Read

How Marshall McLuhan Taught Us to Hold Onto Our Humanity

Creator:
Published:
December 14, 2023
October 16, 2023
Learn how "the medium is the message," a quote by philosopher Marshall McLuhan, reminds us to decrease our dependence on technology.|Read this article to find out more about the impact of technology on our lives and how to uphold the beauty of what makes us human.

Open that dreaded Screen Time app on your smartphone. What’s your weekly average? If it’s four hours or more, you are on your phone as much as the average American each day.

It’s no secret that we’re on our phones too much. Forty-six percent of teenagers say they are on the internet “almost constantly.” And adults aren’t doing much better. This summer, Pod Save America host Jon Favreau tried to break his smartphone addiction. At the beginning of the challenge, he was logging six hours and 12 minutes a day and averaging 284 pickups. Several statistics claim that young people are spending upwards of seven hours and 22 minutes on their cell phones. That’s almost half our waking day.

But what’s wrong with that? Maybe being online a lot is just a sign of a thriving work life, an active social life, or just being busy.

Unfortunately, numerous studies have made pretty strong connections between our increased screen time and the uptick in anxiety, depression, and general unhappiness. “Not every increase in power represents progress for humanity,” said Pope Francis in his latest letter to “all people of good will.” Pope Francis addresses the climate crisis but also the technological crisis of artificial intelligence.

ChatGPT came online in November of 2022. Artificial intelligence bots make art, music, memes, and jokes. The internet is increasingly moving toward a bot-topia. Not only are we glued to the screen, the content on the screen is becoming increasingly robotic.

Many people are choosing to log off entirely. But for those interested in engaging with and using the internet, how can we do that without being overpowered by the World Wide Web?

The Medium is the Message

“The medium is the message” — it’s so common a phrase, it’s almost a cliché. But the aphorism had a birthday: it was coined by Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher who was a guru of mass communications. McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911 in Alberta, Canada. He died December 30, 1980, in Toronto, Canada. But over his lifetime, in just shy of 70 years, McLuhan earned five degrees — and nearly twice as many honorary degrees — wrote dozens of books, and prophesied the “global village” that we live in now. 

McLuhan could see the ways in which television and mass media were rapidly changing American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Not only was he a careful observer of the sociological paradigm shift, he also predicted that after the printing press, telephone, and television, another, even more rapid form of connectivity would arrive.

“Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language. Electric technology does not need words any more than the digital computer needs numbers. Electricity points the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale,” McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man  in 1964.

In that same book, McLuhan writes a chapter on the myth of Narcissus. In his analysis, the old Greek myth about the man falling in love with his reflection and pining to death is fundamentally about the human fascination with “any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.”

He goes on to define an invention as an extension of a human organ — that is, a wheel as the extension of the power of a foot, or a telephone as an amplification of the power of a voice — and, by increasing the power of that human activity the invention also numbs that quality in ourselves.

For example, because wheels have created a more mobile world, people in car-dependent countries are, ironically, less likely to walk, because mobility has accelerated to the point that we depend upon the wheel and not the foot. Plus (McLuhan doesn’t really get into this in this chapter), inventions bear fruit in infrastructure. The world becomes molded around the invention, and now our traveling infrastructure is catered to the wheel — the car — making travel by the faster medium more expedient — and even more possible, in some places — than walking on foot.

McLuhan continues:

“To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it.”

In this embrace of technology, McLuhan says, human beings relate to the tool they made as “servo-mechanisms.” We are the technology’s servant and the mechanism through which it wields its power. If we are to use inventions, McLuhan says, we put ourselves at the use of them and the human potential they embody — dis-located from the body, isolated, intensified, and extended out into the world.

As the iPhone records, takes photos, holds our correspondence, and captures our digital lives, it holds all the memories we no longer have to retain, outsourcing the task of memory to our “memory aids.” The technological device that is supposed to aid and support — strengthen — our human faculty causes what McLuhan calls the “auto-amputation” of that faculty. In simple talk: if we have a device that is supposed to help us do something better, the device ends up doing that thing for us. I no longer have to remember, because my phone remembers for me.

McLuhanizing our Interactions

Think of how difficult a Zoom conversation is during a meeting or class, whereas sitting around a table in person with them can lead to endless, creative, enjoyable discussions. Zoom is an application that can easily facilitate conversations by those who already know how to have them, but it is not a platform that can teach you how to talk to one another. If you know the art of conversation already — how to listen to people, read social cues, enter the give-and-take, rhythm, and flow of the conversation — you can try to apply the same skills to Zoom, but it’s not an attitude that the medium calls out of you, it’s an attitude you import into the medium.

The more the internet is intertwined in our lives, the more we outsource to it the habits and work that make us human. Social media does our relationship-building for us, our GPS-map apps on our phones do our navigating for us, and our Amazon account does our shopping for us. The more we outsource our decision-making to algorithms, the more we lose our ability to do it ourselves.

As we immerse ourselves into the internet more each day, we must not “auto-amputate” the parts of us that make us human. 

McLuhan reminds us that it’s important not to give to the machine all the tasks of our humanity. Remind yourself of something by reading a note or journaling. Keep your memories alive through conversations with others. Meet up with someone in person or talk with them over the phone to practice your communication skills. Take film photos and concrete records.

Two of McLuhan’s posthumously published books contain his idea of a Media Tetrad, which I first learned about in a seminar on McLuhan. As you approach a new medium, ask yourself four questions:

What does the medium enhance?
What does the medium make obsolete?
What does the medium retrieve that had previously been made obsolescent?
When pushed to its extreme, what does the medium tend toward or reverse into?

Each medium contains a message. So ask yourself, as you hold your phone in your hand, open your laptop, turn on the television, what is the message about who and what I am that this medium is sending to me? 

Creators:
Renée Roden
Published:
December 14, 2023
October 16, 2023
On a related note...
The Complete Guide to Hosting a Dinner Party

The Complete Guide to Hosting a Dinner Party

Lauren Lawson

Night Skies: The Beauty that Requires Darkness

Night Skies: The Beauty that Requires Darkness

Grotto

How Microlending Has Changed Women's Lives in India

How Microlending Has Changed Women's Lives in India

Molly Gettinger

Catholic Worker House Builds Community and Changes Lives

Catholic Worker House Builds Community and Changes Lives

Grotto

Hosting a Party for the Big Game? 4 Chili Recipes for Your Playbook

Hosting a Party for the Big Game? 4 Chili Recipes for Your Playbook

Grotto

Mapping Catholic Lands to Save the Planet

Mapping Catholic Lands to Save the Planet

Grotto

How Welding is Transforming Lives in Skid Row

How Welding is Transforming Lives in Skid Row

Grotto

The Surprising Way Self-Care and Service are Linked

The Surprising Way Self-Care and Service are Linked

Jessica Mannen Kimmet

The Joy of These Brothers is Contagious

The Joy of These Brothers is Contagious

Grotto Shares

8 Pay-It-Forward Ideas You Can Do on a Budget

8 Pay-It-Forward Ideas You Can Do on a Budget

Jessie McCartney

One Millennial’s Journey Toward Zero-Waste Living

One Millennial’s Journey Toward Zero-Waste Living

Jessie McCartney

5 Ways You Can Participate in Social Change

5 Ways You Can Participate in Social Change

Eric Clayton

Bringing Hope and Support to Families in Crisis

Bringing Hope and Support to Families in Crisis

Grotto

Why This Vegetarian Is Raising Chickens

Why This Vegetarian Is Raising Chickens

Grotto

Actor Hasn't Forgotten His Immigrant Roots

Actor Hasn't Forgotten His Immigrant Roots

Grotto

Revealing the Crisis of Homelessness in Oakland

Revealing the Crisis of Homelessness in Oakland

Grotto

Are We Correctly Remembering Our Immigrant Past?

Are We Correctly Remembering Our Immigrant Past?

Javi Zubizarreta

What is the St. Vincent de Paul Society?

What is the St. Vincent de Paul Society?

Anna Bradley

How I’m Rethinking the Ease of Disposable Items

How I’m Rethinking the Ease of Disposable Items

Clare Rahner

Your 2022 Chicago Gift Guide

Your 2022 Chicago Gift Guide

Jennon Bell Hoffmann

newsletter

We’d love to be pals.

Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll meet you in your inbox each week.