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the technical delusion

25 may 2019

Jeffrey Sconce's Technical Delusion revisits the old question about paranoia: if they're really out to get you, is it crazy to think they're out to get you? Specifically, for the 21st century, is it crazy to think that all kinds of electromagnetic waves, surveillance devices, and data-gathering systems are out to spy on us – when the tech companies that we love to invest in tout such espionage as their basic business plan?

The Technical Delusion can seem a bit crazy itself, at times. "The media have every intention of entering our bodies," Sconce warns. "We will extend the media as much as, or more than, the media will extend us" (61). But if it sounds crazy, that just means we live in crazy times.

Sconce's subject is mental illness, specifically mental illness characterized by the belief that machines have illicitly targeted one's life with the goal of monitoring, manipulating, or controlling it. Sconce argues that this delusion is peculiar to modern times. One of the earliest researchers to study such delusion, Freud's colleague Victor Tausk, was not so sure that "the technical delusion" was anything new. For Tausk as for Freud and many others, the content of delusion was eternal, and the form it takes just mirrors surrounding cultural material.

The argumentative path of The Technical Delusion is a bit eccentric. After broaching the initial argument about the importance of form in the study of delusion, Sconce breaks off for a long excursus into digital jeremiad. Much of the first and second chapters makes for bracing reading but does not advance the thesis very much. It can also seem somewhat familiar at times; if you've clicked on enough shock-horror items about how computers are out to get us, you've read most of what Sconce has to offer here.

As media enter our very bodies, "can 'the age of ego' survive this transformation?" Sconce asks (78). But would we want it to? A new psychedelism, touted by writers like Michael Pollan and Rachael Petersen, argues fervently that being a well-integrated ego ain't all it's cracked up to be. Your brain on drugs, or your brain on microchips? Either one might be better than the factory wetware.

After this setting of our 21st-century scene, Sconce backtracks to put the modern obsession with minds and machinery into early-modern context. His third chapter, "The Will to (Invisible) Power," gives a lengthy summary of animal magnetism, mesmerism, Frankenstein, ectoplasm, burial alive, and catlepsy in the long 19th century. This chapter too I found a little derivative – at times it's seemed like scholars on the 19th century have been interested in nothing but these topics over the past few decades.

Sconce's last two chapters are either the meat of the book, then, or I simply have read less about their concerns. My sense, though, is that Sconce has processed a great amount of lesser-known source material into his argument, and in the book's final two-fifths, he richly describes modern postmodern paranoias of the technical. Patient after patient has theorized that machines control his or her body, that people are listening to, talking to, or ventriloquizing him or her, using electromagnetic waves.

A key delusion is that of being a "targeted individual," the focus of Sconce's final chapter. As their name suggests, targeted individuals bear the brunt of surveillance, or indeed, attack, by maleficent powers. There are on-line support groups (of course there are) for TIs, as the literature calls them. "Find online T.I. support. Network and form friendships with other T.I.'s," a WikiHow page recommends (280). "You may want to communicate via social media (twitter, Facebook, etc.)" Or you may not, since that seems to be the quickest way down the rabbit hole. As Sconce notes, "no 'step' is included here to recommend a basic medical or psychiatric evaluation: visitors" are "immediately validated" (281).

As I said, there's some bizarre stuff in The Technical Delusion, and Sconce documents that stuff sensitively, with sympathy for the mentally ill. He notes that the real world has become so bizarre that psychiatry no longer tries to sort the ill from the sane simply by looking at the content of their delusions. Few beliefs are prima facie so mad that we can diagnose believers just by hearing their stories. "A delusion is now merely a delusion with no added weight assigned to the oddness or the presumed impossibility of the belief" (92). Delusion, medically, now consists of how strongly a belief is held, and the individual's resistance to counter-argument.

Sconce observes, with an acerbity worthy of Edward Gibbon, the irony that "the utter implausibility of supernatural and super-scientific beliefs … generally protects these systems from psychiatric assessment" (96). If you believe that the NSA is watching you every minute, you might be nuts or you might be right; medicine reserves the right to distinguish. If you believe that Jesus is watching over you every minute, you have a constitutional right to your opinion. In fact, if you're the Vice President of the United States, you can complain of religious persecution if anyone suggests you're nuts. Sconce cites Thomas Szasz's famous remark about the difference between prayer and schizophrenia (it depends on whether you talk to God or He talks to you); but immediately notes that this distinction is losing its edge: and that might go for the NSA as well as for God.

Much of Sconce's material is drawn from literature and popular culture. Indeed, the writings of some notable TIs like Francis Dec have a hip, literate texture that has made them cult reading. Philip K. Dick was both a spinner of influential paranoid fiction and a notable paranoiac. The world of the technical delusion is marked by a lively inability, at times, to tell fiction from fact, and that distinction seems harder to make all the time. "A psychiatric equivalent of Moore's Law" may be in force, says Sconce (105). Gordon Moore said that computer processors would become twice as powerful every two years; maybe our paranoia should double at a similar rate. Eventually, if Moore was right, our consciousnesses might be capturable and etchable onto microchips. "If one believes this future is even remotely possible, would it not be prudent to remain as distressed and preoccupied as possible?" (116)

Sconce, Jeffrey. The Technical Delusion: Electronics, power, insanity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. P96 .T42S38