In Defense of Nobody USA

While I agree with some of Janet Maslin's criticisms of Dalton Conley's new sociology of the digital future Elsewhere USA, I do think that her New York Times review is excessively harsh (is she trying to emulate Michiko K?). In particular, I think Maslin's dismissal of all Conley's theories is wrong:

But Mr. Conley has no big new point to make. He awkwardly coins newlocutions (“weisure” to conflate work and leisure, “convestment” to do the same with consumption and investment). He struggles with jargon while trying to interject the term “intravidual” into our collective conversation.

But what Maslin's calls his awkwardly coined "new locutions" are actually brave attempts to make "big points" about our new digital social reality. She mocks Conley's neologism "intravidual", but this term explains the way in which the digital revolution is altering individual psychology by "breaking down physical barriers to group affiliation".  Conley believes that the ease with which we join online "communities" is undermining the "self-reflectiveness" and the "individualism" and "social self" that are intimately bound up with our membership of physical associations. It is "difference", Conley believes, that makes gives the modern person a coherent sense of identity, it is what transforms them into an socially definable individual:

It is only when the groups don't match up -- when we are confronted with difference and when those differences are multifaceted -- that the individual emerges.

The digital revolution, with its supposed freedom to invent oneself online, dramatically changes this. Conley argues that it's this very freedom which might be destroying the modern idea of individualism:

"In the postmodern or information economy, those restraints have been totally removed. You can join as many groups as you want, deploying multiple aliases while you are at it. Members of stigmatized groups have always experienced the phenomenon of multiple selves.... The difference today is that there is no need for anyone to reconcile the many facets of their identity."

Conley hints that the consequence of this intravidualism, the freedom to carry infinite selves, is mass autism, a collective descent of the wired into a state of dysfunctional social interaction. Maslin agrees that this is "fascinating" but complains Conley fails to "pursue" this idea fully. But I'm not so sure. His theory is both intriguing and disturbing. It suggests that intravidualism of our networked society transforms autism from a supposed brain defect into the natural condition of everyone. And this looming threat of mass autism is, I think, a sufficiently "big point" to make Elsewhere USA (which could also be entitled Nobody USA) a worthwhile read.