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Thread: “Technology as Extension of the Human Body”

  1. #1 “Technology as Extension of the Human Body” 
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    “Technology as Extension of the Human Body”

    Marshall McLuhan “The High Priest of Pop-Culture” in the mid twentieth century was the first to announce the existence of the ‘global village’ and to express that “we become what we behold”. McLuhan sought to understand and express the effects of technology on modern culture.

    McLuhan was particularly interested in “Technology as Extension of the Human Body”. An extension of our body and/or of our senses occurs when we extend the reach of our embodied mind beyond our natural limited means. As examples: the shovel is an extension of our hands and feet as we dig a trench, the spade is like our cupped hand as we remove dirt from a hole, a microscopy or telescope extends our vision to study smaller or larger dimensions.

    Going further in this vein the auto is an extension of the foot. However there are negative results from all such extensions. “Amputations” represent the unintended and un-reflected counterparts of such extensions.

    “Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension… The extension of a technology like the automobile "amputates" the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence. These are a few examples, and almost everything we can think of is subject to similar observations…We have become people who regularly praise all extensions, and minimize all amputations. McLuhan believed that we do so at our own peril.” Quotations from “Understanding Media” by Marshall McLuhan

    McLuhan was concerned about man's willful blindness to the downside of technology. In his later years McLuhan developed a scientific basis for his thought around what he termed the tetrad. The tetrad is four laws, framed as questions, which give us a useful instrument for studying our culture.
    What is does the technology extend?
    What does it make obsolete?
    What is gained?
    "What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended?"

    McLuhan’s gravestone carries the inscription “The Truth Shall Make You Free." We do not have to like or even agree with everything that McLuhan said. However, we would be wise to remember that his was a life of great insight and it was dedicated to showing wo/man the truth about the world we live in, and especially the hidden consequences of the technologies we develop.

    In the book “The Birth and Death of Meaning” Earnest Becker provides us with a synthesis of the knowledge about the extensions of the human body that McLuhan spoke of and science certified through research.

    Becker informs us that the “self” is in the body but is not part of the body; it is symbolic and is not physical. “The body is an object in the field of the self: it is one of the things we inhabit…A person literally projects or throws himself out of the body, and anywhere at all…A man’s “Me” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but his clothes and house, his wife and children, [etc].” The human can be symbolically located wherever s/he thinks part of her really exists or belongs.

    It is said that the more insecure we are the more important these symbolic extensions of the self become. When we invest undue value onto such matters as desecrating a piece of cloth that symbolizes our nation is an indication that our self-valuation has declined and this overvaluation of a symbol can help compensate that loss. We get a good feeling about own value by obtaining value in the pseudopod as the flag.

    In conceiving our self as a container that overflows with various and important extensions that our technology provides us we might appear like a giant amoeba spread out over the land with a center in the self. These pseudopods are not just patriotic symbols and important things but include silly things such as a car or a neck tie. We can experience nervous breakdowns when others do not respect our particular objects of reverence.

    Do you think of yourself as being extended as a result of using technology? Do you think such extensions are a representation of reality? Do you think that consciousness of such claims to be useful?


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    I wonder if some of this "technology" represents a fear of frankenstein in many of us.

    When you think about it, technology is any human creation that serves a purpose not previously achievable. A knot in a handkerchief (not that many of us carry one any longer) is, in its own way, technology, as is an alarm clock. Yet both of these are extensions of our personalities inasmuch as they function as parts of our brains - the remembering-to-do-things parts. When we use them we have effectively 'outsourced' some of our thinking to them so that we do not ourselves have to do that thinking.

    Daniel Dennett (I can't remember which of his works, but it's probably from Darwin's Dangerous Idea) makes a wonderful point about how older people frequently 'orient' themselves in their lives by the things that surround them: being in the kitchen is a reminder to make tea, watching the end of the News is a cue to take the dog for a walk, sitting by the telephone is part of their memory - their telephone book, and so on. The devastatingly sad conclusion at which he arrives (and, having worked in social services with older people I can confirm that this is true) is that should we "for their own good" take some of these people out of their homes and move them to care homes, we can often disassociate them from what has been a genuinely essential part of their minds. In a new place, therefore, with none of their familiar technological mental extensions, they lose their orientation and often show a rapid deterioration in mental functioning. And then some people say "Isn't it good we brought them here in time - imagine if this had happened while they were at home?", without realising that it's the move that caused it in the first place!

    So while McLuhan (I think) saw himself as a prophet of the technological future, it is possible that he was simply stating a commonplace, albeit one that we do not always reognise in ourselves.

    This might be a slightly sideways take on your OP, but I think it has relevance too.


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    I have known for many years that McLuhan had written the book “The Medium is The Message”. I also knew that the book was important. I borrowed the book from the library two years ago and read only a small bit of it and gave up. I borrowed the same book from the library a few months ago and now, today, I understand (somewhat) what the book is about. For the very first time I had that eureka moment when I understood the meaning of the phrase “the medium is the message”.

    Understanding might be compared to a jet plane passing through the sound barrier. There is a great transition that occurs and at the boundary identified as the ‘sound barrier’ a great sonic boom is released. Understanding is like this.

    The meaning of this phrase is that the effect of a new medium is not as it appears it is not in the content of the message but is in the carrier of the message. The message of the word written on a bit of papyrus is not in the content of the meaning written but is in the fact of the medium itself. The meaning of the written words in the book is a message but the book is THE MESSAGE. The book has changed our habits and thus changed us. When our habits change our attitude and character change and it is in this change that the world and its entire people change. The book’s words carry a message but the book itself is THE MESSAGE.

    McLuhan goes on to point out that this applies to all of our technologies. Our technologies change us dramatically because they change our perception and our habits and thus change our attitude and our character.
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