McLuhan Thinks Webcams Are Stealing Our Souls. Seriously.
This is part two of a two-part post. The first part was about the idea of Transactive Memory and outsourcing certain types of brain function to the web. This post is about what this new way of thinking and functioning means with regard to our individuality. This might be tricky.
There is a long tradition, that is surprisingly hard to document with any specificity online, of indigenous cultures and first peoples being unwilling to have their pictures taken by visitors with cameras – at least initially. Many of these cultures eventually shifted toward allowance, ambivalence, or even adoption of technologies like the camera, but even today there are people who do not allow their pictures to be taken.
In this modern world it is easy to be arrogant and discount local knowledge as myth, legend, lore, useless, primitive, stupid and beneath us. Check out this thread on a photography website for a good smattering of modern dismissal of this idea (with a touch of sensitivity of course, but dismissal none-the-less). And that’s cool. I think I get it. The worldviews are too different to reconcile easily. But maybe with some help from an excellent thinker like Marshall McLuhan…
Marshall McLuhan said this in 1964:
“Having extended or translated our central nervous system into the electromagnetic technology, it is but a further stage to transfer our consciousness to the computer world as well.”
“The more the data banks record each one of us, the less we exist”
By heavily engaging ourselves with new technology and using the internet as a counterpart for our transactive web memory, are we effectively outsourcing parts of our brains to the internet? And if so, what does this mean? Maybe this is nothing more than a realization (as opposed to a virtualization) of Jung’s collective unconscious. That is a pretty kick-ass concept in and of itself, but that wasn’t the question. The question is whether we lose anything of ourselves in the process, what does it mean, and is that a bad thing?
Let’s revisit the superstitions of the indigenous peoples viewed through the lens of the spread of information via modern technology. These people believe that having their pictures taken robs them of their soul, or at least it robs them of a piece of themselves – lost in so much as it is not their own anymore. It is externalized, apart from them, stored in a place and form such that others can access it, manipulate, and use it. Once the image is taken, or lost, the individual it’s taken from never needs to be consulted again for that piece to be used, and re-used, accessed and propagated through the world ad infinitum.
This is exactly what we are doing to ourselves voluntarily right now. Putting large quantities of information – some of it important, and some of it seemingly trivial – online. Even in this very post, I am deliberately formulating ideas to put up on this blog for public access, perusal, and hopefully for comment and feedback. But these thoughts are no longer mine, or rather, I no longer have control over them. Like tweets I may send out on Twitter – they’re cached and indexed and archived, and even if I change my mind about what I’ve said, or realize I’ve made an error in judgment, I have very little ability to remove those tweets from the web collective unconscious – from the transactive web memory that other people are continually accessing. It’s like licensing whole sections of your life under the Creative Commons.
There are great benefits to putting yourself out there – potential for financial, social, or other kinds of benefit by attracting attention, getting feedback, or leveraging the ability to place your personal brand (and personal identity) online. But there’s also the danger we’re seeing with traditional celebrities today and their dealings with the paparazzi. By submitting pieces of yourself to others you may just get what you wanted – for them to start paying attention. And in some cases, once people start paying attention to the pieces of you to which you had hoped they would, they may subsequently want to get a hold of other pieces which you had hoped to keep to yourself.
I believe that it’s an overall positive trend that it is becoming easier to share pieces of ourselves with one another. I’m working on another post about the idea that it has the potential to foster more honest and tolerant dealings between people, but even aside from that we should not overlook the fact that we are putting ourselves online. Literally. And there is equal potential for good and harm to come of that.
Also – my thoughts on this matter are certainly not cemented (I may very well be embarrased by this post at some point in the future), so I’d love to hear back about your thoughts as well.
Broken camera photo via “pointnshoot“
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