The famous quote “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us”, commonly attributed to Marshall McLuhan, was actually written by a professor-colleague of McLuhan’s at Fordham University, Father John Culkin (Our Tools Shape Us)
Human beings are built to perceive; we have a variety of senses and capacities that, frankly, make life worth living. I posted a comment on a discussion site last week concerning Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity” premise, which refers to the point at which computer power and speed will have reached a level of artificial intelligence (AI) surpassing the capacity of humans. In fact, he sees in our not too distant future a hybridizing of humans and computers which will bring about the end of disease and even the end of death. We may (according to Kurzweil) exist one day as renewable bio-machines…Kurzweil Predictions
Futurists have always been with us, and the future certainly arrives to prove them right or wrong, eventually. Technology is endlessly fascinating, compelling, useful, interesting, and relentlessly world-changing. My fear is that technology is also relentless in the way in which it narrows our range of perception, bit by bit. It seems we have no choice but to adopt technology, and then become dependent upon it. As Prof. Culkin said, we create it but then it changes us…the ‘Nth degree’ of this scenario would involve not just existing and interacting with technology, but actually existing, Kurzweil-wise, as technology.
I am writing this post on a fabulous and very useful piece of equipment that did not even exist thirty years ago, but over the past twenty years this and other devices with screens have demanded more and more of my attention. This leaves (and I have to admit I have chosen to spend) less time paying attention to the rest of the world. I am reminded of a song by Genesis, from their album Duke , called “Heathaze”, which seems very relevant:
…Now the light is fading fast,
Chances slip away, a time will come to pass
When there’ll be none,
Then addicted to a perfumed poison,
Betrayed by its aftertaste,
Oh we shall lose the wonder and find nothing in return.
Many are the substitutes but they’re powerless on their own…
Much technology is wonderful, and much is foolish and distracting. I believe much computer technology does act as a substitute for actual sensory experience. The current urgency for the development of virtual and augmented reality applications for a variety of tasks and situations speaks directly to this. McLuhan did say that his goal, in the midst of world-changing electronic technology (in the 60s…I wonder what he would think now?), was to understand what its effects would be:
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effects upon him.”
I believe we need to devote a bit less time to our interactions with technology, and more time developing an awareness and an understanding of just who (or what) we want to become.