An Eclectic Human
A newsletter about design, community, and being a human

1.24 Distributed self

Since last week’s ideas about how we use mental models to understand others, I’ve done some more reading into the subject. I came across an interesting essay (also on Ribbonfarm) called “The Essence of Peopling”. There, Sarah Perry discusses a way of viewing the self that is different from traditional modern Western views. Rather than being a single self-contained entity residing in the mind of one person, it is distributed among a society.

Each person’s self is spread out among many people, simulated in all their brains at varying levels of granularity. And each person has a different “self” for each one of the people he knows, and a different self for every social context. A teenager has a very different way of behaving, speaking and thinking around his friends from the way he behaves, speaks, and thinks around his grandparents. The self at work is different from the self at home with close friends, or in bed with a spouse. And none of these are the “true self”—rather, the self exists in all these, and in the transitions between them.

That is, your “self” is the collection of all your mental models of others’ mental models of you, a recursive compilation of what you perceive that others perceive of you. And the fact that you act differently around different people does not make you insincere. Rather, those different facets are integral to this distributed concept of self.

The reason this idea intrigues me is because of the next step Sarah takes in describing “peopling” and the effect that community ritual can have on sense of self:

Ritual allows for the communication of information that language can’t convey—hard-to-fake costly signals of commitment, dependability, harmoniousness, and cooperative intent. Most pre-modern human environments would have provided a constant flow of social information in the form of ritual as well as language. If humans are somehow calibrated to expect a constant flow of social information, then the sparseness of ritual and social participation in modern environments might trigger a cascade of rumination. On the other hand, experiencing a great deal of positive (even if quite mundane) social information might be protective against some of the modern forms of social pain that torture the meaning-heavy modern self.

Modern social and architectural traditions often discourage this type of ritual and in turn may have adverse effects on identity. For example,

Perhaps many of us who identify as introverts are just especially sensitive to the ugliness and awkwardness of modern built and social environments. We might be very happy with a quiet, pleasant, constant flow of positive social information (especially if plenty of privacy were still available).

I have yet to consider all the ramifications, but this seems reasonable to me. Being introverted is less about the quantity of social interaction and more about the type of interaction that energizes or depletes me.

Sarah goes into a lot more depth in her essay than I can cover here. Go for the Bedknobs and Broomsticks reference (who else loves that movie?) and stay for the great ideas.

• • •

What’s a social ritual you wish we would all adopt?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

—Steve

Later article
2.01 A new volume