“Technology as Extension of the Human Body”


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“Technology as Extension of the Human Body”

When most people contact one another there is only a combining of exteriors. Few occasions develop when two people make a significant contact of interiors. James Baldwin put it succinctly when he said “mirrors can only lie”. The mirror exposes only the exterior and says nothing about the interior; I find that, as I grow older, I have less and less exterior about which to communicate and communication about the interior seems much easier with total strangers on the Internet than with those close to me.

Marshall McLuhan “The High Priest of Pop-Culture” in the mid twentieth century was the first to announce the existence of the ‘global village’ and to express that “we become what we behold”. McLuhan sought to understand and express the effects of technology on modern culture.

McLuhan was particularly interested in “Technology as Extension of the Human Body”. “An extension occurs when an individual or society makes or uses something in a way that extends the range of the human body and mind in a fashion that is new. The shovel we use for digging holes is a kind of extension of the hands and feet. The spade is similar to the cupped hand, only it is stronger, less likely to break, and capable of removing more dirt per scoop than the hand. A microscope or telescope is a way of seeing that is an extension of the eye.”

Going further in this vein the auto is an extension of the foot. However there are negative results from all such extensions. “Amputations” represent the unintended and un-reflected counterparts of such extensions.

“Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension… The extension of a technology like the automobile "amputates" the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence. These are a few examples, and almost everything we can think of is subject to similar observations…We have become people who regularly praise all extensions, and minimize all amputations. McLuhan believed that we do so at our own peril.”

McLuhan was concerned about man's willful blindness to the downside of technology. In his later years McLuhan developed a scientific basis for his thought around what he termed the tetrad. The tetrad is four laws, framed as questions, which give us a useful instrument for studying our culture.
"What does it (the medium or technology) extend?"
"What does it make obsolete?"
"What is retrieved?"
"What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended?"

McLuhan’s gravestone carries the inscription “The Truth Shall Make You Free." We do not have to like or even agree with everything that McLuhan said. However, we would be wise to remember that his was a life of great insight and it was dedicated to showing wo/man the truth about the world we live in, and especially the hidden consequences of the technologies we develop.

In the book “The Birth and Death of Meaning” Earnest Becker provides us with a synthesis of the knowledge about the extensions of the human body that McLuhan spoke of and science certified through research.

Becker informs us that the “self” is in the body but is not part of the body; it is symbolic and is not physical. “The body is an object in the field of the self: it is one of the things we inhabit…A person literally projects or throws himself out of the body, and anywhere at all…A man’s “Me” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but his clothes and house, his wife and children, [etc].” The human can be symbolically located wherever s/he thinks part of her really exists or belongs.

It is said that the more insecure we are the more important these symbolic extensions of the self become. When we invest undue value onto such matters as desecrating a piece of cloth that symbolizes our nation is an indication that our self-valuation has declined and this overvaluation of a symbol can help compensate that loss. We get a good feeling about own value by placing value in the pseudopod (Pod—an anatomical pouch) as the flag.

In conceiving our self as a container that overflows with various and important extensions that our technology provides us we might appear like a giant amoeba spread out over the land with a center in the self. These pseudopods are not just patriotic symbols and important things but include silly things such as a car or a neck tie. We can experience nervous breakdowns when others do not respect our particular objects of reverence.

Do you think of yourself as being extended as a result of using technology? Do you think such extensions are a representation of reality? Do you think that consciousness of such claims to be useful?

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I've always enjoyed the various papers published by the philosopher David Chalmers, and he wrote one with Andy Clark, The Extended Mind, that argues that our mind is not only in our skulls, but is also extended out into the world. That is to say, the cognitive mind, and not the mind of old school substance dualism. The argument in favor of this thesis seems to be "why not?", since a bunch of physical processes are responsible for cognition, why draw the line between mind and non-mind at our skulls?

Incidentally, and perhaps more on topic, if we hold a stick long enough our brain will wrap it into our identity for the purposes of proprioception: our sense of the relative positions of parts of our body. Proprioception clearly won't extend to anything that we are not in constant contact with for a good deal of time, but in a much weaker sense, I think it's fair to say that we do wrap parts of our external environment into our identity.

I have a pet psychological theory that people with low self-esteem will be more likely to identify themselves strongly with external things (e.g. nations, sports teams, cars, houses, subcultures), as the perceived greatness of such things acts to heal their low opinion of their body, social presence, actions, or other personal traits. It's hard to imagine that someone who would throw a punch over a dissing of their favorite sports team does not consider said team to be somehow a part of themselves. That said, I'm only willing to go so far with this theory, as I think our relative loyalty to external things is determined by far more than just self-esteem.
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