Strange Native


02. Every Extension …

Greenfield, McLuhan, And First Principles

Apr 16, 2010

Greenfield, McLuhan, And First Principles

I’m continuing to work my way through Adam Greenfield’s Everyware, an amazing book that continues to blow my mind. In “Thesis 43” Greenfield quotes Marshal McLuhan (who incidentally has been named the patron saint of Wired Magazine. Marshal coined the terms “global village” and “the medium is the message” as well as wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964, his seminal and most widely known work.

Anywho, here’s a great sum up from the Wikipedias:

McLuhan’s insight was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. Wikipedia, Marshal McLuhan

So that’s all some intense background just to get to a great idea. Greenfield quotes McLuhan from Understanding Media. McLuhan points out, brilliantly:

Every extension is [also] an amputation

Amazing. Here we are, a society hell bent on extending our reach through phones, through computers, through “seamless integration” and yet all along the way we’re unwittingly losing perhaps as much as we gain. The mediums we create are built to carry out specific tasks efficiently, but by doing so they have a tendency to restrict our options for accomplishing that task by other means. We begin to learn the “One” way to do it, when in fact there are infinite ways. The medium begins to restrict our thinking, our imagination, our potential.

The extent to which a certain medium is adopted to perform other tasks, it begins to restrict those as well. This is exactly what has happened with the modern computer. We’ve shoved a lot in there (here?) and not all of it fits very well. The tool has begun to ill-fit the tasks. Our attentions are now paid so often to how to learn a new piece of software or hardware. Seems like a lot of wasted energy. This leads me to Principle Number One of my thesis project:

Principle Number One: Focus on the task, not the tool

Who knows how many principles I’ll have by the end of next year. But that feels like a good start to me.


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