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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Displays of Authenticity (2)—Passwords

[a] Etiquette  RF
So I was standing in line at the ATM machine the other day, and noticed that we were all (except for the person at the machine) looking away. Conspicuously. It was quite obvious that we were making sure that we weren't looking and equally making sure that everyone knew that we weren't looking. Then I remembered a few months ago when one of my students, while we were checking his transcript on-line to see if he was up-to-snuff with the department's requirements, looked away when I had to type in my password. Conspicuously.

[b] Unlocked  RF
What's going on here? You know you do it, but why, exactly? As I have stated many times already on the pages (or screens) of Round and Square, our task is to take the little details of life that have that little extra bit of social or cultural power and analyze them. Over and over until they are both more and less interesting than they were before.

Welcome back to Displays of Authenticity. So far, we have looked at Dairy Queen Blizzards and tip jars, but it has been a while since we have considered these little bits of social life in which people are attempting to show the authenticity (and sometimes sincerity) of their actions. If you have not done so already, by all means read the introduction to this series.

Now let's get back to passwords. You know that you look away when someone is typing or punching in a password or security code. All too often, we take the narrow, practical, and individualistic interpretive route and are content to think that we look away for practical or ethical reasons. Yes, of course. It isn't as though those things don't apply. I get it.

I just think that there is more going on here. At least a little more. For one, there is a complete difference between typing in a password at home at 9:36 p.m. in front of your computer screen, with no one but the cat to notice your actions, and typing the same password in the midst of what I shall call a social setting. If you are inclined to think of a "social setting" as one in which you have a drink in one hand and a cheese puff in another, I urge you to stretch your definition a little. If you are sitting in an office and working with someone who is about to type in a password, you are in a social setting. Among people, interacting—simple.

[a] Social  RF
And yet not quite so simple. What I find interesting about passwords in such situations is that they are personal, and often highly individualized (you know what I mean; think about your own passwords—I won't look). When that hyper-individuality is thrust into a social setting, awkward things happen. Really, think about it. That is the key "theoretical" dimension in this. A highly personal matter in the midst of social movement (yes, even one person sitting in a chair next to you qualifies).

There are many, many such matters "out there," and we hardly think about them at all—except on Round and Square. To conclude for today, let's take a brief look (in the spirit of this series) at the way one thinker addresses the question of individuality. Let me remind you that the readings that follow Round and Square meanderings are meant to juxtapose ideas, not merely echo what was said above. Here you will find a nice "mesh," though. George Herbert Mead was not thinking about passwords, to be sure, but he surely was interested in the relationship between, well, mind, self, and society.

George Herbert Mead
Mind, Self, & Society
I have been presenting the self and the mind in terms of a social process, as the importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual organism, so that the individual organism takes these organized attitudes of the others called out by its own attitude, in the form of its gestures, and in reacting to that response calls out other organized attitudes in the others in the community to which the individual belongs. This process can be characterized in a certain sense in terms of the "I" and the "me," the "me" being that group of organized attitudes to which the individual responds as an "I."

What I want particularly to emphasize is the temporal and logical pre-existence of the social process to the self-conscious individual that arises in it. The conversation of gestures is a part of the social process which is going on. It is not something that the individual alone makes possible. What the development of language, especially the significant symbol, has rendered possible is just the taking over of this external social situation into the conduct of the individual himself. There follows from this the enormous development which belongs to human society, the possibility of the prevision of what is going to take place in the response of other individuals, and a preliminary adjustment to this by the individual. These, in turn, produce a different social situation which is again reflected in what I have termed the "me," so that the individual himself takes a different attitude...

[d] Expiry  RF
I want to avoid the implication that that individual is taking something that is objective and making it subjective. There is an actual process of living together on the part of all members of the community which takes place by means of gestures. The gestures are certain stages in the co-operative activities which mediate the whole process. Now, all that has taken place in the appearance of the mind is that this process has to some degree taken over into the conduct of the particular individual. There is a certain symbol, such as the policeman uses when he directs traffic. There is something that is out there. It does not become subjective when the engineer, who is engaged by the city to examine its traffic regulations, takes the same attitude the policeman takes with reference to traffic, and takes the attitude also of the drivers of machines...Mind is nothing but the importation of this external process into the conduct of the individual so as to meet the problems that arise.[1]

[1] George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), 187-188.

Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

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