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Defining the Self Through Parasocial Relationships

By Edited Aug 28, 2015 1 2

Relationships and Resources

An Origin of Man's Needs

A person engages in relationships to meet physical and spiritual needs, as well as to better create an identity for the self. These are also reasons people engage in parasocial relationships. Parasocial relationships are one-sided interpersonal relationships that are made possible by technological mediation. These types of bonds allow for a projection of identity onto partners who are not engaged in the relationship, hence the one-sided nature of these relationships. For most people, such relationships take the form of emotional attachment to celebrities, or even attachment to fictional characters portrayed by celebrities. Advances in technology increasingly create the possibility of parasocial bonds that are not just mediated by technology, as in the case of reading about a celebrity’s personal life, but that exist with the technology itself. This is especially the case with technology that emulates human intelligence or is otherwise personified. However, the meaning must still be created and contextualized by human authors, or as Thomas Streeter wrote, “a new gadget has to be given social meaning.”[3934]

Social relationships have historically helped humans survive and thrive as a practical concern by gathering and sharing resources. Just as no person is an island unto him/herself, no person is able to live without some aid from others. Emotions are feedback loops that reinforce this need for both sociability and resources, with negative emotions resulting from not gaining enough external life-giving resources.[3935] These resources contribute to human consciousness in a direct way, as long-term memory requires new proteins to expand, but short-term memory does not.[3936] If a person were a goldfish with no memory and an eternally-repeating present moment, an extension of the self and abstracted relationships would not be necessary or desired. Implicit memory reinforces skills and reflexes through synaptic consolidation, but explicit memory, which is in charge of human consciousness, aids recollection in humans so that they seek to actively further life and minimize a waste of resources.[3936] The potential to understand death as a possible future, or to perceive of a future at all, is what gives humankind the power of imagination.

 

Extending the Self With Technology

Questions of Authorship

Imagination, coupled with the desire to minimize risk and maximize reward, has encouraged humankind to create technologies that serve to distance itself from life-threatening situations. Technology, then, is an extended body for humankind’s ideas,[3937] a safe means of transportation to new intellectual arenas without fear of harm to a corporeal form. But extending the self into forms that are not human bodies and/or creating devices that in some way mimic human traits are both potential ways to create some confusion about the origins of technologically-mediated minds. Is the technology acting on its own agency and sentience? Or does it just serve as a conduit for human sentience? Sometimes, it is clear what the origin of the idea or communication is; when a person answers his/her voicemail, he/she doesn’t think the phone has crafted the message. Quite the opposite, an ingrained technology may be so invisible that a person does not even consciously consider the mediation of the communication. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The content blinds us to the form.”[3938] However, an answering machine potentially obscures the origins of a message. If someone doesn’t leave a name and number, the origin of the message may be unknown.

In a similar way, mediated technologies like books or television obscure the original author of the message. In a narrative format, this is done purposely to create a suspension of disbelief in the audience that allows it to relate directly to fictional characters rather than the original author. One of the most enduring examples of narrative transportation into perceiving characters as real are those that appear in religious texts such as the Christian Bible. For many people, this transportation is so complete as to grant agency to characters from these texts, fully believing that the character of God is the actual author of the text. Like the example of the answering machine, the technology of the book obscures the original author, making it unclear if it was God or human.

Human Agency

Bringing the Fire of Choice to Man

In the modern world, consumers understand that all communications ultimately have a human origin, even if technology obscures that origin. As Kevin Kelly writes, advances in technology are the expressions of personal decisions made by humans, with the technology acting on personal agency. This lack of real agency is true for characters in stories as well. All characters are the results of human endeavor. But the potential for creating a sentient technology granted with its own agency is a popular subject for fictional narratives. An example of this is in the viral video/fictional TED talk for the movie Prometheus. In it, technocratic CEO Peter Weyland (actor Guy Pearce) states that “We...can create cybernetic individuals...who will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion...We are the gods now.” The character’s assumption is that creating a sentient artificial life would elevate humankind in relation to the new consciousness. But if God or the gods are just characters whose agency is determined by human authors, then becoming God or gods is tantamount to becoming characters who are no longer in control of their own destinies.

However, the more popular notion among humanity for achieving godhood is not a loss of agency, but an acquisition of power. As Henry Miller wrote in The Colossus of Maroussi, “If men cease to believe that they will one day become gods, then they will surely become worms.” Other stories conflate the same point with stark literalness, as when the protagonist Leto Atreides II, in pursuit of power, simultaneously becomes both sandworm and God Emperor in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. All of these stories have in common a human author’s offered opinion on the meaning of self and identity, and these opinions are fictionally reinforced by the agency granted to the characters espousing “their” viewpoints, not the author’s. The technology of the book or movie creates a gap between the author’s real-world self and his or her ideas, and this gap allows for a self-examination that is only possible through media.[3939] The audience considers the author’s voice in constructing the message, but also examines the ideas of the text separate from their origin (this is of course even easier to do if the author’s real identity is obscured or distorted). In this way, assuming abstracted points of view and ideas through mediated sources is an exercise in continually constructing and defining a personality for the self.# This potentially leads to solipsism and the idea that people themselves are not inherently interesting, but relevant only for what ideas those people express.

Leto Atreides III James McAvoy

What Happens When Our Ideas Gain Their Own Skin?

If people are valued because of their ideas and opinions, and not as defined by their corporeal form, then it is not that much of a leap to grant agency to other forms that can prove sentience. Which is where we will continue in the next part of this examination of parasocial relationships. Would you like to know more?

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Comments

Sep 4, 2012 11:15am
Marlando
Hi--Loved the article and where you're going with it--You certainly put a lot of work and thought in the piece, something I have much respect for and applaud. You certainly have my vote! 5 stars!
Sep 4, 2012 12:46pm
evanpowers
Thanks for the positive feedback! I definitely have a lot of interest in writing about parasocial relationships and technological mediation, and I plan to write some more about those subjects in the future.
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Bibliography

  1. Streeter, T. The net effect: Romanticisim, capitalism, and the internet.. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
  2. Miron, D. "Emotion and cognition in entertainment.." Psychology of entertainment.. (2006): 343-364.
  3. Carr, N. The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains.. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
  4. Kelly, K. What technology wants. New York: Penguin, 2010.
  5. McLuhan, M. Understanding media: The extensions of man.. New York: Signet, 1964.
  6. Peters, K.; Seier, A. "Home dance: Mediacy and aesthetics of the self on youtube." The YouTube Reader.. (2009): 187-203.

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