The Age of Enlightenment was the intellectual movement in the 18th Century, which sought to begin thinking about the world critically, resulting in the development of scientific rigor. While the Renaissance was the time in which Europe re-discovered the works of the Greeks and Romans, resulting in an incredible explosion of the arts and sciences, resulting in experimentation and exploration of the forms, it was the Age of Enlightenment where the beginnings of modern philosophy and critical thought began to develop. These beginnings have had a long standing effect on colleges, universities, and therefore the work student affairs professionals.
On one level, the Age of Enlightenment was the movement by the educated to categorize everything. Explorations were bringing back ever more exotic specimens and tales, which challenged their worldview. By developing the broader systems of science, biology, calculus, physics, and even philosophy, the great thinkers of the day were attempting to make order in a world that was increasingly making less sense.
Education plays much the same role today, allowing us to make sense of things where things did not make sense before. Yet, colleges and universities also seek to socialize students, to teach them how to interact with others. Seattle University in particular enumerates its aims clearly in its mission statement: Seattle University is dedicated to educating the whole person, to professional formation, and empowering leaders for a just and humane world. But the whole person is a challenging term, as we all possess different sides to ourselves. We may be one person to our parents, one person to a group of friends, one person to our professional colleagues. We don’t show all of our faces at the same time. This is even more true as we have explored the digital terrain. Technology is ultimately a tool, but with the anonymous identity or even alter ego that can be given to anyone on a message board, or in a game, we can become different people there too. Or can we?
As more people have gotten online, especially on Facebook, that company has demanded that we be the same person everywhere. Their mission statement: Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. More open and connected! Implicitly, the company is making a stance that we should not have to be different people in different settings, we should be the same with everyone. Again and again, people have rallied against Facebook’s privacy settings, making your information, your details more open to the world. But Facebook is simply carrying out its mission: it is attempting to make the world more open and connected. To do that, you must be comfortable showing your private face publicly and vice versa. This dichotomy has long confounded politicians, entertainers, even normal folk, leading to serious identity crises.
Ultimately, this comes down to a Enlightenment level choice: when the system stops making sense, do you change the system to meet your design, or do you change yourself to operate within the system? Early in the digital age, things stopped making sense (how did these people make so much money? what did their companies do? Oh god it all went downhill and the stock market has crashed). The internet is an entire new canvass of creation, where imagination is the limit to what can be created and put on to the internet, something I don’t think we could even described to people 50 years ago. Things stopped making sense, and people didn’t know where they fit in, how this new system works. Were they the same person online as offline? Facebook says yes, you are, because they are idealists. This is the world they want to envision, and they have been succeeding remarkably well.
But now there is a challenger to that world view in Google+, which is about realism. Google+ allows you to compartmentalize with its circles function. You have circles of friends, circles of family, circles of acquaintances. It takes great strength and resolve to be the same person to everyone all the time, and that can be damaging. I think we all have a story of someone we know, or a friend of a friend who got fired because of Facebook or other social media mishap. Some have instinctively begun to self-censor, and repress different parts of their online personalities, while others have embraced the opportunity to portray one identity. Google+ allows you to show a different face to everyone, and easily control what you say to who. But is this the whole person? Is compartmentalization a good thing?
I don’t know. Technology is a tool, and these tools reflect our various philosophical positions. I like Google+, because I don’t want to be the same person to everybody. Different environments bring out different parts of my personality, and the technology I like reflects that. Whereas colleagues of mine believe that technology only distorts who we really are, encourages people to portray different faces, and therefore seek face-to-face contact wherever possible. There’s something to that as well. I don’t think there’s a right answer, or ever will be, but it is interesting to see that there is now a contrasting opinion to Facebook on the matter, as we still try to make sense of a system that still doesn’t quite make sense.