My Monster, My Self: On Nicholas Carr and William Powers
“Man has become a kind of prosthetic God,” Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, which appeared in 1930. He continued: “When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times…. Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.”
Freud was circling around one of his favorite subjects—our sometimes tragic, sometimes farcical, always inescapable ambivalence about our selves and our works—but his metaphor is instructive. With technology, he suggested, we have become not only magnificent but monstrous. Kate with her cellphone, pedestrians on city streets staring at tiny screens broadcasting images or words from another place, kids and grown-ups friending and tweeting—are they not prosthetic gods, the whole world in their handhelds? Are they not also monsters?
There is truly something magnificent about the Internet. While writing this essay, I have used it countless times: to find quotes in Google Books, to look up definitions of words, to find out if there was a connection between Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow and Washington Irving’s (evidently not), or between Moleskine and moleskin (ditto, but did you know that Bruce Chatwin coined the name?), or to ask William Powers his age. These aren’t only matters of convenience: I’m smarter now than I was, or at least I know more than I did before. Even if much of my memory has been outsourced to the Cloud, I still can’t imagine myself without the Internet. The desktop that links me to the web is my prosthesis, no less than Kate’s phone is hers.
This auxiliary organ is only imperfectly stitched onto me, and it gives me much trouble at times. I was watching a movie featuring Jeanne Moreau the other day, and I wondered how old she was when she made it. Before the question had fully taken shape, I was Googling the answer—but my computer was nowhere near. I had reached for it in the same horrifying way that an amputee reaches for a cigarette with his lost hand. I don’t know which was worse—the presence-in-absence of my phantom appendage, or the fact that I missed it so much. Especially at the times when the seams are showing, I see what Powers and Carr regret so deeply, and what has moved them to write their books: we have become unrecognizable to ourselves; we have become monsters.
That movie, by the way, was Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World. Released in 1991, the film anticipates a world connected by an information network and our ambivalence about it. In the movie, a scientist has invented a device that can record what a person sees, convert it into digital information and play it back directly into the visual cortex of a blind person. It turns out that the device can also record dreams, and people are soon hopelessly addicted to watching them, walking around glued to their screens like proto-Brooklynites with their iPhones. The story’s hero is rescued from her addiction—spoiler alert!—by a novel, through which she rediscovers the value of reading, which is probably why the video stores classify the film as science fiction.
It’s hard to hold such nostalgia against Powers and Carr. After all, they’re pulling on a central thread of modernity, and both are smart enough to know that if you keep pulling, the whole tapestry will unravel. Besides, it may be impossible to deliver a thoroughgoing critique of technology without becoming a little reactionary, or to slay the digital monster without resorting to pitchforks and torches. Hard as it is to find our origins, it is even harder to imagine who else we might become. Like Powers and Carr, I have profited in every way—personally, intellectually, professionally—from reading, writing and thinking deeply. I regret the losses lamented in these books at least as much as their authors do, and I long for the kind of reassurance they are reaching toward. I also recoil from the tyranny of Google and the iPhone zombies, and I feel a creeping revulsion and fury whenever my son disappears into his iPad.
But disgust is the wellspring of bigotry, and it often brands as evil what is new and different, leading us to overlook the sublime hidden in the monstrous. Disgust is a way of keeping faith with one’s origins or avoiding an unbearable conflict, even if only in an imaginary sense. This is especially so for those of us, like Powers and Carr (and me), who have had the Internet grafted onto our analog skin. In his reply to my e-mail asking his age, Powers assured me that plenty of young people have responded favorably to his message, and I have no doubt this is true. But I meet kids all the time who listen to Grateful Dead tapes and wear tie-dyes and drop acid; refreshing as I might find this, it doesn’t mean that psychedelic consciousness is the mindset of the future, or that it ought to be. Our future selves may have Bluetooth implants and pointed thumbs and, who knows, eyes on the tops of their heads. What are prostheses for us will have grown seamlessly onto them, but they will have new seams to contend with. Self-help may no longer come in the form of books, but it will be necessary all the same, for those future selves will have their own discontents, their own monsters, their own lost pasts to mourn.