Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Thoughts on technology and the evolution of political, cultural, social and religious forms (Part 5)

Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad: enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal, provides a way to explore the effects of new developments or new technologies.

Enhancement is the extension of an ability in time, space, strength, speed, agility or other quality. A telescope enhances vision across large distances while a microscope enhances vision of  very small objects. Enhancement always leads to imbalance because as one sense or ability is enhanced, less attention flows to other senses. McLuhan’s term for this phenomenon was auto-anaesthesia. When you talk on a telephone, for instance, your attention is focused on the sense of hearing. You have no physical sense of the other person and you are less aware of your own body. When you read a book, attention is focused through the sense of sight and you lose touch with your body. The book makes it possible to create an imagined world, a world of stories and ideas in which the body does not participate.

Obsolescence means that one way of relating or communicating is replaced by another. The older way of doing things doesn’t disappear completely. Instead, its relative  importance, position or role changes and usually becomes highly specialized. Some people still drive a horse and buggy even though most use a car. The horse and buggy are retained by particular communities or become specialized for purposes such as entertainment, sulky racing, for example. Film is still used by some photographers who are looking for particular effects, but the vast majority of photographs today are taken with cell phones.

Retrieval involves bringing back the experience of an older technology or an older way of relating or interacting. Facebook, for instance, brings back the experience of living in a small town; everybody knows everything about you. You cannot keep anything secret. Even as one moves forward with technology, the past returns in a different form.

Reversal is the principle that any development creates its own negation. The car, for instance, gives rise to gridlock. Email gives rise to miscommunication, especially if you write anything humorous. The advent of the car led to decades of experiments with freeways until it became clear that building freeways does not eliminate gridlock. Traffic just increases to the point that the same degree of gridlock occurs. In many cases, reversal reveals the limits and problems associated with growth in use of new developments.

The changes that take place with the advent of new developments or technologies are complex, partly because all four of McLuhan’s effects take place simultaneously, and partly because individuals, societies and environments interact with new developments in unpredictable ways. Cultural values, social norms and even geography all play a part. For example, gunpowder was invented in China, but it was in the highly competitive environment of Europe that it was put to military use.

To be continued...

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Thoughts on technology and the evolution of political, cultural, social and religious forms (Part 4)

Part 3

Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities notes that the great religions (Buddhism, Christianity, etc.) began their decline in influence at exactly the same time that nationalism and the modern scientific paradigm began to gain influence. He also notes that books led to the standardization of knowledge and the creation of a world of the imagination in which people could live by themselves. These developments led to the formation of nation states, the concept of citizenship and equal rights, and the modern educational system.

William Bernstein in Masters of the World speculates about the interaction between new technologies and the interpretation of spiritual experience:
…the temporal and geographic connection between the alphabet and monotheism in Egypt-Palestine during the middle of the second millennium [before the Common Era] may be more than coincidence. What might tie them together? The notion of a disembodied, formless, all-seeing, and ever-present supreme being requires a far more abstract frame of mind than that needed for the older plethora of anthropomorphized beings who oversaw the heavenly bodies, the crops, fertility, and the seas. Alphabetic writing requires the same high degree of abstraction and may have provided a literate priestly caste with the intellectual tools necessary to imagine a belief system overseen by a single disembodied deity. Whatever the reason, Judaism and the West acquired their God and their Book.
Along these lines, it is possible to consider a relationship between the use of zero as a place holder in Indian mathematics and the emptiness of all experience as formulated in Mahayana Buddhism.

Such speculation raises the question of what political, cultural and social structures and religious forms might evolve from the ubiquitous, ever-present yet disembodied connections and simulations that have arisen from digital technologies.

To be continued.....

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Thoughts on technology and the evolution of political, cultural, social and religious forms (Part 3)

Part 2

Daniel Dennett proposed in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that variation, selection and heredity necessarily give rise to evolution; the emergence of order and structure without a guiding intelligence. Long before Dennett published this insight, McLuhan saw modern education, democracy and the nation state as products of evolution brought about by the development of two technologies: the phonetic alphabet and the printing press. The phonetic alphabet enabled large numbers of people to become literate. The printing press made possible large numbers of copies of books and other writings. The two together made it possible to standardize knowledge in large populations and create imagined communities of people who took in their information from common sources —newspapers, periodicals, journals and books.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote:
The availability of cheap writing materials affected power in the Mediterranean. The Romans depended on papyrus from Egypt. When the supply was cut off by the Muslims, they lost control of the Mediterranean. Parchment was too expensive and the influence of Byzantium was limited. Only when paper was imported from China did learning revive, and the result was the Renaissance and eventually printing.
Technological innovations change the way people interact and the changes are not always welcome. Socrates, as Plato presents him in Phaedrus, expresses reservations about the technology of writing, saying that writing:
…is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Similar concerns have been voiced about the book, about newspapers, as well as the telephone, the computer and many other inventions.

Part 4