Every new technological development is accompanied by the possibility of new anxieties and accidents, both real and imaginary. While most of us don’t spend too much time worrying about cell phones causing brain tumors or hotel room keys containing credit card information, we surely all know what it means to feel intimidated by the mysterious power of technological innovations.
In some ways, our interaction with technology — especially the intimacies we forge with our laptops — reflect our everyday, offline personalities, which is ironic when we consider that part of the point of technology is to overcome the difficulties caused by human eccentricity. Rather than reacting to our technology in a uniform way, we turn it into a screen for the projection of our own personalities, with all their tics and twitches intact. I’m the opposite of a hoarder, for example, and tend to throw things away compulsively. This neatness crosses over to my MacBook desktop. I’m constantly emptying the trashcan icon, which — when full — seems to linger like an old ashtray, giving off a stale smell. My boyfriend, on the other hand — whose office is a hectic maelstrom of books and papers — suffers from a form of archive fever, accumulating files and folders, backing them up obsessively, and never ever emptying his trash. Some people are addicted to downloading new software; others refuse to touch unfamiliar icons. Some clean their laptops every day, and others happily ignore layers of dust, coffee stains, crumbs and cat hair.
The word “technophobia” is used loosely and widely as a synonym for “Luddite.” People call themselves “technophobes” just because they don’t (or can’t) use e-mail, preferring to talk on the phone or meet in the flesh. Yet as technology increases, so does the number of people who are genuinely averse to machines. Real technophobia — a crippling psychological condition — is more than simply an inability to program the TiVo or a dislike of computers; it involves a phobia of any kind of mechanistic technology, whether computers, telephones, televisions, or even, in extreme cases, automobiles. While dyed-in-the-wool technophobes may be relatively commonplace in small, rural communities, it is quite rare to find them in modern American cities, where even the simplest life demands a familiarity with simple machines like gas pumps, telephones and parking meters, not to mention credit cards and e-mail.
Mark J. Brosnan, in his book Technophobia: The Psychological Impact of Information Technology, says that true technophobia involves a strong resistance to talking about or even thinking about technologies, often coupled with hostile or aggressive thoughts about machines. When forced to deal with technology, technophobes may end up in a rage, physically attacking the gas pump, photocopier or computer that refuses to obey their commands. Clearly, this is more than just a fear of technology or a sentimental nostalgia for the past. Psychoanalyst Stuart S. Asch describes the condition very well in a 1991 article published in the International Review of Psycho-Analysis, where he refers to “those otherwise intelligent people unable to understand any gadgets and who prefer to avoid them all…”. “If one questions such ‘unmechanically minded’ people,” Asch observes, “one can often sense the anxiety beginning to creep into their manner and voice, often ending with a refusal to discuss it further. Occasionally there is a final admission of a ‘certain uncanny feeling’ about the machines, as if the machines are invested with some kind of animism.”
Inevitably, fashions in technical innovation have an important influence on the form, origin and content of our psychological anxieties. As soon as a particular technology is widespread enough to be incorporated into a culture’s mental life, it will be incorporated into that culture’s paranoid or psychotic delusions. Psychiatric journals have recently contained reports of patients with delusional belief that they are characters in particular computer games, or that they are living inside “reality television” or trapped in “The Matrix.” Others have suggested that the inadvertent pressing of the “reply all” button might be today’s version of the Freudian slip — a way of “accidentally” letting one’s true feelings be publicly known.
Asch’s article is entitled “The Influencing Machine and the Mad Scientist” in reference to a term coined by Freud’s colleague, the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk, who noted that the delusions of people with schizophrenia often involved them being influenced by a ‘diabolical machine’ just outside their technical understanding. This mysterious ‘influencing machine,’ as Tausk called it, was usually operated by a shadowy group of the person’s enemies. “The patients are able to give only vague hints of its construction,” he wrote. “It consists of boxes, cranks, levers, wheels, buttons, wires, batteries, and the like. Patients endeavor to discover the construction of the apparatus by means of their technical knowledge, and it appears that with progressive popularization of the sciences, all the forces known to technology are utilized to explain the functioning of the apparatus.”
Delusions, like anything else, are subject to cultural influence. The power of demons and spirits was succeeded in the industrial era by a fear of electromagnetic radio and television waves. Today’s equivalent of the “influencing machine” may very well be the Internet, which is sometimes mentioned by schizophrenic patients to explain the voices they hear, or to account for other people’s ability to access to their thoughts. Often, these experiences involve paranoid fantasies about the existence of chat rooms, web sites, images or video recordings of the person concerned — beliefs that in some cases may be fueled by lack of knowledge about how technology works. In other cases, however, it is the highly techno-savvy who suffer from paranoid fantasies about the sinister influence of machines. Or perhaps they are more than fantasies. The Internet has many different sites where people who believe they are victims of “organized stalking and electronic torture” can come together and share their resources in the flight against covert surveillance and harassment (see this, for example.) Such sites are full of warnings about sinister dentists who plant microchips in people’s teeth, secret cabals whose aim is to “reduce you to zombie status by constantly hurling laser rays into your brain,” government conspiracies to “turn you gradually into a mindless individual who from outward appearances suffers from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.” Accounts like these lead me to suspect that many of those who fear technology suffer from a tendency to overidentify with it. To the highly sensitive, the machine may function as a frightening and uncanny reflection of the rigid, programmatic inflexibility of the human mind — which is, after all, the ultimate “influencing machine.”