the new iMonolith mini

by John Holbo on January 10, 2007

Kieran’s quip that “They look like the apes in 2001 gazing at the monolith” becomes YouTube reality. And it’s rather brilliant that the device is showing Zoolander.

This reminds me of a bit from Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, that I never understood. It’s from chapter 4, “The Gadget Lover”, which begins with the assertion that Narcissus does not realize the reflection is himself – so narcissism as self-love is a misnomer. Rather, narcosis is the root and active dynamic. “This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he becomes the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image.” He numbed himself by placing himself in an external vessel, the idea seems to be. Some bits:

Physiologically there are abundant reasons for an extension of ourselves involving us in a state of numbness. Medical researchers like Hans Selye and Adolphe Jonas hold that all extensions of ourselves, in sickness or in health, are attempts to maintain equilibrium. Any extension of ourselves they regard as “autoamputation,” and they find that the autoamputative power or strategy is resorted to by the body when the perceptual power cannot locate or avoid the cause of irritation …

While it was no part of the intention of Jonas and Selye to provide an explanation of human invention and technology, they have given us a theory of disease (discomfort) that goes far to explain why man is impelled to extend various parts of his body by a kind of autoamputation. In the physical stress of superstimulation of various kinds, the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function. Thus, the stimulus to new invention is the stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load …

This is the sense of the Narcissus myth. The young man’s image is a self-amputation or extension induced by irritating pressures. As counter-irritant, the image produces a generalized numbness or shock that declines recognition. Self-amputation forbids self-recognition …

With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism. it could well be that the successive mechanizations of the various physical organs since the invention of printing have made too violent and superstimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure.

Is he saying that actually I’m that Ben Stiller character in Zoolander? (Has everyone been taking crazy pills?) Or that the only way I can deal with the fact that everyone can always call me all the time is by numbing myself by staring at Ben Stiller’s character? (Is McLuhan really asserting that tools are typically adopted in psychic self-defense? That seems implausibly paradoxical. But I like this bit: “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.”) I guess I’ll buy myself one of these iAmputate – or iPhone or Apple Phone – devices when they finally become available out here in Singapore.



Kelly 01.10.07 at 6:27 am

I’m 3000 miles away from all my books (ie external hard drives for the mind), so you’ll have to forgive me my lack of quotes and names (and having not seen Zoolander, I’m afraid I don’t grok the reference). The way I’ve always read McLuhan is that we augment ourselves with our technology – but our self is static. We can’t just keep expanding our notion of self, so as we augment with technology, we lose something else of our self.

For example, memory. Once upon a time, the social we remembered everything – we were an oral society, writing didn’t exist. Everything was kept inside the brain (as it were). But we began to augment ourselves with writing and reading, and that lessened our need for memorization and oral storytelling (doesn’t Plato lament this for Socrates?). The book became a literal external hard drive for our brain – it augmented our ability to hold knowledge in memory, but it’s no longer in the fleshy memory (and most of us have forgotten how to use our memories, intentionally, for anything other than short-term cramming).

Or to take a modern equivalent: when I was a teenager, phones were still attached to the wall. Maybe the more advanced ones (the non-rotary ones) had a couple of speed-dial numbers, but you had numbers written down in address books, and you had to dial them every time you called them. The more often you called people, the more likely you were to recall their number and eventually have it memorized. These days, the only number I know is my parents – all the other numbers, even of people I call every other day or two? Stored in my cell phone. I just need to press a couple of buttons, and the 10 digits go out without ever interacting with me. …and I am so screwed if that phone ever goes up in smoke.

I don’t know that McLuhan necessarily means that you have to augment yourself as a form of self defense, so much as augmentation is almost necessary if we want to keep up with the huge amounts of data/stimulation that’s now available to us.

But it’s also 3:30am, so for all I know I’ll reread this in the light of day (and after a night of sleep) and find I’ve horribly misremembered the last two years of my education.


Arthur Davidson Ficke 01.10.07 at 8:19 am

I like my Zune better.


Lorett loves pictures 01.10.07 at 9:48 am

Yes I agree with you, this mentioned Zoolander is a crazy character. I guess people do only act like him if they take too many pills.

Thank you for sharing this story with me !


perianwyr 01.10.07 at 11:46 am

And your teeth and nails are soft from not using them as offensive weapons, too.


Jim Harrison 01.10.07 at 12:10 pm

The notion that there’s something odd about existing in the space between the body and the cultural and natural world is the error here. We were never located two inches behind our right eye, ergo we aren’t going to lose ourselves in our I-Phones, unless you figure we’ve already lost ourselves in other “technologies” such as the English language, clothes, architecture, traffic signs, etc.


ali 01.10.07 at 4:46 pm

I already own a clunky unreliable iPod that looks like a pensioners heart monitor. It is a closed, cold, depressingly Californian device.

Would I buy an iPhone? Only if they rename it iPrat then I could not resist.


Nix 01.10.07 at 6:14 pm

The iPod is only closed if you don’t know about RockBox.


david still 01.10.07 at 6:29 pm

great idea! let’s not have man as tool using ape and we can live in total edenic simplicity. Will you be
the first to toss your computer and cell phone and A/C and hair dryier and electric razor and car and flush toilet?


Randolph Fritz 01.10.07 at 10:44 pm

The MOTOROKR E6 is a very similar device, and I believe available in China, perhaps even Singapore. Thing is, the cell companies have been so efficiently crippling cell phone technology that it has taken Apple to get them moving again. I’m waiting for the unlocked GSM version, but it may be a while.

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