Are Friends Electric?

The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity BY Jeffrey Sconce. Duke University Press Books. Paperback, 448 pages. $29.

The cover of The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity

Victor Tausk was one of the more restless of the many bright young men and women surrounding Freud in the 1910s. Born into a Jewish family in 1879, he first studied law, practicing in Sarajevo, then Mostar, where he made his reputation defending a young Muslim woman accused of murdering her illegitimate child. The prosecutors had asked for the death penalty; he got her acquitted. He then moved to Berlin, setting out on a new career as a critic, which no doubt contributed to the nervous breakdown he suffered soon after. At the sanatorium he decided to study psychiatry, completing his medical degree just in time to serve as a medic in World War I. Demobilized, he went to Vienna, where he practiced as an analyst. He became the lover of Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Russian psychoanalyst who had previously been romantically linked to both Nietzsche and Rilke, and who was now linked, nonromantically, to Freud. Then, in 1919, he committed suicide, simultaneously shooting and hanging himself.

Several months before his death, Tausk had published his best-known article, “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia.” He had noticed that a large number of paranoid schizophrenics believed they were at the mercy of elaborate machines that allowed their persecutors to control their thoughts, feelings, and sensations using invisible wires, waves, rays, and similar mechanisms. “Patients endeavor to discover the construction of the apparatus by means of their technical knowledge, and it appears that with the progressive popularization of the sciences, all the forces known to technology are utilized to explain the functioning of the apparatus,” Tausk wrote. “All the discoveries of mankind, however, are regarded as inadequate to explain the marvelous powers of this machine.” He recounted the case of Miss Natalija A., a thirty-one-year-old former philosophy student who believed that she was being manipulated by a humanoid apparatus, one that bore a general resemblance to her, except its body was a coffin, and the internal organs were batteries. It had been built by a professor whose advances she had spurned.

Page detail from Zoe Beloff’s website component of The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A., 2001.
Page detail from Zoe Beloff’s website component of The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A., 2001.

It is surely no coincidence, as they say, that Jeffrey Sconce’s The Technical Delusion appears exactly a century after the publication of Tausk’s article. For Sconce, Tausk represents both an advance and an impasse in the history of our understanding of the mysterious relationship between technology and madness: an advance because he was among the first to notice the central role these “influencing machines” played in paranoia, and an impasse because he ultimately concluded that the devices themselves weren’t all that interesting. Following Freud, he argued that every delusion could be understood as a projection of forces operating deep in the patient’s unconscious. Whether the patient was being controlled by a battery-powered coffin-automaton or some other sinister power was largely beside the point. Tausk took no interest, as Sconce puts it, in “the technicalities of the technical delusion.”

A hundred years later, we’re more likely to attribute delusions to problems in the brain’s dopamine and glutamate systems than to intrusive mothers and overbearing fathers, but the technicalities of technical delusions remain largely unexplored by historians and clinicians alike. Sconce, a professor of media history and theory at Northwestern’s School of Communication, wants to correct that. By turns thrilling, unsettling, and amusing, The Technical Delusion takes us deep into the world of people who believe they are locked in a terrifying, life-or-death struggle with invisible, or barely visible, technological forces.

“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” a man shouted, over and over again, as he assaulted Dan Rather in the lobby of an Upper East Side building one evening in 1986. The man escaped and the memory faded, leaving behind little more than the phrase, which eventually became the title of an R.E.M. song. Several years later, however, the attacker—William Tager, a motorcycle dealer from North Carolina—reappeared at the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center, this time with an AK-47, and tried to force his way onto the Today show, killing a stagehand in the process. He believed the networks were controlling his thoughts, and wanted them to stop. “He claims that they’ve been bugging him for 20 years,” a detective reported. “He claims that they tap his phone, they send rays on top of him, vibrations come out of the television.”

This event, recounted in the first chapter, sets the stage and the tone for the rest of the book. Sconce traces technical delusions to the late eighteenth century, as scientists began to manipulate electricity, magnetism, and other natural forces in new and sometimes shocking ways. He tells us, for example, of James Tilly Matthews, confined to an asylum after disrupting a debate in the House of Commons in 1796. Matthews believed he was being persecuted by a “gang of villains profoundly skilled in Pneumatic Chemistry,” who, conspiring with the French Jacobins, had devised a machine he called the “air loom.” His persecutors sat at a church-organ-like apparatus with keys, pedals, and stops, synthesizing “magnetized gases” that had excruciating and mystifying effects. One was “thigh talking,” in which he was tricked into believing that he was hearing with his legs instead of his ears. Others carried names like “lobster-cracking” and “apoplexy-working with the nutmeg-grater.”

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the electrification and then electronification of much of the world, technical delusions seem to have proliferated. Some of the book’s best moments consider the communities that have formed over the past several decades around shared fears of electronic persecution. Sconce tells us, for example, about self-described “targeted individuals,” who meet on- and offline to discuss their persecution by shadowy gangs of malevolent stalkers. Their perceived persecution can take many forms, from creepy phone calls to increased traffic on their block to “directed-energy weapons” that fill their heads with abusive voices. An entire market has emerged to sell them protective gear, including anti-EMF hoodies. (Not your father’s tinfoil hat.)

It will come as no surprise that twenty-first-century technological trends, including extreme miniaturization, ubiquitous computing, and omnipresent surveillance, have worked their way into these delusions. “Given the prominence of electronic media in psychotic ideation,” writes Sconce, “perhaps there should be a psychiatric equivalent of Moore’s Law, a biennial doubling of reasonable technical paranoia to mirror the biennial doubling of technical affordances.” The word reasonable here is a clue to what is at stake for Sconce in this book. After all, unidentified individuals are actively exploiting existing and emerging technologies, especially media technologies, in a coordinated effort to exert control over our minds and bodies. As he shows us, some of the worst fears manifested in technical delusions, such as microchip implantation, are either happening already or will be soon. It would be madness to ignore this.

Indeed, Sconce suggests, under such circumstances the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable, sane and insane, can be hard to maintain. In some ways this is a familiar argument, and Sconce invokes many of its most thoughtful exponents, including Michel Foucault, R. D. Laing, and Thomas Szasz, all of whom called into question the ways in which our society differentiates between the normal and the pathological. Sconce builds his version of this argument slowly, carefully, and intelligently. He welcomes some of the revisions in the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)—notably its new “spectrum” model of schizophrenia, which received considerably less attention in the popular press than the similar change to how we diagnose autism—but clearly wishes the manual had gone further. And he is right, of course, about its inconsistencies, contradictions, and biases. He is right, too, that pathologization can have, and has had, devastating consequences. That said, I kept thinking of something Michael Wood once wrote in a similar context, paraphrasing Wittgenstein: “A table can still be useful even if it wobbles.” It may well be that the distinction between sane and insane begins to wobble, even topple, once we begin leaning too hard on it. But people really do believe mad things, and behave in mad ways. It would be madness to ignore this, too.

Sconce has written an important book that lets us tune in to some of the more disturbed and disturbing frequencies on the media-technological spectrum. It will be influential in media studies, and beyond that, in the wider effort to understand what all these devices are doing to us. The British psychoanalyst W. R. Bion once suggested that psychosis operates by attacking the mind’s capacity to maintain links: between self and other, past and present, cause and effect. But as it turns out, hyperlinking hasn’t been so great for our minds, either. Most of us might not be at risk of a psychotic break, but we cannot escape, at least not entirely, the more everyday kinds of madness that go along with the influencing machines we carry around in our pockets and purses. As Sconce tells us, every generation has a fear that technology is making things much worse. It turns out they were right.

Ben Kafka is an associate professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and a psychoanalyst in private practice in Lower Manhattan.