Narcissus loved Narcissus. Seeing his reflection in a pool of water, Narcissus could not look away from his own beauty. Narcissus also loved media. He loved that this reflective pool of water mediated and allowed him to gaze upon his own image.
Were he to live today, Narcissus would’ve found a deluge of tools for self-admiration: phones with a camera on both sides and gigabytes of selfie storage; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with thumbs-up or heart-shaped buttons to prove likability to others. LinkedIn would allow Narcissus to display his splendid accomplishments like a virtual trophy case. YouTube might even let him be the star of his own television channel.
Narcissus would be pleased to find that nearly everyone today has assumed his posture. He would feel right at home in a world where people spend much of their day with heads down, backs bent, and eyes gazing at a glowing screen.
We are all Narcissus now—which of course is a problem Christians called to humility.
Media and Self-Amputation
Digital media, like a reflective pool, allows us to gaze upon an extension of ourselves. Our physical profiles are reflected through digital profiles; our faces can be viewed from afar through Facebook; our voices and bodies extend across time and space through live video feeds.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan recognized how media is an extension of ourselves. In Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, McLuhan wrote that humans are prone to becoming “fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.” A medium such as a mirrory pond is not altogether different from modern forms of mass media; pools of water, polaroid pictures, and Facebook profiles are all “an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies.”
This “self-amputation,” as the violent image suggests, comes at a cost. As digital media extends our physical bodies, we can become both fragmented and numb. And this fragmentation takes many shapes: being physically present in one space but focusing on a distant Twitter conversation; seeing a picture-perfect sunset and compulsively grabbing your phone like a well-trained Pavlovian canine; hearing a notification ping and experiencing an involuntary dopamine rush.
Rather than opening up the world, digital technology can gradually close off our senses. The fragrant smell of flowers in bloom are instead seen as potential Instagram posts. A melodious birdsong is deafened by earbuds blasting a Spotify playlist. The taste of food is overpowered by the impulse to Snapchat the moment.
Whom Is Our Media Extending?
McLuhan, a Roman Catholic, also warned of the spiritual consequences of media. He saw a connection between modern technology and Psalm 115: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. . . . Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:4, 8). According to McLuhan, “the psalmist insists that the beholding of idols, or the use of technology, conforms men to them.” We become what we behold.
Obsessively gazing at our own photos, posting praise for ourselves, and building a platform for personal elevation are all forms of self-idolatry. Using digital media primarily to extend ourselves stifles its usefulness. And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Profiles and platforms can be used to extend others, too.
Profiles and platforms can be used to extend others.
At its best, social media extends others as much or more than it extends the self. I can think of a few people who stand out as effectively using social media this way. Trevin Wax is quick to praise others and generous with sharing accomplishments not his own. John Nunes, president of Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, uses his platform to elevate others rather than merely elevating himself. Jon Acuff uses his platform as a New York Times–bestselling author to promote others, routinely offering praise rather than boasting only of his own accomplishments.
At its worst, social media is a carefully crafted highlight reel of personal awesomeness. I can also think of at least one person who stewards this tool rather poorly: me. I’m prone to use my social-media channels to brag, boast, and bombard others with more of me. I fear that elevating others on social media will come at a personal cost—so I curate what I post and consider how it will shape the way people perceive me. Sorting all this out is why I write on the topic; I explore digital media not as one who has figured it out, but as one who desperately wants to figure out how these technologies might be used well.
Extending the Gospel
Digital media can be more than an extension of ourselves. It can even be more than an extension of others. Digital media can—and should—extend the gospel of Christ. While Psalm 115 warns of idolatry, it also offers a positive alternative: “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Ps. 115:1).
When it comes to digital media, here’s a key question: How might this help the gospel to advance in the world? No, this doesn’t mean every snap, post, and tweet must be a Bible verse. Yet it does mean we consider regularly and deliberately how our media usage might cause Christ to increase and ourselves to decrease (John 3:30).
Near the end of his life, the apostle Paul instructed Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Paul used media. Paul wanted media. Paul may have even loved media. And yet his longing for media wasn’t predicated on narcissism. Paul wanted media—books and parchments—so that he could extend the good news of Jesus Christ.
Opportunities for narcissism abound as we carry custom-designed reflective pools in our pockets and bags. Instead of chucking these devices into the water, though, a simple shift in mindset might do the trick: from reflecting ourselves to reflecting our glorious Creator to the world.