In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes:

With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning (43).

The passage touches on something I have been thinking about ever more intensely as I consider how the technology I have integrated so completely into my life has changed the way I interact with the world and those I encounter in it.

To illustrate his point, in this section of Civilization Freud points to the motor, which extends the power of human muscles to move the body, and the telescope, which extends the power to see; and he mentions the camera and the gramaphone as fundamentally designed to amplify the power of recollection and memory.

As I have emphasized in a post entitled Brief Reflection on the Essence of Technology, the dialectical relationship between the technologies we create and our human creative capacities is complex.

Freud articulates something of this complexity when he writes:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times (44).

As I think about how I use those technological tools that have become adjunct to my body – my iPhone and increasingly now, my iPad – and I consider the extent to which I rely on an application like Evernote or even Things, my advanced ToDo app, I realize the degree to which these devices and applications allow me to focus on what is important to me because they augment the power of my memory – or should I say they deteriorate the power of my memory by taking over the very task of memorization for me? 

The difference seems to be diminishing….

And yet, Freud’s reminder that “present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character” (45) gestures to the core of the issue: what is it for a prothetic god to be happy? This is, of course, the age old question of human happiness in the robust, Greek sense of a life well lived.

How can we use the technologies that use us to live a fulfilling human life? How do prosthetic gods become blessed?

My hope is that posing the question and turning attentively to it is itself the beginning of a way of responding that is able to set us on a path toward a life well lived.

Reference

Freud S, Strachey J, Gay P. Civilization and its discontents. W.W. Norton; 1989. Available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=DOGQDHo8ihIC&pgis=1.

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Max Spiegel says:

    Who is the happiest man?
    None of those whom you think, but he would seem to you an odd sort of person. -Anaxagoras
    …God is in need of nothing. Therefore whatever mode of choosing and of acquiring things good by nature—whether goods of body or wealth or friends or the other goods—will best promote the contemplation of God.
    -Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics

  • Mike says:

    I recently wrote a post by the same title exploring a recent Droid X commercial that strikingly illustrates the technology as prosthetic metaphor. That led me to stumble upon this site for which I’m grateful. Very much appreciate the resources you’ve made available. I’ll be checking in frequently.

  • Christopher P. Long says:

    Mike, thanks for taking a moment to comment here. I am linking to your excellent post on Prosthetic Gods here too as it obviously resonates with the points I was trying to make here.
    I don’t know if something was in the air at the end of July, but there is an interesting synergy to our posts, which appear within two days of each other. In any case, I very much like the clip of the comercial for the Droid X as it visually illustrates very effectively the points we both are making.
    The notion that amputation comes with prosthetic is reinforced by that video as the entire arm turns robotic. However, I am interested in the notion that the prosthesis is added to organic human capacities rather than a replacement for them.
    In any case, I am preparing to teach a seminar on Critical Theory that will begin by reading Civilization and Its Discontents. We will use my Digital Dialogue blog to create a digital community about the ideas we will discuss in the course. I would very much welcome your thoughts and comments on that site if you are interested in pursuing some of these issues further.

  • Mike says:

    Definitely, I will look for the discussions on the blog. Many thanks.

  • […] serves a prosthetic function. Freud points to this when he speaks of a human-being as “a kind of prosthetic god,” whose organs are supplemented, replaced, augmented, or enhanced.1 Sara Brill, in her […]

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