McLuhan argues that focusing on content rather than form causes people to miss the most important feature of the media: its ability to change human activity and interaction. He explains that in many cases, the content of a medium is another medium, for example: a text message contains the printed word, which contains writing, which contains speech. The media is such a pervasive aspect of human life that its effects often go unnoticed. McLuhan asserts that it is crucial to examine the media itself because most people are unconscious of it: “Perhaps the supreme quality of the print is one that is lost on us, since it has so casual and obvious an existence” (p. 178). He argues our constant interaction with the media camouflages its impact and restricts our ability manage the effects.
McLuhan suggests that we have ended at the consumer culture of television. The print culture turned language into a mass media that promoted nationalism, something impossible prior to print. When a new medium emerges, it begins by transmitting old or existing information rather than creating new ideas to help familiarize people with its use and function. McLuhan explains that new media eventually changes over time: “A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them” (p. 194). New media allows individuals to interpret and experience life in a different form. Additionally, McLuhan explains the impact of new media on human functioning: “The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way” (p. 69). When media combine, they change in their form and application, affecting our senses, environment, and the way we interact the media and each other.
This reading made me think the new wave of media devices that are currently being integrated into our lives. An example that came to mind is wearable technology like smart watches, Google glasses, and fitness bands. Today, people purchase wearable technology to access real-time information from any location. Many of these devices have the same technology as computers and smart phones, except they are much smaller and are able to be worn on the body. Currently, 20% of Americans own wearable technology and those numbers are expected to rise in the coming years. According to PWC, users cite that wearable/sensor technology has enhanced their lives in three main ways: “improved safety, healthier living, and simplicity and ease of use”.
People can use wearable technology to locate their family members and friends. One of the notable applications for safety is called Wearsafe which alerts social contacts selected by the user in the event of a problem or emergency. This device is about the size of a quarter and send text updates of their location, streams audio, and the can directly call 911 with the push of button. Wearsafe is also advertised as a means of helping the elderly to feel more safe and confident living on their own.
In addition to safety, sensor technology can provide us with health information and fitness tracking. Devices like FitBit Charge HR and Jawbone UP2 are two of the leading wearable technologies for health and fitness monitoring. These devices compile a person’s activity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week- tracking sleep cycles, monitoring heart and metabolic rates, and calculating the number of calories burned. Some of the devices are even capable of conveying information to health care providers which can be especially beneficial if a person has a serious allergy or medical condition like diabetes.
Finally, the simplicity and ease of use is another way wearable technology enhances our lives. Many of these devices alert users of incoming calls, text messages, and emails, making it easier to stay connected. This year, the hotel chain- Starwood Hotels and Resorts- has introduced a new way of checking-in by allowing guests to use their smartphones or smartwatches to access their hotel room. With this technology, people no longer have to check-in with the front desk to get their room key. Instead they make reservations, check in, and access their room from their own smart device. Starwood Hotels and Resorts claims that this will help them to provide better customer service by freeing employees of time spent on administrative tasks and providing them with more time to focus on the guest’s experience and needs.
Wearable devices are advertised as technology that provides users with personal, real-time information that keeps us safer, healthier, and more efficient. Keeping this in mind, it makes me wonder what McLuhan would think of wearable/sensor technology as ‘extensions of ourselves’. How have wearable technologies changed the way we gather information and ‘sense’ our environment? I would argue that it affects our thought processes and functioning because people think and act differently when they are being monitored (or when their running pace is instantly published to Facebook) than when they are disconnected from technology. I am curious to hear your thoughts and comments on sensor technology as new media- do you think wearable technology affects how we function and process information?
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The extensions of man. New York: Gingko Press.