8.25: From Some of Us to All of Us

Some of us are pre-judged. That is, because they possess a certain attribute - a black skin, a woman's body, or whatever - certain people have already decided some things about them before they have even met them. A spate of formal studies and informal autobiographies have documented the debilitating effect of dealing with such prejudices. We all deal with this to some degree - someone has heard gossip about you, passes it on to you at the first meeting, and refuse to believe your disclaimers as you stand before them, in flesh and blood, telling them that the gossip was wrong.

However, personal databanks shift this problem into a different dimension. When someone who knows that they are going to meet you can acquire considerable information about you at the speed of light (faster, contrary to rumor, than the speed of rumor), then this tendency is magnified from an occasional irritation to a constant concern. Remembering the importance of the subjective map, as argued above, it does not really matter whether the person does so or not. If you think that the person may have done so, then your perceived locus of control is made more external. You are pre-judged when you meet.

Some of us are famous. That is, are known - or, rather, are known of - by many people that they do not know. Famous people often have identity problems because so many people pre-judge them on the basis of their record rather than of their personality.19 This pre-judgement could be considered as a precise prejudice. That is, the person is not pre-judged because of certain superficial attributes - black skin, woman's body - but because of his/her public image.

Personal databanks make us all famous. We are all famous not so much in the manner suggested by Andy Warhol that everyone in our modern media-saturated world can be famous for fifteen minutes but in the sense that we are all potentially know-able in fifteen minutes. That is, anyone who wishes to do so and has access to the personal databank can know of us even though we do not know of them. Most famous people choose to establish a public record (and many of them work hard to build it) and are willing to pay the price of fame. Many of us choose obscurity but could be forced by personal databanks to accept the disadvantages of fame with none of the compensations.20

There is some evidence that people who have earned fame can deal with it better than those who have it thrust up them. If it has "taken forty years to become an overnight success" (as one famous person put it), then you have built up such a positive self-concept that it can be little affected by the public image. The fame is an incidental by-product of doing something well. Your positive self-concept is based on this solid competence rather than ephemeral fame.

People who have unearned fame tend to find it harder to deal with. One form of this is vicarious fame. Kathy Cronkite, daughter of a famous person, describes it as being On the edge of the spotlight and Marilyn Funt, wife of another famous person, asks Are you anybody? Those compilations of accounts by the children and spouses, respectively, of celebrities suggest that such reflected fame causes many personality problems. The "fame" of ordinary people in an information society, in which much information is accessible about them is, of course, such unearned fame.

Some of us have police records. The disadvantage of having such a record is recognized in the practice of erasing the records of juvenile offenders. However, the adult criminal is assumed to have "hardened" and the record remains. Convicted criminals return to society trailing their records which mitigate against re-entry and often forces them back again into the only society in which they are welcome - the crime school inside prison and the old-boys network outside prison.

Personal databanks gives us all "records". If it is a good record, then it does not have the debilitating effect of a criminal record. However, good and bad records alike have an influence on what could be considered "recividism" outside of prison - that is, the tendency within all of us to return again and again to what we did in the past. Any record of our past makes it more and more difficult for us to escape the tyranny of the past.21 The record also makes it more difficult to live our lives as an experiment. When so much of one's life is recorded, one is apprehensive about making mistakes (i.e. those things by which children learn and adults are supposed to learn). A youthful escapade or an uncharacteristic blunder while temporarily upset could haunt a person for the rest of a life.

Some of us live in total institutions. Many of us are critical of the donning of masks and the playing of roles off stage. However, Goffman argues that the de-humanization in total institutions (prisons, mental hospitals, etc.) is partly due to the fact that our "props" are taken away and, with them, the very human right of representing ourselves as we wish.22

Personal databanks could have a similar effect. They would not take away our masks and our costumes but they could make them transparent. If another person could meet us on paper (so to speak), by consulting a databank about us, before meeting us in person, then our capacity to manage our impression is very much limited. In a classic study on impression formation, a guest lecturer was presented to half the class as a "rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined " and to the other half as "a rather warm person,industrious, critical, practical and determined".23 The "warm" subjects liked the lecturer better and volunteered more in the class discussion than the "cold" subjects. If the simple substitution of "warm" for "cold" can have a significant impact on the subsequent impression, then the increasingly more extensive information in a databank could result in a pre-judgement which a person would have difficulty in changing.

19   Norman Mailer made one of the most articulate statements in the identity problems of famous people. He said that, after becoming too famous too soon on publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, every relationship became a triangle - the other person, his self and his image. People who only knew of him tended to interact with, and thus pushed him to merge with his image. The long time between his first and second novel was spent disentangling the self from the image. Knowing what we know now about self-fulfilling prophecies, we can clearly see how difficult such a disentanglement is.

20   The Horatio Alger myth which inspired North American society is challenged by the Conserver Society, which questions "fortune" as a goal, and the Information Society, which questions "fame" as a goal.

21   The Catholic confessional contributes to the human need to shed burdens of the past. Protestant guilt, on the other hand, accumulates day by day throughout a lifetime, building booming Empires outside and bleeding ulcers inside.

22   Goffman, E. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961.

23   Kelley, H. H. "The warm-cold variable in first impressions of persons". Journal of Personality, 1950, 18, Pages 431-439.