We Need Our Marshalls

Technology 2013-07-24

After last week’s fascinating post on the way branding has permeated our existence to an even unconscious level it seemed only right to take this week to acknowledge something even more pervasive than brand-led economics, that of technology.


Marshall McLuhan had the odd distinction of being a famous (he even made it into Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’) and well-respected man whose teachings couldn’t be fully understood until around 40 years or so after his assertions had been made. Of the many ludicrously accurate predictions and observations the Canadian academic made one that sticks out furthest, uncomfortably, was the idea that “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. Actually, he may not have said it, his friend may have said it, but nevertheless he meant it, used it and fully believed it.


At the time of wood and plastic and a burgeoning broadcast landscape it was in some ways a difficult to grasp concept. However in the age of the digital frontier, a bewildering array of electronic devices and an unstoppable desire for automation and standardization it’s a lot easier to understand. This is exemplified repeatedly every day, from the backbreaking postures we’ve adopted, the behavioural quirks we’ve picked up (ooh, selfie!) and even the need for an “unplug” movement. It’s been argued we’re losing sight of our humanity. It’s been argued we’re optimizing it.


To stay with McLuhan, here’s another of his famous quotes “The Medium is The Message”. That is to say that the content of any given message is inherently related to its transmission method. That’s why it’s worse to be broken up with by text than by phone, or depressingly bad to get dumped on Habbo Hotel, even if the sentiment or wording and device of delivery is exactly the same. Certain media add to, or subtract from, certain messages. To extend on that the misunderstanding of certain media is distorting messages, or creating altogether illogical new ones. Currently it manifests as the spectacularly impossible, for practical, subjective and democratic reasons,attempt to ban undesirable (not illegal) content from the Internet or the constant denigration of platforms such as social media as unreliable sources of information. The medium is being intrinsically connected to the message, but the message is being understood without a full appreciation of the medium. Worse than that, often a negative, unreasoned perception of the medium is applied.


We’ve shaped our tools and we’re wildly flailing them and now the new breed of men and women like Marshall McLuhan urge little but caution. More so than ever dystopia and utopia are seen within a blink of the eye and the power of the tools we’ve shaped is day-by-day being better exposed. Whether it’s the Arab spring or the PRISM controversies, the incredibly powerful tools both human and electronic are centralizing media and messages.


Throughout months of articles on this blog we’ve provided visions of the future across nearly every major aspect of life. Now we face a raft of developments in wearable technology, 3D printing and the network of things and personal genetics that can catalyse a relentlessly aggressive rate of change across the last few decades.


If last week’s post raised one question in my mind it was – why can’t we take a clear Coke as Coke. Essentially it’s because we shaped Coke and now Coke has shaped our expectations. We’d rather have a brown almost-coke, than a clear actual Coke. Because Coke being brown is as important as the taste of Coke. The medium of an off-putting looking liquid is inseparable from the supposed reward, the taste.


So the question to ask this week – are we increasingly shaping our tools through relentless development and progress, or our old tools ever more frequently spiralling further and further out of their old limitations, shaping us?


Image source: Tumblr