Marshall McLuhan once said that “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” That’s certainly true of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), though as Ross Douthat writes in the otherwise Weiner-friendly though uber-PC puritanical New York Times, “In every time and place, people have associated new technologies with moral decline:”
“Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce,” Henry David Thoreau griped in 1854, “and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour … but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.” Similar anxieties have greeted most subsequent inventions, from the automobile to the iPhone: We’re always teetering on the brink of baboondom, always one technological leap away from forfeiting our humanity.
Sometimes, though, the pessimists are right to worry. Technology really does affect character. Cultures do change from era to era, sometimes for the worse. Particular vices can be encouraged by particular innovations, and thrive in the new worlds that they create.
In the sad case of Representative Anthony Weiner’s virtual adultery, the Internet era’s defining vice has been thrown into sharp relief. It isn’t lust or smut or infidelity, though online life encourages all three. It’s a desperate, adolescent narcissism.
As Douthat notes, Weiner’s “tweeted chest shots are more telling than the explicitly pornographic photos that followed. There was a time when fame and influence were supposed to liberate men from such adolescent insecurity. When Henry Kissinger boasted about power being the ultimate aphrodisiac, the whole point was that he didn’t have to worry about his pecs and glutes while, say, wooing the former Bond girl Jill St. John.”
Of course, that was before the ’80s fad of hitting the gym; the “Let’s Get Physical” MTV-era foreshadowing and influencing Internet culture. As Tom Wolfe said to an interviewer in 1987, “This is the generation in which the deltoids, the trapezius, the pectoralis major, the latissimus dorsi, are all better known than the names of the major planets.” And Weiner is simply riding that particular fad out, combining it with the cell-phone cam and Twitter.
That technology became a way for Weiner to transmit one aspect of his narcissism, just as blogs and cable TV were ways to express another side of it. As Douthat concludes:
This is a depressingly accurate anticipation of both the relationship between Weiner and his female “followers,” and the broader “look at me! look at meeeee!” culture of online social media, in which nearly all of us participate to some degree or another.
Facebook and Twitter did not forge the culture of narcissism. But they serve as a hall of mirrors in which it flourishes as never before — a “vast virtual gallery,” as Rosen has written, whose self-portraits mainly testify to “the timeless human desire for attention.”
And as Anthony Weiner just found out, it’s very easy to get lost in there.
At the Belmont Club, Richard Fernandez writes, “Long before there was Anthony Weiner, Ray Bradbury knew what would happen. Technology would change us in ways that we never anticipated beforehand. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes, who knew?”
Richard links to a video from Bradbury’s 1980s TV show. The communications technology has progressed since then, the fashions have arguably regressed, but this video seems remarkably prescient. I wonder if Weiner is having similar conversations in whatever “therapy” he’s going through right now?
Related: Boston talker Michael Graham on “The Modern Male Leftist.”