What does your exohuman look like?

LONG: An addition to McLuhan's theories about the extension of human body and mind

Astronauts in the weightlessness of pixellated space
Exchange graffiti with a disembodied race
I can save the universe in a grain of sand
I can hold the future in my virtual hand

- “Virtuality”, Rush

In 1964, Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan released a book that would become a foundational work in the field of media studies. The book was called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and it was about the effects that our tools and media have upon us, as well as the abilities that they bestow.

One of the central premises of the book is that a tool or medium of any kind, whether it be a bowl, clothing, the written word, a rock, or even a road, is an extension of either the human mind or body. Consider the following examples:

  • Bowl: Performs the function of cupped hands, extends the body

  • Clothing: Is literally a “second skin”, can protect or extend the body

  • Written Word: Exchanges the ear for the eye (e.g “writer’s voice”)

  • Rock: Is a harder fist that can be used to strike, or even thrown a short distance

  • Road: Extends the human capacity to walk, gives implicit direction (foot & mind)

This was a revolutionary perspective that captured the imagination of academics and the public alike. This wasn’t necessarily because people became philosophical about bowls and rocks, but because of the implications this had for electronic technology like radio and television.

At the time, the television was still a relatively new phenomenon - it had only been commercialized for a decade or so by 1964. Radio was a well-entrenched technology, which means it was something taken for granted. However, both mediums are mass-communication mediums, capable of sending the same message to many different people simultaneously.

Whereas bowls, clothing, and rocks were characterized by McLuhan as being extensions of the body, he identified electronic media such as radio and television (as well as the internet and social media today) as being extensions of the mind.

The most striking example that McLuhan used to demonstrate the power of these mediums was the enabling effect that radio had on the Nazi regime. Never before had a totalitarian faction had the opportunity to speak directly to the entire nation, and Hitler’s skillful oration was put to maximum use on the medium1.

Given how the radio can dominate a listener’s attention, when listening to a broadcast it is as if an entire nation, city, or group is thinking the same thing at once - and that’s whatever is being said.

Radio is provided with its cloak of invisibility, like any other medium. It comes to us ostensibly with person-to-person directness that is private and intimate, while in more urgent fact, it is really a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords… Even more than telephone or telegraph, radio is that extension of the central nervous system that is matched only by human speech itself.

- From “Understanding Media”, Marshall McLuhan

Although Marshall McLuhan died in 1980, he is credited with predicting the creation and rise of the modern internet2. Other media studies experts have since taken up McLuhan’s torch, and applied his theories to the World Wide Web and social media, which seems to be one of the most confounding types of media from McLuhan’s theoretical frameworks given its variety of effects on users.

Social media can pacify people, lulling them into hours of meaningless scrolling, or it can cause them to fly into a collective rage and storm government buildings. It can involve the written word, video, images, or innovative combinations of those elements (TikToks, memes). Above all, it is electronic and instantaneous. The effects of social media on human beings are well known, but some of them include:

  • Depression (as observed by Jean Twenge3)

  • Movements which can lead to protests in the real world (Women’s March, Arab Spring)

  • Addiction (probably not something anybody would dispute)

All of these are mental/social effects, particularly depression and addiction. It would seem McLuhan’s characterization of electronic media as mind extensions holds in this case.

But what are we to do about his ideas?

I feel that it is time for us to start thinking of ourselves as more than just the body and mind we are given at birth. Since the tools and media we use can be seen as extensions of our selves, it stands to reason that “who we are” may extend beyond our traditional conceptualization of self.

A prototype model of the exohuman

"We’re already a cyborg… you have a digital version of yourself, a partial version of yourself online in the form of your emails, your social media, and all the things that you do… You have more power than the president of the United States had 20 years ago. You can answer any question, you can video conference with anyone, anywhere. You can send messages to millions of people instantly. Just do incredible things."

- Elon Musk

For purposes of this model, I propose four different “layers” of self:

  • Sensory data, the most immediate and “fastest” interface with the world

  • Memory, which can be accessed nearly-instantaneously (almost) at will

  • Media & tools, which provide us with additional interfaces to the world

  • Collective knowledge, accessed through media, often slowly

Taken together, these four layers and the interactions between them comprise a modern “connected” human. Being mindful of how we have constructed ourselves may help us become more effective, focused, and competent at whatever tasks we set ourselves to.

Layer 1: Sensory data

Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

- From “Atlas Shrugged”, Ayn Rand

This is the most fundamental part of any living organism, as sensory input facilitates perception, understanding, and action. Although we often take this data for granted, people with sensory disabilities may require technology like hearing aids or to compensate for a lack of natural ability in one or more senses.

There are things that we naturally do in order to augment our senses, such as cupping our hand behind an ear in order to hear better. Additionally, technology can provide us with superhuman senses and give us more information. Perhaps the best example of such a technology are night vision goggles, but forensic technologies dealing with images and sound are another.

Layer 2: Memory & personal knowledge

In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina
Can't you see the sunshine?
Can't you just feel the moonshine?

- “Carolina In My Mind”, James Taylor

Memory is a fickle thing. It doesn’t always work when we want it to, sometimes works when we preferred it wouldn’t, and can be beautiful, horrifying, edifying, and/or anxiety-inducing, among many other things. It can also induce sensations, or memories of sensations.

Memory is a part of us, and moreso than we might think. Two books on completely unrelated topics each contribute important thinking to the contribution of memory to the exohuman:

  • The Talent Code, about the development of “outliers” in various fields. It spends a great deal of time talking about the development of neural pathways in the brain in response to practice. As you learn something, especially if you learn it well, your brain’s structure actually changes to accommodate this information. I like to use the metaphor of a tree’s branches growing thicker and stronger over time.

  • The Body Keeps The Score, about how the body can “remember” traumatic memories4. Extreme or weighty experiences can get hardwired into the body’s fundamental responses, and even can manifest as chronic pain.

Because memory isn’t always instantaneous, and is almost always interrupted or superseded by anomalous sensory input, I made it the first “outer layer” of the exohuman.

Although there is no “technology” per se that can improve memory, various mental training techniques can improve memory capacity drastically. Famous blogger Tim Ferriss provides tips on how to speed-memorize the order of a deck of cards, for example, and extensive training can enable humans to commit complex feats to memory.

Media & tools

Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement.

- From “Understanding Media”, Marshall McLuhan

Although I have used the term “medium” to refer to things like the radio, books, and writing up until this point, it is important to note that language itself is a medium. The words, sounds, and symbols we use to communicate with each other are arbitrary, vary between cultures and regions, and are essentially communicating thoughts and meanings like a radio would propagate music.

Given this reality, it is important to note that we must use media in order to access any kind of pre-existing knowledge outside of ourselves. Even something as simple as asking your parents a question presupposes the acquisition and use of a complex system of words and grammatical rules. Looking something up on Google, a more obvious example, is mediated through a phone or computer.

For this reason, I have placed media as the third “layer”, outside of memory and serving as a gateway to collective knowledge.

This layer also encompasses more functional tools, like clothing or hammers, that we use to interact with the external world more effectively.

Collective knowledge

There is no reason to assume that gender also ought to remain as two. The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it.

- From “Gender Trouble”, Judith Butler

Although I am definitely not going to get into the gender debates anywhere on this blog, it is a fact of history that Judith Butler made a major contribution to modern thought by identifying that what we assume to be “male” and “female” is actually a set of social constructions around our collective concepts of male and female, and that even our male/female binary is arbitrary (as anthropological evidence from many indigenous cultures suggests).

Consider the following case study, for example. A little girl, with aptitudes in mathematics and science, is given Barbie dolls to play with, encouraged to indulge in “girl-typical” activities such as tea parties, and discouraged from playing with LEGO or conducting science experiments. She grows up to be a talented K-12 teacher, when in actuality she could have been a Nobel-prize-winning scientist if her natural inclinations were honoured. Such is the “gender trouble” highlighted by Judith Butler.

This is also an example of “collective knowledge”. Every group of people at any given point in time, whether it be a family unit, an artist’s fanbase, a business, or a country, has a body of collective knowledge that it relies upon to make decisions.

  • Family Unit: Recipes, childhood stories, family legends, ethics and conduct

  • Fans of Artists: Lyrics, album/song release dates, band folklore, “signals of a true fan”

  • Business: Mission/Vision/Values, standard operating procedures, founder folklore

  • Country: Founding story, collective values, laws, constitution, leader folklore

All of this knowledge is accessed (and even stored), one way or another, through media of some kind. From conversations within the family to official documents of a nation, from the retelling of an event in history class to the training manuals of a corporation, we use media to tune into the knowledge of all those who have gone before us.

In the case of the little girl, the collective knowledge was faulty. We now know that children are best raised by supporting their natural inclinations, not by imprinting our own desires and preconceptions onto them (ethics and socialization aside). As Jordan Peterson would say, the role of the individual in a society is to continuously update the collective body of knowledge and preventing it from becoming obsolete or corrupt, and that is what modern child psychologists have done for the collective knowledge surrounding parenting.

In some ways, I am inverting the Jungian idea of the “collective unconscious” by suggesting that we now have a “collective consciousness”. Perhaps this has been stated explicitly in the literature before, but it has certainly been alluded to in a certain Netflix series that was cancelled too soon:

I think we might have always had a collective consciousness: we were social beings since before homo sapiens was even a species, and that predates consciousness. It stands to reason that as individual consciousness developed, language quickly proliferated (at least within groups) and collective agreements on words/sounds began to emerge. This is a proto-collective consciousness.

I would argue that all that media has done is increase the speed at which information is transferred. At the moment, the only limiting factor is our ability to listen (250-400 words per minute) and read (500+ words per minute when scanning).

This increased speed, particularly when combined with the decentralized and peer-to-peer nature of the internet, gave us memes, then echo chambers, then fake news, then rage. Information, true or false, can flow around the world in the blink of an eye these days, and anybody tuned into the flow of it is allowing the collective consciousness into their “self”. Consumer beware!

Brief exohuman case studies

Before covering applications of the model, I thought it best to provide three short examples of how “exohuman thinking” can apply to real-world scenarios.

A scholar’s library

This is my personal context - although I do access ebooks and digital resources with a “search” function, a great deal of my “knowledge” is stored on shelves in my home. The way this works for me is that when I am working on an article for this blog or a scholarly line of thinking, I remember books that may be useful, or perhaps recall parts of specific passages and roughly where they are in the book.

This means that although I don’t have 100 books stored in my brain at any given time, I have a general sense of what those books contain and can access the specifics given some time and effort. Within the exohuman model, I would have a well-developed use of media and collective knowledge.

Smartphones

The advent of the smartphone was arguably the time that humans became “cyborgs”. There are all sorts of things that smartphones can do - store information, become a compass, track steps, provide calendar reminders, and even make phone calls.

When combined with the internet, however, smartphones became the ultimate connectivity device. Suddenly, people could tune into Facebook or Twitter from anywhere in the world and be connected to the “hive mind”. In the exohuman model, smartphones/internet/social media are the mediums through which humans can access an unprecedented amount of collective knowledge.

Religious teachings

Although anything to do with religion is often considered to be exclusively social in nature, the exohuman model has a bit more to say about this. Someone who commits large amounts of religious information to memory - prayers, scriptures, teachings, parables, etc. - is arguably altering themselves at a more fundamental level than clothing. For many people, their religious practices help them live a more focused, productive, and virtuous life, and this almost certainly stems from the spiritual “training” they undergo.

Uses of the exohuman model

I think there are several potential uses for this model, although I am not sure how valuable they are and look forward to practitioner feedback!

Education

It is a truism of education that students must be prepared for the “real world”. It is also a truism that the system is outdated. Many innovative educators, both at the K-12 and postsecondary levels, are in the process of rethinking things like assessments5 and tests, thinking them to be outdated modes of ascertaining ability when full access to information is prevalent in the real world.

However, from the exohuman model, if students are not forced to take tests and memorize/recall information, that part of their “self” becomes atrophied:

… some information is not as important to memorize as it once was… I personally contend that memorizing a long list of phone numbers is far less relevant to me today, given that I have them all in the contact list of my mobile phone. I still remember a short list of critical numbers for emergencies…

- From “Digitized: Spiritual Implications Of Technology”, Bernard Bull

Bull is above average with regards to his memorization of phone numbers: one study suggested that half of people couldn’t recall important details such as children’s or work numbers, such was their reliance on their phone.

What are some of the possible effects of a decreased emphasis on memory in education? For example, it is certainly true that many creative insights, especially in writing, are the culmination of a great deal of thinking and information accumulation. If we reduce a child’s capacity to remember, this could theoretically stunt their ability to comprehend truly deep concepts and create artistic works of lasting value later on in life.

Additionally, in order to operate at a high level in any field, it is almost mandatory to have at one’s command a set of heuristics, best practices, and “practical wisdom” that is committed to memory. An experienced pilot, for example, cannot be consulting a manual in the middle of an in-flight emergency. What will happen when our young people go into these roles with reduced memory training?

I think this type of thinking is valuable in education, at least somehow. There are likely other situations and contexts in which it could be applied - memory is only one.

Workplace

On the other hand, in the “real world” we are looking to maximize existing abilities rather than build new ones. The stereotypical Navy SEAL on a nighttime operation is perhaps the easiest case study for the exohuman model, as they possess “upgrades” at every level:

  • Sensory Upgrades: Night vision goggles

  • Memory Upgrades: Extensive training makes recall of heuristics nerly instantaneous

  • Media & Tools: Hand signals, call phrases, squad radio, body armour, navigation equipment, blasters

  • Collective Knowledge: Best practices, folklore, chain of command, training and field manuals

The benefits of the sensory, memory, and media/tools upgrades are probably obvious, as they increase personal capacity. Some aspects of media and collective knowledge, on the other hand, are particularly interesting as they increase capacity at the squad level, and this is what makes Navy SEALs so effective.

How might the exohuman model be applied to more traditional roles? One good example would be a tech support worker at a call centre. Having a quickly-navigable resource available on a computer would be an invaluable asset while taking calls, especially when trying to diagnose problems that are novel to the individual worker. Leadership teams mindful of this exohuman model might therefore be inclined to prioritize the user experience of the technology deployed alongside front-line service workers.

Practical applications for you

How might individuals use the exohuman model to improve their own life? I have three ideas.

Your media ecology

First and foremost, it is important to be mindful of your “media ecology”. We all know that we need to cut down on smartphone time, but leaving the television or radio on as background noise, mindless scrolling on social media, and having a news feed without the annoying people “unfollowed” all create distractions and potentially disruptive feelings.

Additionally, what are you proactively consuming? The news is a constant stream of negative energy, and it may be more fruitful to replace your daily morning paper with a routine where you check your favourite thought leaders and industry publications, ignoring all the rest. It could be said that you are what you consume!

Your base of knowledge

Getting clear on what you’d like to commit to memory versus what you’d like to store (and how you want to access it) could be time well spent if you find value in the exohuman model.

In the contexts of your career, there may be certain things you want to commit to memory in order to be able to outperform competitors. These could be heuristics, mental models, key performance indicators, or company folklore.

At the same time, you don’t need to remember something if you can remember how to find it, and the faster the better. Building your own system to store and access information beyond your memory capacity can increase personal effectiveness by a great deal: I personally use Excel to track my daily, weekly, and monthly tasks, as well as a well-organized Word document to store all of my reading notes.

Leveraging traditional media

Although a great deal of this article has focused on digital media, notebooks can still be very useful. Some people prefer paper, and therefore making good use of the medium is essential. On the extreme end, shorthand could be learned in order to take notes at “speaking speed”, or personal symbols could be developed to condense ideas and concepts down into a single glyph.

In my context, I use written notes when speaking on Clubhouse. I find that the medium heavily rewards brevity and insight, and I have a tendency to ramble when speaking. Jotting down some notes on paper before it’s my turn is an easy way to make up for my natural deficiency in this area and make my interactions more fruitful and enjoyable for all.

Concluding thoughts

A quote largely attributed to Winston Churchill states that “we shape our buildings, and thereafter, they shape us”. Although I cannot find it in my hardcopy of Understanding Media, I believe a similar quote exists in those pages pertaining to media and tools. Personally, I wonder about the separation of us from our buildings, media, and tools implied in those quotes. As I have attempted to demonstrate in this article, there might be more to “us” than we think.

I hope that this article has provided some insight into the hidden and obvious effects of media on our selves, and that it has given you some tools for using media more effectively.

1

One of the questions this begs is “Why would people listen?”. My answer to that stems from my time in German museums, which take care to point out that Germany was filled with World War 1 veterans who had PTSD… and who had lost the war. The anger at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, combined with the collective trauma, economic desperation, and fear of communism made Germany a very vulnerable nation.

4

I personally knew one woman who could not eat chocolate after what had happened to her as a child. She physically gagged if she tried to eat it. Many Western millennials have had an experience somewhat like this after a “traumatic” experience with alcohol of a certain kind.

5

Goddard College focuses strongly on the personal, written component of the application and doesn’t look at scores from the GRE, etc.