Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Double-Goer in the Digital World

     Elvis Presley believed he had an alter ego. That is probably no surprise, given the many times he altered his image from a Bluegrass crooner to a Rockabilly gyrator to a sequined, karate-kicking predecessor to Disco. He had a stage presence, and he had his private side, but he also believed that he had a spiritual companion in his deceased twin brother, Jesse Garon. Elvis once said, "Ya know, I can remember when I was just a little guy, couldn’t have been more’n four or five years old, I heard a voice talkin’ to me, like it was in my head. I just figured it was my twin brother Jesse Garon. But I never told anyone – not even my mom. It was like a special secret between Jesse and me.”

     One of my favorite things to think about is the concept of the doppelgänger, or living ghost. The word itself, German in origin, is funny to say and hear. I first heard it in an American Literature course, while we studied Henry James's “The Jolly Corner” from 1908. Spencer Brydon, the protagonist in the story, moves back into his childhood home in New York before it is to be demolished. At a frightening point in the story, he confronts his doppelgänger, his living ghost. This ghost turns out to be the creation of his girlfriend! The being represents the person he might have been had the course of his life taken a different turn. While Spencer was off having a good time, his alter ego was toiling away and even lost a couple of fingers in the process.

     The doppelgänger idea, of course, has generated interactive web applications competing for your use. At, for example, you can use the application to find out who your celebrity doppelgänger might be. To believe that doppelgängers exist, one might think that this manifestation has to be another “real” person. Since this whole thing is a theory, why not? I prefer, however, to believe that a doppelgänger is a presence in a different sense. I’ll get to that, but I want to first throw in one more story. It’s the story of Spiderman’s New Suit.

     I used to love to read comic books. I do not know why I quit, but while I did, I particularly loved Spiderman comic books. Spiderman stands tall as one of the ultimate doppelgänger stories. I don’t know whether Stan Lee studied this theory, but his biggest hits are all versions of the alter ego tale: Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and so on. The story of Peter Parker and Spiderman probably appealed to me because as an introverted and more or less shy young man, I was engaged with the idea that a magical accident could transform the same kind of person into a superhero. Several versions of the Spiderman saga have flourished over the years, but I mainly read and collected Amazing Spiderman and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spiderman.

     Spiderman is Peter Parker’s alter ego, no doubt, and the symbol of his other self is his costume. During the first two decades of the Spiderman story, Peter wore his own, homemade suit. It is iconic, yet during the 1980’s, Marvel Comics publishers became bored with it. During an intergalactic adventure, Spiderman tears his suit and is granted a new one. It’s a long story, but he is enthralled with the properties of the new uniform. For one thing, it has built in web-slingers. Peter Parker had to make his own for the red and blue costume to enhance his spider-like superpowers.

     The suit seemed to read his mind for quick changes from street clothes, and it even repaired itself when damaged. As a teenager, I have to admit, that I preferred this costume to the classic, but the writers never failed to embed a sense of foreboding in its regard. After several stories with the black and white costume, a new storyline developed. Peter discovered that while he thought he was asleep at night, the suit was wearing him! He would wake up exhausted and eventually realized that the suit was taking him on nighttime adventures, and behaving badly in the process.

     Unfortunately, Spidey's new constume turned out to be a symbiotic alien, later renamed “Venom.” In an epic battle to gain freedom from the alien, Spiderman climbs into a church belfry and nearly dies as he exposes himself and the suit to the vibrations of the ringing bell until the suit gives up and leaves to find another host, and another story.

     The story of the doppelgänger (English translation: double-goer) is a fictional goldmine, because I think we all understand that there can be multiple versions of ourselves. It is in that sense, that I believe that it is more about presence than about having a “real” person who looks like me somewhere else. In cultural mythology, whether it is Egyptian, Norse, Chinese, Greek, Finnish, or even Marvel, it has always been difficult to see a doppelgänger other than in the periphery of vision. In the 21st century, however, our “double-goer” is not only plainly visible to each of us; he or she is just a mouse-click away from plain view and understanding to anyone who has Internet access.

     At no other time in our history have we had a more evident and present doppelgänger. Whether I call it my digital footprint, my avatar, my blog, my Facebook, my Twitter, or even my e-mail address, I am really saying, “my presence.” While I am on-line, I am working with this presence to communicate, create, and collaborate. It is my suit that I put on to walk into another dimension of double-goers. And when I am not online, this other presence is out there, swinging from edifice to precipice, like Spiderman’s costume, interacting  and perhaps even learning for me – maybe sometimes against me – in a symbiotic fashion. I keep him alive when I write a blog or send out a tweet or check my Facebook page. He keeps me alive and multiplies me on the web when other double-goers read what I write or retweet what I tweet.
     Occasionally, I catch him on the periphery when my cell phone makes a funny noise to say that something is happening in that other, digital realm. If I want to see him in full view, however, I can. If I want to change what he looks like, I can do that too. But there is a hitch. Like the black and white alien suit Spiderman adored, my web presence can take on a life of its own and the web has a long memory. I believe that participation and presence on the web is an essential part of 21st century life in which our children need to learn to thrive. I also believe that the suit we put on to thrive in that world is better if it is “homemade” like Spiderman’s. The suit should represent the real person. Teaching children to embrace this concept is not about digital literacy; it is about teaching them to believe in themselves and their presence, what they can really make, what they can really be at their best.


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    1. Great comments, Matt. It is very true that we can only imagine where we might be and what we might be doing if something had nudged us one way or the other at some point along our journey. I like your last sentence regarding teaching children (and adults) to believe in themselves and make their presence known to themselves and others; that is the best way to create a presence that will last.