charles Taylor’s term for this is “the social imaginary.” Postman explains in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.”
The technologies of the digital age especially function in this way, easily becoming reality-mediating mechanisms. And they do so in ways that technologies like telegraphs, excavators, or electric toasters cannot. You are not immersed in your toaster in the same way you can be immersed in an online world or social media platform—unless, perhaps, you are a piece of toast.
Samuel James summarizes this well when he writes, “the Internet [is not] a singular tool or hobby. . . . [I]t is . . . an immersive epistemological habitat in which hundreds of millions of people have regular, active membership. The Internet has transformed the way humans read, learn, communicate, labor, shop, recreate, and even ‘worship.’ No other technology is as disruptive to traditional forms of human activity.” This digitizes the world, making it seem controllable, manipulable, subject to one’s own will—all of which undercuts traditional ways of knowing and being at the level of identity and community.
Meta-Man’s Digitized Identity
This digital ecosystem in which we are ensconced is an accelerant and nudge toward new understandings of human identity as something to tweak, tailor, and customize in ways previously unimaginable. The authors of the new book Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age call these “fine-grained identities,” which are “intricate individual mixes of attributes, the result of careful and ongoing discovery.” Countless apps, virtual reality spaces, and orienting to the world via screens cultivate digitized identity through endless customizations of one’s self.
Customizing online personae reinforces the cultural messaging of expressive individualism that Trueman details. When the body’s physical characteristics are less relevant to everyday living—when we hardly ever swing a hammer or turn a wrench, when we hardly ever thread the needle or butcher an animal—the limits of human embodiment and identity seem technologically transcendable.
When the self is digitized in this way, we become stuck on a perpetual treadmill in our search for self-discovery—trapped in a loop of fragmentation and self-creation with no way of escape. We cannot escape the narcissistic search for the true self. One is always en route to something, but never seems to arrive. Always becoming, never being.
Meta-Man’s Digitized Community
Similar fragmentation has taken place in our social realms. Innumerable affinity groups and micro-communities attempt to meet our needs for belonging and connection. The ability to connect online arrives at a time when fewer people experience stable family life, allowing digital community to fill the void. This reinforces Mary Eberstadt’s point in Primal Screams that in our post–Sexual Revolution atmosphere of unprecedented family atomization, dispersion, and estrangement, many people find figurative families to do what literal ones of earlier times did by default. It’s now common for people to find what they think of as their family members on the internet, while their relationships with their actual families wither.
This ongoing search for digital connection splinters traditional forms of community and family life, and is a clear example of how, in Jon Askonas’s words from his much-discussed recent essay, “the digital era has ushered in a further phase of the technological destruction of tradition.” Digitized community deconstructs traditional family and communal structures as younger generations find their communities online and in-person skills continue to atrophy. Then, Askonas warns, “if the institutions that shepherd traditions aren’t regenerated, and if no one adopts their practices, traditions will fade into nothingness.” The fading of familial and in-person connection is another manifestation of digital selfhood, and is a reminder that even if we know all the right arguments about the value of strong familial ties and communal institutions, without habits and practices to sustain and feed them, they will seem unintelligible and crumble as the digital revolution rolls on. Which makes it even more necessary to strengthen our embodied life together.
From Excarnate to Incarnate
Meta-man’s digitized ecosystem, identity, and community might sound authentic to Gen Zers and other digital natives, yet they disintegrate and atomize people, as rising rates of anxiety and depression suggest. They also encourage “excarnation,” that is, disembodiment, a rejection of the limitations of bodily life, and a frenetic ongoing search for one’s true self. The sense of identity and community that individuals carefully curate isn’t strong enough to hold together, which leaves people ultimately alone—as isolated as the bytes and pixels, the 1s and 0s of binary code, that lie behind digital technology.
There is a better way found in the givenness of human identity. At our birth, our name is given, our place is given, our family is given, our community is given. Many of the most basic categories for self-understanding—things like bodies, families, nations, communities—are granted to us, unchosen. That is, if we are willing to dethrone the patterns of autonomous choice instantiated in the digital world where only self-chosen communities and identities are seen as authentic.
So perhaps it’s time to choose not to choose our identities and communities and instead receive them. We might consider devoting attention to relationships in our lives that are unchosen: our family, neighbors, church members, co-workers. Fostering relationships with those who are in our lives not by our choice, but by necessity or circumstance, recalls relations that are given to us. These ties are easily overshadowed if we only spend time in the tailored relationships of our own choosing.
So too, increasing engagement with the physical environment grounds us in real time and space. Submitting to the hard edges of reality and the in-built parameters of human embodiment fosters humility. We encounter the limits of bodily life in the clash of shovel with dirt, the heft of brick and mortar, the kneading of dough into bread. These activities bring freedom, satisfaction, and quiet to the soul that we lack in our frenetic digitized age.
While the digitized promises of meta-man may entice us, they are ultimately false promises based on a rejection of fundamental aspects of human embodiment. There is an integrated wholeness to man that requires both resting in the givenness of human identity and actively engaging with the world. Wendell Berry’s recent words are apt in closing: “no one can be whole alone; no one can be free alone. To be whole and free is to be at home in a place and in a community where one knows and is known.”