Filtered Universes

October 21, 2022



On the charming Santa Teresa hill, Jacobina shared with friends her view on the existence of two souls in each human being: the inner soul and the outer soul. So starts Machado de Assis’ magnificent short story The Looking Glass, published in 1882, about the tension between what we truly are and what we seem to be in the eyes of others, thus portraying the dramatic course of the young second lieutenant who could no longer see himself in the mirror without his army uniform, after his outer soul had completely overwhelmed his inner soul.

The genius of the story incorporated Immanuel Kant’s noumenal reflection about the real essence of things removed from the senses capable of attributing semantics to the phenomena, but also drew inspiration from Arthur Schopenhauer’s transcendental perspective on the importance of willpower as propeller of the individual’s behavioral manifestation. All that before the publication of Sigmund Freud’s classic psychoanalytical study The Interpretation of Dreams, in the mid-1900s.

The opaque image itself in front of the mirror symbolized the annulment of the essential nature, overridden by the character built around an image perceived by others. It is interesting to underscore such phenomenon associated to a mere low rank, highlighting the existence of the phenomenon even far from the greatest feats society celebrates. The identity hijacking would happen often, even in the provincial routine of Rio de Janeiro’s suburbia.

The dissociation between the souls would be related, in a way, to the very classification between the conscious and unconscious minds proposed by Freudian psychoanalysis. Yet, far from any variation of Dissociative Identity Disorders (DIDs), the coexistence between the intrinsic nature and the conventional character would not typify some pathological sort of conflicts between multiple personalities. The distressed attempt by the inner soul to avoid its complete suffocation by the impetuous outer soul might be interpreted as a frantic cry for help looking to preserving the sanity rooted in the principles, values and personal stories, where foreign impressions would be distant and recognized as something exogenous and utilitarian from the surroundings.

Life is made up of masks and scenes. Individuals do not live wholly in accordance with their intrinsic natures, even because they are not fully aware of them. But, also, because they alter their behaviors – and, when pushed, even their thoughts and feelings – due to sensory impressions resulting from multiple interactions. Forming an external image is part of the organic identity-building process over time. We are born incomplete; we die unfinished. And, along that journey, we adapt our actions, discourses and masks as a result of the different dynamics that exist in distinct scenes of our lives. We live several characters.

Between possible pen names and nicknames, there will always be real names. Fernando Pessoa underscores such existential tension by asserting, in his Book of Disquiet, that ‘the field is where we are not; life is the hesitation between an exclamation and an interrogation; in doubt, there is a full stop.” Well, Machado de Assis’s struggle between the inner soul and the outer soul deals exactly with that extemporaneous hesitation between what one believes to be and what one chooses to represent. As such, would the full stop symbolize the actual death, or the renunciation of the original essence?

The contemporary question that presents itself as original does not concern the individual possibility, whether conscious or unconscious, of an existence removed or adherent to one’s essence. It concerns the concomitant fragmentation of both – exactly for the frantic overlap of so many nuances and abstractions.

Nostalgic lucidness

Machado de Assis wrote his collection of philosophical-literary masterpieces at the end of the 19th century. In the particular case of the struggle between souls, reflecting on a philosophical conflict already central for centuries and millennia – after all, introspective dilemmas surrounding the essential identity and the implications related to the social masks have always been present in ancient peoples’ reflections.

The Aristotelian statement about ‘being what one does repeatedly’ projects exactly the materiality of the essence in its observable manifestations and social interactions, in contrast to the ideal of intrinsically biologically-inherited virtues. In this context, free will presents itself as a counterpoint to the deterministic divine destiny as a random variable that would change the course of life from timely decisions in the face of the imponderable reality. Shaping oneself from external perceptions and feedback would implicitly mean to realize oneself beyond one’s own premises and bedroom fantasies. The diligent habit overrides the subjective idealism.

Hence, let us not imagine that the challenge of the filters and masks is something more recent. We must also avoid the nostalgic idealizations of a less digital world, in which human relations would be more real, or even purer. Here, we are pondering much more on intensity, speed and amplitude of psychosocial phenomena already inherent in human existences.

On the other hand, it is a fact there have been deep changes in social dynamics over the past few years. Demographic, economic, political, social and technological transformations have been behind indelible changes in behaviors, even repositioning traditional values and beliefs. In particular, the social ethics transition has been one of the key agents of transformation.

The social ethics of duty remained in effect for centuries and centuries. All of its social construct had been based on hierarchical structures, stable rules and predictable horizons. The prevailing ethos prized obedience and obligations as central in the social arena – from the patriarchal family dynamics to the contrite religious conduct. Individuals sought to oppress their own ego on behalf of behavioral uniformity and adherence to the imposed set of traditional uses and habits. Feeling one fit the standards, shaping oneself according to the traditions. Repressing oneself for being dissonant, feeling frustrated with the customary inertia. The ethics of duty shaped the individual from the outside. As such, the projection of identity sought certain adherence to collectively-validated standards, while the intrinsic nature itself took comfort and acceptance from the natural order of things.

The organization of traditional society strived for indiscriminate ordering, even of the expected archetypes and stereotypes. The effort, therefore, resided in the individual adaptation. On the other hand, the oppression of the ego coexisted with the shared understanding of the standards. The collective delusion lied exactly in believing in the possibility of a stable, predictable and codable universe. Gradually, the bastions of the ethics of duty would be deconstructed.

So long, plunge into the dark! Hooray to the sunny shallowness!

There always is certain controversy on the causality and interdependence of the phenomena occurring in reinforcement cycles capable of shifting the very social ethics to a new paradigm. Gradually, families became smaller and more volatile in their matrimonial bonds. The provincial life of the fields and suburbs steadily shifted to virtual communities on social networks in anonymous neighborhoods. The patriotic ideals and institutional frameworks progressively lost credibility and relevance. Church itself gradually lost the monopoly of faith, while spirituality would increasingly become something more introspective and syncretic. The expansion of awareness of the brave (or awful) world reached unprecedented levels with the digitization of knowledge. The speed of bits and bytes exceeded the neural processing capacity. In conclusion, the transformation agents that started the current social ethics of pleasure were many.

It is hard to pinpoint a chronological date. Perhaps the widespread use of personal computers. Perhaps the dissemination of Internet access. Perhaps the popularization of mobile phones. Perhaps the immersion in social media. Also countless are the technological agents with relevant impacts on social dynamics, even reshaping humanity’s great operational system.

In any case, it is a fact for some time now the social ethics of pleasure has defined well the new social construct seen everywhere. Instead of hierarchical, stable and predictable structures, fluid, interdependent and atomized platforms, whose core lies exactly in the self-referenced pursuit of satisfaction. Entrepreneurs of self in search of meaningful connections, memorable experiences and relevant spaces of expression. Torn uniforms, undone standards, shattered codes. The ethics of pleasure places individuality as the gravitational axis around which life realizes itself in the immediate present, once long-term plans and bonds lose their sense compared to the torturing search for the maximization of carefree well-being.

The ephemerality of things is a relief to us for not requiring depth. Less willingness to affective elaborations, social interactions and cognitive reflections. The immediate shallowness becomes a respite just for driving away the complex immersion. At the same time, the ephemeral and the immediate keep us away from the intrinsic human nature, distracted by pulses and impulses, paradoxically increasing the perception of judgement, estrangement and isolation. After all, the liquid world proposed by Zygmunt Bauman does not present itself as a paradise lost, but rather as a new neurotic field surrounding the desperate agony to stay afloat in an unintelligible context of new zettabytes per second. The revolutionary rupture against the oppressive uniformity was not necessarily liberating for all inner souls, now on the loose and adrift.

The incessant pursuit of immediate pleasure has stirred certain hyperactive frenzy around the narcissistic social projection. The entrepreneur of self, disobedient and uncommitted, cannot rid of so many internal wants and external pressures to be successful. That is exactly the primary agent of malaise analyzed by Byung-Chul Han. Not only has the exacerbated individuality brought relief from the oppressing institutions; it has also intensified the public lens on the private life. We have stopped pursuing adequacy to conventional parameters to demand from ourselves increasingly higher, unachievable and distinctive levels in the relative comparison to others, in never-ending spirals on the countless social networks.

Alongside, the democratization of information produced two intriguing personas: influencers and content producers – I confess that, personally, notwithstanding my intellectual interest as a social scientist, both still cause me lazy nausea. On the one hand, influencers have become intermediate agglutinating hubs of converging social media by affinities, even earning greater authority than experts with remarkable wisdom in all areas of knowledge – from the geopolitics of Baltic nations to neuroscience applied to epilepsy. Individual influencers have achieved something unprecedented in history so far: uncensored dissemination of information at an exponential scale, shifting masses of millions of people. On the other hand, content producers (some of whom also high-caliber influencers) share ideas (i.e., their amateur videos and spontaneous pictures) all the time, about everything and everyone, impudently, oftentimes without accuracy grounded on facts and data. Content producers challenge the monopoly of the press as benchmarks for the interpretation of the truth. The fragmentation of contents and influence networks has strengthened the turbulent void that surrounds us.


Daniel Augusto Motta é Managing Partner e CEO da BMI Blue Management Institute. Doutor em Economia pela USP, Mestre em Economia pela FGV-EAESP e Bacharel em Economia pela USP. É Alumni OPM Harvard Business School. Atua também como Managing Partner da corporate venture capital WhiteFox sediada em San Francisco (EUA), como Senior Tupinambá Maverick na content tech Bossa.etc e com Membro do Conselho de Administração da Afferolab. Também atua como Diretor de Planejamento Estratégico da UNIBES e Membro do Conselho Deliberativo do MASP. Foi Membro-Fundador da Sociedade Brasileira de Finanças. Foi Professor nos MBAs da Fundação Dom Cabral, Insper, FGV, ESPM e PUC-SP. É autor de diversos artigos publicados por Valor Econômico, EXAME, VocêSA e Folha de São Paulo, e também tem três artigos publicados pela Harvard Business Review Brasil. É autor dos livros best-sellers A Liderança Essencial, Anthesis e Data Insights.