In the 1960s, an eccentric and controversial professor predicted the rise of the internet.
Marshall McLuhan spent most of his working life at the University of Toronto, where he was primarily focused on understanding culture and technology: what exactly they are, the way they interact, and how they have shaped what we experience as the past and the present.
In his renowned book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (as well as a prior effort called The Gutenberg Galaxy), he predicted that we would soon move away from a visual culture, dictated by technologies like the TV and print magazines, to electronic media.
This, he argued, would create a global village, a new kind of social organization that would move us away from individualism to tribalism as it would make it easier for us to connect.
The main reason McLuhan was able to make such an impressive prediction was that he had a very foundational understanding of what technology is and how humans use it.
Today, we think of information technologies – like the phone or the computer – when we use the term. If we push the definition a little, perhaps ancient tools like the wheel and the ax fall in there, too. But as McLuhan once said in an interview, technology is more than that:
“I think of technologies as extensions of our own bodies, of our own faculties, whether they be clothing, housing, or familiar kinds of technologies like wheels, stirrups that extend the function of the body – the kind to amplify human powers in order to cope with the various environments brings on these extensions. These amplifications of our powers, sort of deifications of man, I think of as technologies.”1
The point of personal technology
While McLuhan sometimes took a pessimistic view regarding how technologies adapt the human condition, he was mostly impartial, often suggesting that technology is generally agnostic. If you are literate and use it well, it’s leverage; if you don’t, then it controls you.
When we think of the term cyborg, we think of science fiction movies where humans have merged with computers in a physical way. But according to McLuhan’s definition, we’ve been cyborgs ever since we learned to make fire and build tools and dress ourselves in clothes.
Each of these technologies, just like the computer, in some way, augment a part of our body and its senses so that we can better navigate across the different zones of space and time.
When you build a car and use it in your daily life, you replace part of the functionality of your legs, not needing to use them for longer distances that you once may have had to.
In this way, the car, then, becomes a part of your body, or an extension of your body, one that provides seamless leverage as you then conquer more space than you previously could.
This definition of technology turns everything that we unthinkingly use daily into something that either provides leverage as we connect it to our body or something that hinders us.
If you spend all day sitting in front of the computer, being nudged from one notification to another, as your life passes by, this extension, in this instance, is likely hindering your body.
At the same time, however, the fact that you can use that same computer to send emails to loved ones, communicating across vast distances, in minutes, gives you immense leverage to manipulate the very fabric of spacetime in a way that your biological body alone can’t.
This same dynamic exists in our relationship to our clothes, our bed, our home, and whatever else we can think of that provides a function to our body without being the body.
A way towards maximum utility
One of the most inspired cultural trends in recent years is minimalism: the idea that less ownership is more because most of what we own today isn’t necessary in a strict sense.
At the end of the day, if you take care of the basics, like feeding yourself, putting a roof over your head, and finding ways to add value with your time, you technically don’t need more.
This whole idea gets one thing quite right, but at the same time, in another way, it falls short.
First, it’s true: we don’t need a lot. In fact, much of what most people own is in their way. If we look at it from McLuhan’s point of view, these things act more like the computer stopping you from living your life than the computer that lets you connect with your loved ones.
On the other hand, however, if ownership is pursued with intent, where utility is valued and where technology extends the body in a way that adds leverage, then it has a lot to offer.
This kind of thinking requires a person to evaluate their actual relationship, the source of their connection, to the technologies they own and interact with. What is the meaning they gain from something? (This also applies to apps or websites within each technology.)
A good way to evaluate utility is to see if a thing seamlessly and fluidly interacts with your body to give you more control over your surroundings, rather than them controlling you.
A car, for example, very easily gets you to where you want to go better than having to walk there. It’s a seamless and fluid interaction, and in most cases, it doesn’t rule your life.
Social media, however, is built to nudge your brain in ways that create habit-forming behaviors. And rather than the body ruling it, in many cases, it rules the body and your life.
Humans create meaning from connection. And we implicitly go through life attaching meanings we aren’t even aware of to different technologies, from clothes to phones.
Maximizing utility is about unmasking meaning to see if it adds the value we assume it does.
One of Marshall McLuhan’s most enduring phrases is: “The medium is the message.”
Given the state of technologies today, the medium that you use to consume your content (whether that be news or some other utility you gain from a technology) shapes more of what you take away and understand than the actual content that you are consuming.
There is a difference between getting your news from an old-fashioned newspaper, which is a very individual act, than there is getting your news from a website, which is a tribal act.
The reason is that technologies become a part of our bodies, and this symbiotic relationship serves a certain function, which transcends whatever surface-level relationship we assume.
Today, we are increasingly being ruled by our technologies rather than the other way around. Part of this has to do with how we have been creating technologies in recent decades, but another part is that we simply aren’t literate enough to manage our relationship.
Any technology, from clothing to a computer, either augments the body in a beneficial way, or it hinders the body in a way that decouples its intention from that of the mind.
If you do the work to evaluate your relationships with the different technologies in your life, and the different purposes they serve, you can maximize the utility you gain from them.
Much of the meaning in life emerges out of the connections we form to the technologies that extend our bodies. To better nourish this meaning, we have to better understand them.
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