Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Technology As An Extension of Humanity

Electronic Media

Marshall McLuhan [1911-1980]: McLuhan once said: “Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition.”
Photo Credit: Portrait by Yousuf Karsh. Copyright the Estate of Yousuf Karsh, California.

In many ways our fascination with computers is a fascination with ourselves, the computer— being like all technologies—an extension of our human selves—an idea brought forward by the Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan [1911-80] in Understanding MediaThe Extension of Man (1964). His premise on how technology would shape our thinking and our views seems old and obvious today, but was considered prescient, almost radical, when put forward almost 50 years ago.

McLuhan writes:
During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man - the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media. (Introduction, 19)
McLuhan’s views were studied and analysed, and often misunderstood. I remember originally reading Understanding Media for a course I was taking in college on media theory in the mid-1970s; then, as a 19-year-old, I found his work both innovative and difficult to apprehend. There is a fine review in The New York Times Book review (“Understanding McLuhan (In Part)”; January 29, 1967) of McLuhan and this book, where Richard Kostelanetz writes:
In “Understanding Media,” McLuhan suggests that electric modes of communication—telegraph, radio, television, movies, telephones, computers—are similarly reshaping civilization in the 20th century. Whereas print-age man saw one thing at a time in consecutive sequence—like a line of type—contemporary man experiences numerous forces of communication simultaneously, often through more than one of his senses. Contrast, for example, the way most of [us] read a book with how we look at a newspaper. With the latter, we do not start one story, read it through and then start another. Rather, we shift our eyes across the pages, assimilating a discontinuous collection of headlines, subheadlines, lead paragraphs, photographs and advertisements. “People don't actually read newspapers,” McLuhan says; “they get into them every morning like a hot bath.”
Today, we are getting into something hotter, more like entering a sauna at an upscale spa.