Monday, August 4, 2008

The Internet: What We Gain, What We Lose

Marshall McLuhan is often remembered for his catchy saying, "the medium is the message" - a quote I disagree with, arguing instead that the medium is what we make it. By this I mean that ultimately individuals are in control of what message a given medium can communicate, for better or for worse.

McLuhan also wrote of extensions and amputations, terms he used to refer, respectively, to aspects of our humanity certain technologies or invention offer extensions, such as keys on a keyboard being extensions of our fingers. Extensions can also refer to extensions of the mind, not just our bodies. Amputations in this context can refer to what we lose as a result of certain technological advancements. As such, telephone conversations result in the amputation of face-to-face dialog. Too often we are dazzled by the glitter of extensions, but fail to discern the detriments of technological amputations.

While I don't mind the use of the term extensions in this context, the term amputations seems too severe, as technological advances don't always result in amputations per se, but different means of accomplishing something. As a result, instead of applying the term amputations to the Internet, I'll use the term restrictions.

So, then, applying philosophy of technology to the Internet, what does this medium offer by way of extensions and restrictions? Moreover, how might we redeem some of these extensions and restrictions?

The Internet is a unique medium, but in some respects any medium is unique. Print is on the page. Video is on a screen. But the Internet fuses mediums in a way that captures our attention. Screens illuminate our lives, becoming the new stained-glassed windows of our age. Hyperlinks add to the interest by allowing us to literally jump from one place to another in seconds. This is in reality a jarring, unnatural approach to taking in information, but we adapt quickly and fail to assess the sensory and intellectual implications.

The Internet can also add audio/visual elements to the experience, but thus far very little of lasting value has resulted. Youtube is not a place one generally turns to in order to find deep, theological or philosophical discussions. Rather, it's usually a place one turns to in order to find and view an amusing clip.

But there is value to the Internet such as access to information. But access to information does not necessarily provide wisdom. We "google," but do we think? We are able to quickly and easily get our ideas online, but do our ideas more often represent intellectual weakness or intellectual rigor? We are able to interact with others online, but our these interactions consistently meaningful or are they ethereal, faceless encounters without much context?

I don't pretend to have marvelous answers to these and other related questions, but as a philosopher and a philosopher of technology, these and related questions about the Internet interest me. As such, this entry is by no means a definitive compendium of my thoughts about the Internet, but merely one starting point for thought and discussion.

Regarding extensions and restrictions of the Internet, I think they are many. The Internet extends our access to information, our ability to communicate, and our generally gregarious human natures. But it also has restrictions. We gain communication abilities, but even with video chats we lose the importance of face-to-face interaction. We also often lose a sense of civility online, as individuals tend to behave more recklessly than they would in person.

Many years ago I read about Vladimir Zworykin, a key figure in the development of television. A Russian-born scientist who ended up working at RCA, he wanted television to become primarily an educational tool. Later in his life he lamented what television had become - a largely mindless medium of entertainment and commerce.

What of the Internet? What are some noble visions of what it should be and can be? What is it now? What can we do individually and collectively to contribute positively to what author William Gibson dubbed so many years ago as cyberspace? These are questions worth asking and the answers are worth seeking.

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