Appeared in Vol. 7 No. 1 Download PDF here

Technology is the means by which we perform a task using objects that are not part of our body. When we crack walnuts with our teeth, we are being natural. When we use a nutcracker to get the job done, we are being technological. By re-shaping the material in the world around us to assist us in accomplishing our purposes, we extend our natural powers so that we can do things which we either could not do naturally or could not do as easily. The automobile extends our ability to walk; the telescope extends our power of sight; and the computer extends certain capacities of our minds. Lewis Mumford, in his book The City in History,(1) speaks of the walls of the walled city as an extension-like clothing and housing-of the skin of its inhabitants.

But every technology produces a counter effect inasmuch as it tends to numb us to the very nature it extends. As we increase our reliance on the automobile for the purpose of getting from one place to another, not only do we begin to rely less on our own legs, but we become less aware that we have legs. As our industrial society conditions us toward greater dependency on things, it also increases our alienation from nature-both nature in general as well as our own specific nature as human beings.

The ancients were well aware of this problem. Plato, for example, warned that improvements in recording technologies would inevitably be accompanied by a reduction in the use of our memories as well as their gradual impairment. And this was no minor observation on his part, for Plato made it clear that a philosopher must have a good memory.

The more automated our society, the less autonomous its citizens; and the assumed goal of technological progress is to bring about a state in which machines do everything and we do nothing. It is not mere rhetoric, therefore, to ask whether Things are not already in the saddle, riding Man. We find this peculiar reversal exquisitely symbolized on the cover of a New York magazine whose feature essay is entitled, “Notes on the New Paralysis.” The cover shows a youngster in a wheelchair while his rich mother boasts: “Of course he can walk. Thank God he doesn’t have to.”(2)

The extraordinary predominance of technology in the present era has created the impression that technology has gone far beyond merely extending nature and is now attempting to replace it. Some scientists, for example, have confidently asserted that it will soon be possible to produce in people a conviction or impression of happiness-through drugs or by electrical stimulation-without there being any real, natural basis for it.(3) Rather than see technology as an art that extends nature, they prefer to see it as a means of replacing nature or creating it anew.

As human beings, however, we are rooted in nature. The notion that technology could give us a new identity-one no longer rooted in nature-contradicts an ineradicable feature of our essential being. As Martin Heidegger warns, the great issue modern technology presents “is the saving of man’s essential nature.”(4)


Because technology has profoundly altered the way we understand our relationship with nature, the real relationship between man, nature, and art becomes problematic. Aristotle, whose thought represents the crowning achievement of the common sense realism of the ancient Greek mind, saw clearly that we are rooted in nature. But he also saw that nature does not contain us and that we are free to extend-through art-what nature has left unfinished. When he stated that “art imitates nature,”(5) he implied that art completes, perfects, and extends nature. Technology, in particular, is the art of extending nature by applying scientific laws to our practical purposes.

As Aristotle observed, we are neither copiers who produce nothing new, nor creators who produce what is new from nothing, but makers whose “making” or “work” co-operates with the creation that already exists as nature. Consequently, we cannot ‘`make” anything unless we understand nature and obey her laws. We can work only with nature, not without her; for nature supplies both the protoplasm and the principles for everything that we produce. And because our own roots are in nature, technological art serves as a useful instrument in extending the life that nature has bequeathed us.

The idea of using art to replace nature creates the captivating illusion that we are free from the narrow limitations nature has set for us, free to enjoy new and virtually limitless experiences. Thus, the traditional view that our identity and happiness are related to our fundamental “human nature” now threatens to give way to the contemporary view that our identity and happiness can be extended to something completely removed from nature. The prospect of a technologically induced, automatic happiness is attractive because it promises to exempt us from the need to struggle. Yet the need to struggle may well be rooted in our essential nature as human beings. We cannot be happy if we do not possess ourselves, and we cannot possess ourselves if we reject needs that are fundamental to our nature. Likewise, Goethe’s protest that “Nature has neither core nor skin; she’s both at once outside and in,” reminds us that nature is everywhere, she is inescapable. Technology may serve the needs of human life in countless invaluable ways-and indeed it does-but it cannot replace human life with a synthetic or artificial version of its own.

The current problem-which is pervasive in scope-involves the illusion that technology, by extending nature to the point where the resulting products or images are completely dissociated from their roots in nature, actually “replaces” nature. Accordingly, technology is regarded more and more as fundamental or originative, and nature (like the “Mother Nature” of margarine commercials who is embarrassed by a product that tastes better than butter) either obsolete or rapidly receding into obsolescence. This apparent triumph of technology over nature is implied in Susan Sontag’s comment that “reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras;” (6) and Daniel Boorstin’s remark that people “talk constantly not of things themselves, but of their images.”(7)

Many technological extensions of our day are indeed most entrancing, expecially those that offer the illusion of freedom from the “limitations of nature.” Consequently people are strongly tempted to attach themselves to technologies, adapt to their mode of operating, and identify personally with them. Those who succumb to this temptation can only become increasingly insensitive to their own nature and real indentity as persons. By adapting their life to technological extensions they unwittingly re-enact the tragedy of Narcissus.

According to the ancient Greek fable, Narcissus was an extremely beautiful, but excessively proud youth. Nemesis, the goddess of vengence, punished him for spurning Echo’s love by causing him to fall in love with his reflection, which he saw in the silvery water of a clear fountain. He made so complete an adaptation to this naturally extended image of himself that it became his sole reality. He became numb to all else. While he gazed unceasingly at his fugitive image, which could only mirror his loving gesture, he experienced the full force of his punishement: to feel what it is to love and receive no love in return. Echo tried to lure him out of his trance by repeating fragments of his speech, but in vain. Only death succeeded in separating him from the object of his obsession. Narcissus died beside the fountain and from his remains grew the narcissus plant.

It is essential to understanding the myth to know that Narcissus did not perceive his repeated image to be himself; he interpreted as being the reality of another. Narcissus thought his image was some beautiful water-spirit living in the fountain. The fable conveys the important point that we can be so beguiled by an extended image of ourselves-which we perceive as a lovable “other” (the other we would like to be)-that we can easily forget who we really are and thus become incapable of functioning realistically; that in the end, our preference for our image is a preference for death. Narcissus’ tragedy is twofold: that the object of his only love is incapable of receiving or returning his love; and that he is numb to all other realities. Narcissus’ sole faith is in an illusion.

Here etymology is instructive. The words Narcissus and narcosis are both derived from the Greek word narke, meaning “numbness.” Narke also designates the sedative effect of the narcissus plant. Narcissus, then, is benumbed to his real identity by the affection he has for his extended image. He becomes, in effect, an anonymity subserving an illusion. The universal implication is clear: anyone who is numb to his own identity becomes incapable of discriminating between what he is and what he is not. Marshall McLuhan , assessing the Narsissus myth, remarks that “it is, perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the relection to be Narcissus 1 “(8)

The Narcissus myth has an important application to our technological society where it is commonplace for people to have strong attachments for their technologically extended images. And the fact that narcissism is a predominant feature of our society is well documented in Christopher Lasch’s book, The Culture of Narcissism, where he remarks that, “Narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions, therefore, tend to bring out narcissitic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone.”(9)

Take television, for example, where there seems to be a symbolic re-enactment of the vengeance of Nemesis: The narcissistic tele-viewer sees the objects of his affections “mirrored” on a silvery screen without there being any possibility that they could ever be concerned about him! Through such emotional attachment to technologically extended images of himself, he repeats the experience of Narcissus, loving what cannot love him in return, while mistaking it for a substantial reality.

Consider also the much-discussed relationships that some movie stars, television celebrities, and sports heros have for their media-extended images. It is well known that these images commonly bear little or no resemblance to the actual people behind the images. The typical question that movie magazines ask-“What is Paul Newman really like?”-more than suggests this mysterious gulf that separates the private person from the public “persona.” But the life-adjustment problems of unemployed actors, over-exposed television personalities, and retired athletes who have become used to the intoxicating effect of their public images are akin to the withdrawal pains (or “cold turkey”) that drug-dependent individuals suffer when their drugs are withdrawn. Being a “big name” star can be a dangerous “high,” numbing an individual to his or her real identity.

It belongs to the very nature of the media to require extreme sacrifices of people on the personal level for the sake of their images. Fashion models mortify themselves severely so that they can photograph better. Stuntmen are sometimes obliged to brush with death in order to provide a bit of sensationalism for movie viewers. Actresses are commonly advised to abort when they have untimely pregnancies, and to have plastic surgery when time shows too plainly on their faces. Marilyn Monroe asks her biographer to “Love me for my yellow hair alone.”(10) The media, which routinely ridicules moral asceticism, is curiously solemn and rigorous in its demands for image asceticism. In many cases the media’s ascetic requirements actually run counter to an individual’s well-being. The actor who plays Brother Dominic for Xerox commercials, for example, is required by contract to be very much overweight so that he can play the role of a portly monk more convincingly.

While the split between person and persona is plainly evident in the lives of mass media celebrities, the same phenomenon is widespread among ordinary people, although it receives proportionally less notoriety; the quiet desperation of the undistinguished is simply not as newsworthy as the alcoholism of a former astronaut. But we do read in the daily press of the tragic results of countless individuals who try to live exclusively in technologically extended images of themselves: A St. Paul youth of fifteen years commits suicide because of the cancellation of his favorite TV show, Battlestar Galactica. A 16-year-old Canadian kills himself because his parents ask him to wait a year or two before he gets his driver’s license. A 17-year-old Illinois high school student dies while inhaling butane lighter fluid in an attempt to ignite it and breathe fire in imitation of his idols of the rock group, “Kiss”. We read of adults who do away with themselves because of a sudden loss of wealth or because circumstances require them to part with some important material possession such as a business, or a house, for example.

In each of these cases death resulted because people loved themselves too little and their images-the others they wanted to be like-too much. Love transforms the lover into the object he loves; love for an image that has no personal reality is necessarily depersonalizing, love for an image that has no substantial reality can be fatal. If an individual allows himself to form, through his love, a strong identification with a TV image and that image is canceled (the television equivalent of death), then it becomes understandable why that individual might experience withdrawal symptoms and possibly even think of suicide. Unrequited love for an image lacks the stabilizing realism of reciprocal love, which is anchored in the personal realities of the lovers, and represents nothing more than a hopeless infatuation with a technological illusion.

We gain a feel for the pandemic popularity of ordinary individuals extending themselves into current technologies by consulting contemporary folk humor. Folk humor is a natural way (sometimes the only way) of dealing with grievance. It frequently expresses the inherent absurdity of a situation more concisely and forcefully than any other means available. Man’s grievance against the sense of self-alienation technology has produced in him is evident from the following citations: A teenager says to her examining doctor,” Oh, it’s my hearing-that’s a relief, I thought my amplifier was going!” A woman answers a friend who just complimented her young child by saying, “That’s nothing, wait ’til you see his photograph!” An athlete remarks, “I won’t know if I’m injured until I study the game films.” A doctor tells his patient, “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, there’s nothing I can do for you; but I can touch up your X-rays.”

Commercial advertising, which is technology’s sales bureau, is not satisfied with merely exhibiting its wares, it must get people to identify with its products. In most cases the identification is subtle and indirect, but in other cases it is undisguised. Thus, a whole class of human beings who consume a particular soft drink belong to the “Pepsi Generation”. The Tareyton smoker’s black eye is not only proof of his loyalty to that brand but is an actual part of his physical identity. A fully modern woman states in an ad for condoms: “My man is a Shield’s Man.” We hear of “Marlboro Men,” “Clairol Women,” and “Maytag Families”. The examples are numerous and all such ads fully exploit technology as a means of selling people new identities for old.

Every form of narcissism has its built-in subtleties which make it difficult to diagnose. The subtlety of today’s narcissism that is connected with technology consists in the fact that it involves a large group of people at the same time. In the original myth, narcissism is a solitary phenomenon; in a technocracy, it affects virtually everyone at once. Daniel Boorstin, in his book The Republic of Technology, makes the point that “Every year our nation becomes less peculiar. “(11) He argues that because of technology, the experience of Americans becomes increasingly the same. On a particular Sunday afternoon, for example, nearly 100 million Americans will share the common experience of watching two football teams compete for glory in the annual Super Bowl classic. The winner of this contest will aptly symbolize to this same group of people what is eminently desirable in a technological society-supremacy, power, fame, and abundant financial reward. These values, extended by technology on a mass level, do not conform to man’s more elementary natural needs (Freud correctly recognized that wealth cannot satisfy man because it is not based on an infantile wish). Moreover, as group ideals they are contradictory since not everyone can be number one, and more powerful, famous, and wealthy, than most others.

One of the telling traits of the solitary narcissist is precisely his isolation from others. Usually only the narcissist himself would be in a position to defend his peculiar outlook. But group narcissism is protected by the fact that it is defended by everyone in that group; it is not regarded as peculiar as long as its values are shared by many. Although it is insulated from reality, it is not isolated from other people. Its vocabulary of “we” rather than “I”, “our nation” rather than “myself” gives it an aura of altruism; the fact that it represents a consensus offers the semblance of truth and creates the impression of rational comportment.

Erich Fromm speaks of a form of “low-grade chronic schizophrenia” (11) that can be a pathological, though difficult to detect, characteristic of a large group of people. As long as millions of people share the same sickness, according to Fromm, they feel a certain strength in numbers which reassures them of being perfectly healthy. Group narcissism, therefore, is a pathology that is not only difficult for the afflicted multitude to detect, but as it progresses, its detection becomes increasingly unlikely.


Gabriel Marcel makes the point in his book Man Against Mass Society(13) that “a man cannot be free or remain free, except in the degree to which he remains linked with that which transcends him.” The bane of all narcissistic groups is their loss of contact with that which is outside of them. The neurotic individual, for Freud, suffered because he failed to adapt successfully to his society. The Freudian individual has now graduated to the point where he happily adapts to the societal system, but still suffers because, in forming a closed relationship with that system, he has cut himself off from that which exists outside of the system. Jacques Ellul argues that in the technological society, the purpose of psychological methods is to neutralize or eliminate aberrant individuals and tendencies to fractionalization;” and that “man is to be smoothed out, like a pair of pants under a steam iron, “(14) Today’s societal discontent is simply a manifestation of the next developed stage of yesterday’s individual discontent. Man’s personal destiny, however, is always to remain open to the transcendent. No closed system society, no matter how sophisticated and etherealized its technology, can satisfy his personal needs and desires.

The essential paradox concerning the inter-relationships between man, nature, and art is that as long as art serves man by working in harmony with nature, his life continues to improve and continues to remain open to the infinite; but when art tries to emancipate itself from nature, it can provide man only some fixed and narrow image which inevitably immobilizes him. Perhaps the best explanation of this paradox is what it was the Greek genius to intuit, namely, that nature, because of its dynamic character, intimates the infinite, whereas everything that man grasps as an image he perceives as circumscribed and therefore finite.

The passage from solitary to group narcissism bears an analogical relationship with the passage from psychoanalysis to social psychology and the study of the masses. The expression “sick society” has come into vogue replacing, to a certain extent, the idea of the individual alone being sick. The French psychologist Le Bon was the first student of mass psychology. He drew the conclusion that the mass, acting as a group, was capable of acting in a more bestial manner than all the single individuals who compose the group. Freud, in studying Le Bon’s ideas, stated that the mass possess only an id but not an ego.(15) For the contemporary inhabitant of mass society who rigorously conforms to its impersonal values, id becomes his I.D. Lewis Mumford, speaking in this vein, has discussed the emergence of “megatechnic primitivism” (16)-the negative correlative of megatechnic society-that made its most pronounced appearance as Woodstock Nation. “Megatechnic primitivism” adheres to the same materialistic values as does the mass society against which it supposedly revolts, but combines its addiction to cars, drugs, stereos, and the mass taste that is exemplified by fashionable discs and films, with a return to the Great Outdoors, herding in large groups, living in unhygienic conditions, and public sex. This counter-culture is connected by invisible electrodes to the same pecuniary and libidinal centers from which spring the dreams that characterize the establishment’s group narcissism. It does not revolt against the establishment, but merely provides an immature imitation of it.

Technology unifies the members of mass society, standardizes their lives, and gives them common goods and similar experiences. But as it accomplishes all these tasks, it tends to dissolve individual relationships with the transcendent. Categories of the sacred and the sublime cease to have strong and immediate meaning for people. Religion declines or makes accommodations with technology’s materialistic implications. The poet is replaced by the computer, and the clergyman by a psychotechnician. As the technological society becomes more and more efficient and self-sufficient, it moves toward an automated society whose proper name, as Mumford remarks, “is self-inflicted impotence.”(17) Terminology that was once restricted to psychological descriptions of individual pathologies is now readily applied to society in general. Mumford goes on to state that the technologically automated society is “a neat mechanical model of a compulsion neurosis, and perhaps even springs from the same ultimate source-anxiety and insecurity. “(18)

The dream of the individual that his life could run automatically like an efficient machine, has begun to assume the proportions of a corporate nightmare in which automation unleashes its suffocating powers of standardization, over-regimentation, and depersonalization. Arthur Miller’s trenchant remark that we live in an “air conditioned nightmare,” implies the unhappy co-existence of technological progress and spiritual regress. Like real nightmares, it takes place within a profound collective sleep therefore offering little chance of discovering either its cause or its cure.

The machine serves us only as long as it is subordinated to our needs. When we come to identify ourselves or our life in terms of our mechanical extensions, the machine no longer serves us, but we it. Because the machine is not alive, it is inferior to us in a most fundamental and important way; ultimately it oppresses us rather than rejuvenates us. The machine is also fixed and determined. In this regard, it is unable to offer us a sense of the transcendent that is vitally needed to nourish our spiritual centers. Fromm warns that an excessive interest in the mechanical, in something that is not alive, leads to an attraction to death or, in its less drastic forms, to indifference toward life instead of “reverence for life.”(19) His point is well taken: machines can only run down; they cannot operate counter to the law of entropy and grow and evolve as living things can and do. Hence, the wearying effect that comes with working too long with machines. Compare, for example,the expressions on the faces of workers in an automotive plant with those of nurses in a maternity ward.

Technology promises to make our life easier, and in innumerable evident ways it fulfills these promises. In one beneficial way, computers relieve us from trivial and laborious work so that we can direct our mind toward more challenging enterprises. But a critical point is reached when we permit technology to substitute for our own fundamental, meditative thinking about our personal identity, for example, or our moral obligations to others, or our place in the world. Aristotle pointed out that thinking means suffering, since it cannot take place without reason’s suffering. It is equally true that there can be no moral consciousness in the absence of suffering. Dostoevsky confessed that the one thing he feared above all else was that he would not be worthy of his suffering. T. S. Eliot, as a poet, prided himself in what he referred to as “that peculiar honesty which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying.” We distinguish ourselves from the mass and the machine by our willingness to accept the pain and the struggle that are an inseparable part of our personal growth.

Technology can have an anaesthetic effect on man, dulling his moral consciousness and his capacity to enter into fundamental, meditative thinking. One of the more familiar ways technology produces this effect is through motion, especially rapid motion. “Speed,” from drag races to drugs, offers man the illusion of being absolved from the need to think, and all the conflict and suffering that thinking entails. Friedrich Juenger notes in The Failure of Technology that motion has a narcotic attraction for technological man, “particularly where the going is fast, where speed is record breaking.”(20) Tommaso Marinetti served advance notice to the present generation’s intoxication with speed in his Initial Manifesto of Futurism where he wrote: “We declare that the world’s splendour has been enriched by a new beauty, the beauty of speed… Already we live in the absolute, since we have already created speed, eternal and ever-present. “(23)

Speed is inversely related not only to our awareness of living, but the frequency and quality of our inter-personal experiences. In walking to work we gather along the way a host of inter-personal experiences. If we use a bicycle, these experiences are fewer; and if we use the automobile, they are fewer still. At an ideal of instant speed, the number of such experiences would be reduced to zero. Paradoxically, at high speeds, our life would become impoverished for lack of human exchanges, our world would become static. One pragmatist philosopher, in attempting to justify this form of idealizing speed, stated that the “going becomes the goal.” Nonetheless, such a dictum accords technology more centrality than it deserves and accords living less centrality than common sense demands.

Speed as an end in itself, then, tends to narcotize man to life’s content and inclines him toward the fate of Narcissus. Speed is only one example, though a salient and important one, of how technology ceases to be man’s ally when it becomes an end in itself. The automobile-the most typical triumph of mass production in the technological society-virtually embodies speed and power (and control to a lesser degree). But since 1900, the automobile has killed more people than have been killed in all the wars ever fought by the United States.(20) The affinity between technology and death is evident here. At the same time, however, technology has an equivalent affinity for life. The differentiating factor is whether technology serves the person, assisting in his care, development, and freedom, or the person chooses to serve technology, thereby narcotizing himself to his own superior personal value while planting himself in the fatal footsteps of Narcissus.

In Zen Buddhism there is a simple proverb which reads: “to point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon.” The image here may seem unduly quaint, but it emphasizes the philosophical principle all the more beautifully: it is always absurd, no matter what the technique, to use an instrument to occlude man’s vision. Technology serves man as an instrument, just as the finger is a suitable instrument for pointing at the moon. As long as technology is subordinate to man, the right means works for the right end and man is the beneficiary. In this regard, Aristotle’s imitative notion of art is upheld. But in fixating attention on technology, or the finger, one permits the means to usurp the end: the finger to eclipse the moon, technology to rule the man. “Woe to those” who are mesmerized by means and are crushed under their oppressive weight. Man’s destiny is always to look beyond. When the astronauts achieved the moon, their attention was soon re-directed to the clarity of the untwinkling stars which they saw through vacuous space. If the moon landing proved anything to the astronauts, it proved that every new technology is outshined by the more glorious natural wonders it reveals. The universe is too rich and versatile to allow technology to be an end. Narcissus, on the other hand, chose the static journey to nowhere, fully narcotized to the transcendent inner self to which infinity beckoned from beyond. Art imitates nature, but nature intimates the infinite.


1 Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, 1961).

2 New York, 28 October 1970.

3 See Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 428-436. See also Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 44: “But the idea that it [the computer] replaces man and life is the manifestation of the pathology of today.”

4 Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 56.

5 Exposition of the Posterior Analytics, Prologue.

6 Susan Sontag, “Photography Unlimited,” New York Review, 23 June 1977, pp. 26, 28, 31.

7 Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Antheneum, 1972), p. 204.

8 Marshall Mcluhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 51-5. McLuhan argues that as man adapts to his extension of himself he suffers a corresponding “auto-amputation” and concludes that “Self-amputation forbids self-recognition.”

9 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979), p. 101.

10 Norman Rosten, Marilyn, An Untold Story (New York: New American Libary, 1973).

11 Daniel Boorstin, The Republic of Technology (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. xiii.

12 Erich Fromm, p. 41.

13 Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1962), p. 23.

14 Ellul, pp. 410-11.

15 See Karl Stern, Love and Succes (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1975), p. 110.

16 Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon ofPower (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Jovanovich, 1964), p. 373. “…despite their gestures of revolt against the established goods of civilization, the young are in fact addicted to its most decadent mass products [radio and television happenings, etc.]. This is purely megatechnic primitivism.”

17 Ibid., p. 184.

18 Ibid., p. 185.

19 Fromm, p. 42.

20 Friedrich Juenger, The Failure of Technology (Chicago: Regnery, 1956), p. 172

21 In Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 59-60. “A racing motor-car, its frame adorned with great pipes, like snakes with explosive breath.. .a roaring motor-car, which looks as though running a shrapnel is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. “

22 See Mumford, The Myth, p. 350.