Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

What Happens When the Experience of Celebrity Becomes Universal?

Chris Hayes, writing in the New Yorker:

But as the critic Leo Braudy notes, in his 1987 study, “The Frenzy of Renown,” “As each new medium of fame appears, the human image it conveys is intensified and the number of individuals celebrated expands.” Industrial technology — newspapers and telegraphs, followed by radio, film, and TV — created an ever-larger category of people who might be known by millions the world over: politicians, film stars, singers, authors. This category was orders of magnitude larger than it had been in the pre-industrial age, but still a nearly infinitesimal portion of the population at large.

All that has changed in the past decade. In the same way that electricity went from a luxury enjoyed by the American élite to something just about everyone had, so, too, has fame, or at least being known by strangers, gone from a novelty to a core human experience. The Western intellectual tradition spent millennia maintaining a conceptual boundary between public and private — embedding it in law and politics, norms and etiquette, theorizing and reinscribing it. With the help of a few tech firms, we basically tore it down in about a decade.

As I read this, I was reminded of the concept of the digital garden, which I linked to in June. In essence, the digital garden requires us to assume the best in each other, regardless of how beautiful or incomplete our “garden” may seem. But Hayes’ piece reflects on the reverse of that: we are all famous on the internet and, so, are treated with the same scrutiny that used to be reserved for a select few.

I thought this was wise, too:

The ability to surveil was, for years, almost exclusively the province of governments. […]

Well, guess what? We have now all been granted a power once reserved for totalitarian governments. A not particularly industrious fourteen-year-old can learn more about a person in a shorter amount of time than a team of K.G.B. agents could have done sixty years ago. […]

In retrospect, it shocks me that new accounts on most social media networks are set to public by default. Pew Research says that, as of July 2019, only 13% of Americans have private Twitter accounts. I wonder how many people would have made theirs public if the default was different, or if there were a free and unforced choice when registering.