Identity narcosis: is McLuhan’s auto-amputation still relevant in the age of digital media?
When media theory pioneer Marshall McLuhan dramatically announced in the mid 1960s that the medium, not the content it relayed, was the message, he set in motion a conversation about how technology shapes who we are that has lasted until this day. Whether it was movies, advertising, the telephone or even a light bulb (McLuhan 1964, p.8), for McLuhan it was the effect that a particular medium (or technology) had on its audience (or users, or consumers) which was more important than any content it might relay.
McLuhan described electric media as extensions of ourselves; an expansion of our own nervous system; electrical connections that flow beyond hair, nails and skin. He theorized that every time we used technology to unburden ourselves, for example by allowing cars to move us so we don’t have to, our bodies were engaging in a kind of auto-amputation, “an immediate relief of strain on the central nervous system” (p.47).
The Greek myth of Narcissus, McLuhan argues, was not a tale of a man who falls in love with himself, but rather of someone who became numbed to the extension of himself, which he did not realise was his own reflection in the mirror. The name Narcissus, McLuhan points out, comes from the Greek word narkosis, or numbness (p.45). This numbness, he argued, helps us deal the bodily stresses otherwise too great to bear.
Fifty years on and one cannot help but wonder what McLuhan would have thought about our use of the internet as a form of communication and identity formation. I believe that now, more than ever technology is an extension of our selves; cybernetic enhancements designed to make tasks easier and more efficient (for example writing emails to our families overseas instead of letters, “skyping” them instead of incurring international call charges, or sharing photos from our lives with them instantly using Picassa or Instagram).
The creation of digital media is not limited to a few in possession of special expertise and massive financial backing, like the television or radio media of McLuhan’s time. Tools to build websites have become accessible to a broader market, with blogging platforms like Tumblr or content management systems like WordPress enabling hundreds of thousands of writers, artists, small businesses, hobby enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and soap box criers to carve out their own space in the ever-expanding network of data. One can teach oneself to develop applications for smart phones and sell them via the Apple iTunes store or Google Play. Tech start ups like Uber seem to pop up overnight. Creative minds continuously give birth to new innovations. McLuhan wrote, “man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth” (p. 51).
The unloading of stress from our own internal circuits onto that of the capable virtual circuits of the net is not a daily, but a constant practice for many internet users. But I would hesitate to call this “auto-amputation”, as McLuhan might have. Instead I suggest that we now have the ability through our cybernetic enhancements to grow new limbs as required; identity-limbs which unfurl across an infinite web of data. This web itself is evocative of the central nervous system and the electric circuits McLuhan wrote of. We have managed to replicate another and even more complex version of our internal biological network.
Our identity-limbs feel their way out into the digital mesh, representing us, or parts of us, allowing us access to tools and services to make our lives easier, enabling us to shop, date, bank, gamble, research, read, interact, work, or play from anywhere we like. These limbs have not been amputated: we are conscious of their existence and of their relationship to our bodies. Like the tentacles of an octopus, our identity-limbs are connected to us, the fleshy body, the central brain which processes input and outputs orders.
According to McLuhan, “when our central nervous system is technologically extended to whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action” (p.4). If this was so in 1964, then it is more so in 2014. In our world of digital connectivity, our identity-limbs interconnect with others, touching each other and learning from each other. We are no longer passive consumers of media, unable to realise the significance of the technology we create and isolated by our consumption of it, but rather we interact with it and other users, growing, learning, extending and evolving. On the net we are no longer alone; we are not islands: “in the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin” (p.52).
McLuhan, Marshall 2001 (1964), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Routledge 2001