One point that I latched onto from Marshall McLuhan’s Chapter 7, titled “Challenge and Collapse,” was his first point that technology serves to both facilitate and complicate. “A technological extension of our bodies designed to alleviate physical stress can bring on psychic stress that may be much worse,” he asserts on page 14. This quote jumped out at me for two reasons, the first being that he is conceiving of technology as an extension of self. This seems to put Amber Case’s “We Are All Cyborgs Now” TED talk 45 years in the making. One key difference, though, is that McLuhan views technology as solving a physical problem. He later mentions the “motorcar” as one example, which today hardly seems like technology so much as an American entitlement, although the fact that “beta” versions of cars now exist (and pose an apparent danger to us) may complicate our old notion of what a car is and does and make it once again a “new” technology. The automobile solves the physical problem of speedy transportation, but we can also see how it may bring new “psychic stress”—from the social isolation of travel (look around during rush hour in Los Angeles at all the other people sitting there trapped in their cars all alone) to the stress of commuting itself (look at how many of them are banging frustratedly against their headrests or steering wheels) to the pressure to do and accomplish even more (look at the man in the car to your left brushing his teeth while driving, or the person behind you who is both singing along to the radio and apparently texting someone). It does seem apparent that each new technology brings with it new stresses—and may even require more technology to ease those stresses! I’m reminded of Louis CK’s bit (“Everything Is Amazing And Nobody Is Happy”) about our ability to hurdle through the sky in an airplane—L.A. to Boston in a mere 5.5 hours!—and our anxiety at, for those 5.5 hours, not being able to connect to the internet.
Amber Case, on the other hand, explains that “now what we’re looking at is not an extension of the physical self, but an extension of the mental self.” Our new cyborg-style, mental-help technology does seem to solve myriad problems we didn’t even know were problems—problems of memory, of organization, of communication, of knowledge, of space-saving. McLuhan seems to predict Steve Jobs’ notion that, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” (which itself speaks to the point that our technology is solving problems we didn’t know were), when he writes in his 1964 piece that “perhaps the most obvious ‘closure’ or psychic consequence of any new technology is just the demand for it. Nobody wants a motorcar till there are motorcars, and nobody is interested in TV until there are TV programs. This power of technology to create its own world of demand is not independent of technology being first an extension of our own bodies and senses” (McLuhan 15). Witness the lines around the block for a new iPhone—or even a new Nike sneaker—and you’ll witness the psychic grasp that not only technology but any “new” possession or item seems to have on us.
All of this seems to urge us, as civilians and consumers and educators, to think very carefully about how and why we are using our new technology. As with an iPhone or Bluetooth or a self-driving car, the new technologies we and our students have at our disposal offer dozens of opportunities, often ones we didn't know were there and may not have been prior. We may explore beyond what we thought possible, enhance our classrooms and our lessons, engage not only in new knowledge but in new ways of experiencing and expanding that knowledge. I’ve spoken of the possible roles technology might play in the classroom in earlier posts, as well as the many added benefits it might offer, especially to a diverse student body, and surely will discuss it even more as this class continues. Technology not only makes what we were already doing easier and faster (solving an old problem, or perhaps problems we didn’t know we had); it also presents brand new opportunities we may have never thought possible and thus never even thought up! However, as we all know, it can also cause the “psychic stress” of distracting our students, or derailing a lesson when the technology goes awry, or making itself the focus of the classroom rather than helping us focus on the learning it is meant to facilitate. Perhaps these stresses are inevitable, as it does seem that every new problem-solving technology comes with a few new unforeseen problems of its own. The best way, it would seem to me, to make sure these new problems don’t detract from our ability to use technology in new and exciting and productive ways is to observe and educate ourselves (and our students!) about the possible downsides, and carefully consider the ways we are bringing technology into the classroom. Are the ways we use it benefitting our learning more than detracting from it? Are there ways to use it to better widen that gap—even more upside for even less downside? Is using this new technology perhaps the best way to engage in this lesson or this knowledge or this concept? If not, we shouldn’t fear going “back” to tried-and-true ways that may seem low-tech. But we also can’t be afraid to try new technologies, even if there are downsides. Those are inevitable, but it’s no reason to ignore or eschew or resist the progress we might also make.