When tech makes you feel superhuman.
Recently psychiatrist John Wynn posted a nifty essay about people’s passionate identification with the late Steve Jobs and the remarkable iPhone. Here’s an excerpt:
Saying, in essence, “I revere Steve Jobs, therefore I will buy the phone he designed,” can be translated as, “my life feels fuller, more meaningful and secure, because of my affiliation with this powerful figure.” Carrying and using the device we are reminded throughout the day of our seamless participation in a world of brilliant innovation and beauty. Adding apps, chatting with Siri, video-chatting with friends and loved ones all deepens our sense of participation with Mr. Jobs, his beautiful designs, and the infinite future of technological advance and aesthetic refinement.
The iPhone is a totem, an emblematic object of spiritual significance that conveys power and safety to the bearer. We’ve come a long way since amulets and rabbit feet warded off bad luck; now we have infinite contact with an infinite world of information, creativity and connection. New owners fondle their iPhones, show them to whoever will look, and ponder adding any of over 500,000 apps — to equipment that already just received over 200 enhancements. Perhaps the “i” in iPhone stands for “infinite,” as in the infinite pursuit of technology as an end in itself. . . . [The] passion surrounding the inventor’s death shows us that the phone is invested with much more power: it comforts and reassures us by warding off our own fears of death, and our awareness of our mortality.1
This argument explains the magic of the iphone as partly an effect of transference—hero-worship. From helpless infancy on, we’re disposed to identify with powerful figures who can protect us and fulfill our needs. In a way, Steve Jobs has joined the “immortal” Albert Einstein as a larger-than-life and ambiguously superhuman hero. His gizmo, the iphone, has a similar kind of special potency that makes it a “totem” or fetish, ambiguously supernatural. As the psychiatrist reminds us, “Consciously nobody is saying to himself, ‘I bought this thing so I can live forever.’ But nevertheless, the machine can arouse feelings of special powers and confidence that makes you feel exceptional.
And exceptional is how you want to feel when you’re one of billions of bipeds under stress and wide open to the infirmities and terrors of flesh you’re heir to.
Suppose we expand on this account. Suppose we use the iPhone to think about technology in relation to creaturely motives and prosthetic identity.
A few blogs back (“Semper Fido“) we were remarking on our peculiar vulnerability among the animals. We’re brainy but with no armor, feeble claws, prolonged helpless childhood—and we know we die. In response we find ingenious ways to magnify our capability and feel bigger than enemies and death. Among our creaturely motives are appetites for more life—more food, sex, more discoveries, more self-expansion. The marginal creature wants to be bigger and more meaningful. Feeling like a bigshot—feeling more important—promises to protect morale. As in slang, “Keep your spirits up, big fella.”
How do we cope with these limits?
Among animals, we’re virtuoso tool-makers, continually expanding our selves through prosthetic engagement with the world. We develop relationships which magnify our adaptive powers and symbolically make up for our creaturely limits. Your fist won’t bag a gazelle for supper, but a stick, a stone, a flint, or a bullet could feed you. The executive brain may imagine that you are your mind, and the tool is a handy external convenience. But in fact tool-use is a creaturely motive, built into us as it is in some of our primate cousins. In this sense, whatever else you are, you are your tools and tool-using motives as well. And once you start thinking in this direction, you see that almost everything in our lives has the character of a tool, from art to theology and dandruff shampoo. You can also see that an intense identification with tools risks reducing the self to an apparatus for use. The potency of the tool can become the potency of the self, as in the fanatical attitudes of some gun owners toward their weapons.
I like the term “prosthetic” to describe our relationship to tools. As partly symbolic creatures, we routinely imagine ourselves surpassing our actual biological limits. In this sense a tool such as the wheel is compensating for a biological lack the way an artificial limb does. It’s making up for something missing. To put it another way, our lifelong childlike flexibility as animals means that we’re always potential as well as actual creatures. Which is another way of characterizing us as problem-solving animals. It’s how we’re built.
Is it any wonder people identify with their iPhones? The gizmo magnifies you, and it embodies you. It substantiates you. Let’s keep in mind that the self is not a thing. It’s an event, and an evanescent biochemical and symbolic event at that. It’s a halo of possibilities. It can’t be weighed or X-rayed or ribbon-wrapped. As social animals, we live by continually substantiating one another. Every “Hello” corroborates that you and the other dude exist. When you press the flesh in a handshake or a hug, you’re making more real the envelope of the self. When the corroboration is really strong, fortified by endorphins and the symbolic vitamins of intimacy, you actually feel as if, in the wisdom of slang, you’re “getting real.” Meaning, more real, more alive, bigger, pregnant with possibility. There’s more you.
Back to the iPhone. By expanding your voice over unimaginable distances, potentially everywhere, the machine puts you in the world. It may record you and your relationships with others as sound or a photo. With its ever-increasing new apps, the device even mimics our own extraordinary adaptability as animals, and our capacity for multiplicity and overlays of experience.
Critics can object that the phone is “just” electrons and facsimiles of “real life.” You’re not really nose to nose with your sweetie a thousand miles away, so don’t get carried away, pal. But the truth is, real life is also a facsimile. Again, the self is not an object but an event continually recreated in an imaginative zone of symbolic fizz and overlays of tacitness.
In the most basic sense, we live by enabling fictions. We readily invoke a “me,” but we have to keep simplifying our “life stories,” making them artificially consistent so that the self and the overwhelming world will be manageable. We continually finesse our ambivalence so we can get up in the morning and reach for a tool such as hot coffee that enables us to get started. If you’re on this expedition up da Nile, you know in the back of your mind that you have to simplify yourself and the world, but you accept this falsification because our sense of “as if” keeps us from feeling turned into a mechanism. Like intuition, “as ifness” gives life space three dimensions and color.
With its programs and purposeful apps, the iphone suddenly appears as a fabulously ambivalent enabling fiction. It expands you, it makes you real. It also simplifies you, making you usefully artificial as denial does. It proves you’re alive even as it potentially dissolves your voice and identity into the aether.
Modernism is a period of radical prosthetic development in human identity. Only within the past century or so have we become creatures whose bare feet rarely if ever touch the ground; who can see inside our bodies; artificially propagate ourselves in a petri dish; walk on the moon. In this framework our prosthetic dimension calls into question the kind of animal we are. What is the ground of our experience? Where does self stop and tool begin? If a house or clothes function as a prosthetic shell, where does self stop and environment begin? And since other people can extend our wills as tools do, in a host of relationships from slavery to parenting, we sometimes need to ask, Where does self leave off and other begin?2
One of these days we can carry this investigation further by exploring how we use others as tools to form our personalities, just as we use fire and microscopes. We think through others. Since we’re here on da Nile, we could say that we swim in other people.
Why bother with the idea of prosthetic identity at all? Why not go with Winnicott and object relations theory, say? Or another vocabulary altogether? For me, prosthesis emphasizes identity-formation as a creative act, inherently social and systemic in its mutuality. Prosthetic relationships can provide a way to think about symbiotic qualities in family and cultural systems as well as in our psychosomatic endowment. Insofar as they invite us to think in terms of interdependent behavioral systems rather than individual conflicts, they open toward evolutionary and ethological perspectives. They foreground concerns which are apt to be deemphasized in criticism and psychology based on intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict.
There’s a further twist worth mentioning, especially in an election season, at a stressful historical moment. Prosthetic behavior can open up perspectives beyond the melodramatic heroic rescue and victim-enemy tropes we’re given to. Listen closely enough, and you’re likely to hear chauvinism or self-concern in most accounts of our struggles. Prosthetic relationships remind us that we live in systems. Prosthetic behavior can call attention to our character as experimental, problem-solving animals continually adapting to a world which, like the swollen, organic soup of the river ahead, is bigger than we are, and always bringing more life.
2. This is from my Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90s (1999), p.175
This essay is cross-posted from Psychology Today.