"We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” - J.Culkin
I recently went down a rabbit hole in order to find the genesis of this quote. It took me through the field of media ecology and landed me on the ideas of one man: Marshall McLuhan. A philosopher whose work formed the cornerstones of media theory and predicted the World Wide Web 30 years before it was invented.
There’s no way I could do his entire body of work justice in a blog post. For that you should check out this recent documentary and his pioneering book: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
However, I wanted to share a few of his ideas that stopped me in my tracks, given my ongoing machinations around the extent to which our digital tools have mentally harmed us. And furthermore, the extent by which technology should be leveraged to reverse the negative externalities of its own doing.
Here are some of McLuhan’s core ideas:
- All technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed. Media/technology are extensions of some physical, social, psychological, or intellectual function of humans.
- Speech & language extends human consciousness and intellect.
- The wheel extends our feet
- The phone extends our voice
- Television extends our eyes and ears
- Computer extends our brain
- Electronic media, in general, extend our central nervous system.
- Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex. But recent extensions via electronic technology elevate the process of technological extension to a new level of significance.
- Whereas all previous technology (save speech, itself) had, in effect, extended some part of our bodies, electricity may be said to have outered the central nervous system itself, including the brain.
- Thus, pre-electric extensions are explosions of physical scale outward, while electronic technology is an inward implosion toward shared consciousness, a change that has significant implications.
- Smartphones didn’t exist 10 years ago, now 2 billion people are using them, which is about 1/3rd of the earth’s population. As a result 1 in 3 people are now hunched over their phones not present to the reality around them. When 1/3rd of the world changes their body position and the way they communicate, it’s an anthropological-level event. Those kind of global changes used to take thousands of years. Now it takes less than 10. That’s hyper-change.
- What we’ve done with electrical technology is to put our nervous systems outside ourselves. Every private operator can own a hunk of your nervous system as if it were a wheel, box or piece of land. He can stand on your nerves and exploit a part of your inner being by these external means.
- This idea engenders some of the core arguments from The Social Dilemma - that social media companies capture our data (‘owning a hunk of our nervous system”) to exploit our emotional vulnerabilities.
- “Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extension 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 nerves by the various media. Whether the extension of consciousness, so long sought by advertisers for specific products, will be 'a good thing' is a question that admits of a wide solution.”
- What extends our physical and psychological capabilities, quickly becomes harmful in excess.
- Kenneth Boulding calls it a ‘break boundary at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic process”. The principle that at some point during their development, processes and methods go too far and reverse into their opposite.
- McLuhan points to Hubris from classical Greek dramas - when a character’s overweening pride leads to his own fall, as well as the ancient Chinese Taoist text the Tao Te Ching, which refers to the same concept of excess leading to its opposite.
- He points to the irony or roads and highways designed to provide freedom of movement have reversed into traffic congestion and urban sprawl. The irony that mobile, nomadic tribal societies were socially static while contemporary, sedentary, specialist societies are socially dynamic and progressive.
- The antidote to this is not just awareness, but to adopt the stark opposite of the format. A “cure” for the effects of a dominant medium or pattern of the time can be a countervailing force in the opposite direction of the dominating force.
- By being aware of the effects our media have on us we can be in a better position to counteract them. Things like tracking how many hours you spend on certain social media apps on your iPhone and quantifying the total time it takes you away from activities you truly value.
- But that is only the first step. Awareness itself is not enough. One antidote to the numbing effect of a particular medium is to use another medium that has a counter-effect: “When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust”.
- So turn off the TV (or the computer or the cell phone) after some time and read a book or take a walk in the woods. After enough reading, have a conversation with another human being. Instead of constant doing, do nothing.
In summary, the technology tools that we are shaping, are now starting to shape us are at the edges of our comprehension. These will happen much faster than previous medium shifts (print paper, television, etc.) and it will soon make us question the very nature of what it means to be human. We have to understand how tools are shaping us, and how to cope with that shaping in the time of hyper-change.
Next time you adopt a new tool ask yourself these questions:
- What will this thing enhance? your feet, hearing, mind, etc.
- As a result, what will this tool obscure away? eg. Your car lends power to your feet but numb the rest of your body.
- How will too much of this thing, corrupt your initial aims? You start out as a consumer, and you may wind up consumed.
- How can you adopt practices that counteract the entropy towards excess?
Questions that i’m asking myself as a builder of mindful products:
- What’s technology’s role in counteracting its own negative impact? Producing an “app for everything” vs. just going out into nature and unplugging.
- What are the ethical ramifications of a meditation app for mindfulness that utilizes gamification, thereby provoking anxiety?
- Can there be a universally agreed upon threshold of “too much” of a new medium/technology?
- Is the oneous on the individual, platform, or external regulators to track abuse and excess?
- Should product teams have an internal metric that measures abuse and build features against it? How do you even begin to agree on that metric?
- What does it mean to completely own your central nervous system and not stake it for sale? Theoretically and practically.
So much to think about it and definitely haven’t even graced the tip of the iceberg! If any, would love to hear the thoughts or questions its prompted in you as well 💌