Humans have always had a reciprocal relationship with technology. It comes as no surprise that the digital revolution has brought about the “liquid self” and that social media has spawned all sorts of expressivist individuals. 

From a purely economic perspective, these developments may be seen as an unalloyed good, judging from the astronomical market value of high tech firms, the global Covid pandemic notwithstanding. Benefits trickle down even to ordinary consumers who, through digitisation and electronic platforms, find a near infinite variety of products within reach.

The trick consists in transforming goods and services into digital information or “data”. Material objects then become experiences; the tangible, intangible; the permanent, ephemeral; and ownership reduced to access. Reading a book, listening to music, or watching a film has become incredibly easy, cheap, and quick, thanks to Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix, respectively.

Indeed, there seems to be no limit to how much of our lives can be cut up into byte-sized chunks. We find a place to stay at Zillow, order meals through GrubHub, move around town on an Uber, hold office at WeWork, meetings in Zoom, and keep files in DropBox. Women can even choose their outfits from Rent the Runway (apparently, no such service exists for men).

Our family is on WhatsApp, friends on Facebook, colleagues on LinkedIn, dates on Zoosk, idols on Instagram, and enemies, probably on Twitter. And for whatever else we’re looking for, there will always be Google. That most of these services are offered for free distracts us from the fact that in exchange we are constantly being tracked and have given up our privacy, perhaps even things as intimate as our genetic data

Yet despite the array of choices and convenience, for the majority life satisfaction remains elusive. Even in consumption, there seems to be a yearning for tangibility and permanence, so much unlike what one would expect from the liquid, expressivist self. Why is this?

Marketing professor Carey Morewedge and colleagues refer to a loss of “psychological ownership” through the different modes of digital consumption in the so-called “sharing economy”. Basically it is the sensation that nothing is no longer “mine”. Instead, everything is subject to lending, reselling, renting, or streaming. The loss of attachment makes us sink into some sort of anomie. The lack of control thwarts our agency and ability to find meaning in events that are fleeting and which occur inexorably. Without an identifiable history or goal, we are rendered incapable of developing a sense of self

The fatal flaw lies in believing we are no more than a flow of mental states or sensations and forgetting about our natural embodiment. Having bodies means being moored, subject to time and place, regardless of Internet synchronicity and globalisation. We require intimacy and security to grow and develop.

We crave for things to call our own, if only to protect our vulnerability. Possessions and property guarantee our freedom. We are, of course, relational and social, but never fully transparent individuals, even to ourselves. We want to be able to choose with whom we share our lives. Flourishing cannot be achieved with attention dissipated and existence fragmented to this degree. 

Even the liquid, expressivist self longs for solidity and intimacy.

Republished with permission from Alejo José G. Sison’s blog, Work, Virtues, and Flourishing.

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...