(If you haven’t read the first part of this series, you might want to go check it out first before continuing.)
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. While, in all likelihood, the ideas presented in this book preceded this publication (is anything really “new”?), the concepts put forward by McLuhan continue to have relevance and an almost “prophetic” quality almost 60-years later.
Understanding Media is not the easiest read on the planet, but in an attempt to summarize some of the key concepts, McLuhan stated:
1. The medium is the message. The content we communicate (or “share”) may seem to be of utmost importance, but when viewed through the lens of history, content matters very little. It is the medium that changes a society. Every medium carries with it its own ethic — its own way of seeing the world — and assumptions about how humans work or, in other words, how we run most efficiently. In its very basic form of explanation, McLuhan’s simple statement says; we may think we are simply trying to tell our friend to meet us at five, but the method we choose to tell them this message will, in the long run, say more about our culture and what we think “being human” means than any content ever could.
2. Every medium is an extension of man. This gets to the very definition of a medium, according to McLuhan. What this means is that every technology we develop is intended to extend our “human” functions somehow. A medium is anything we create to extend our powers beyond what we could do naturally. (If this ever gets confusing, just substitute the words technology or tool and you should get back on track – I’ll be using these interchangeably over the next few posts.) There are essentially four categories of technologies based on the way they supplement or amplify our natural capacities. Things like a hammer or drill extend our physical abilities like strength and dexterity. Microscopes, hearing aids and other such technologies extend the range or sensitivity of our senses. Yet other technologies allow us to “control” nature; to make it fit our wishes (a house for example). A final category, that includes things like the clock, computers and the Internet, is referred to as “intellectual technologies”. These extend or support our mental skills.
3. Every medium has its benefits (usually obvious) and also its consequences (often not seen by its inventors and users). While the benefits of extending our natural abilities is fairly obvious to everyone, the way these technologies limit us and bring other, unintended consequences is usually invisible to most people. These are the changes — the long-term messages — that are carried with the invention of any new technology. The consequences, both good and bad, change us as individuals and as a group. Because every medium (technology) enhances certain aspects of humanity and limits others, we gain and lose simultaneously — and the technology does not moralize what is gained and lost; it simply has consequences (we can lose something good about our humanity as easily as we could gain something negative).
Now that is in incredibly simplified overview — and probably poorly conveyed at that — but the point is this: the tools/technologies we use say something about how we view ourselves, others and the world around us. This is especially true when it comes to using tools/technologies/media to communicate with people, to develop relationships and to obtain information about the world we live in.
While some people still like to pretend technologies themselves don’t matter (it’s how we use it they’ll say), it is widely acknowledged, even amongst average, everyday people who would rather not think about this stuff, that how you send a message (what technology you use) is incredibly important. For example, if someone ever broke up with you using a text message, what would that say about the relationship? The medium is the message!
McLuhan may have started me on my path to answers for (some of) my issues, but brain science is pushing me even further.
It turns out, not only do we communicate certain ethics/values by our use of technologies, we actually are changing our brains. And not just in a metaphorical way. We are physically altering the biological makeup of our brain based on the technologies we regularly use. Our brains, it seems, are very “plastic”. That means they adapt and change very quickly to how they are used. Our brains are constantly changing.
The brain will grow new circuits (neurons grow new synaptic connections) as new skills are learned and practiced. It will also remove and reallocate circuits that are not being used or accessed on a regular basis. These are actual, literal, biological changes — new things actually grow and other things disappear in our brain. As we do the same activity over and over, our brain will transform that activity into a habit. It will reallocate its resources to make our performing of that activity as efficient as possible; often taking resources from other things that are not practiced any more. Our brain space is turned over to the activities we perform and practice — regardless of whether they are good or bad habits. In fact, as Nicholas Carr says, “The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable, than the ones we gain. When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent.”
What this means is that our brains are much like electricity — they travel the path of least resistance and actually re-map themselves to create a path of least resistance for those tasks we perform most frequently. The farther we travel down the path of using certain tools, the more our brains are shaped in the image of these technologies and the harder it is to turn around and go back to a different state of being.
For me — and for our culture as a whole — the path I am currently on, the tool/technology I am using that is shaping my brain is the Internet, the computer and, so-called, “social media”. And there is ample proof and science to confirm this technology is quite literally changing my brain and creating the issues I described in my first post in this series. (And ironically, I am using this very technology to bemoan my current state.)
How is this happening?
One of the key points McLuhan made regarding media (see above) is that they bring both benefits and consequences. One of the ways to determine what the consequences will be is to more closely consider what aspect of our “human-ness” is being extended because as we extend our natural abilities in one area — as we re-orient our brains to be a specialist in “area A” — we will numb or limit our abilities in other areas — we will necessarily limit ourselves in “area B”.
Now, stay with me here … for example, if you use binoculars to extend your eyesight, you will at the same time limit (or numb) your ability to see things within your immediate environment closest to you. By expanding the range of your eyesight, you must limit your ability to see things right in front of you.
This is important because it speaks to the transaction that will always take place when we decide to use a new technology. In my case — and our current-culture-as-a-whole’s case — I have exchanged something of value for the benefits of using the Internet, computers and “social media” as the primary method of communication.
The benefits of these media are very easy to see. I can communicate regularly with my brother and sister, each living half-way across the world. I can send images of my kids growing up to their grandparents who wish they could see them more. I can make arrangements with friends quickly and efficiently. I can research a subject previously unknown to me in the matter of minutes using Google and Wikipedia. I can keep up-to-date with the latest news and sports scores throughout the evening without having to wait for the next day’s newspaper.
There seems to be no limit to the amount of information I can access, the speed with which I can communicate and the physical space I can bridge using these simple tools.
But what am I sacrificing in exchange for this low-hanging fruit? It turns out, the answer is more than you would think.
(And that is for tomorrow … )
Part 3 can be found here
Part 4 can be found here