Wednesday, 12 December 2012

From Social Network to Groupthink: One Town’s Rejection of the Global Village

In Dash Shaw’s Body World, an alien drug which allows the user access to the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations of others, serves as a metaphor for online social networks. On such sites people reveal intimate details about themselves because of the illusion that they are communicating with friends. Professor Paulie Panther is symbolically an ambassador from the global village to a town that is sheltered from the outside world in a society that has not fully progressed from the type of print culture that we are emerging from now (McLuhan, 67). There, Panther discovers the telepathic drug and introduces it to the collective consciousness of the town’s population. However, when a society of non-interactive individuals merges their minds into one super organism, the result is not a collective intelligence, but rather a groupthink (McCluhan, 157) (Shaw, Chapter 10, Panel 15).
Social interactivity on the Internet is a type of artificial psychic communication. Anonymity on the Web, or the illusion of such, allows users to reveal thoughts they would never vocalize. This creates an interconnectivity based on mutual mind reading. Comment threads responding to posted information online, or entered on instant messaging sites, have a tendency to merge the thoughts of many into one repeated idea. For the life of a given thread then, the clients involved with its creation effectively merge into one mind. Online social networking services create the illusion of social acceptance by drawing people into friendships or circles, which allow them to be overtly intimate without knowing each other. The way that messages are posted on Twitter, for example, closely resemble the fragmented shape and size of our random thought processes. Every day one can read news reports of public figures who, beyond all reason, jeopardize their public image by “tweeting” thoughts that they would never voice in public because they know that saying such things would be offensive. If indeed there is something about Twitter that compels people to mind-write, then it is more than just a metaphor to conclude that the readers of such tweets are in fact mind readers. In Body World, the citizens of Bony Borough inadvertently become part of a truly telepathic version of such an online meeting place, after Professor Panther smokes the strange plant from the local woods and gains access to the mental status updates, visceral video galleries and psychic instant messages of the minds of those nearby. His consciousness is then extended into the multi-sensory medium of online interaction. Initially this communication is a positive experience, but with each new psyche that becomes part of the network, the exchanges become more and more complex because each new member shares all of the negative memories they retain of everyone else. Panther realizes in the end that the final result of such a merging of minds will not be interactive, but rather “some kind of hive mind.”(Shaw, Chapter 11, Panel 21)
“Bony” Borough is the skeleton around which Body World is constructed. The “body” of Body World is the highly specialized social structure that is supported by that skeleton. Unlike the fully wired tribal world outside, the town is symbolically still part of the Gutenberg Galaxy where textbooks compel students to conform, and where sport is the only form of art accessible to many minds (McLuhan, 241). The local celebrities are the athletes, whose drug of choice is Diegunk (Shaw, Chapter 2, Between Panels 81-82). This glue like substance, in contrast to the alien plant that expands each user’s awareness to include that of others, produces instead a more individualistic experience. It serves to confine the user’s awareness to the body, thus resulting in the impairment of mental functioning, as the Diegunk user begins to feel pieces missing from his brain ( Shaw, Chapter 8, Panel 231). Diegunk reflects more the general character of Bony Borough, which is a “body world”, rather than a “bodymind” world like the world outside. Later, when the telepathic social network deteriorates into a groupthink, it is the person who has lost the most pieces of his brain who controls the action of that entity.
The designer of the rationalized conformity conceived to oppose the social network is the science teacher, Jem Jewel. Although the people of Bony Borough are not strangers to social networking or the Internet, the town’s attitude to such things is reflected symbolically in Miss Jewel, who is Professor Panther’s official contact there.  She tells him “I don’t have a blog, I like to keep my secrets”. (Shaw, Chapter 1, Panel 66) It is, however, when Panther suddenly finds himself privy to Jem’s secrets that he first realizes that smoking the otherworldly drug has given him the ability to read minds. He receives the negative thoughts that Jewel posts about him on her consciousness, but thinks that they are his own mental reactions to her. Panther and Jewel have entered into a psychic social network, a collective intelligence. Jewel has been willing, up until this point, to spend the night with Panther despite her secret disgust for him. Yet when she hears him speak aloud the exact same repulsion for her that she has for him, she is offended. She leaves, as she does not want to be part of a social network that exposes her own internal dialogue (Shaw, Chapter 3, Panel 354). Beyond, however, the simple offence of exposure, Jewel harbours an even deeper hatred for online communication. She is haunted by the memory of the Internet having betrayed her when, as an adolescent, she was lured by social networking into an abusive situation (Shaw, Chapter 10, Panel 135). This experience colours her belief that the World Wide Web draws its users into being part of a super organism, a collective world intelligence that would unhinge the harmonious society of Bony Borough. Jewel does not want to live in a tribal society in which, as people draw closer to one another they become increasingly more savage toward their neighbours. She opts to oppose this invasion by participating in a groupthink alternative, which is ironically enhanced by the very drug that brings about the telepathic social networking experience. This hive mind decision on the part of the entire town is to put to death the carrier of the social networking disease, Paulie Panther. As the time of purging approaches, Jewel plays the role of mind guard to prepare the members of the groupthink for their moment of truth by making sure they are not swayed by dissenting information (Shaw, Chapter 10, Panel 15). She, for example, makes sure that Billy Borg knows that Paulie Panther had sex with Borg’s girlfriend, thereby ensuring that Billy’s anger will trigger the groupthink’s execution of Panther (Shaw, Chapter 6, Panel 146).
In Body World there is an analogy between the anti-social Paulie Panther’s desire to enter into group consciousness, and the way that otherwise non-social people reveal their darkest secrets on social networking sites. Because of his non-conformism and prickly personality, Panther does not have a vibrant social life. He is somewhat of an outcast from his own electronically tribalized society. According to Marshall McLuhan, tribalism forces people closer together and when this happens “they become more and more savage.” (YouTube, 2012) Because Panther is a loner, his savagery tends to be one by which he inflicts pain and the threat of death only upon himself (Shaw, Chapter 1, Panel 59). He is an endangered loner like his feline namesake, and yet he finds ways to connect with others. As a medicine man from the tribal society of the global village, Panther is always willing to help people chemically free their body mind from the material plane (Shaw, Chapter 3, Panel 36). Panther’s motto is “Go in to get out”, which is mirrored in the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, made famous by another medicine man of the Global Village, Timothy Leary, but which was authored by Marshall McLuhan (Shaw, Chapter 8, Panel 98)(Strauss, 337). The meaning of Panther’s motto is that an exploration of one’s own consciousness leads to freedom. However, in the case of the collective consciousness of Bony Borough, and of the town itself, once Panther goes in, he can’t get out. His electronic connection to his tribe is severed and he is cut off from the rituals of his social group after smoking the last of his tribal cigarettes (Shaw, Chapter 1, Panel 184). Trapped in Bony Borough, Panther realizes that his efforts to free the minds of the citizens of the town have failed. Instead he has inadvertently introduced the town to the hive mind that he philosophically opposes. In a further twist of irony, Panther, succumbing to his own self-inflicted savagery, finally enters into agreement with the groupthink of Bony Borough in regard to his own execution Shaw, Chapter 11, Panel 230).
Body World is not an anti-digital story, but rather a cautionary tale concerning interactive digital media. Although the Internet is a useful tool for such non-interactive forms of mass communication as cheaply publishing a graphic novel, or for emailing questions to its author, Dash Shaw, through the story, advises users of social networks to tread carefully in the more interactive online domains. Perhaps everyone is not ready to know everything about everybody else. It is possible that there is a limit to how far one’s consciousness can expand by entering the minds of others. Such an outward spread may ultimately result in a feeling of identity loss that compels the minds of web surfers to align themselves with those of the lowest common denominator of online society.
An echo to the moral of the story of Body World can be found in Dash Shaw’s choice not to provide an interactive forum for readers of the web comic on his web site. Because instant messaging is an extension of the psyche, such a message board would encourage the same kind of mind melding among commenters as occurs for the characters in Body World. The overall result of such interaction would be for contributors to respond most often to the lowest common denominator of the collective intelligence of any given comment thread. Shaw instead provides a link to email, which, unlike a message forum, is an extension of writing. Not being interactive, this medium allows time for a thought process to take place between each comment and response. Although the web comic, like the online comment forum, is an interactive medium, rather than extending the psyche, it is an extension of the sense of touch (McLuhan, 164). The spaces between panels in comic art compel the reader to interact with them by filling in the passage of time between them. The message of a web comic then, is very different than that of an online message board. The latter medium, in placing so many minds in close proximity, compels them to react savagely out of fear of losing their identities in the mix.

Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage. Corte Madera. Gingko Press. 2001
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York. McGraw-Hill. 1965
Shaw, Dash. Body World. 10 Nov 2012.
Strauss, Neil. Everyone Loves You When You're Dead. New York. HarperCollins. 2011.
tvochannel. Marshall McLuhan in Conversation. 25 Nov 2012.


  1. Interesting stuff. I'd like to read this graphic novel.

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