I had planned on another post NISO Discovery conference post, but came across this draft stub from a couple months ago....
Every few months I pick up my first edition copy of Marshall McLuhan's classic work, Understanding Media, and select a random section to read. The name of this blog, after all, is a McLuhanism. He is known for his visionary interpretation of the effects of technological communication on society. For those who are unfamiliar with him, it was McLuhan who coined the phrase "global village."
I continue to be amazed how this now 44-year-old book reads as if it were just released today. It was written when TV was still in its relative infancy and the first personal computer was almost twenty years into the future. I am sure if it were released today it would receive the same attention as the Tipping Point and Ambient Findability.
The subtitle of this work is "The Extensions of Man." The term extension refers to how an individual or society creates or makes use something that extends the human body or mind in an innovative way.
McLuhan also cautioned that every technological extension also results in the amputation or modification some other extension. For example, the loss of Morse Code skills with the development of voice-based radio. Online social networks and SecondLife extend our sense of community. However, they also diminish relationships based on "face-to-face" oral communication. (Are two avatars talking to one another face-to-face?) How many times have you come across people in the same room or house instant messaging /texting each other?
McLuhan developed a scientific basis for this thought, what he termed the "tetrad." The tetrad allowed McLuhan to apply four laws, framed as questions, to a wide spectrum of mankind's endeavors, and thereby give us a new tool for looking at our culture. As a 'new' medium, these tetrads also apply to the Internet, a technology that was just being conceived at the time.
The first of these questions, or laws, is "What does it (the medium or technology) extend?" In the case of the car it would be the feet. In the case of blogging it would be paper; an extension of the voice.
The second question is "What does it make obsolete?" One might argue that the automobile makes walking obsolete. The growth of email is making the personal letter sent though the postal service obsolete.
The third question asks, "What is retrieved?" The automobile could retrieve one's sense of adventure lost after the US westward expansion. The sense of community returned with the spread of online social networks.
The fourth question McLuhan asks is, "What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended?" For example, an over-extended automobile culture mkes some long for a more pedestrian lifestyle. Similarly, the over-extension of Internet culture engenders a need for being unplugged from the network.
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