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our tools shape us

This is a quote from Marshall McLuhan, educator and media scholar of the 1960s & 70s. He said, "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us", namely that advances in media through technology increase our extension, but ultimately change us. We are ultimately communicating ourselves, and our extensions become part of us and our self-identity. He said, "With telephone and TV it is not so much the message as the sender that is sent." What was once face to face communication changed with the advent of the telephone and TV. There's a greater reach, but it is only our voice or image. We gain extension, we lose dimensions. McLuhan said, "When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body."

Other insights from McLuhan, who also coined the term "global village":

"The future of the book is the blurb."
"The ignorance of how to use new knowledge stockpiles exponentially."
"At the speed of light, policies and political parties yield place to charismatic images."
"Today each of us lives several hundred years in a decade."

There's an interesting prophecy given in Daniel 12 about the "end of time." The angel says, "But you, Daniel, close up these words and seal the book until the time of the end. Many will dash about [rush here and there / to and fro], and knowledge will increase." (NET)

This must mean not just that knowledge will grow over time, which would be naturally expected. This must be something more significant, as in the exponential growth of knowledge. And the movement "to and fro" some have thought refers to the extent of travel, but I think more likely the phrase indicates a frenetic superficiality. Much information will be processed, but there will be no increase in wisdom, and thus as the angel says, "seal up the book."

McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media that the technologies we invent and use regularly will have a hypnotic or numbing effect upon our nervous systems. In one chapter he speaks of the true understanding of the Narcissus myth:

“The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any medium (material) other than themselves…The wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had different feelings had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensively technological, therefore narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus.”
Neil Postman has picked up where McLuhan finished:

“Information must be moved and consumed continuously. That is the price to be paid for speed-of-light transmission. What the information may be is of no consequence, as long as it is attention-getting, and does not inhibit the flow of new information coming fast behind it.” (Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity)


“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.” (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death)

A rather ironic postscript to all this: on Marshall McLuhan's tomb are the words, "The Truth Shall Make You Free."

We should really think about this.


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