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...