Share me, like me, tweet me, be me: the digital reincarnation of Narcissus

This article was commissioned for Onassis Foundation magazine “AΩ”. See here (Greek Translation). It is reproduced below in its original English version.

NarcissusLike in Byzantium there will always be iconoclasts; the breakers, haters and enemies of images. As then, now and forever: for the iconoclast of every age there is something deeply disturbing in the worship of the human image; he feels that humans ought to be humble, walk the earth with eyes pinned to the ground, and turn their gaze away from images – specially of themselves. For humans are made of spit and dirt. Indulging the senses with an image of a man, or a woman, is an insult to what lies beyond the corporeal, to that superior, finer and immaterial essence that has been known by many holy names throughout history, but nowadays is mostly referred to as “consciousness”.

In our post-religion world the iconoclastic bishops of Constantinople have reincarnated to the social critics of the rampant, near-universal self-adulation of the multitudes posting photos of themselves on social media, to be shared and liked. There must be something deeply wrong with self-worshipping, the contemporary critic  argues. The human race must have reached the apogee of collective moronity, for how can this global congress of nobodies pretend to offer quotidian trivialities that others should like, share, or tweet?

Unfortunately for the iconoclast Narcissus has risen from the graveyard of classical studies and reinvented himself as digital techno-hacker. Thus transformed he has embedded himself in Web 2.0. By becoming a series of command lines he instructs the massive creation and sharing of self-portraits on social media platforms millions times per day. Narcissus’ techno-consciousness copies itself, like a cybernetic virus, every time a smartphone is turned to face its owner and a digital echo of oneself becomes the ultimate affirmation of existence by the sacrosanct act of uploading. Narcissus has finally avenged himself. Realising this, the classically educated iconoclast shakes his head, twists his lips and eruditely reminds us that self-love leads to self-destruction with narrative precision, at least according to Ovid but also Freud. How can an empty image of yourself love you back? How can a sane person worship a simulacrum, and remain sane?

Perhaps we have indeed entered the era of collective insanity and digital homoeroticism. But, if we are, then this is just the beginning. For soon enough, our digital echoes will be given the opportunity to acquire physical bodies. Our obsession with ourselves, so systematically cultivated after decades of psychoanalysis and therapy, will reach its logical conclusion, as robots become more human, and as mindshare is coded in the architecture of human-machine interfaces. So here’s a prophecy from the digital oracle of Delphi: our digital icons will one day escape our newsfeeds and sit on our tables. Our android doppelgängers, genetically or mechanically engineered, will begin like toys for the few, but will quickly evolve to something for everyone, and will become our friends, brothers, sisters, and lovers. Self-destruction, if such should be the fate of a self-obsessed humanity, will manifest symbolically through the sexual union of the cyber and the physical “us”; as Narcissus finally invents and constructs the medium to love himself not only in mind but also in the flesh.