“There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.” – Walt Whitman
“We come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine.” These opening words to Sherry Turkle’s 1995 book Life on the Screen highlight a feature of our technological age which is all too common, yet one we seemingly do not have concentrated attention to: the formative power of technology. Between digital spaces like social media and our many digital devices, such as smartphones and iPads, our disposition to these technological artifacts is one of consumption and not critical reflection. As such, one hardly considers the ways these artifacts and spaces of the digital world have formative power over us, even if we are not conscious of it.
Over the last few months, I have attempted to reflect on the relationship things like social media and our smartphones to being human and how it may be affecting our lives. While this is no Luddite manifesto to rid all technology from our lives, it is an invitation to consider how we might have a healthier relationship to it in our lives.
Horror cinema is not foreign to explore this concept either. The film which immediately comes to mind when reflecting on how technology affects us in David Cronenberg’s 1983 classic Videodrome. In the film, James Woods plays Max Renn, a seedy cable TV programmer who is looking for some new programming for his current station’s lineup. Max ends up being introduced to a television show called Videodrome, which features images of torture and murder. Being the sort of individual that he is, Max sees this as the opportunity he is looking for and begins unlicensed streaming of this show through his network. However, Max begins having hallucinations. As he becomes further obsessed – and sexually aroused – by the violent imagery of Videodrome, he also seeks to understand its origins, which he discovers is run by a political movement seeking to have television replace every aspect of humanity’s daily life. In one of the more memorable practical effects of the film, Max has yet another extreme hallucination (caused by watching Videodrome) in which his stomach turns into a mouth-shaped, VHS player-like hole. In his journey to defeat Videodrome, Max must end himself, uttering the film’s final words, “Long live the new flesh.”
This social satire from over 30 years ago is still a timely exploration on the ways technology affects not just society, but the human person. Videodrome, as well as Cronenberg’s 1999 film eXistenZ, portrays a world in which humanity and technology have an increasingly interconnected relationship. These films, along with countless other sci-fi and horror classics, have given pause to such patterns of behavior and warned that we must not assume technology is neutral or that it is not in some unconscious way formative. Again, this is not an attempt to be a prophet of doom or a Luddite, but being mindless towards our relationship to technology is unwise. We are formed by the digital apps we spend hours with each day, changing how our brains respond to the next bit of stimuli. For example, the first president of Facebook, Sean Parker, once expressed concerns over how social media was affecting society. He said,
“We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever…It’s a social-validation feedback loop…exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology…The inventors, creators – it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all these people – understood this consciously. And we did it anyway…it literally changes your relationship to society, with each other…It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor whose aforementioned book Life on the Screen recognized some of the pitfalls here even back in the ’90s. In it, she writes,
“The computer [and here we could also add social media and smartphones] offers us both new models of mind and a new medium on which to project our ideas and fantasies…We are learning to live in virtual worlds…Computers don’t just do things for us, they do things to us, including to our ways of thinking about ourselves and other people…People explicitly turn to computers for experiences that they hope will change their ways of thinking or will affect their social and emotional lives.”
If “nearly 80 percent of Americans check their phones within a half-hour of waking up” and “spend more than 4 hours a day on their phones” as well as “check their phones about 47 times per day” (unless you’re 18-24, in which the number goes up to an average of 82 times a day), it would seem that perhaps films like Videodrome can remind us to take inventory of our time spent online, on our phones, away from face-to-face interactions with real people. With so much brokenness in the world, maybe one of the small steps in the right direction is to put the phone away (heck, maybe even take a Digital Sabbath) and get to know a new friend over a nice cup of coffee. If “keeping up with the Joneses” is making us more anxious, angry, and depressed, maybe we close Facebook and Instagram from our browser tabs and finish that long TBR stack by our bed.
Maybe you’ll finish reading that new novel you bought after all.