This text arose (together with the PREZI presentation you see below) out of a deep re-reading session of Nicholas Carr’s book: „The Shallows. What the Internet is doing to our brains“ – which I consider to be a milestone in describing our handling of digital media and the alternatives to a technocratic culture – and Marshall McLuhan’s best known work „Understanding Media“ – celebrating the 50th anniversary of this publication.
We are so adaptable. It’s amazing. Every day we start using new tools and devices and develop new cultural techniques which delight us childishly.
Childishly, because we really believe that there is no price we have to pay. Childishly, because we hope that how we use a medium makes a difference and a better usability will help us to survive. Childishly, because we don`t get tired in repeating McLuhans famous dictum that „the medium is the message“ without reflecting it. Otherwise we would bring to our mind that the content of a medium is just
the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind“ (McLuhan)
It needs a bit of dialectics to understand that we are not just using tools but also shaped by them. „Our equipment takes part in forming our thoughts“, Friedrich Nietzsche realized 1879, after some weeks using a typewriter.
And the more general and usable and mobile and sexy the tools become the harder it gets to keep distance. The harder it gets to see „how changes in a mediums form also change its content.“ (McLuhan) The harder it gets to detect the skills we loose when we gain new ones:
A new medium is never an addition to an old one, it always develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.“ (N. Carr)
It looks like that loosing is part of the game. Tools may extend our physical strength, the range of our sensitivity, they may reshape nature for better serving us or extend our mental power but they always make the part they replace feel numb to us. Think about the car navigation device and you know that it‘s true. The numbing effect of technology is part of its ethics.
For a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. But what if the hammer comes in the shape of a cool gadget? And what about the technologies that
influence how we find, store and interpret information, how we direct our attention, engage our senses, how we remember and how we forget? … the tools of mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities – those for reason, perception, memory, emotion.“ (N. Carr)
In a situation like this it’s not about finding better analogies for the human and the machine world. The challenge lies more in finding the very qualities that still seperate us from the machine. Isn’t the brain more than a computer? Can memory really be outsourced? Is culture not more than the world’s information. Is scrolling and the mindless consuming of data really the same than reading? Is the easy and the fast way always the best one? Isn’t following a search algorithm different than searching? And what about our emotions? Can we live them in computer coded relations?
Back to dialectics. When tools are absolutized, enlightenment switches into new mythology – and humans soon become „the sex organs of the machine world“ (McLuhan). That we are tool using animals is not bringing us more freedom – history is rather teaching us that we are controlled by our tools the more we absolutize them. In this context increased usabillity is less an argument but the numb stance of the technological idiot. Helpful software doesn’t help – to solve this problem. Helpful software is fueling it.
Do we want this? Considering the word of William James, who wrote 1892 that „the art of remembering is the art of thinking“ – do we still want to outsource our memory to a search engine?
Our mental adaptibility is huge. Undoubtedly. Thanks to the plasticity of our brain we can re-route its pathways again and again. Lets do it without a digital route planner. Cause „what matters is not our becoming but what we become.“ (N.Carr)