A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

The final frontier?

Marshall McLuhan (March 3, 1963, age 51). What is there left to extend?

As you know my new center for the study of the media and society (aka “the Centre for Culture and Technology”) will be dedicated to the study of all technologies as extensions of man’s body or nervous system.  That Corinne assures me will keep us both busy.  Me thinking them up, and she employing them at my expense to run the McLuhan household.  Our bodies have been extended both mechanically and electrically.  Therefore brooms, vacuums, and dishwashers for Mrs. McLuhan.  If this keeps up I will need a raise.  But there is one last frontier still untouched by technical change.  You guessed it, consciousness.  Oh, must run, Corinne’s calling me, says dinner’s ready. 

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Is it?

The extension of consciousness by technology seems like something out of science fiction: computers that can feel and think like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But is it?  Some aspects of consciousness have been extended for a very long time.  For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans invented elaborate technologies for the extension of memory.  In the Art of Memory, historian Frances Yates describes the elaborate mental constructions the ancients trained themselves to create to extend memory.  Briefly, they taught themselves to place in their imaginations an image of the thing to be remembered in an imaginary place where it could be retrieved – such as a room in a palace or a chair around a table.  The purpose of this was to allow orators to remember their speeches, which in a world without teleprompters was a useful thing to be able to do.  Even today this technique has not died out.  I was taught a stripped down version of it when I took the Dale Carnegie course in the mid-1990s.  And I imagine in a hotel meeting room somewhere in America it’s still being taught.

But McLuhan has something more challenging than memory in mind.  Not simply the remembering of thought but the creation and analysis of thought.  Again, however, mechanical devices to stimulate creativity and analysis have been with us for a long time. McLuhan’s Dew-Line creativity card deck is an example. (see also What’s in the cards?, What’s Marshall McLuhan’s stuff worth?)  Other consciousness extending technologies that come to mind are: PowerPoint, the Oxford English Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Internet and social media of all kinds, mentors, tobacco, coffee shops, and spouses [a la McLuhan, see above].

What technologies do you use to extend your consciousness?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.288.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, February 25th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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