Where do we begin?
Where does us become not-us, and other made up lines.
Last week, we began to turn our attention to our physical world: the “ruts” that guide us down paths. We get into the idea that as we shape our physical world, it shapes us back so that the ruts we make shape all the future ruts we will make, and so on. We talked about proxemics(“human use of space”1) and began to think of our environments as media.
But what really makes something a media and something a message? Where’s the line between us and our environment?
All media contain other media.
First, let’s take a visit to McLuhan. In the opening paragraphs of Understanding Media, McLuhan notes:
..the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked, “what is the content of speech?” it is necessary to say, “it is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.”2
If we think back to some of our earlier explorations, we remember that all media are extensions of our senses. So at what point does any particular extension stop being us and start being “other?” We tend to think of this as a line. My hand is me, but the tool I pick up with my hand is not me. My voice is me, but my phone (a tool I use to extend my voice is not me). The phone is artificial; my body is natural.
Lance Strate in Media Ecology arrives at a similar place in a discussion that first lays out the notion that:
we create the conditions that in turn condition us.3
We will treat it as the same notion that we explored last week and recapped above for our purposes here. We are both medium and message, functioning in different ways at the same time.
The changes that we introduce into our environments, that alter the environment, feed back into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment. The “conditions” that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the condition that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment. 4
So we condition our environment as a way to put a barrier between us and “nature.” So far, so good. We build homes to shelter us from bugs and rain. We build dams to make it easier to grow food. We build retention ponds to hold displaced rain so we can have our homes where we want.
Note that as a condition, this refers not only to what we think of as external to us, but also to our internal conditions as physical and chemical entities and as organisms shaped by the structure of our biology. In this sense, geological and biological environments are media, but so are our bodies, organs, cells, and their functions. The division between the inner and the outer is an artificial separation…5
So here we arrive at a place where things start to get strange. We tend to be pretty confident in our sense of what is us and what is not us. But inherent in any discussion of our environment is realizing what is “us” and our “environment” is made up.6
Not only is our sense of what is us and what is our environment a bit contrived, but what is “artificial” and what is “natural” to begin with is also a bit flimsy.
In a recent biography of Michael Levin, a biologist at Tufts University, in The New Yorker, Matthew Huston relay’s the following story:
In a study published in 2018, Levin’s team bathed frog embryos in nicotine. As they expected, the frogs exhibited a range of neural deformities, including missing forebrains. The researchers then used a piece of software called betse…hoping to find an intervention that would reverse the nicotine’s damage. The software “made a prediction that one specific type of ion channel can be exploited for just such an effect,” Levin said. The team tried the drug on real embryos that had been damaged by nicotine, and found that their brains rearranged themselves into the proper shape. The software, the researchers wrote, had allowed for “a complete rescue of brain morphology.”
The I.Q. machine gave them another way to measure the extent of the rescue. Inside it, colored L.E.D.s illuminate petri dishes from below, dividing them into zones of red and blue; when a grown tadpole ventures into the red, it receives a brief shock. Levin found that normal tadpoles uniformly learned to avoid the red zones, while those that had been exposed to nicotine learned to do so only twelve per cent of the time. But those treated with the bioelectricity-recalibrating drug learned eighty-five per cent of the time. Their I.Q.s recovered.7
So, is this modification of brain morphology artificial or natural? Huston continues:
Our intuitions tell us that it would be bad to be a machine, or a group of machines, but Levin’s work suggests precisely this reality. In his world, we’re robots all the way down. A bioelectrical signal may be able to conjure an eye out of a stomach, but eye-making instructions are contained neither in the cells’ genome nor in the signal. Instead, both collectively and individually, the cells exercise a degree of independence during the construction process.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett, who is Levin’s colleague at Tufts, has long argued that we shouldn’t distinguish too sharply between the sovereign, self-determining mind and the brute body. When we spoke, Dennett, who has become one of Levin’s collaborators, was in bed at a Maine hospital, where he was recovering from hip surgery. “I find it very comforting to reflect on the fact that billions of little agents are working 24/7 to restore my muscles, heal my wounds, strengthen my legs,” he said.8
So as we wrap up for this week, let’s re-examine the path we’ve taken.
We shape our environments as they shape us.
This is a function of the fact that we are both medium and message.
Our shaping is typically aimed at putting a separation between ourselves and nature.
The division between ourselves and nature is itself a convenience for discussion but is not real.
Beyond that, the distinction between what is artificial and what is natural is also a false dichotomy.
So as we begin to explore our build world, our ruts to continue that metaphor, and we must first concede that we (our bodies, minds, and biological substances that are us) are part of the rut.
Part of what it means to shape our environment is that we are shaping ourselves. But of course, we’ve arrived back where we started: As we shape our environments, it shapes us back. It just so happens that we are (mostly?) our environments.
So, what is it then to shape our environment? What effects does our environment have on us?
See you next week as we dig (and maybe loop around?) for more.
Let me be honest: this is my newsletter, and I find these topics cool, so I’m going to talk about them. Did I absolutely need to? Maybe not, but here we are!