At the end of the twentieth century, cultural critics often invoked “schizophrenia” to diagnose all of mediated humanity. Continuing a theme prevalent since the early nineteenth century, this diagnosis linked modernity and madness in terms of dysfunctional communication. Baudrillard, for example, argued that the “ecstasy of communication” signaled “a new form of schizophrenia with the emergence of an imminent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communications networks. No more hysteria, or projective paranoia as such, but a state of pure terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic, an over-proximity of all things, a foul promiscuity of all things which beleaguer and penetrate him.” In his influential work on postmodernism, Fredric Jameson arrives at a similar conclusion, deploying Lacan to describe an aesthetic tied to the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” The culture of the late twentieth century, Jameson argued, was one of pastiche, blank irony, surface, and waning affect, indicative of an emerging subjectivity that is “schizophrenic” by virtue of its unmooring from historical agency. Overwhelmed by the immediate materiality of signifiers dislocated from the signifying chain that typically holds reality together, the postmodern subject is engulfed by “undescribable vividness” and vacillates between anxiety and euphoria.

Diagnosing the culture as schizophrenic typically involves the caveat that one is speaking figuratively and not literally (as if schizophrenia was itself an empirical thing). For much of the twentieth century, however, psychiatry speculated that schizophrenia—defined and aligned within modernity—was indeed the byproduct of environmental overstimulation, an illness inflamed or perhaps even caused by living in the modern world of relentless sensory assault. Ivan Pavlov proposed that schizophrenics were “weak genotypes” suffering neural damage from exposure to overtaxing environments. In 1936, Pavlov speculated, “What would have happened if all these schizophrenics, of whom there are so many, just imagine this, if those schizophrenics would be, at the first sign of illness, put in a greenhouse to keep them away from the blows of life, of all the difficulties that life creates, well, would they then become real schizophrenics?” Many situations can be “anxiety-provoking,” of course, from latent familial psychodynamics to escalating global tensions. But theories of protective inhibition focused especially on social situations and communicative transactions that threaten to become overwhelming. The normative ego, if placed in a position of escalating stress, disintegrates into schizophrenic confusion or calcifies into paranoid defense.

Before Freud opined on Prosthetic Godhood and the discontents of civilization, he endorsed speculation that the human sensorium evolved not to maximize access to information, but to protect the organism from encountering too much stimulation. The eye limits the spectrum of light. The ear limits the spectrum of sound. Perhaps the ego, as a historical compromise with its environment, is itself a filter developed to accommodate a certain spectrum of meaning. One could argue that, so far, most citizens of modernity have learned to adapt, however miserably, to the demands placed on them by industrialization; scientific rationalism; technocratic administration; mandatory networking; spatiotemporal compression; and capitalisms early, mature, and late. But prosthetic irritation, whether it is mildly annoying or catastrophically psychotic, suggests that the ego is still adapting—phenomenologically, cognitively, existentially—to its new relationship with unbounded information and mutated meaning. Present-day man is “unhappy,” in Freud’s words, in that the ego has yet to adapt fully to the “god-like” attachments of the technical prosthesis. That the ego might be a malleable construct in structural transition counters the claim that psychoanalysis, like humanism and neuroscience, proposes an ahistorical model of selfhood (the psychoanalytic ego is male, white, Victorian, and Austrian/French). If the ego is itself a prosthetic implantation of the symbolic, as Lacan makes even more explicit, then its sense of identity and coherence is necessarily subject to historical and cultural forces.

Proceeding from a resilient and generally normative model of the modern ego, futurists imagine the Singularized individual taking up prosthetics in active autonomy over the passive environment. But this prosthesis promises to be more a slow, painful, and stressful program of correction akin to mental orthodontics. As technologies enter the body, they cannot help but inscribe the material histories and power relations that brought them into being. Prosthetic Godhood may one day involve implantable knowledge chips, mechanized claws, and other affordances that add to a new and improved Human 2.0, but more likely, most will simply be happy to download a new ad-blocking app to defeat the marketers who ceaselessly target your retinal array.

Can the “age of ego” survive this transformation? In the journey from figurative to literal prosthetics, indexed by so many technical delusions, perhaps we are witnessing a threshold of neural or egoistic impedance, a breaking point at which the excesses and instabilities of meaning—digitized, multiplied, saturated—are overwhelming the modern ego’s ability to reliably sustain its former fantasies of control. The electronic erasure of certainty, evident across so much of the contemporary media landscape, reveals that fantasy has always been as important as “reality testing” in suturing together the self and the social. To have so much of reality, perhaps even all of it, so quickly exposed as fantasy confronts the modern ego with a profound stressor.

Psychiatry has long understood the importance of stress in triggering psychotic episodes: an ego under duress begins to disintegrate, passing through various states of confusion, euphoria, insight, panic, paranoia, and catatonia. “Stress” is an especially appropriate term for describing the tensions that stem from a technical prosthesis. As Donna Haraway notes, the figure of the “stressed” human is indebted to the postwar cybernetic language of overtaxed systems and mechanical fatigue. “Associated with the notions of breakdown and obsolescence,” she writes, “stress is also fundamentally part of the conceptual apparatus of cybernetic evolutionary biology. Stress limits and machine communication conceptually imply one another.”

Prosthetic extension (and convergence) brings with it new avenues of stress, especially as an older order of the ego is compelled to surrender foundational fantasies about the self and the social. In an essay on “bioelectronics,” Ellen M. McGee provides a familiar portrait of future ego’s engagement with the media prosthesis. New technical affordances “will enable humans to be constantly logged onto the internet, to cyberthink and to instantaneously retrieve encyclopedic stores of information. Building in these interfaces, surgically implanting them in the brain, will allow for greater energy, and efficiency, and will enable humans to operate without radios, or tvs, printed newspapers, cameras, GPS units, credit cards, computer workstations, ATM machines, wireless, corded or mobile phones, and other separate devices.” McGee concedes that this new bioelectronic world will present a challenge, especially to those who might remain attached to some residual illusion of a private self:

The psychological impact on the self needs to be a subject of research since the boundaries between self and others and even groups will be eroded, if not eliminated. The boundaries between real and virtual world will blur, and a self constantly wired to the collective will be transformed. The emergence of a Borg type collectivity or hive mind, where personal identity is lost and assimilation is the preeminent value is a real possibility. Selves will have relationships and interact in highly realistic virtual reality environments, transforming the sense of both the individual and reality. Whether this will be a benefit or burden is unclear.

In this vision, widely shared by many futurists, bio-implants will eventually collapse such well-worn binaries as subject-object, private-public, interior-exterior, and real-virtual. Thought broadcasting and thought implantation, the signature curses of psychosis, will become deployable affordances as the classic psychotic dyad of self and Other dissolve into cybernetic collectivity. In effect, schizophrenia will be the new normal, and the Cartesian ego, the new insanity. If the ego, as Lacan argues, is a fiction held hostage to networks of meaning that both constitute and cohere its illusion of autonomy, then our forcible prosthetic integration into expanding fields of data, information, and meaning portends bold new horizons for becoming psychotic.

Perhaps this is the price to be paid to achieve Prosthetic Godhood, the fairy-tale wish that technological extension endlessly promises and yet never seems to deliver. Freud likened the prosthetic impulse to the fantasy life of children, and for good reason: disempowered and dissatisfied, the child imagines a day when it, too, like parents and gods, will somehow enjoy greater, perhaps even absolute, power over space, time, and meaning. Various technologies continue to dangle this digital carrot, whether it is an Internet of Things that promises a seamless consumer utopia or a billionaire’s bunkered mainframe that will one day archive his brain. Yet such prosthetics present a paradoxical horizon for the modern ego as we currently know and live it. In its classical form, the ego is a compromise, a zone for mediating internal and external conditions. If this ego were suddenly to become “omniscient” and “omnipresent,” then it would no longer have anything to mediate. It would cease to exist, as would the wisdom, pleasure, and mastery the modern ego once imagined would accompany knowing all and seeing all. An ego that had continuous access to all possible information and endless positionalities of meaning (perhaps with digital “immortality” offered as a bonus affordance) might come to resemble a functional computer or a cut-rate god. But for an ego once dominant but now dissolved, the more likely response to Prosthetic Godhood would be sheer terror, followed by acute madness.

Excerpted from The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce. Copyright 2019 by Jeffrey Sconce. Published in February by Duke University Press. All rights reserved.