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Say "Yes" to the Single Function Device: How Technology Shapes Us

4:20:00 AMJoseph Anderson

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,”(1) were the insightful words attributed to Canadian Intellectual Marshall Mcluhan. Those words extend to all things around us —technology proves more than anything else how much the things we create dictate the way that we live. We are in a state of constant flux— one invention after another changing our lives and making new things out of the old. Think of the old pioneers who had to make a massive venture to come to this country. Those who left England behind had no idea really what to expect when  they came to America, and yet here they found themselves in a new world with new rules and a lot  of hardships. But now we hop from coast to coast and attend business conferences the very next day.

But recent, more cutting edge technology has come to affect us in an increasingly and dramatic way, and we haven’t yet even seen the full impact of these changes. This is because as technology has increased,  we’ve not only moved into tools that make one job easier to do, we’ve developed tools that blur the distinction between the separation of our human abilities. We can write on our computers. Not only can we write on them, we can Skype friends and instant message them. We can look up sports stats and listen to podcasts. We can look up sources and skip the weekly reading for class and still get A’s on our papers. Yet if this is true, that tools shape us, what does that mean we are becoming? Are we becoming master multitaskers, or horribly distracted, incompetent people with neurosis across as many spectrums as their are social media websites?
What happened to our single functioning devices? At various trendy, high tech companies it’s become obsolete to wear watches. It’s a sign to them of pretentiousness, because you don’t need a watch— that’s what your smartphone is for. And yet it is also clear that these multi functioning devices have traded something in return for the ease of access that we are granted. It seems inevitable that in changing in the single functioning device for multi functioning ones, we have lost the powers that each tool emphasized. 

You may never have thought about it before, but each tool that man or woman creates is one that increases a specific faculty that is already contained by the human person. For instance, the TV does not reinvent the eye, it simply amplifies its power. By looking at the TV you are able to see things that are far away. Likewise, the telephone does not give you a new set of ears: it lets you hear things that are very, very far away. Mcluhan puts it this way “My main theme is the extension of the nervous system in the electric age, and thus, the complete break with five thousand years of mechanical technology”(2).

He says, “During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, 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, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society”(3).

Yet I wonder how much this movement into the whole consciousness is a good thing.For we must not forget that along with something being given by new technology, and as Mcluhan himself reminds us, new technology also takes away something else. That something lost is in a sense transmuted into this new technology that grants us new powers. We can talk on the phone with someone in China, but this distracts us from the person present in the room with us at this very moment. And these distractions are growing more and more difficult to ignore.

Think about the people at ice skating rink who take pictures of themselves with their friends with a selfie stick. In taking a picture directly intended for social media, these people are losing the experience they are in. They are extended into a transcendent form in space for others to see. They lose their moment in time, they lose their physical bodies in the process.

In our work more than in anything else, we have lost effectiveness from the loss of single function devices. With so many distractions, how can someone find a quiet place to work? The writer alone in his room, the painter in her studio: these forms of art are sadly outdated, and I’m afraid our minds might forever lose their aptness to pay attention, to learn from a body of text, and to not flit from one blog entry to another. Oh, and don’t forget the pictures. 

By embracing our internet and electronic devices, this “extension of the nervous system” to use Mcluhan’s words, we gain a heightened sense of consciousness. But in the process, we lose the intense focus that that the single function device gives us— the device that blocks out all other faculties for the total emphasis of just one.

1:Culkin, J.M. (1967, March 18). A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan. Saturday Review, pp. 51-53, 71-72
2:Letter to Robert Fulford, 1964. Letters of Marshall McLuhan (1987), p. 300
3. Mcluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media, 1964, p4

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