Technologies of the Self – part one

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Essay on institutions, practices, and socialisation

By David Álvarez *


Foucault listed the “technologies of the self” as a subcategory of the knowledge that human beings created about themselves. A knowledge implies not only learning and knowing things about ‘the self’, it also includes modifying them by the acquisition of certain abilities and attitudes. Foucault goes back to the first two centuries BC, when Graeco-Roman philosophy (and much later Christian spirituality) posited the knowledge of the self as a fundamental principle. Plato said that “the principal activity in the care of oneself” [i] is the concern for the soul. And with this purpose in mind, one needs to know the soul through the contemplation of its “divine reflection”.

To accomplish this contemplation, Foucault sets out a classification of several “techniques”: letter writing, the examination of conscience, askesis (a progressive consideration of the self), the interpretation of dreams. With regards to the first technique, this consists in taking “notes on oneself to be reread, writing treatises and letters to friends to help them, and keeping notebooks to reactivate for oneself the truths one needs”.[ii]

If we substitute the parchments and the manuscripts with the content management systems (CMS), it seems to me that these exercises are not too distant from today’s common practices of the social network systems (SNS), where we verbalise our daily life and share it within our social net. It’s surprising that Foucault talked also about the idea of giving attention to “moods”, a tool that many SNS are including by default.

Moreover, it should be pointed out that the Greek philosophers gave much emphasis to everyday living. Foucault describes “…a new experience of self. […] when introspection becomes more and more detailed. A relation developed between writing and vigilance. Attention was paid to nuances of life, mood, and reading, and the experience of oneself was intensified and widened by virtue of this act of writing”.[iii]

Is not the thread of posts that we load on our accounts, according to each case, a succession of “nuances of life”? We develop a constant “vigilance” over our life, which we then voluntarily give to others to know (we confess), to every person in our social circle (be it near or far away). Besides, the usual focus in social networks is not (exclusively) on the highlights of one’s life (did we made our dream come true? Did we fall in love?). We also write down little anecdotes every single day, little stories about ourselves for others to read. These little “nuances of life” (frequently related to the use we make of our leisure time) give us a social dimension: for example, those who take a picture of a cucumber gin tonic in a restaurant with square plates and use Instagram filters; or those who take a selfie while watching a Madrid-Barcelona match at the Bernabéu stadium; or those who send a tweet from a big indie festival in the peak moment of the nth alternative 90s band who just reformed for the occasion, etc, etc.

More than a social dimension, I would dare say a socio-economic one. Because this trivial data, consciously or unconsciously, will classify us not only in a determined social profile but also inside one or more consumer groups (after all, we live in a consumer society). As a matter of fact, I believe there is a tendency to show more interest (reflected in the number of ‘likes’) towards these little ‘nuances’ related to the consumption of leisure time than there is in political debates (by which I mean in-depth analysis) or reports on social issues, or other more profound meditations. The same is true of the degree of interest in light-hearted comments and banal pictures of consumer products. I did not venture in a quantitative study of this phenomenon, I simply observed what happened in my social circle on Facebook.

In the end, we create a “narrative” of our lives. In fact, Facebook gathers all this data and offers to its users a sort of askesis (progressive consideration of the self). With this service, you can see the “movie of your life” obtained through a compilation of the “best moments” in your timeline.[iv] In this way you can “gain access to memory” thanks to the pictures and posts on your account, and analyse your history and the progress of your self through what Facebook considers your highlights (or to put it more accurately, what your net of social contacts validated and appreciated with their ‘likes’).

Here is a personal anecdote: I became aware of Facebook in 2008, thanks to someone I knew who worked in Brussels for the European Commission. This person described it to me as essentially a tool to keep in touch with his work colleagues, “even though some people also use it as a form of emotional exhibitionism”, or to upload the pictures of their boozy nights in Luxembourg Square. In that moment, I could not understand how somebody could feel the need to have this kind of public exposure, until a few years ago I found myself posting comments and personal opinions and – it goes without saying – also pictures. I must admit that I too fell into the nets of Facebook. And now I am in a full digital detox process.

If someone had told us that the Spanish Intelligence Service had archives containing profiles with data including sex, age, place of birth, current address, education, work, relationship status, family connections, ideology, religion etc…we would have gone crazy. Nevertheless, we do not really mind giving all this data to a foreign corporation, which on top of it, cannot provide any guarantee about its use. Why do we feel the need to shout from the rooftops about some aspects of our intimate life? This reminds me of the Foucault’s reflection on the liberating charge of the “examination of conscience”: is it because we perceive a feeling of purification when we reveal determined aspects of our lives? Do we hope, through this type of exam, to sleep well and have good dreams that will get us closer to the gods, as the Pythagoreans used to say? [v]

In essence, through the confessions we make by using SNS, I believe that we accomplish an exagoreusis (renunciation to self). Verbalising our thoughts and offering them to the “mass” of our social network, we hope for a value judgement from society (at least from that small sample that is our contact list) and we hope to be accepted, although here I see a great difference in comparison with the monk’s obedience as described by Foucault where “there is no element in the life of the monk which may escape from this fundamental and permanent relation of total obedience to the master”[vi]. And in the case of the SNS, we are the all-powerful censors of our self; after all, we always choose what we want to publish, and from which point of view we decide to make it public. And if it’s something ugly, we add some filters to it. In this way we adjust, we modulate our personality in tune with the standards that society demands from us.


[i]Technologies of the Self” Michel Foucault – Tavistock Publications 1990 p. 23

[ii] Ibid. , page 27

[iii] Ibid. , page 28

[iv] How to make a movie of your life on Facebook

[v] “Technologies of the Self” Michel Foucault – Tavistock Publications 1990 p.30

[vi] Ibid. , page 44

* The original version of this essay can be found here.

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