technology as prosthesis

As I said I would, I’ve been thinking more about Sara Hendren’s recent essay on assistive technology, and her claim that “all technology is assistive technology.” The key variable is what we’re trying to assist.

These thoughts are consonant with the view articulated by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which he explicitly speaks of technology in prosthetic terms, though he doesn’t, as far as I can discover, use the terms “prosthetic” or “prosthesis.” He writes, “Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex,” and his goal in Understanding Media, is to explore these effects.

McLuhan sees all technology in these terms, not just electronic ones. Riffing on W. H. Auden’s identification of the 20th century as The Age of Anxiety, he writes,

If the nineteenth century was the age of the editorial chair, ours is the century of the psychiatrist’s couch. As extension of man the chair is a specialist ablation of the posterior, a sort of ablative absolute of backside, whereas the couch extends the integral being. The psychiatrist employs the couch, since it removes the temptation to express private points of view and obviates the need to rationalize events.

Like so much of what McLuhan writes, this is simultaneously ludicrous — the “ablative absolute of backside”? — and provocative. But all I want to note at this point, and in this post, is that McLuhan’s description of our movement from the “mechanical age” to the “electronic age” is somewhat misleading, because it is increasingly obvious that electronic technologies do not obviate mechanical ones but enhance and supplement them. They are extensions of extensions, as the varying phenomena that go under the label internet of things indicate. People like Hugh Herr — about whom Sara Hendren has written here — are exploring technologies that establish an intersection of the mechanical, the electronic, and the biological: Herr calls this field biomechatronics.

I have no conclusions here — I don’t know enough to draw conclusions — but I know that I am especially interested in how these convergences will affect our technologies of knowledge. More about that in future posts.

McLuhan the digital humanist?


So I was having this conversation on Twitter the other day. I asked the question because I was thinking about Marshall McLuhan, about whom I am writing an essay that will (God willing) appear in a future issue of The New Atlantis: I was wondering whether it would make sense to call McLuhan a digital humanist. If Tim is right in his response, and I think he probably is, then McLuhan is actually the opposite of a digital humanist. If the digital humanist uses new tools to analyze old texts (and other media), McLuhan used the old tools of (a) early modern rhetorical analysis and (b) modernist literature and literary criticism to analyze new media. It was McLuhan’s core conviction that if you want to understand contemporary audio and visual media, from radio to billboards to television programs to comic strips — McLuhan was especially fascinated and appalled by Dagwood Bumstead — your best tools derived from historians of ideas (Eric Havelock), literary historians (John Hollander), anthropologists and ethnographers (Mircea Eliade), and contemporary novelists and poets (Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce).
What the world needs now, to coin a phrase, is someone with McLuhan’s commitment to humanistic scholarship who is also geeky enough to know the world of code from the inside.
(UPDATE: I forgot to say that you need to read those tweets from bottom to top. I should have Storified them before posting. Sorry.)