Zane Kripe wrote the following about chapters 4-7:
Reading chapters 4 to 7 was an interesting experience, a crazy ride that made me at times excited, angry and for moments, also thoughtful. With massive apologies for the delay, here I would like to share with you some points I found important.
To summarize, for me in these chapters McLuhan describes different ways of engaging with and thinking about technology. In Chapter 4 (The Gadget Lover) he portrays one mode – where man is like Narcissus from the Greek myth – disillusioned by his reflection in water, thinking that it is someone else. McLuhan argues that thinking of technology as something else, something that is idealized (ideolized) and foreign is numbing and forbids understanding of ourselves. We become mere servo-mechanisms for the technologies we use and as McLuhan says “The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires.”
Yet, as we know, for McLuhan, technology is an extension of man and thus also translation and amplification of ourselves, as he explains in Chapter 6 (Media as Translators). These chapters can also be seen as an ode to artists, which for McLuhan, are the only members in our society who can truly comprehend the present beyond its fragmentation and see the effects of technology before they are experienced in wider society. As you can imagine, for McLuhan, most of the people are like narcissus- unable to grasp what technology is, nor its complex effects. We create and adopt technology into our lives as a way to respond to irritations- either experienced by our bodies or minds (thus wheel was invented to counter-irritate feet). However, by doing that we ‘amputate’ the organs or ‘displace our perception’ from the senses over which now technology takes over entering a numb and narcotic state. That is why he calls media ‘make happen’ agents rather than ‘make aware’ agents, because technologies are developed before they and their possible implications are thought over (as an example of such technology he gives language).
Yet, McLuhan argues that “We can, if we choose, think things out before we put them out.” He identifies that such moments, when we escape the narcosis state is when two different technologies meet and interact and suddenly we can see/experience the peculiarity of the technologies (Chapter 5: Hybrid Energy). While this happens when different cultures meet, on a more regular basis such moments are created by artists who mix media to create certain effects (e.g. Chaplin’s mix of ballet and film).
Without going into more detailed summary, I want to introduce my questions vis-a-vis McLuhans text. So a way out of the Narcissus disillusioned and self-unaware state is understanding. McLuhan argues that literate societies are guided by ‘efficiency and practicality’ as opposed to the oral ones which are guided by their ‘unique emotional mixes’. Thus, I’m intrigued by your thoughts on the nature of understanding – do we understand understanding and knowing as rational process or is it emotional or they have to be mixed. McLuhan himself clarifies his agenda on writing this book stating that “It may be merely temperament in my own case, but I find some easing of the burden in just understanding and clarifying the issues.” And I find his choice to mix temperament with understanding. To be fair, I actually have just one ill defined question, but it comes in two parts, so the second part might explain the first better. Here it is…
In Chapter 6 McLuhan also lays down the basic premises of what we have come to know as knowledge economy- one where “all forms of wealth result from the movement of information” and human lives are understood in terms of continuous learning. Here it seems that McLuhan is not entirely sure which direction this development might take, since one side of the story could be increasing information overload, while the other one might be a return to tribal man state where technology is understood in terms of magic. And here McLuhan hits a soft spot for me. Because, indeed- how well do we ‘understand’ and ‘know’ the technology we use? Me myself, I think I rarely understand anything much beyond of ‘automagically’. My blog post is automagically uploaded after my email automagically was sent to Hans, and while I know how to make that happen, is my understanding any deeper than the one if I attributed this exchange to be performed by some sort of gods or spirits?
Last week I participated in a workshop aimed at increasing my understanding about how the Internet works. The basic premise of the organizers was that it is only by going away from children’s’ book explanations of the Internet we can empower ourselves to become creators rather than consumers. McLuhan himself also seem to have believed that understanding the electronic age will allow him to increase his human agency. So in that workshop I mentioned, we spent a week learning command line, creating networks, secretly observing through our monitors what other people do online, etc. It was a great mix of hands on and learning through discussion. Yet I’m not sure if I really feel the Internet in a different way now. Embodied knowledge, such as riding a bike or walking is hard to translate in words and descriptions, yet we can observe it and we know it, we feel it and we practice it. But what kind of understanding do we need when we deal with abstract networks, structures, and processes, which are hard to be observed and hard to be learned by doing. Since as I understand many of you are interested in learning, I thought maybe you have some thoughts on the nature of arriving at understanding, which for McLuhan is the only way to be authentic human.
Ok, and just in case someone else thought of related issues when reading, I want to drop in another question- what would McLuhan think about Quantified Self, especially in the form it takes on quantified-mind.com/ Since I was late with my blog post, I can’t expect we can actually go into this question, but just to give an impression: Quantified Self claims to be a movement where people track various aspects of their lives (eating habits, exercising, sleep quality, etc.), often through use of technologies that allow to aggregate and analyze their performance. Quantified Minds is a website where one tests the performance of various cognitive processes against different variables such as the time of the day, amount of coffee consumed, etc.
I also attended the workshop that Zane refers to. Check this summarizing blog post if you are interested to learn more.