One of the funniest moments in the Iron Man films happens when Tony Stark finally answers a question that’s crossed every viewer’s mind at least once:
“How do you go to the bathroom in that suit?”
With a first slightly contorted, then visibly relieved face, he tells us at his 40th birthday party: “Just like that.”
While it’s great that Mark IV’s filtration system can turn pee into drinking water, it doesn’t bode too well for a public icon to showcase lack of control over his own bodily functions. Not that his mental faculties were any more capable, because he is utterly, completely drunk. Wasted beyond repair.
Tony Stark might be wearing the suit, but, in that scene, he is not Iron Man. Just a dazed, desperate man, stuck in a million-dollar piece of technology.
Even the biggest talent with the best set of tools can achieve nothing if their mind isn’t in the right place. Of course we aren’t genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropists, but there’s still a lesson here that pertains to us:
We, too, over-identify with our devices.
A Bubble Made of Algorithms
After revealing his secret identity to the public, Stark had to defend his unique, metallic property in front of the US Senate. A few days prior to his birthday bash gone off limits, he refused to hand it over to the state, claiming he’d “successfully privatized world peace.” Just imagine that pressure.
Actor Robert Downey Jr. commented on his character at the time:
“I think there’s probably a bit of an imposter complex and no sooner has he said, ‘I am Iron Man –’ that he’s now really wondering what that means. If you have all this cushion like he does and the public is on your side and you have immense wealth and power, I think he’s way too insulated to be okay.”
We might not fly halfway around the world in seconds to fight for what we believe in, but then again, we kinda do. Thanks to our smartphones, we now carry the whole world in our pocket. As with Tony’s suit, it is precisely the power they bestow on us that insulates us.
Tony’s resources are near-unlimited; so are our options to do, to be, to create with a few taps. He’s a fast learner; we can now teach ourselves anything. Tony’s got JARVIS to manage everyday needs, we’ve got Siri. The list goes on.
And yet, no matter where he goes, Stark is seen not as the man inside the suit, but the superhero it represents. Similarly, we, in many school yards, lecture halls, and offices around the globe, are often judged by the brands, the products, the tools we choose — and our phones top the list.
The comparison might be exaggerated, but, while we’re not quite as closed off from reality as Stark, we’re still isolated enough to be often busy celebrating our power instead of using it, let alone use it well.
In Amusing Ourselves To Death, written in 1984, author Neil Postman made one of the rarer, more accurate predictions about computers:
“Years from now, it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”
While it’s hard to argue with the former point, the latter is a little more complex. We can now work anywhere, create anything, and access all the world’s knowledge. At the same time, we rarely tap into these possibilities, often spending our days chasing mindless distractions. The balance always changes, but we all know what it feels like when it’s off.
But where does this disconnect come from when it does? Why is there such a big gap between the power of our tools and our efficiency in using them?
I think it’s because of how we value them. Not too little, but too much.
The Huxleyan Warning
Postman’s timing in publishing the book was no coincidence. After discussing the issue at the Frankfurt Book Fair that same year, he dedicated most of its pages to answering a single question:
“Which dystopian novel most resembles our world today?”
“As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.
In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain.
In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.
In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.
Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
There are lots of arguments to be made for both sides, and which one comes closest depends heavily on the circumstances of your life. But while no book will ever describe our exact reality, if we at least consider Postman’s Huxleyan warning, we can ask another interesting question:
And today, we, the human species, love one thing above all else: technology.
The Most Powerful Ideology of All
“Yes, Apple will save us from the terrifying 1984-style future. For as we can clearly see today, no longer are people lined up like cattle for hours and hours on end! No longer will people dress alike in cold, colorless environments! No longer will any cultish-style groups gather to honor a grand, controversial leader! And, most importantly, no longer will we be brain-dead, lifeless zombies who plug ourselves into the machine of life we can also call ‘The System.’”
Whether you imagine an iPhone release queue, the architectural style of Apple Stores, their Genius staff uniforms, a furious debate about Steve Jobs, or people with AirPods, staring at their screens, the irony of history is clear.
It might not be quite as bad as an actual surveillance state, but 30 years later, the former leader of the empowerment revolution has managed to become the world’s first trillion-dollar business only on the back of evolving into the exact thing it used to despise. And regardless of where you stand on the issue, the comparison alone proves a point Postman also makes in his book:
Historically, the most successful ideologies have been those with the best stories. Religion, politics, science, the narratives surrounding these world views have always, for better or for worse, dictated not just what we do, but how we communicate, even see ourselves.
So what ideology could possibly be more powerful than one embedded in our modes of action, of communication, and of self-perception themselves? Enter, the smartphone. The chief representative of tech. One tool to rule them all, enabling us to do, talk, and self-reflect, both in a literal and figurative sense.
How could we not have adopted it wholesale? The story is just too good.
Besides the smartphone, no other icon symbolizes this triumph of technology more conclusively than Iron Man. The fictional character is the smartest man on the planet, his weapon the pinnacle of tech. The real guy in front of the camera is one of the highest-paid actors, making some $200+ million from his work with Marvel, the most successful movie franchise of all time.
Back on earth, though not for long, Stark’s real-world counterpart Elon Musk is worshipped as the god of our tech startup movement, meant to usher in our civilization’s next age. But, as another famous comic book figure claimed:
“If God is all-powerful, he cannot be all-good.
And if he is all-good, then he cannot be all-powerful.”
This is the exact problem that befalls Stark in the movie. Once he can no longer separate the iron from the man, he is completely incapacitated, reduced to blowing up watermelons in mid-air with a suit that could save millions. That’s not what he built it for.
Just like we didn’t invent the smartphone to stop thinking. What good is a device that connects you to four billion brains around the planet if the best you can think of doing with it is playing Candy Crush, taking selfies, and ordering more toilet paper?
Tony Stark built the first Iron Man armor from scrap metal in an Afghan cave. Much less a suit than a pile of alloy plates, it was barely capable of protecting him long enough to face the crossfire, defend himself, and catapult him out of reach for his enemies. But it was an extension of his mind that saved his life.
With each future iteration, however, it became less of something he used and more of something he was. Until, one day, JARVIS couldn’t help but note:
“Unfortunately, the device that’s keeping you alive is also killing you.”
Unlike Tony, however, who has actual reason to fear for the arc reactor in his chest, we don’t depend on the functionality of our devices for survival. Not in the slightest. But you’d think we do. Because we’ve never been educated about technology’s ideological nature and the incapacity it produces when fused so irrevocably with our identity.
This education, may it come early from our schools or late from within the medium itself, is also the solution Postman proposes:
“For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers. The asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell.”
The most obvious of those dangers, one that could lead a society to be at the whim of its own tools, is its reliance on their ubiquity. And we? Well…
A tendency to overexpose ourselves to the available is in our very nature.
The Right We Must Claim Back
There is one big difference between Orwell’s Big Brother and Apple’s twisted fate: the pain modern consumers put themselves through is entirely self-inflicted, even voluntary. Talk to the first person in line for the new iPhone; you’ll find they couldn’t be happier.
It’s almost as if the promises of technology — the feelings about this great future bound to come — are more important than whether they come true. That’s why Postman turned to Huxley. Because unless we start questioning, smartphones are no better than soma, the legal drug we freely buy that keeps everyone satisfied, ignorant in bliss.
But despite having no apparent side effects, soma is still toxic. Anything is, if you’re immersed in it 24/7. This goes for any substance, matter, and physical item, but also for any thought, any feeling, any idea and state of mind. It goes for the use of your smartphone, your laptop, and your TV, as much as it goes for criticism, a new company policy, and even happiness.
At the end of Brave New World, one character sees behind the facade of controlled, poison-induced euphoria. As a result, he claims back his right to unhappiness. To danger, struggle, and pain. But with that, he also claims back his right to freedom. To goodness, art, poetry, religion, and change.
What we have to demand back is the right to be separate from our technology. To not be identified with our tools. The human self has always been a complex structure, made of millions of facets. It’s an armor alright — and, yes, it gets shattered — but it’s one we can always reassemble, as long as we pick up the pieces. If we neglect this fact, we lose our sense of distance between who we are and the tools we use to project that self onto the world.
Without this distance, life is one big blur, and then we die. Ask any struggling artist, any aspiring entrepreneur, any coping single mom and any ambitious manager. To get past, disengage. You are not your devices. You are not your tech-powered job. You are not a future citizen of a technology-fueled utopia.
That’s all you ever need to be. For the rest of your life.
How’s that for distance?
Better Than Utopia
In the end, Stark had to lose almost everything, his health, house, reputation, even one of his suits, to rediscover who he was. A tinkerer at heart. All he was missing was distance. One hard look from afar and even his life-threatening problem was solved. That’s the beauty of clarity. It works instantly.
In Huxley’s book, two other characters are punished for their questions with exile. One laments the thought, while the other welcomes his new destiny. The villain himself, however, has always known distance to be a reward. For the same reason, our tech icons limit access to their products for their kids.
For us, the now-slightly-more-educated, the solution is as simple in theory as it is hard in practice. For it’s a solution we must not just plug in, but live every day. That’s what’s changed. Slowly, but steadily. Especially since 1984.
It used to be our default state, because our devices wouldn’t permit our availability at every hour and location. Now they do, which means it’s on us to turn them off and be unreachable in the moments for which we should be.
Creating distance takes practice. But with patience and time, we can unwind what’s entangled. Separate, once again, man from machine. Let them coexist.
Only then can we build something better than utopia: a life true to ourselves.
Our Greatest Asset
I don’t know you, but I know technology has profoundly affected your life. May it continue to do so in the best of ways. But if you ever feel trapped, and we all sometimes do, look for the disconnect that comes from being too close.
The world has always been a forward-thinking place, but if we only believe in technology, we hand it the reigns to take on a life of its own. Sometimes, the life it takes is ours. And we might not even notice.
The truth we’ve forgotten is that it’s never too late for us to take it back. We exist not because, but in spite of everything. Always have. This is our greatest asset. The only reason we need.
Iron Man carries his name not for the metal plates surrounding his body, but for the mind of the man who builds iron things. Between the two must always be distance. Only when it vanishes does the entire construct collapse.
As users of modern technology, we hold a similar responsibility: We need a healthy separation from our tools to build authentic selves. In the fight against the odds that is our life, we must first turn off our phones, so that we may then use them to build meaningful things. What both these aspirations require is distance. The physical, as well as the mental kind.
A real bathroom break should not be where it ends, but it sure is a start.