[ Read the full version here: How to Think About Technology ]
I want to begin this final section by revisiting an initial thought in part one — so far, nothing said about technology makes it inherently bad or immoral. Certain effects, dispositions, and uses can be morally negative, but the scope of technology itself is not.
Rather, the point McLuhan is confronting about technology is that we ought to be aware of the forces at work with any technology (of which there are almost an infinite amount) and pay attention to how technology impacts the very phenomenological framework for how we exist as humans.
As a result, McLuhan’s emphasis became that we should avoid blind usage and normative assumptions concerning any media. We should not presume a media’s existence nor should we assume that a technology is holistically good and will finally solve our problems.
Technology & Making a Deal — (Faustian Bargains)
A disciple of McLuhan, Neil Postman, who is sometimes connected with a strain of Luddism, picked up McLuhan’s concerns and offered a perspective as to this moral ambiguity. Postman suggested that technology is a form of a Faustian bargain; that a new technology creates and provides something, but it also changes or eliminates something with equivalent effect.
Venturing back to the literacy examples in part two, developing a historical consciousness that allowed one to view the world from different times in history as well as various locations in the world has certain benefits. However, it also comes with certain losses; namely a detachment from one’s immediate relationships and the interdependency that was essential to communal life.
Was literacy good or bad? That’s the wrong question.
Postman would encourage us to ask a simpler question: What does literature affect in the human journey and what are both the positive and negative aspects of those effects?
Essentially, there is always a compromise with various media. Whether we are talking about clothing, the alphabet, microwaves, or smartphones — there’s always a deal being made. This implies that the effects are not purely good; technology doesn’t achieve some higher form of existence. Similarly, technology is not evil. It is simply a reality that changes the current experience. It may solve some problems and it will result in new difficulties to traverse.
Technology changes the landscape of human experience.
We must pay attention to the changes.
Avoiding Technological Apathy & Paying Attention
Despite all of this esoteric rhetoric on media’s ambiguity, McLuhan does get a bit critical.
At one point, McLuhan says technological creators are doing something akin to dropping bombs — they don’t see the damage they are causing because it takes so long for various changes to be fully realized. A hoped-for solution is typically gravitated toward with immediacy. Only later do we begin to notice various side-effects ensuing from an innovation. This is especially apparent in a cultural disposition where technology is embraced with cultish hope.
We tend to romanticize the new and, therefore, don’t suitably and honestly predict the unintended consequences of a technology that is supposed to solve our problems. We don’t pay attention to the bargain or compromise that may be associated with new media. It is as if we get so caught up in the magic that we don’t recognize how the medium may be subversively shaping the fabric of reality.
A metaphor often used to describe this is that new technological innovations are like a slab of meat that distracts the watchdog of the mind. Behind the magic show is a sociological and psychological rewiring pulling the strings behind the curtain.
McLuhan’s forcefulness is an attempt to negate this apathy.
Thinking about technology is an ardent intention to see how our living and understanding is being fundamentally determined by the extensions we choose to use. His warning is that if we fail to notice and name the effects, they will still unintentionally and subversively work on us. If we do pay attention, we can be prepared for such sociological, phenomenological, and sociological changes. We may also be able to better predict the direction our lives and the world are apt to travel in light of new or changed extensions of ourselves.
Consider, for instance, a lecture hall. What changes in the human experience when learning is formatted by rows of seating with an authority figure in the front? How does this technology impact how we view ourselves and how we learn?
There is no need for moral value here. Rather, the invitation is to think about, pay attention to, and observe with intentional awareness potential anthropological shifts. I see this within religious circles where a common refrain is that the medium changes but the message doesn’t. Whether it is hymnals or large video projections, there is no consideration that the various technological facets are indeed altering the existence of that religious body. Everything — from our culinary utensils to construction tools and even electronic machines like smartphones and digital wonders like social media — are sending messages that are shaping us.
As the electronic age approached, McLuhan began pushing harder for our culture to think this way.
Spoiler alert — we didn’t.
McLuhan dared us to consider what something like digital infrastructure would do to society. How would it change the scripts we live according to? What would it add? What would it take away? And not with a judgment on innate goodness or badness, but simply an attempt to notice the change so we can better traverse whatever world our tools were creating.
This is what we are invited to do with any and every medium.
To think about it.
And if technology is simply an extension of the self, then there is much to pay attention to because there is much that is affecting us.
Four Categories in Considering Technology
Consider the possibilities up for conversation — you have the telephone, cell phones, and smartphones; Amazon and two-day shipping; social media and Zoom conferencing; but also, the trite considerations of clothing, roads, and pencils. How do all of these various media shape the landscape of the world we live in? What are the effects? Are we aware of them?
McLuhan did not leave us in obscurity — he gave us four categories to consider; sometimes referred to as the Four Laws of Media. With this framework, we are able to take any form of media and ask various questions to assist an intentional awareness.
1 — All media extends something.
If technology (or media) is an extension of the human person, any technological development is based on some component of life that it extends to further the function of sentient beings.
This is why even language is discussed as a technology because it is extending the mouth and the mind. You can even draw connections to basic human qualities and the various extensions that have continued to grow. An eye is extended by glasses. Further, the technology of a security guard (and, yes, I hope we are on the same page by this point that anything which extends a basic function is a technology) extends the eye. Then there is a watchtower which is further extended by a security camera.
Or take your legs and feet and the basic function of walking. A shoe extends this; which is further extended by a horse, then a chariot, then a car, and other transportation innovations like those weird hoverboards.
Our first question to ask whenever we see any technology is, “What is this extending?”
2 — All media obsolesces something.
This is partly in reference to Postman’s “Faustian Bargain” as it calls attention to how the addition of one medium changes the function of other mediums, especially previous technologies. Notice, McLuhan doesn’t say that a new technology destroys older versions. Typewriters still exist, they just have a different and, often, lesser role. Horse carriages are still used, but they’ve been obsolesced to the quaint, romantic ride on a winter evening.
They don’t become obsolete; they simply change towards obsolescence. Often, they lose prominence and may, in fact, blatantly become cultural relics and artifacts.
Our second question to consider in the face of new extensions is, “What might this be obsolescing? What is changed by this thing’s arrival?”
3 — All media retrieves something.
This category functions to place a new medium within the historical development and evolution of previous extensions. Often, a new development is based on a previous one. For example, yelling became smoke signals which became writing which became the telegraph which became, eventually, messaging applications. The sous vide machine retrieves an essence of the oven and the hearth and a campfire.
More specifically, however, McLuhan used this category to draw attention to the larger sociological movement involved with technology. For example, the digital age was retrieving a dynamic of the collective connection in village life; as well as the speed by which information traveled, the emphasis on images over words, and the dependence on present time connection (as opposed to reading something just from a book). This retrieval, then, displayed a combination of two previous macro-extensions — the tribal age and the literary age — to amass in what McLuhan called “The Global Village.”
There is a chain of progress that is informing new technologies while also implicating their effects and alterations.
Our third question to ask, then, is, “What is this technology retrieving? What does this media build on and conglomerate as a new extension?”
4 — All media reverses.
To which the Luddites said, “Amen.”
Every technology functions to a point where it over-extends. The common example used is of an ancient city wall. This technology was great for protection, but with the enjoyment of enclosure came a disastrous side-effect. What happened when the city caught on fire? Walls are great for keeping people out. I’m assuming that the innovators of ancient city walls may not have considered who they would keep in when such tumult would lead to people wanting to get out of the city as fast as possible.
Essentially, a technology always introduces new problems. In changing the known landscape, there are bargains being made. There are benefits and there are losses. Motor vehicles greatly enhanced the ability to travel. But what happens when you have too many cars? It may be faster to walk somewhere in Los Angeles than to drive (at least based on my personal experience).
This is why we see some people refrain from new media. They are avoiding the loss of potential reversal.
Our final question, then, is, “How might this technology reverse? What changes might lead to an unwanted loss?”
The security camera is an oft-sighted example of this phenomenon. A security camera extends the eye, it obsolesces the security guard, it retrieves the benefits of a city wall, but it can reverse by creating unintended vulnerability or an invasion of privacy.
If we think about technology in this way, we’ve now begun to more holistically navigate the exponential effects that technology has on the human person and society-at-large.
McLuhan was adamant that understanding these ideas and asking these questions would help us to grapple with the rippling effects that we are so often blind to. We can better configure a given technology’s best functionality within various contexts and we can potentially use these questions to predict the next cultural situation and potential new technological developments.
Knowing the message a medium is sending — know the script that is being created in our midst — helps us live in the woods because we begin to see the forest and the trees.
More importantly, indulging the range of effects and categorical components keeps us from simply assuming a technology is normative in existence. It avoids historical myopia and technological dependence as if the way things are is simply how things are.
For me, these questions help to de-elevate technology. It is a means of un-romanticizing what is just a natural pattern of human existence. Asking these questions puts technology in its proper place.
Putting Technology in its Proper Place
So, how ought we think about technology? Well, as you may have anticipated, I’m going to return to my Agrarian soapbox that I first revealed in part one.
First, we are often beguiled by a hope of being limitless. Concerning technology, the number of extensions is, in fact, infinite. My inclination, however, is to be reminded that we, as humans, are not. Our finite bodies are only capable of so much. Our time, energy, and resources are limited. If technology is simply an extension of us, we might do well to consider that even infinite extensions are dependent on a finite person.
Simply put, we may be desiring immortality through the guise of technological developments, but we may be doing so at our own demise. We may be fooling ourselves. And in rebelling against our limits, we may be rebelling against our humanity. Putting technology in its proper place involves seeing these extensions for what they are and, in being extensions of us, how they are ultimately dependent on a finite being with all of our messy, chaotic, frail, wonderful, amazing, complex life.
Technology, I suppose, does not exist in a pure vacuum.
Technology is only as viable as the human it is extending.
I tend to think it appropriate, therefore, to condense my optimism in technology. With this, I tend to diminish its dependability. Whether clothing or pencils or security cameras, these are fashioned arrangements of materiality; mechanisms of lifelessness that are dependent on consciousness to provide meaning and vitality.
Which also means I tend to view us humans as more than mechanical parts. Sure, this is framed by particular metaphysical and ontological nuances of which you may not share. However, the aspect of consciousness and being, for me, supersedes the magical salvation that materiality is often thought to offer. As McLuhan noted, our tools are making us; the medium is the message. But we do make the tools and the viability of human nature contracts the austerity with which technology is elevated.
Putting technology in its proper place leads to thinking about technology more simply.
It’s not magical. It’s not that new. It’s just stuff that shouldn’t be unconsciously absorbed nor the abstract fulfillment of some unattainable future.
Secondly, considering McLuhan’s laws of media, especially the nature of compromise and change elicited by a technology’s arrival, we may want to consider that progress is not always progress.
Even in offering solutions to various problems, putting technology in its proper place requires a farsighted perspective on technology. I don’t think that if I buy the right component parts, I will be saved, fixed, healed, or finally capture the elusive happiness abstractly hidden within the packaging of more stuff. More importantly, just because a new medium offers advancement doesn’t mean that it does not come with baggage. There are always changes, losses, and obsolescence that will cost something.
Again, no technology purely resides in pristine improvement.
No matter how many salespersons tell you otherwise.
Let us consider social media. They’re great and come with a plethora of advantages. The extension it offers of the self in terms of communication and relational quantity is unmatched in history. The way it overcomes the constraints of written technology and retrieves the best of the tribal era along with the benefits of written communication is wonderful. Further, every single person gets to be their own celebrity; the star of their own shows. You can, in fact, post a new profile picture and get fifty (or more) human beings to give you attention. Where else can you get that? Where else can you keep in touch with so many people all over the world? Where else can we pass on information so instantaneously?
But we can’t forget that media will have reversals and we might want to pay attention to those, too. Because what happens when everyone is their own authority? What happens when unchecked communication can parlay the airwaves? What happens when someone’s value begins to be associated with their online popularity? What happens when people can interact behind screens of anonymity? Is there a relational loss when your only connection with someone is intervened by a screen?
New advancements in technology are not singularly positive. Something is always lost in the process. We should be prepared to inquire about what we may be losing.
You don’t have to use social media very long to recognize that it has introduced an equivalent number of problems for every benefit it offers. Thinking about technology requires intentional distance from romantic hysteria and also involves asking questions about all of the effects a technology is having.
Putting technology in its proper places leads to seeing that a technology is a medium sending a message and the resulting formation is not inherently positive.
When we think about technology in this holistic manner, we pay attention to the effects any given extension is having on us. We also are capable of objectively naming and addressing the bargain of whatever changes and potential reverses lie on the horizon of existence in response.
Both of these suggestions, however, can be entertained in the narrow confines of what to do with specific technologies which keeps us from being aware of the larger reach such a sociological and psychological force can have. I do not want us to conclude that thinking about technology simply means wondering if social media is good or bad.
No. In putting technology in its proper place — in acknowledging its lifeless extension and recognizing the complex compromises ensuing from any development — we must be aware of the way technology shapes us.
Finally, then, I would like to offer some tangible ways to think about technology.
A Few Questions to Ask:
1 — What does this cost?
Not monetarily, but what might be lost with the incorporation of this new extension? How might it reverse? The further this extension goes; will we lose anything?
If the most obvious culprit to technological optimism that verges on the cultish is our assumed acceptance that this will finally bring our future hope, then admitting the fragility of technology would be a good place to start. For those of us in modern America, it only takes a winter storm cutting out power for days to see just how utterly dependent we have made ourselves on material compositions of stuff.
I’ve also noticed that the more technology reflects our drive for comfort and convenience, the more likely it is to break our hearts when it inevitably reverses or fails; when the abstract, romanticized future becomes banal reality.
Particularly, this question invites us to think of technology in comparison to whatever standard we abide by as humans. As I said, I have particular metaphysical dispositions that convince me to affirm certain teleological goals for being human. If technology is an extension of the self, there is a chance that it will cost something in accordance with that standard.
2 — What is this at the expense of?
Two-day shipping is wonderful. The epitome of convenience. However, does its existence imply the expense of something else? If humans are limited, we cannot have everything. The assumption here would be that by extending the human person to achieve two-day shipping, it will have an effect somewhere else; such as poor working conditions for employees.
If you add a particular extension to yourself — whether computer technology or the internet or motor vehicles or anything in between — what effects will this have on how we live? Are there any compromises that we might want to pay attention to?
Again, an ideological standard will indicate the answers to this question, but the variants run further than the immediate, tactile effects. On to question three.
3 — What else might this change?
How does two-day shipping shape a society? What values does high-speed internet impart on us? What perspective do smart light bulbs promote?
I’m not implying that all of these effects are bad. Yet, asking this question gives the opportunity to filter any component of our life according to rippling implications they are destined to have. Just as literature shifted the fabric of society, any extension being introduced holds the propensity to rewire our way of being. What script is this new thing offering?
If we can ask this question, we are then inclined to determine its usefulness, value, and ideological variables.
One Last Word (Against) Technology
Now it’s time for the moral question. If you have been paying attention, you can probably presume that I tend to be skeptical of technology (and not just the electrically engineered machine kind). At the least, I hope to be honest about the formative messages any technology is imparting and pay attention to the effects I might witness with a technology’s acceptance. Hint, though I use social media, I really don’t like it.
Here, I think the Stoics actually have the most to offer in their sentiment of being dependent on nothing.
However, it is again to the Agrarians that I find constructive approaches.
Rail against the Amish all you want, but they at least have denoted an approach that gives them honest awareness of what they are handling. The Amish, after all, aren’t against technology — they use technology all the time — they are against continued extensions on technology that would be at the expense of a way of life they find honorable. They have a standard of neighborliness that impedes blind acceptance of presumed progress. And while they might not have the comforts and conveniences that enthrall the modern consciousness, we also might lack certain desirable realities they have maintained. Neither group is perfect, but there is something worth considering in the sentiment that the old might contain something our progress is short of.
My foremost question when it comes to technology is, therefore:
How do we utilize advancement without losing our humanity in the process?
How do we avoid getting lost in the inevitable fires that will make us reconsider our fancy walls? The answer to that question is embedded in the disposition previously discussed. The answer is certainly not to blindly enthrall ourselves with whatever inventions come our way. The answer is also not found in getting rid of every single media that has been known to human existence. I am grateful for the dentist. I use cups and lights and computer technology. The question of usage is not too up for debate if technology is literally any extension of the human person.
The answer, I believe, is to hold technology loosely.
Whatever extension we are dealing with, we have to be aware of the reality it is creating and, with a posture of independence, tread carefully.
We can choose to not get caught in the machine.
And we can choose to navigate our existential paths better if we are aware of the world our tools are making.