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Saturated Self of Modern Life

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"A century ago, many people lived their entire lives in small communities of familiar and like-minded people. Long distances were a real barrier between people, and one's cast of 'significant others' stayed relatively stable throughout a lifespan. In the late 20th century, however, we are the beneficiaries (and sometimes the victims) of a confluence of technologies that has dramatically altered the cultural landscape. The new technologies of the early 20th century--telephone, automobiles, radios, electric lights--that began the transformation of modern life now seem like unremarkable necessities. But with each of these advances, the physical world in effect shrank while the individual's experience of the cultural and social world expanded and grew more complex.

"In the past three or four decades, television has provided a source of enormous social stimulation at very low cost, air transportation can now bring together two people from opposite points of the globe in little more than 24 hours; personal computers, microchips, satellite transmitters, copy machines and faxes have set a vast, humming grid of connections upon the entire world. Through these technologies, we are now, whether directly or indirectly, significantly connected to vastly more people, of more varied ways of life, spread over broader geographical domains than could scarcely be imagined in any other historical time. At a social level, we have become embedded in a multiplicity of relationships. We are aware of the needs of more people, empathize with a greater number of tribulations, join more causes, confront more potential threats and enemies, sustain more social obligations, experience more longings and disappointments, and are tempted by more varied and tantalizing possibilities than ever before.

"At another level, we ingest myriad bits of others' being--values, attitudes, opinions, life-styles, personalities--synthesizing and incorporating them into our own definition of self. As we blend the qualities we find in others with our own potentialities, we find it increasingly difficult to look inward to discover what we desire and believe. We have gathered so many bits (or bytes) of being to create ourselves that the pieces no longer mix well together, perhaps even contradict each other. To look inward, then, is to risk seeing a maelstrom of partial beings in conflict. It is, for example, to locate a realist coexisting with a romanticist, a lover of tradition mixing with a revolutionary, an advocate of commitment at odds with a free adventurer. This is the experience of the world and the self that I call 'social saturation.'

"For each new investment in a cause, an ideal or a person, a host of inner voices stands ready to belittle our latest interest, laugh derisively at the newest waste of time, prick our vanity for previous failed investments, undermine our confidence. As every new choice invites a sea of mixed opinions and speculations, both from outside ourselves and from the multiple voices we have already collected within ourselves, the possibility of rational choice fades away. When one can see the situation in multiple ways, how is one to discern the 'best' or the 'right' way?

"At the most subtle level, these changes in social patterns bring about a profound shift in our conception of ourselves and others. Our traditional belief in ourselves as singular, autonomous individuals gives way. Where in the interior lies the bedrock self? Are not all the fragments of identity the residues of relationships, and aren't we undergoing continuous transformation as we move from one relationship to another? Indeed, in postmodern times, the reality of the single individual, possessing his/her own values, emotions, reasoning capacities, intentions and the like, becomes implausible. The individual as the center of cultural concern is slowly being replaced by a consciousness of connection. We find our existence not separately from our relationships, but within them." "The Saturated Family," Kenneth J. Gergen, Networker, Sept/Oct 1991, p. 28.

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Page updated 8/5/01