[ Read the full version here: How to Think About Technology ]
Previously, we surveyed the technological landscape alluding to a dissonance between how we typically approach the definition and understanding of technology and how, in contrast, there may be a better way of approaching the subject.
Arriving at such conclusions is best surmised in Marshall McLuhan’s description of media as ecology.
This, in fact, is what I would propose is the first component in properly thinking about technology.
I’d recommend starting with part one before venturing into the next part of our discussion:
We usually assume technology is an electrically induced object of fascination. McLuhan pulls the rug out of our semantic assumption by suggesting media — the plural form of medium — is a better word than technology. This is helpful because the semantic conflation encourages us to reconsider what technology even is.
McLuhan defines media (and, therefore, technology) as an intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to the senses. Today, McLuhan would be called an intellectual hipster. His deconstructive emphasis is valid, however. These various “media” are the filter between us and reality. Essentially, media and technology are any extension of us as human beings.
McLuhan’s point was that technology is not just machinery or modern equipment like computers and microwaves and sous vide devices that result from innovative engineering and electricity. Technology is anything that builds upon or adapts the physical constraints of the human person.
This is why I think it is a good precaution to avoid labeling technology with a moral value. Eyeglasses are technology. Language is technology. Clothing is technology. Even a fork is technology. To say that any extension of the human person is inherently wrong would be quite the generalization. Yet, residing to meager debates about specific particularities within technological innovation keeps us at a distance from the larger notion of media as ecology, too.
Yet, McLuhan’s intention was not just to get us to reconsider the definition of technology.
Defining media in this way also created an opportunity to see that technology might be playing a larger role than we realize or, at least, than we typically take the time to discuss.
Technology, Water, & Forests
If technology is an extension of human existence, this certainly means that most things are, in fact, technology. Similarly, this means that any technology (or media) affects the person and component of the person they are extending.
And just as we assume the reality of our own bodies and minds, we rarely consider the effects and impact such media may be having on our bodies and minds. Technology becomes like our autonomous nervous system; the more normative a technology, the more unconsciously assumed it becomes in the life of the user. I’m not trying to go all ‘Isaac Asimov’ on you (he’s the author of I, Robot). Clothes have been extending the human person for quite some time and I don’t think that is an inherently evil thing. It is, however, quite assumed in human consciousness. Again, these statements must be considered within all of the technological depth implied within McLuhan’s definition.
Whether it is clothing or housing or coinage, all of it, as an extension of us, becomes the water we swim in. There is an assumed reality and necessity which makes these media simply the way it is and McLuhan’s point was that, in not seeing the forest from the trees, we may talk about the details and preferences of the woods and the plants without realizing that we are being formed, shaped, and determined by the medium of the forest itself.
This is why new technologies are often resisted at first; because they disrupt the assumed and convenient norm of our familiar forest. The vibrant landscape of smartphones started as a meager sapling at one point. Further, this means that — especially if corporations get their way — saying things like, “Ok, Google,” will be as normal as eating and sleeping.
Because technology is an extension of the human person.
Given enough time, they begin to fit as snug as an old pair of jeans.
Technology & Scripts: The Medium is the Message
To offer a different perspective from social psychology, let us turn to Urie Bronfenbrenner who coined a Bio-Ecological Systems Theory within human development (sometimes referred to as the Babushka theory). Bronfenbrenner was a child psychiatrist seeking to explain human development and how humans socially exist and he claimed that one’s environment exists in a series of layers.
You have the micro-system — your day-to-day life which includes interactions with those close to you and is comprised of the experiences with family, friends, and yourself. Then you have the meso-system — which is relationships between two or more micro-systems such as a community, a team, work, or larger groups. Third is the exo-system — the places and groups that aren’t directly a part of our lives, but affect us. We don’t necessarily directly interact with these groups and organizations, but we are influenced by them. Smaller forms of government are a good example.
Then there is the macro-system — which is general culture. To Bronfenbrenner, he claimed this was the most powerful because it creates the norms that dictate your life even though you didn’t come up with them. A macro-system is the water we swim in and just assume this is how it is. He called them scripts. We live by scripts and don’t even consider them and, possibly, aren’t even aware of them even though we are subject to them.
McLuhan may argue that technology is an encompassing script. Therefore, all media and technology are shaping the identity of a person and a culture. We usually think of technology simply in terms of how its content shapes you — how you learn via the internet or the difference between printed books and electronic books, etc. — but McLuhan argued that you aren’t just receiving content and formation from various media. McLuhan claimed that the media was actually a part of the content. You and society at-large are being formed by the technology itself.
Or, in McLuhan’s words:
The medium is the message.
Doing most of his work in the 1960s, McLuhan was very interested in how things like television and radio impacted society. Yet, he also understood that, no matter what the technology in question was, the same patterns seen throughout history are repeating themselves; we can look backward to have an idea of how a particular technology might be functioning as a script so as to inform how other technological extensions may be doing so today. Therefore, he used the blossoming of literary culture to explain the effect various mediums have on the human experience.
Literature as a Technological Example
If you have a culture that once collectively functioned by story and sense perception, what happens when you introduce writing? How does that change the scale, the pace, the perspective, and the lifestyle of existence? This was McLuhan’s curiosity and he arrived at a cornucopia of revelations.
He talks about how the tribal age was an acoustic place in history — primarily experienced through the senses of hearing, touch, taste, and smell which were, as a result, more advanced than visualization. There’s more passion and spontaneity. Primitive people, he claimed, lived richer lives than their literate descendants because the ear does not select as the literary eyes do.
The age of literacy, however, shifted human existence to a visual point of view. As a result, you see a shift in human development.
Literacy moved people from collective tribal involvement to private detachment. Because information was not based on communal interaction, people had a certain autonomy that was unprecedented. They were no longer constrained to the immediate collective. This is, by the way, sometimes referred to as the Gutenberg way of perceiving and is parallel with the uptick in individualism.
Literacy also encouraged a particular form of thinking — no longer was circular storytelling the mode of presenting ideas because a book purveying information in lines conveys a sense of information being logical and linear. McLuhan’s correlation was with literature and the advent of mathematics, science, and philosophy. He did not believe the result of this was only because people had more access to information, but also because those disciplines were based on a particular representation of information. Literacy changed the perspective on reality. Human development was being rewired.
Further, McLuhan claimed that literacy expanded a singular person’s consciousness because, now, one did not need to exist in the pure present of their immediate surroundings; they could literally reach back into history and across spatial constraints. Literature allowed a person to transcend their time and place.
These are some of the examples McLuhan noted about the medium of literature. Literary technology was sending a message that informed how the world was going to work and human beings would exist.
His connections go even further, however. In discerning the print age, he claimed that such access to literature paved the way for industrialism. The printing press also made visual dependence widespread. Eventually, being literate was not seen as a noble rarity, but an expectation. Therefore, he adds, fixed national languages become essential (also a correspondence to the spatial reach humans now had). Nationalism arises. In fact, McLuhan regarded the fragmentation of society into larger tribes than their village predecessors a significant outcome of print.
Then you have the electronic age and the rise of what he called “The Global Village.” McLuhan believed that electronics and electronic communication were retribalizing society. Privacy became a luxury, there is a focus on the senses and visual storytelling and feeling.
Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, his adamant request is to consider technology in this holistic sense; that our sensory world of meaning is being socially constructed by technology and media. All of these extensions of the human person are not neutral, they are literally forming the world as we know it.
Or, as McLuhan articulated:
We make our tools, but then our tools make us.
The medium is the message.
How ought we think about technology? We ought to consider how every technological extension is affecting the very fabric of how we live in and perceive the world and our existential discourse within it.