McLuhan and the Internet

If you are unfamiliar with Marshall McLuhan’s work, Jerry Janquart wrote in a post last month, you should really check him out. McLuhan wrote before the internet, yet his observations about our communication technologies are perhaps more relevant now than ever before.

McLuhan observed that in assessing the effect of new technologies, we invariably get caught up in an analysis of the content coming through the medium. In doing so, we tend to neglect a more fundamental question: how is the form of this medium altering our reception of the content being conveyed through it?

Building on McLuhan’s oft-quoted dictum that “the medium is the message”, Nicholas Carr has written an invaluable book showing how the internet is changing the way our brains receive, process and store information.

His book The Shallows begins by taking the reader on a fascinating journey through some of the different ‘intellectual technologies’ (that is, technologies which effect how we communicate information) that have dominated human civilization, showing that “in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.”  To give just one example, when Nietzsche switched from writing by hand to using one of the prototypes of the typewriter, a friend commented that his writing style had changed, becoming tighter and more telegraphic. “You are right,” Nietzsche replied. “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

Of course, this is nothing new. We have probably all read about the way the clock changed the way people thought of time, or how the map altered our perception of space, and so forth. Where The Shallows breaks new ground, however, is in bringing the history of communication up to date with the latest discoveries in neuroscience.

More about this tomorrow.

New Legal Frameworks seek to Accomodate Transhumanism

Earlier in the month I posted about a report financed by the British Government which said that by 2056 robots may be given the same rights as humans. The official report said that robots may even have voting privileges and be forced to pay taxes.

2056 is still a long way in the future. What may be more imminent is the maze of ethical problems posed, not by human-like robots, but by modified human beings.

I’m talking about what scientists call Transhumanism. For a good introduction to Transhumanism, see the video I posted on the Transhumanist Arms Race or the longer version of the same video here. Also see the article Nick Bostrom wrote for the Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 4 dealing with some of the issues raised as scientists begin exploring the post-human realm. Also see the research being done at Arizona State University warning about Transhumanism as a type of secular eschatology.

If scientists get to the point of being able to produce human/animals hybrids, or to significantly modify the genetic makeup of human beings so as to produce a new race of superhumans, posthumans, transhumans, homosapiens 2.0, or techno-humans (by combining advanced robotic technology with human biology), then what would be the legal standing of these beings? Should these new brands of creatures be subject to the same judicial procedures that regulate humanity, or will there need to be a parallel legal framework for these new creatures? Would killing or enslaving one of these creatures be the same as killing or enslaving a human being, or would that be a lesser crime? Continue reading

Fat is Good!

The drive to be unnaturally thin is not limited to models. Denyse O’Leary shares that in 2006 the Tenth International Congress on Obesity was told that girls no older than five now fret over baby fat. “More than half of girls begin dieting before age 14, and they tell surveyors that they fear fat more than cancer. Ironically, eating disorders spurred by fear of fat are a preventable, serious health risk for their age group.”

Part of the problem is that cultural influences actually rewire the neurocircuitry of our brains, subtly orienting us to consider certain things (such as being unnaturally thin) to be attractive, which past ages would have considered off-putting. This is a topic I touched briefly on in a feature for Salvo 19, and which I will be revisiting in a feature for the forthcoming Salvo 21. In the former article I pointed out that any civilization that thinks high-healed shoes on a woman is sexy but body hair is not, is a society in which the people have been subject to considerable neuroplastic changes to their brains.

Don’t be sacred off by the big words. Neuroplasticity simply refers to the way the human brain is in a constant state of flux, being remarkably adaptable and constantly adjusting itself to the demands of one’s environment. This can be a good thing, because it enables people to learn new skills, for stroke victims to recover function and for blind people to compensate for their loss by strengthening a part of the brain associated with other senses. But neuroplasticity also has a darker side, and we see this in the widespread assumption that the more thin a woman is the more attractive she is. If one reads novels from the Victorian era and earlier, we see that this assumption is a complete historical anomaly. It used to be that an unnaturally thin woman was not considered pretty.

This fixation in our society with being thin unfortunately leads people to avoid fatty foods, foods which are necessary for health and well being. In an article I wrote earlier in the year, ‘Debunking 4 Health Food Myths‘, I pointed out that a low-fat diet does not equal a healthy diet, despite what commercials and advertisers try to make us think. In fact, given the ingredients that typically go into low-fat products, the reverse is most often the case.

There is a reason that God designed human beings to crave fatty foods. The reason is simple: fat is good for us.

Well, let me qualify that: the right sort of fats are actually good for us. To learn more about this see the article Five Fats You MUST Have in Your Kitchen and ‘Debunking 4 Health Food Myths.’

Sasha of the Secret Gender

A few days ago I posted about the movement to make toy stores gender neutral. I wish I could say that gender neutrality is limited to toy stores like London’s Hamleys. Alas, no. Earlier this year the UK newsletters were full of stories about the case of little Sasha Laxton. Before the child was born, the parents had determined that their child would be called Sasha regardless of whether “it” turned out to be a boy or a girl. And just to prove to themselves the unimportance of gender, after labor was over the parents waited 30 minutes before asking midwives what gender their child was.

For five years Sasha’s gender was a carefully guarded secret. The parents referred to their child as simply “the infant”, scrupulously avoided gender-loaded pronouns like “he” or “she.” They were also careful about dress. One day Sasha’s parents would dress him in striped trousers, the next in a sparkly pink tutu with fairy wings and ballet shoes. Moreover, the Laxton’s home became a gender neutral zone as the parents desperately attempted to shield their child from society’s prejudices and preconceptions.

Sasha was eventually ‘outed’ as a male just before beginning school.

Just to show that their experiment in gender neutrality had achieved the desired result, the parents posted a 90-second Youtube clip where Sasha and his mother can be seen walking along a road near their home in Cambridgeshire. Sasha’s mother, Beck, asks her son if he thinks there are any differences between boys and girls. “No,” Sasha replies. The mother presses her son with a barrage of other questions, like “do girls like pink and boys like blue?” In each cases Sasha gives the only correct answer for someone who has been indoctrinated with the stereotype of gender neutrality: no, no, no.

The Laxton parents are not alone. In 2011 Kathy Witterick and David Stocker from Canada announced that they would not be revealing the gender of their third child, Storm. Only Storm’s siblings would know. Similarly, in Sweden a couple recently announced that the gender of their baby Pop would be a carefully guarded secret.

Deep Stuff!

One of the things we find here at Salvo when putting together the fake adds is that the reality is often absurd enough without requiring much modification from us.

That was recently impressed upon me last month when I saw the fake add on The Influential Teachers series. Reading through the quotes on the left, I assumed my colleagues had simply made these up. That is, until I got to the quote by Herbert Marcuse, “That which is cannot be true.”

Having recently written an article for Salvo on this guru of the counter-culture titled, ‘The Illusionist How Herbert Marcuse Convinced a Generation that Censorship Is Tolerance & Other Politically Correct Tricks‘, it seemed that the notion “That which is cannot be true” had a sort of Marcuse-type ring to it. So I started googling this and some of the other quotations. Sure enough, they hadn’t made them up. There really were intellectuals who were crazy enough to say these things.

Adorno really did say, “Life has become the ideology of its own absence.” He really was echoed by EM Cioran who noted, “There is no other world. Nor even this one. What, then, is there? The inner smile provoked in us by the patent nonexistence of both.”

Deep stuff!