Faustian Pact

Roberto Simanowski is giving a talk as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on the ontological perils of sharing.

It’s rare to have a student these days who does not have some sort of online presence. It is also, given the slightly elevated average age at OISE Cambridge, not so common to find students obsessed with the idea of ‘sharing’. We have had a few students Instagramming themselves in the school, and some have jotted things on Facebook about us, but the majority are, I suppose, digital cynics or sceptics.

It is a generational thing. Those of an older generation tend to see smart-phone use as a form of functional idiocy; digital natives, on the other hand, move by silent and instantaneous channels through what used to be called cyberspace, but now is so ubiquitous it barely has a name; and see their elders as landlocked dinosaurs, beached whales, rusted hulks run aground.

Those of my generation fall somewhere in between. It is little use my pointing out to the digital natives that I was using computers (admittedly, big ones) before they were born; or that I worked for a software engineering company for several years and sort of know my way around: they still explain Instagram to me slowly and patiently and somewhat hopelessly, and remind me that no one really talks about ‘computers’ these days. And yet to the digital dinosaurs at the other end of the scale I am something of a magician, with my devices and screens, dangerously absorbed in matters beyond their ken.


The same is probably true for a majority of my students. The digital world is a resource and a toolkit, but the empirically real world is where stuff happens. Privacy and solitude are to be valued, and we cannot build such a thing as a digital identity. To share every element of your life promiscuously is to make a Faustian pact, one the consequences of which we have barely begun to understand.

We know best, of course. It is the privilege of middle-age. We still have it, but we also know how to use it. Whatever it is.