Extensions of Ourselves
What effects are the media we use really having on us? Let's dive in.
Welcome back, readers.
We left our previous conversation with a question:
What effects are the media we use really having on us?
To thoroughly address this question (and I think it is important to do so), we will camp out here for just a bit.
Today, we will focus on McLuhan and what we can gather about his thinking on the subject in the 1960s.
Over the next weeks, we will move on to some of his contemporaries before arriving in our current time.
For reasons that will become more apparent as we continue, context is hard for us in the internet age.
We want things to cut to the chase and get to the point. I’m going to keep moving as much as possible, but these subjects require a bit of critical thinking. So I do hope you’ll stick with me.
Learning to think more critically about these subjects, while requiring a bit of background, can ultimately make us better people if we allow it. People who are more aware of the effects technology has on us.
When McLuhan and his contemporaries were doing their first work on this subject, there was a strong interest in how media “extended” different senses. It’s in the subtitle of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
About his own saying, McLuhan said:
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.1
So what are these technologies? Pretty much anything. Understanding Media is an exploration of how all sorts of things, from roads to movies to automation, extended different senses.
However, a few key media in this line of thinking have done more work on us than others: The communication media.
In the 1969 interview with McLuhan, Playboy Magazine summarizes the progression to say:
according to McLuhan, there have been three basic technological innovations: the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which jolted tribal man out of his sensory balance and gave dominance to the eye; the introduction of the movable type in the 16th Century, which accelerated this process; and the invention of the telegraph in 1844, which heralded an electronics revolution that will ultimately retribalize man by restoring his sensory balance.2
At first, there was just speaking. No written languages. Tribal life. Orality.
The introduction of written language changes the types of things we can think about. All of a sudden, we don’t have to remember everything—the introduction of literacy.
The movable type printing press further cements this “typographic” thinking as “the way things should be.”
Electronic media, starting with the telegraph, come along and change the game. All of a sudden, we find ourselves re-confronting the effects of “orality.”
How does this relate to our key question: What effects do the media we use have on us?
McLuhan has a few thoughts3:
All media extend man’s senses: “All media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment.”
This work of extension is traumatic, so we “numb” and “self-protect” and are generally unaware of the extensions taking place: “Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it.”
The transition to electric media was and is a particularly intense transformation: “the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us–indeed, compelling us–to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious, toward a realization that technology is an extension of our own bodies. We live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible for society at large.”
We must understand what Electric Media are doing to us, or face dire consequences: “Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics.”
Because of all of this, McLuhan views the electric age as “the age of anxiety,”4 and I think 50 years down the line, not many of us would disagree.
So how did we get here? What is the progression of extensions that got us to Electric Media?
We will pick up with that next week!