Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Over on the Media Ecology Association discussion list, someone raised a rather elaborate set of questions about Marshall McLuhan's characterization of media as "the extensions of man," which I responded to. So, for the benefit of Blog Time Passing and its vast multitude of followers, I've taken what I wrote, cleaned it up a bit, and share it with you here.
The concept of technology as extensions seems to have originated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, but my understanding is that at least during the late 19th and early 20th century it was a commonplace notion. The three main sources for McLuhan, I gather, would be Emerson, C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (in The Meaning of Meaning), and Edward T. Hall (in The Silent Language).
I believe that what is unique to McLuhan is the use of the term media in connection to extension, as opposed to technologies or instruments, and his heavy emphasis on media extending the physical body, as opposed to simply functions carried out by the body.
In this sense, prosthesis is the closest to McLuhan's discussion of extension, and he does uses that term, as he gets into the idea that every extension is also an amputation, as whatever part of the body is extended is also numbed in the process. He doesn't use the term cyborg, but that is so similar to what he is talking about that I can only imagine that he would have, had it been a more familiar term in the early 60s.
Exteriorization may be related to extension, but the sense of it is somewhat different, as it works along an interior-exterior dialectic, and I believe it suggests more of a mental rather than a physical operation, projection even more so, as it suggests a way of viewing the world, not acting upon it.
I have a chapter in Rob MacDougall's new anthology, Drugs and Media, where I take the idea of drugs as media and therefore extensions, but extensions that feedback into the self, and add the general semantic distinction between extensional and intensional orientations (note that's intensional with an "s" and not intentional with a "t"), to characterize drugs as intensions.
Simulation I think has more to do with content than medium, or the effects of technology rather than the nature of technology, which is what extension addresses.
I consider technology to be an extension of biology, not necessarily of human biology, as it is well established that animals also have technologies of sorts.
As noted, McLuhan's stress is on technology as extensions of the body, and that corresponds to how technology acts on the world. But we experience our body only through our senses (including the internal kinesthetic, vestibular and proprioceptive senses), so whatever extends our body also extends our senses, which would also have the effect of numbing or amputating our sense perception, and therefore altering our senses. The senses, of course, are a part of our nervous system, so we are also extending, amputating, and altering aspects of our nervous systems.
Driving a car clearly is a cyborg activity, operating an elevator though is not so much, although we could see in the elevator mechanism an extension of skeletal structure and musculature. But at a certain remove, it does make more sense to talk about the extension of function rather than body.
This would also be the case for techniques rather than technologies, for example McLuhan talks about games as extensions of social organization (I based a study of baseball as a medium on that point in an anthology edited by Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker).
The idea of technologies as extensions of other technologies, of a new technology extending an older one, comes up in some basic mass media texts. It strikes me as a relatively superficial notion, in contrast the idea of technologies as emanating from the body/biology.
Paul Levinson has the more nuanced idea of remedial media, that is a new medium introduced to solve a problem created by the introduction of an older medium, e.g., window shades for windows, answering machines for telephones, VCRs for TVs, and this relates to ideas about media evolution that Paul also explores.
Also, Ellul talks about the geometric growth of technology as we develop technological solutions to the problems created by our technologies, only to have the solutions create more problems that require more technologies to solve, etc.
But to take McLuhan's view, even if an extension is an extension of an extension, the important point would be to trace the process of extension back to the aspect of the biological body that they all are extending, and especially for McLuhan, from there to the effect this has on the senses. I think we could take it further and say that the body is an extension as well (but of what? the mind? the spirit? God? evolution? the selfish gene? life?), although McLuhan didn't want to go there. But the main point is that technologies are extensions of organisms, even it they are extensions one or more times removed.
As for extensions of consciousness, from a materialist standpoint, any medium that may be said to be an extension of consciousness would be an extension of the brain and nervous system as biological organs. Perhaps it could be said that techniques are extensions of mind rather than body, but that would still bring us back to the brain, so I still return to function, or perhaps behavior as the phenomenon that is extended.
The way I've put it previously is that all organisms act upon their environment, simply by existing within their environment. Simply by performing the basic life function of metabolism, they alter their environment, and technology is just a further elaboration of this basic characteristic of life.
But to say that there is no difference between biology and technology, e.g., eye and telescope, seems a bit extreme. When an organism alters it environment by the addition of extensions of itself, it places the extension between itself and its environment (which is why all technologies are media), and whatever comes between itself and its environment becomes its new environment (or at least part of it)--again, this is something I've said a number of times in the past, so apologies to anyone who might be tired of hearing it.
I feel that we've dealt with the issue of causality fairly well, either by reference to systems theory, where we understand that the extension creates a new environment or system out of which certain effects may emerge, or by recourse to formal cause, as presented in the recently published Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan. Some disagree, but I see the two as connected, as I indicate in the foreword to the book, and Robert K. Logan shares that view.
I have also argued in the past that technological determinism is a straw man. I have an essay on this coming up in Ed Tech magazine, it should be out this month, I believe.
Extensions do not have to be physical. While they are rooted in the material world, the best way to understand them, in my view, is not as a what but as a how--as method, means, or in the sense that Kenneth Burke used the term in A Grammar of Motives, an agency.
Animals can be seen as extensions. Lynn White's classic study, Medieval Technology and Social Change, is all about the use of the horse for combat and farming. Ellen Rose published a marvelous little study on pets in Explorations in Media Ecology when I was editor.
The same goes for humans. Lewis Mumford makes the point that the first machines consisted of organized human labor, e.g., as in the building of the pyramids.
And natural objects can be turned into technologies, and therefore extensions, a point I also make in the piece I wrote for Ed Tech. A stone is not an extension, unless I pick it up and throw it, thereby extending my fist. A stick is not an extension, unless I pick it up and use it to extend my arm and hand and finger, extend my reach and sense of touch. That brings us back to method or means, So by themselves natural objects are not technologies or extensions, unless you want to frame all of nature as the extension of the supernatural.
And here ends my extended commentary.