My favourite theories of technology are the ones that argue we create tech in order to become cyborgs—that through everything from the hammer to the smartphone, we express our fantasies of becoming more than ourselves.
It’s the kind of explanation I find deeply satisfying because it gets at the unconscious desire that drives our relationship to these tools. Particularly fascinating, to me, is what social media says about our desires to both speak and write our identities in the spaces beyond our bodies. In the creation of a sphere in which we can publicize and externalize our thoughts, there is a profound something being said about our wanting to inscribe our words into a visible place and have the world see it.
The downside, however, is the twisted vortex of narcissism that is both Mayor Rob Ford and his legions of critics.
Rob Ford is the cyborg mayor. He is what happens when King Ralph takes place in real life, except without the happy ending. Rather than a lovable fish out of water who eventually realizes he is in over his head, we got the inverse: an incompetent oaf running one of the largest and most important cities in North America, and who now refuses to leave.
Yet, Rob Ford is also the manifestation of a kind of fantasy we all have: “If I were ever in power, I’d bring some common sense to those fat cats down at city hall!” This comes, of course, with the caveat that, despite his 11 years as a city councillor, he is even less qualified than most to do so. Though Ford’s tenure is now infamous for its drug-fuelled controversy, long before the crack revelations, he displayed a rather prodigious capacity for sheer ignorance. YouTube is littered with examples of his unsuitedness for the job, from his inability to understand how councillors have to arbitrate between neighbourhoods and planners, or even to be aware of the route of a transit project he has spent years railing against.
All of this is quite true. But at the same time, Ford is also the perfect leader for an age in which imprinting oneself onto a waiting public, regardless of one’s actual suitability, has become a mainstream activity. As a man always just on the outside of power, Ford’s preferred position was railing at those above him, and he both was and remains notorious for vituperative, if largely aimless, contrarianism. Put another way, Rob Ford is the stereotype of an Internet commenter who has, through fortuitous circumstance, become a political leader.
These bursts of populist pushback are not exactly rare; they occur all the time, often in a cyclical fashion. What happened in response to Ford’s election, however, has been strangely symmetrical to the rise of the Commenter-in-the-Chief himself. The Mayor of the Internet Age has fostered a veritable cottage industry of analysis, much of it outside the usual sites of power, but publicly available nonetheless. If Ford manifested the contemporary desire to put the self into a place of visible power—breaking down the divisions of a populace and an elite—then his critics now do the same, occupying every public space with fastidious, angry, contrarian commentary that—at least in shape, if perhaps not in content—seems to match Ford. We suddenly find ourselves in the odd situation in which both a city’s political leader and his fiercest critics are each in their own way living out the desire to both inscribe and inflict the self onto an “out there” that never really seems to care.
Though much of this rhetoric is found in the most populous parts of the digital public sphere—such as in the often insufferable #topoli hashtag on Twitter—it is the city affairs forum Urban Toronto in which the Ford fascination reaches its apotheosis. There, in threads such as “Mayor Ford’s Toronto,” posters weave elaborate theories in which the Fords are criminal masterminds, or in which the police force is very carefully building a case against Ford, regardless of whether they hold any proof or if said theories make any sense whatsoever. Speculation runs rampant, misunderstanding is rife, and the boring machinations of municipal politics give way to bombast and wide-eyed tales. Meanwhile, just as Rob Ford incessantly claims he is for the little guy while consistently voting against any and all social programs for the disadvantaged, those railing against Ford often resort to classism, fat-shaming, drug-law hypocrisy, and a profound lack of empathy in their criticisms of the mayor and his frequently disenfranchised supporters.
Such reactions pop up everywhere, and you’d be hard pressed to find a Torontonian who hasn’t had a discussion on Facebook about Ford and his clan. At the same time, it would be both deeply wrong and wrongheaded to somehow criticize this populist reaction and democratic expression itself as somehow undesirable. Worse still would be to suggest that “this noisy rabble of amateurs” should keep quiet—that in the same way Ford is so clearly unqualified to be mayor, commenters and citizens are “unqualified” to be angry. There is more than just catharsis in the public expression of thought, and now that the web is here, we know those silly debates about “amateur vs. professional” have proved misguided from the start.
What does seem significant, however, is that both Ford and his critics seem to be pushed by the same urges—that same desire of users of networked technology to magnify their own significance and place within the swirling mass of public discourse, and both the villain and his resistors seem to be locked in the same mode of thought.
The cyborg self is one that melds human and machine, flesh with metal and binary code. We have always been cyborgs, forever wrapped up in our relationship to tech, from the early human with a scythe, to the 20th-century worker with a bulldozer. What perhaps differs now is that so many more of us exist “beyond” our bodies, finding parts of ourselves in an open sphere that, until recently, was dominated by a very few. Perhaps the question to ask, not just about Ford and his enemies, but all of us wrapped up in the age, is this: now that we’ve been presented with the latest stage in the evolution of our cyborg selves, are we up to what it demands of us?