Narcissus Technologies Trump Everything?
Think of a Narcissus these days and the name Donald Trump is never far away. In Ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus was a youth of such good looks he fell in love with himself. After cruelly spurning the attentions of a forest nymph, Nemesis, the Goddess of revenge, tempted him to look into a stream, and upon seeing his image reflected back at him he was transfixed. The youth just wasted away, although in some accounts he reached out to touch the image, tumbled in and drowned. Just as some people with their eyes transfixed upon their smartphone get run over as they cross the road oblivious to the danger. Had Narcissus grown up, he might have developed the pugnacious self-assurance of ‘The Donald’. According to Freud, all children have a narcissus disposition until the real world intrudes upon their consciousness at which point most juveniles adjust their self-obsession to energise their engagement with their surroundings. Those that don’t however, end up developing a Narcissus complex which can then lead to bullying and becoming conceited.
Personalities count. A far cry from The Donald was Ronald Regan, at the time seen as on the far Right of the Republican Party, but by today’s Tea Party standards he is regarded as a rather moderate politician. But they do have something in common: a general disdain for the details of policy. In the 1930s, Stanley Baldwin (later Lord Baldwin) as the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain was criticised by some of his own side for not being more specific on policies. His reply was that while he was leader that would remain the case. The idea that the electorate is concerned with whether the sums add up or not is often a rather fanciful one. Big ideas, which on the Right would include ‘less government’, ‘fewer immigrants’, ‘no to civil liberties legislation’, seem more compelling. They have instant appeal, are instantly recognizable, and instantly repeatable.
Arguably, there is a correspondence between ‘instant’ politics which never scratches too deeply below the surface, but easily translates into hyperbole or media-attracting abuse or vulgarity, and the popular technology of the time. In the pre-digital age it was radio (at the time a rather thoughtful medium) and newspapers (often less thoughtful) for Baldwin. For Regan it was TV and popular radio phone-in programmes. But today digital technology has given a new boost to superficiality. As the Right-wing Wall Street Journal puts it:
“In the digital world enveloping us now, all you have to know is how to work the interface. Click, and software does the heavy thinking and detail work. Messrs Trump and Sanders are more in sync with the culture many are most comfortable with.”
There are numerous approaches to understanding the ways technologies can shape societies and their cultures. To simplify, they can be packed into three boxes: technological determinism, technology neutrality, and technology as a social construction. The determinists see technologies as inevitably being the ultimate drivers, and there is no doubt that some technologies have this impact, the question being how inevitable was their adoption. The social constructionists would argue it depends upon who decides how they will be adopted and deployed. Public transport in Los Angeles lost out to cars because the auto industry bought over the bus companies and closed them down. Railways competed against canals in nineteenth century Britain by buying land alongside the canals to prevent them being widened. The technology neutral school would argue that all technology has positives and negatives, so it all depends upon how they are used. But this would not account for the demise of public transport in Los Angeles unless it could be shown that on a level playing field, cars will always be preferred over buses and tramways. Social constructionists would point out that even then, the subsidies going to public transport are far more transparent than those that go towards private car ownership, notably through road construction.
The signs of a Technology Age that promotes narcissism are all around us. For example, photographic selfies are the zeitgeist of our Age if there ever was one. From reversed baseball caps that promote what might be termed a ‘self-image of the personal’, to reversed cameras in smartphones, Narcissus is among us. Selfie sticks have become the necessary accessory. There is one that even blows your hair backwards and has a light to give the desired windswept special effects.
The Donald has perhaps more than anyone, proved the adage of life imitating art. The Republican primaries have been Reality TV at its real-ist, with real contestants biting chunks out of each other and none doing it better and with more experience than Donald Trump himself. The ‘audience’ (otherwise known as the electorate) along with the media channels, love it. It is the least that they expect in return for their attention. Traditional politicians, tarnished with the brush of the ‘elite’ are no match in this Brave New Media. The Force is With Him. The big question is whether this technology paradigm will out sell the competing technology paradigms of the Information Economy and Society, the ones that connects job seekers to job vacancies, that ones that sell stuff online, the ones that share health records to improve the efficiency of medical services, the ones that provide online access to education, etc. At election time it’s all about politics, but the day after it’s all about jobs, production, distribution and consumption and the technologies that support all of that.
So is Donald Trump an inevitability who will determine the future according to his own willful perceptions, and really build a wall, or a neutral who avoids details because he is a pragmatist, or a social construction who simply reflects the passing images of his Age. And does that mean that the image of Mr Trump could yet be gone in an instant? At least Narcissus left behind him the sweet flower of his youth for us to enjoy.
 Daniel Henninger ‘Trump and Bernie: When Less is More’ Wall Street Journal 20-22 May 2016