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Mediums and Messages - Pt III
The dissatisfaction and disconnection we feel with today’s digital technology is no accident—because the body is no accident.
In my last post I wrapped up by saying: “If bodies were machines and persons were ghosts, perhaps pixels could provide a good substitute. But the fact they do not—and that we felt this so acutely during the pandemic—suggests that the body is something that cannot be replaced by even our most powerful, personalized gadgets.” In this post, I will unpack this statement by articulating why digital technology is inadequately personal despite our assumptions to the contrary.
Today, our day-to-day life largely assumes that our digital interactions are personal. What happens online or over text counts. The texts we send, the things we tweet, the reels we share—these all seem to be attributable to our person and contribute something of meaning to our relationships or reputations. Depending on what we say or share, we can gain or lose “friends,” we can advance or tank our careers, or we can spoil or better our reputations. For those who grew up with “new media”—the combination of the internet, social media, and smartphones—things like texts, TikToks, and snaps seem like more than adequate means to express themselves or connect with others (and, not to mention, avoid the social anxiety of in-person interactions).
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Of course, there are many who do not see or use new media as adequately personal. For example, older generations—who often find technology frustratingly confusing—typically consider digital interactions to be more limited. For them, it’s easier to pick up the phone and call instead of engaging in an endless text exchange. And FaceTime isn’t a one-to-one equivalent for spending time in person. Moreover, there are those who use technology precisely because it is impersonal or anonymous. They tweet acerbic things online because they know they would never get away with it in person. Or they engage in licentious behavior online, like sexting, because it is less “personal,” less risky, less costly.
That said, across our culture, the personal dimension of digital interactions is largely assumed—so much so that tech developers are working on making these interactions more seamless in hopes of making them even more personal. Hence the push for things like virtual reality and transhumanism. Advocates of such things are not only convinced that digital technology is personal; they believe that this technology can help us better realize our personhood by transcending the body’s limits such as death and confinement to a particular physical location. It is a technological liberation from the limits of our physical bodies into a more personal existence.1
Whether people explicitly articulate this as a consciously held belief, it’s clear that many in today’s tech-saturated society operate on the assumption articulated above: that digital technology is personal.
Interestingly, at the same time as this assumption is held, experience increasingly suggests that new media’s effects indicate not a liberation but a loss when it comes to personal action. By relying more on social media, the internet, and smartphones to mediate our self-expression and connection, many of us find ourselves plagued by body-image issues, depression, and loneliness. Social media distorts the perception of ourselves and others by deluding us that life is an endless adventure, full of beauty and pictures only of people’s “good sides.” Additionally, as we rely less on people and more on Google and the internet, our relationships fray and we find ourselves increasingly isolated. When we are together, our distraction decreases the quality of our interactions.
All of this suggests that today’s technology is not, in fact, as personal as many of us assume. We may sense that our digital interactions adequately communicate personal content: our posts, texts, tweets, videos. Yet the problematic effects of new media suggest that it is not sufficiently personal at a deeper level, specifically in terms of the form or medium through which the content is communicated.
As media scholar Marshall McLuhan pointed out, the two—form and content—are not in fact separable: “The medium is the message.”2 By this McLuhan meant that the “message”—the commodity, product, or content—being brought to us by a particular technology is inextricably linked to the “medium”—the means or form of technology—which brings us the message.
To illustrate this connection, consider the radio. The content, or message, brought to one through a radio are shaped and constrained by the medium of the radio. Thus, shows and programs were adapted to the medium itself. Contrast radio programs to movies and television shows. The former uses voice acting and auditory cues in its content to keep people tuned in to what was happening in the story. Whereas television and movies, as visual media, needs more than voices and sound effects; it requires acting, cuts, and other visual cues to tell stories. Overall, watching a radio show is largely unnecessary because radio isn’t about visuals. And listening to a movie would be confusing because you cannot see what is happening on screen. The content of radio and television may of course overlap, but, due to the mediums for which they were developed, they are hardly considered identical or interchangeable. This is what McLuhan means when he says, “The medium is the message.” But how does this apply to persons?
When the “message” of a person is communicated through the medium of a smartphone, the internet, or social media, the person is not left untouched. The person is transformed in the use of new media. According to McLuhan, whenever an individual uses a technology, a kind of self or “autoamputation” takes place.3 We outsource a function of the body—one of its limbs, senses, or mental capacities—to our gadgets. For example, the function of the foot gets outsourced to the automobile or airplane. The function of the eye gets outsourced to the camera. The function of the ear gets outsourced to a recording app. The function of memory gets outsourced to the cloud that holds all our pictures, messages, snaps, etc. In this outsourcing a person essentially severs a part of the body and replaces it with a tool.
In the case of new media, the person experiences an amputation of the entire body. We have not only outsourced the function of our eyes to cameras and memory to clouds, we have outsourced physical presence and interaction for digital presence and interaction. To put it another way, in the era of new media, our bodies are becoming increasingly obsolete. With new media, we have only to “log in” to meet others (via dating or social apps), “FaceTime” to see loved ones, “follow” friends on Instagram to stay in touch, “Google” to find the best restaurants or recipes, etc, etc. In theory, new media makes it so you rarely have to use your body—say, by meandering the streets in “search” of a good restaurant, traveling to a friend’s house to “hang out” with them, or visiting your grandma to “see” her.
Consequently, the autoamputation brought about by new media is as comprehensive as I’m suggesting, then it should be no surprise that more and more see their bodies as nonessential to their person. Indeed, recent research has found the majority of those who identify as transgender can trace their gender transition journey back to social media. Additionally, social media and the internet have had close connections with other perennial body dysmorphia contagions—like anorexia, bulimia, or body integrity identity disorder—since the early 2000s. And these are only just a couple of examples.
Ultimately, the dissatisfaction and disconnection many experience as a result of today’s digital technology is no accident—because the body is no accident. It confirms, albeit negatively, what Scripture teaches: namely that the human person was created with a body as the designated means through which to express herself and connect with others.4 To use McLuhan’s terminology, the body is the medium specially and uniquely suited to the “message” of the person. Any attempt to communicate the person through a different medium will be dissatisfying.
Note the emphasis on transcending bodily limits. I use transcending as opposed to accommodating. For many, technology that accommodates bodily limits is vital for them to have more personal interactions. Such technology works with, and not against bodily limits. And by doing so it better enables a person to express and communicate herself as her whole self, including the body.
Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, MIT Press, 1994, p. 7.
McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover,” from Understanding Media, p. 41.
Scripture maintains this conviction in its view of fall and reinforces it with the hope of bodily resurrection.