The Man Machine

By | October 28, 2010

We are so adaptable. It’s amazing. Every day we start using new tools 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 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, Understanding Media, 1964)

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.“

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, The Shallows).

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 become “the sex organs of the machine world” (McLuhan). 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 reroute its pathways again and again. Lets to it without a digital route planner. Cause “what matters is not our becoming but what we become.” (N. Carr)

This text arose out of a deep reading session of Nicholas Carrs 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 tecnocratic culture. The corrsponding Prezi-notes you can find under: because in WordPress I couldn’t find a way to embedd them.

3 thoughts on “The Man Machine

  1. Ritchie

    I’m totally with you – McLuhan had a deep understand of media, and his idea of how media shape men are indeed closely connected to the ideas of Nietzsche/Kittler. This is a very important reminder and a topic we should discuss in-depth at the conference.

    “To a man with a ham­mer every prob­lem looks like a nail” is indeed a quite concise description of our current ideas of social media. Recently I read a quote which I like a lot: “As soon as social media users start to talk about other topics besides social media on social media services, social media might become quite interesting.”

  2. wortgefecht

    Very interesting in this context is also the fact, that the metaphors we use for describing how our brain works are heavily influenced by the technologies we use. Nowadays, we see our brain much like a computer. Before that, it was perceived as some kind of machine or steam engine. And before the industrial revolution, we had the concept of it being like a clockwork (famously represented by Vaucanson’s automatons).

    Unfortunately, I haven’t read Carr’s book yet, but there is one important distinction I’d like to point out. The German words “Technik” (from greek téchne) and “Technologie” (a composition of téchne and lógos) define two seperate things. While the first, most appropriately translated by engineering, means a science-based mindset (cf. Copernican revolution), technology means the tools we use. Both have different impacts on a variety of – mainly philosophical – fields, such as (philosophical) anthropology (cf. my example above), ethics, epistemology or philosophy of mind.

  3. Wolfgang_Tonninger Post author

    @wortgefecht: I don’t think that the distinction between “techniques” and “technologies” will bring us further. it seems a bit artificial the more so as in English it doesn’t really exist. maybe it is an occidental invention to seperate the intellectial discourse from the daily one.

    to make it simple I explain my use of the words: for me “techniques” and “tools” are delivered/offered by “technologies”. that should be sophisticated enough 😉
    to suggest – as you do – that “technology means the tools we use” is not really helpfull and encourages more misinterpretations because I think that “technology” has much more to do with the “mindset” (techne) than with the “tools” …


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