Self-inflictions for the sake of ease.
Last week, we considered how by extending our senses, technologies change our thinking. They don’t literally re-write how we think in our brains directly, but by giving us a new “grammar,” they do nudge us in different directions. We used the example of learning to think in “car” and how, through learning how to drive, we become one with the car.
When we think about it, this makes sense. Lance Strate notes,
Beyond the basic operation of devices, Mumford… argued that every technology is the materialization of an idea… he explains that the first machine was organized human labor, and along similar lines, the invention of the algorithm, as a fixed set of steps for obtaining a certain result, long preceded the invention of the programmable computer.1
So again, as we stop and consider this thought for a moment, this follows. The idea behind the car could be articulated that “we should be able to go faster than a horse.” The idea behind the phone is perhaps that “being able to talk to others over a long distance is good.” And the idea behind the internet is, perhaps, “the free sharing of information is good.”
For every tool we use, there is an idea behind it.
Postman (1992) also argued that every technology represents an ideology, and Mumford (1934) in particular contrasted the ideology of the machine with the organic ideology inherent in simpler kinds of tools and containers, an ideology he had hoped would be recaptured through electrical technology.2
So if we can get to the notion that every technology we use has an idea behind it, then we must be able to recognize that collectively these technologies build ideologies in our minds. Again, this is not that they are literally rewriting our brain, but collectively, over time, their effects add up and cause us to drift in certain directions.3
And technologies aren’t simply physical or electric tools we use.
…the assembly line is a technique that can be applied to converter belts or fast food counters, just as the alphabet is a technique that can be used in conjunction with pen and paper, moveable type or electrons and photos. A medium, then, can refer to any means or method, and recall that McLuhan’s famous aphorism was derived, at least in part, from the quote by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu (1958): “in teaching it is the method and not the content that is the message” (p. 62).4
So here we arrive back at a well-trod notion: As we shape our environment, it shapes us back.
However here, we actually can add a bit more to it. As we’ve been discussing, it’s not simply that our environment alone that is shaping us.
The tools we use to shape our environment also shape us, along with the environment.
When I say environment, I’m speaking more broadly than what we might call “nature;” I’m talking about all the circumstances that we might find ourselves in.
So technology can perhaps be thought of then as a container of an idea or an ideology, and in that way, so can an environment itself.
Strate helps us out here:
Viewing all technology as containers rather than extensions is useful in clarifying the idea that technologies are not simply objects that we use, or objects within our environment, or even objects that are a part of our environment, but that they constitute environments individually and collectively. Put another way, as an extension, a technology mediates between ourselves and our world, extending us in one sense, while in another sense, as an amputation, coming between us and our world.5
Whew. Let’s take a moment here. Re-read that one a time or two and let it sink in.
In my mind, I think about it like this:
Every technology, tool, or process I use is an extension of some part of my mind or senses.
When we extend those senses, we are reaching outside of ourselves. Think of it like a bubble being blown from a bubble wand. The air from our lungs fills the bubble.
But we all know what comes next when we fill that bubble with air. It closes itself off (amputates) from the thing that filled it with air in the first place.
We’ve talked about the notion of what we are losing with our use of technologies before, but with some added context, I feel like the stakes may be a bit higher upon further examination. The use of any technology inevitably amputates–weakens, deemphasizes, etc.–the “root” part of ourselves that we are extending a bit.
When I can drive, I don’t need to walk as much, so my legs are not as strong. I have to go out of my way to find ways to use my legs.
When I can focus and talk to only people with who I already have a lot in common, I don’t have to intact with as many people, and the skills to strike up new friendships and relationships are weakened.
When I can live in an echo chamber and am only exposed to political ideas that jive with I already believe and strawman versions of “the other side’s” arguments, then I don’t have to really understand why someone might believe something different than I do.
This reflection is quickly becoming a weekly reframe, but I think it’s a good one. Consider your use of media and methods– the environments you put yourselves in, the way you approach the world. Through your chosen methods, what are you amputating from yourself? What part of yourself are you closing off for the sake of ease?
This is an idea we’ve taken up before when we talked about ruts, but I think it’s well worth repeating.