Technology as a Form of Language

The Folklore of Electronic Man

About the Project


May 2011


Barcelona, Spain

In his classic book, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan speaks of media (and he understands media as any sort of technological form) as being “extensions of man” which by their introduction modify the rhythm and scale of human affairs and relationships. That is, they structure and re-structure our social lives by us using them.

This runs contrary to the more familiar notion of technologies and media as mere tools, vessels of our will. According to the traditional account and understanding the role of media and technology in our lives, these represent an equally interchangeable array of tools with which we can exteriorize the content of our minds. The only thing that changes, according to this account, is the reach of my ideas: speech has a limited, immediate reach, whereas writing, on the other hand, can take those same ideas much further. Print increases the capacity of writing by making it scale, and therefore that same idea-content can reach more people, further away, quicker. It’s a linear understanding of technological development: new technologies allow us to do the same things and think the same ideas, but do so, as Daft Punk would have it, harder, better, faster and stronger.

McLuhan thinks this is nonsense. In this paper, I explore McLuhan’s idea of the “grammar” of a medium or a technology, drawing a connection to Ludwig Wittgentein’s own understanding of how we learn and use language in his Philosophical Investigations. This, I hope, will give us better tools to understand how we’re now relating to and coping with emerging media and technology languages that are constantly and continuously evolving.

This paper was presented at the McLuhan Galaxy Conference, hosted by the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, in 2011.

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