“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”. Wise words from the book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan (published in 1964). According to McLuhan, all technologies or mediums are extensions of our capabilities and our senses and are means of enhancing human functions. For example, language is an extension of thought and memory, writing is an extension of speech, a knife may be an extension of the hand and a car may be the extension of our feet. Extensions add efficiency to our lives and according to a recent survey, may also be a confidence booster. However, extensions come with drawbacks and what McLuhan also pointed out was that every new extension via technology also has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension. We see very clear examples of this today – laptops and smart phones are an extension of our voices, thoughts and memories, but it amputates face-to-face conversations (and some would say our offline social skills in general).
According to McLuhan, the mediums of communication are much more significant than the actual content of the media. We tend to get swept up by the effects of new mediums that change us in ways that we can rarely foresee. McLuhan drew inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Descent into the Maelstrom”, in which a fisherman recounts how he survived an enormous whirlpool caused by a hurricane at sea. Much like the fisherman in Poe’s story, McLuhan found that we can escape the turmoil of the technology whirlpool by observing and unraveling the clear patterns caused by new media extensions.
We are now surrounded by what McLuhan would call the final phase of the extensions of man — where digital technology and high-speed connectivity is simulating and replacing our entire consciousness in various ways. We know we are over-connected and distracted, but what do we do about it? How do we escape the vortex of information overload in the digital age? There are different ways to tackle this issue and all are equally important. It starts with the technology itself and the importance of designing technology that reflects and supports human values. But, most of us can’t control that. What we can control is how we use these technologies and how we choose to consume media.
A new movement may be gaining momentum – The Slow Media Movement. I first heard about it a few months ago when American Public Media did a story on it. Basically, it stems from the overall Slow Movement, which encourages us to slow down the overall pace of life. For example, the Slow Food Movement focuses on cooking food with detail and attention, using traditional recipes and local produce. Slow Food has emerged into a global movement, with thousands of members around numerous countries. The Slow Media Movement borrows from the core idea of slowing down and applies it to the world of digital media. As Jennifer Rauch puts it, “it is a movement that encourages people to re-value offline media and get disconnected more” or as the Slow Media Movement’s Facebook page describes it, “It (Slow Media) simply means that sometimes media is best enjoyed without dividing your attention between it and other activities”. If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to read the Slow Media Manifesto (English Translation) that was recently published.
The way I look at it, the Slow Media Movement is just a simple reminder for the digital age – a reminder to find a middle way. Hopefully it can help us realize that being connected or informed using modern technology has its place, but its not a substitute for listening and having meaningful interactions with and in the presence of other humans. It’s about being conscious of our media diet and its individual benefits when weighed against what meaningful extensions it amputates from our lives.
We thirst for information and connectivity and the rules of Digital Etiquette may be changing according to some, but it should not come at the cost of the things that add the most value to our lives. Start with a small step – the next time you’re in the company of others, try giving your precious iPhone (and the email, social networking, text messaging and other digital distractions that come with it) a break. Who knows, you may momentarily transcend the digital vortex and discover the joy of a REAL connection.
For more information on slowing down in general, I highly recommend The GOOD (and ReadyMade) Guide to Slowing Down & the Carl Honore’s book, In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed.