Week 4: Every tool has a cost – rough draft
“We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” – Marshal McLuhan
Imagine you are stranded on a deserted island. You want to build yourself a house (no makeshift hut will do you for- you intend to do survival in style) and need to fell a few trees to do so. You cannot punch a tree down, despite what your impressive ego and the classic videogame Minecraft would you have you believe. Not to worry, you have a plan. You decide to make yourself an axe to cut the tree down.
Can you use the axe without the axe changing you?
On first glance, the answer would be yes. How can an axe change you? But, as you begin to hack down trees for your survival mansion, you begin to notice some things. Your shoulders, which were at first hunched and skinny from your desk job, have first become sore, and then gradually, broader and stronger. Your hands have developed callouses, and your work has taken on a much more dangerous tone as you now swing a sharpened heavy object. You need to take care that the tool you created to help you survive in more comfort, doesn’t worsen your prospects by lopping off a few of your toes.
You have first built your tool, and then your tool changed you.
We live in a culture that is facing technological change on an unprecedented scale. Not only is speed at which new technology is developed and adopted faster than ever before, but most experts agree that the rate is increasing. For instance, for about 5,000 years a horse was the fastest way to travel across land. You could be an ancient Sumerian, get into a time machine, travel two thousand years in the future, and still know how to use the main method fo ground transportation. Compare that with the last 120-ish years of human history. We went from no cars on roads to space ships putting up satellites.
So we can all stream netfilx on our phones. We don’t need a time machine to feel disoriented, we just need to go to sleep at night. When we wake up, there will be some new app, video game, or social media platform taking the culture by storm. AI, self-driving cars, genetic editing- the next thirty years promise a cornucopia of new technology, and those are just the ones that we know about. The real game changers are the ones we don’t see coming. For instance, who at the turn of the millenia saw forsaw the rise of smartphones?
That pace of change makes series’ like the one that you have been reading here for the past few weeks, difficult to write. Just about the time we get a handle on how a tool is shaping us, some of it’s positives and negatives, and some methods for using it responsibly, we get bombarded by more tools and have to start the process over again. If only there was a way for those in the church to assess new forms of media (the next version of social media, if you will) and set proper boundaries before we have been completely reshaped by its negative consequences.
Marshall McLuhan, one of the most influential thinkers in media, attempted to give us the tools to do just that. McLuhan, a Christian, was one of the only academics to predict the rise of the internet. He recognized the incredible pace at which technological media was changing our world, and came up with a theory to explain how a new form of technology affects us, called McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media.
According to McLuhan, every new form of technological media
1. Enhances one of our abilities (for instance – social media enhances our ability to stay in touch with friends over distance)
2. Obsoletes another form of media (for instance – social media largely obsoleted writing personal emails, sharing picture albums, and sending Christmas letters)
3. Retrieves a set of skills or abilities that were previously lost or minimized in our past (for instance – social media retrieved some of the daily contact with our friends and relatives that was present in earlier societies)
4. Reverses its intended original characteristics when taken to the limits of its potential (for instance – social media, which is intended to make us feel connect, often corresponds to intense feelings of isolation and rejection when overused)
That’s a fine theory, but how does this help us when the next Fortnight or Facebook comes along?
When deciding how much if any time we should spend on the nextbigthing(tm), we can ask ourselves how it fits into each of the four laws. What ability does it enhance (I.e. what good does it do)? What form of media does it obsolete? What trait from the past does it retrieve? And finally (and arguably most importantly) what damage can it do if and when its use is taken too far?
These sorts of questions can help us walk into new technology and media with more power. The reflection that we put in before using a new technology can make us less apt to be abused by it, and can help us set up proper boundaries for ourselves when using it to protect ourselves from some of its negative effects, which is what this entire series has been about.
There is no doubt that social media and technology is dramatically reshaping our world as we talked about in week 1. Money and the attention economy that we talked about in week 2 are huge drivers behind this change. Week 3 contained tips on how to set up proper boundaries to protect yourself from
being used by social media. Finally, this week, we looked at Marshal McLuhan and how his ideas can help us use future technologies more wisely.
Thank you for taking this journey with us!