Monday, December 11, 2006

The Extended Subject

“All media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment” (McLuhan 1962: 13). This concept adds to my growing argument that human evolution is now a function of our own choices. McLuhan’s book ‘The Extensions of Man’ offers the useful suggestion that on an individual basis, we choose to extend our bodies through our technologies, with the effect that our culture is changed.

Changed, McLuhan would say, because once we extend, we auto-amputate the aspect we seek to extend, creating the need for society to change to accommodate the new self.

There was a point in our ancestral past that we began to hunt with dogs. They had a better sense of smell than us so they were a useful tool, a McLuhanistic extension of the nose. In outsourcing our sense of smell, we grew to rely on our tools rather than our own senses. After several generations of co-adaptation, we had lost our sense of smell to the dogs, and we were left with the far depleted sense we now have.
Our tools changed our reality changed our physicality.

The aforementioned Mr. Todd Huffman took a shortcut when he chose to implant his magnets; he changed his physicality without the conduit of reality. This suggests that perhaps reality has adjusted far enough to let us all choose our physicality, an issue explored in ‘the cyborg subject’.

Huffman has extended his sense of touch beyond the normal tactile range, into the electronic and electromagnetic range. His implants give him a sixth sense one could only hope to experience after a painful and risky procedure. His nervous system now detects things it was not built to detect. He has in a sense, hacked his own code.

Since McLuhan was a technological determinist, believing that technology is the main cause of social changes in society, he might say that these magnets represent man’s need to interface more closely with the machine world that we so greatly rely on. What processes are at work that made Huffman desire to extend himself in this way? Meme theory would suggest that he picked up the meme to want to engage with new types of information, with the effect that never-before-experienced memes could flow across the logic gap into a new medium: the mind. McLuhan might agree with Dawkins’ theory of the selfish meme, considering that he takes the view that “man becomes as it were the sex organ of the machine world” (1964: 64). Both theorists consider that the self is subject to outside forces. Are we as free to choose as I would like to believe?

These implants may extend their bearer to perceive in an entirely new way, but like losing our sense of smell to the dogs, Huffman has lost subtle tactile sensitivity to his implants. This is known as the ratio of sense perception, something McLuhan considers the major contributor to societal change in the information age. He states that:

“We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions
of man - the technological simulation of consciousness.”

(McLuhan 1964: 3)

Gobsmackingly, considering the time this was written, ‘technological simulation of consciousness’ or Artificial Intelligence is now a highly researched field of academics making very real breakthroughs. An A.I. mind would be the ultimate extension of the self: but the ratio of sense perceptions would demand that our selves were ultimately nullified.

As we edge closer toward the extension of the self through digital means, we must demonstrate tighter control over our technologies if it is possible that we could lose this control. Huffman cannot remove his implants without destroying all tactile sensitivity in his implanted fingertips. His reality is changed forever. He did choose this though; there are those that are subject to their extensions not through choice but by necessity. I refer to medical cyborgs, which are explicated in the next entry ‘the cyborg subject’

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