Nostalgia & McLuhan’s Tetrad
I’ve been experimenting with a daily email with Colin Nagy called Why Is This Interesting? This is from today’s edition. If you’re interested in checking it out, drop me a line (I’ll post something here when we launch in publicly).
This weekend the Times ran an opinion piece about the dangers of backup cameras. It was about more than that, obviously, but the gist of the genre is that all this new tech is lulling us into a sense of security that leaves us susceptible to over-reliance, and even forgetting entirely how to do things on our own.
Why is this interesting?
Because this is something we’ve been worried about forever (literally). In Phaedrus, Plato worried about roughly the same thing as it related to writing: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”
The reality is that all technology affects culture in expected and unexpected ways. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” is one of my favorite aphorisms (misattributed to McLuhan). The irony, of course, is that the complaints in this article are perfectly expected. We come to rely on automation because it’s mostly better. In fact, the strangest part of the whole piece is the way the evidence of backup camera safety is presented. “Between 2008 and 2011,” the author writes, “the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent.” I think the implication is that those numbers aren’t all that impressive, but a 20 or 30 percent drop in backup fatalities seems pretty excellent to me.
Finally, the answers to articles like these almost always come back to the one rule of life: Things change. Technology hardly ever solves all the world’s problems or ruins society. Mostly what happens is it leaves us in a state of flux. We swing the pendulum one way and then we swing it the other. One properly attributed McLuhan-ism is the “Tetrad of Media Effects”. It lays out the four ways technology creates change:
The Times piece is effectively an explorations of McLuhan’s four effects. The backup camera enhances our senses by giving us eyes in the back of our heads, obsolescing the car’s mirrors, and retrieving a time when cars were smaller, but, as the article points out, when pushed to its extreme it reverses our own role as driver, giving control entirely over the tech. While the points are valid, we should be less surprised that this keeps happening and try to keep things in perspective.