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by Keri Ferencz

In his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan posited that technology fundamentally changes the ways in which human beings experience and interact with their environment. That is to say that the tools we use – from the pencil to the keyboard, papyrus to the iPad – shape our perception of the things around us and hence our cognitive organization. Although the internet and its attendant technologies are not physical pieces of technology like those mentioned above, it seems appropriate to suggest that their advent and worldwide domination have altered our collective sense of the world around us.

McLuhan goes a step beyond suggesting that technology merely shapes our perception in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In this text, he asserts that every communication medium is actually an extension to an existing human sense faculty. The volume features a chapter titled The Written Word: An Eye for an Ear, and finds McLuhan waxing poetically that “the wheel is an extension of the foot…the book is an extension of the eye…clothing, an extension of the skin…electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system” (31-40). What’s clear from each of these examples is that McLuhan places the sensory at the forefront in the relation between human beings and technology. What remains to be seen is how we might understand contemporary mass media technologies as an extension of our own senses.

Considering the internet and its attendant technologies as extensions of the human has the potential to be both appealing and frightening. On one hand, of course this technology is an extension of humanity – after all, we created it! On the other hand, however, the very mention of some sensory link between human and machine can conjure up visions of science fiction futures filled with sentient machines bent on enslaving humanity. McLuhan himself captures both sides of this coin in the opening pages of Understanding Media when he notes that, “the Western world is imploding…we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time…we approach…the technological stimulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society” (3-4). Though they were written almost fifty years ago, McLuhan’s words eerily evoke the internet age.

To consider a few of the many ways we might imagine the screen technologies of mass media as extensions of our own human faculties requires that we set aside the common understanding of the five senses and adopt the idea of the sensorium, a term that strives to broaden our perception of perception by “straddl[ing] the divide between mind and body, cognition and sensation” (Howes 1). A word that aims to nurture a holistic understanding of the human senses, the idea of the sensorium allows us to include the mind as a sense organ of sorts, so we can move beyond anatomical questions about the visual mechanisms that allow external information from the internet to reach the mind, and instead delve into those that ask how internet technologies themselves might be seen as a medium that extends human capacities.

One example of how the internet works to extend our faculties is through the sheer volume of information available with the click of a button. Where before the internet, the pursuit of knowledge might have been imagined as akin to foraging – rooting through card catalogues and rummaging through library shelves to find a sought after fact or figure – the digital age has seen a shift toward direct and targeted information gathering, amounting to what we could consider an upgrade to the human capacity to process data. We can link this back to McLuhan’s notion of electric circuitry as an extension of the human nervous system by considering the internet as, first and foremost, an extension of combined human knowledge. To offer a more concrete example of this, we can consider the idea of ‘hivemind,’ first conceived of in literary works of science fiction. Akin to the notion of a collective consciousness, today the concept hivemind is most often used in relation to the social media network Twitter. Making use of hashtags[1] in messages or searches, members of Twitter are able to essentially crowd source information, potentially tapping into the knowledge base of all five hundred million members of the network. Here, the upgrade is less about data processing and more about the amount of data that members of the system have access to. Considered in this way, the internet clearly can be considered an extension of human sensorial faculty as McLuhan suggests.

A second and related way of conceiving of the internet as a capacity-extending technology is the way that certain online entities – Google, YouTube and Facebook, to name just three – offer us pre-selected information based on our previous visits to these sites. Though unarguably in the service of corporate promotion and marketing endeavours, it is nonetheless possible to frame this type of directed advertising as an extension of our biological instinct for more of what is pleasing to us and less of what we find repugnant. Taken in this way, Google and the other aforementioned sites – like the use of hashtags on Twitter – work to deliver more relevant information to individuals in less time, thus freeing our intellectual faculties for other work.  We might compare this with the assertion made by Plato in The Phaedrus that the development of the alphabet and writing was first and foremost a mnemonic device. In this light, websites that track our history are effectively memory holders – or what we might, given our focus on mass media technologies, consider external hard drives.

Finally, and more directly related to the five senses as we learn them as children, there is haptics, a tactile feedback technology that is able to mechanically stimulate authentic textures through touch screens. Senseg, the global leader in this technology, claims they “turn touch screens into feel screens” (Senseg.com) highlighting the possibility for an increased level of realism in the interactions between human and machine. Though still in the early stages of development, haptic technology has the potential to make digital, virtual reality significantly more real for the user.

To connect haptics with Marshal McLuhan’s idea that media technologies extend human faculties of perception, we might consider the possibility for their use to more completely connect individuals with far-flung or otherwise difficult to access sites. In a way not dissimilar to medical imaging technologies that allow doctors to perform non-invasive surgery, haptics could pave the way for more accurate remote virtual exploration of volatile environments such as active volcanoes or unstable ice floes. Haptics may even be used in the future to supplement already existing non-invasive medical procedures. These procedures, commonly referred to using the umbrella term image guided therapy, use technologies such as x-ray, ultrasound and cat scan to provide medical professionals with an interior glimpse of patients without the need of extensive incisions or even anaesthetic. If haptic technology could be deployed in this environment, practitioners would gain an even more complete sense of patients’ internal state, thereby theoretically increasing the level of accuracy and success of the technologically mediated procedures of image guided therapy.

As cutting edge as haptics is, an even more revolutionary mass media extension of touch appears to be on the horizon. Recently, the Disney Corporation announced they are working with proprietary reverse electrovibration – or REVEL – technology, something of the inverse of haptics, to enhance the very feeling of touch in the real world. Rather than coding sensory data into screen technology, REVEL equips individuals with an “electrostatic signal generator,” (Cooper) and, through the use of modified electrical fields on any object – not simply touch screens or other computing devices – can “provide dynamic tactile sensations…on everyday objects” (Disney Research). Perhaps the most tired criticism of virtual reality experiences is that, although our visual and aural senses may be fooled into taking simulation for reality, the tactile sense of touch remains essentially ignored. With these emerging technologies, that criticism is no longer valid, for the user is able not only to hear and see, but also feel the electronic reality being presented on screen – or in the case of REVEL, in the world – thus making it less virtual and more reality.

Having considered just a few of the possible ways the mass media screen technology of the internet can extend human faculties, we can pause to think about what that extension means. Imagining the internet not as a tool but rather an extension to humankind, we begin to understand our relationship with it in a new way; no longer entirely separate or ‘other’ to us, how might we describe the experience of being one with the internet? There are multiple and competing answers to this question, ranging from pessimistic declarations that our constant use of the internet dulls our awareness of the outside world to more hopeful assertions that it is through the use of this tool that humans can come to understand themselves as truly connected to one another. More interesting to me than these somewhat simplistic judgements of the experience are the metaphors related to physical sensations that are often conjured in discussing the quality of having a constant connection to the internet. Variously likened to swimming in a stream, surfing, dipping into a massive pool or driving on the information superhighway, being on the internet is most often associated with immersing one’s self in a moving substance. How might we describe the quality of this experience?

The internet itself does not offer answers to this question, but my own experience of searching for one can be used to suggest a possible response. The feeling of being connected to the world through my computer, on a tactile level, begins with my fingers lightly pounding on the keyboard of my laptop. Both firm and giving, the keys make a satisfying sharp clicking noise as letters appear in the Google search box on my screen. Once I’ve hit enter, a feeling of movement begins as I chase leads down rabbit holes that, when I let them, lead me off in countless directions away from my question and towards everything from YouTube videos of space exploration to accounts of being shot with a rifle. Perhaps the feeling of pre-internet library searches isn’t so foreign from this experience, except that now I no longer need to move, for my mind is careening through electronic information circuitry rather than physical cashes of information.

While this is an honest account of one online experience, it can’t be expected to be applicable to all interactions with the internet. Given the multiple uses for the internet and the plethora of ways we orient ourselves to it, it’s very likely that there isn’t a singular quality of experience related to the internet. Considering the numerous devices that we are able to use to access the internet – laptop computers, desktop computers, touch-screen phones, phones with physical keyboards, televisions, digital advertisements we need not even be in physical contact with – it’s difficult even to confidently claim a similarity in physical sensations, much less those of a more cerebral nature. Indeed, it might be more productive to consider the idea that each means of accessing the internet has its own sensory experience.  If anything of the experience of the mass media technology of the internet can be said to be shared amongst all users, it may be simply the extension of faculties of the mind that Marshall McLuhan was emphatic about way back in 1964.


Works Cited

Cooper, Daniel. Disney’s REVEL Could Turn the Whole World into a Tactile Touchscreen. Endgadget.com. 10 Aug 2012. Online. 14 Feb 2013.

Disney Research. REVEL: Programming the Sense of Touch. Disney Research: Science at Play. n.d. Online. 14 Feb 2013.

Howes, David, ed. The Sixth Sense Reader. New York: Berg, 2009.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

—– Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: ARK, 1964.

Senseg. Senseg Experience. Senseg.com. n.d. Online. 7 Feb 2013.

[1] A tag embedded in a message posted on Twitter consisting of a word within the message prefixed with a hash sign (#).