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Class 5: McLuhan and Stiegler

October 24, 2018

The discussion this week began with the question of some of the things that make us, as human beings, different from other inhabitants of the planet. Starting with the suggestion of opposable thumbs we eventually landed the human facility to develop sophisticated tools as the key differentiator.

Writing in the second half of the 20th century Marshall McLuhan suggested that tools are an extension of what we can do and, ultimately, an extension of ourselves. John referred to the reading from the previous week where the example was offered that if you pick up a hammer you don’t simply have a hammer in your hand you have a ‘hammerhead’ You’ve changed both the hammer and your hand. You have created a new functionality that neither object had before. While this gives you an ability to do things you couldn’t previously it also limits your perspective: you are now predisposed to hammering nails into things! Tools change the the way we interact with the world – they change us – they change society – they have an effect on our environment.

To understand the power of our tools McLuhan asked us to consider how we perceive the world around us; how is information coming to us: through our eyes, ears, finger tips? We talked about the nature of painting versus photography; radio versus tv and live interaction versus virtual reality. For example, listening to the radio is often done in conjunction with other tasks such as cooking, tidying or driving whereas tv tends to absorb all our attention (using tv as an example required some imagination on your part as none of you actually looks at tv the way my generation does but, the analogy was clear). This is a simple demonstration of how the medium, while somewhat invisible, shapes our behaviour.

Bernard Stiegler proposes the use of the Greek word Pharmakon in relation to tools, to acknowledge they are both the cure and the illness. He is thinking particularly of media technology. While tv absorbed the viewer’s attention fully there has been a distinct shift in our consumption of contemporary digital media (particularly social media). The result is a move from deep attention and engagement to a fragmentation of attention in short bursts, across a range of platforms.

The danger, as McLuhan put it, is that we are ‘shuffling towards the 21st century in the shackles of 19th century perceptions’. He urged us to try and be aware of the impact the tools we use repeatedly is having on our perception and understanding of our reality. This becomes increasingly important once we realise that our way of living is bringing about the demise of the planet’s ability to sustain our civilisation.

These are some of the concepts you should engage with in developing your project.

THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE NEXT CLASS:

  1. Read: Digital Identity Development is a Process. [accessed 25 October 2018].
  2. Read: Syrian lesbian blogger is revealed conclusively to be a married man. [accessed 25 October 2018].
  3. Look at: the infographic Personal Branding: 10 Steps to a New Professional You. [accessed 25 October 2018].
  4. Write the fifth post: to your blog describing and reflecting on the progress of your group towards developing an approach to the project.

ADDITIONAL READING:

  1. The Medium is the Massage is Marshall McLuhan’s best known work, written in partnership with graphic designer Quentin Fiore [accessed 25 October 2018].
  2. The other well-known concept developed by McLuhan is the Global Village [accessed 25 October 2018].
  3. Extrapolating on McLuhan: How Media Environments of the Given, the Represented, and the Induced Shape and Reshape Our Sensorium provides a deeper analysis of McLuhan. [accessed 25 October 2018].
  4. Reading Bernard Stiegler is a useful introduction to Stiegler’s work by academic and blog writer Sam Kinsley.
  5. Dive right into Stiegler and read Escaping the Anthropocene if enjoyed the theme of the discussion in class [accessed 25 October 2018].

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