More on the Technological Extensions of Man

02Dec11

Anyone who has studied Marshall McLuhan’s ideas in any depth knows that he wasn’t the originator of the idea of technology as extensions of man; nevertheless, he made the idea prominent once more. Media scholar Florian Sprenger has given me permission to publish his account of the history of this idea, posted to the Media Ecology mailing list (Dec. 1, 2011). It is an excerpt from his presentation at the Brussels McLuhan Conference this past October, which he will publish in full in due course……..AlexK

Such theories of extension have a long history. It is idle to speculate on the origin of their formulation. Instead of simply asking for the sources of this often articulated idea it may be better, as Lance Strate supposed, to investigate the plausibilities regarding the economy of knowledge which they invoke again and again even without direct affiliation. But one thing is for sure: “the extensions of man” is not McLuhans idea.

Considerations about functional body-extensions in form of tools date back to Aristotle, who believed that all human art is an imitation of nature. The idea of an extension of tools out of body parts can be found in the works of Lewis Mumford, on whom McLuhan regularly refers, as well as in the books of the architects Buckminster Fuller and Le Corbusier. Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin and physiologist Georg von Békésy follow in line. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, correspondent of McLuhan for most of his life, estimates the development of tools and weapons as a compensation of physical deficiencies.

Also Henri Bergson, who is quoted by McLuhan repeatedly, endows the idea of a globally extended organism. And even if McLuhan did not know Ernst Cassirer’s essay Form und Technik, which is based on Ernst Kapp, he knew the work of Susanne K. Langer, who was influenced by Cassirer, and for sure Sigmund Freud’s essay Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, in which the term Prothesengott is phrased. McLuhan was certainly familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s canonical essay Works and Days from 1870. Emerson, who lived in Germany for some years and studied romantic philosophy, described the impact of new technologies on humanity with a critical gesture.

Our nineteenth century is the age of tools. They grow out of our structure. The human body is the magazine of inventions, the patent office, where are the models from which every hint was taken. All the tools and engines on earth are only extensions of its limbs and senses.”

The most prominent representative of the extension-thesis at least in German speaking countries is Ernst Kapp, whose Philosophie der Technik from 1877 has not been translated into English until today. For Kapp, all technology is an extension of man – he calls it Ausweitung, the german word for extension. “The denture occurred within the field of speech organs, the claw-like extensions of the hand, which was probably also used as a foot, became the protective nail bed of the working finger[…].” He also has an idea of amputation and narcosis. Nonetheless, it is very unlikely that McLuhan was familiar with his theories, even though both have much in common. This unaffiliated correspondence gives an impression of the plausibilities extension offers for thinkers who want to establish their theory on anthropological and teleological grounds.

By referring to the notion of media or techniques as extensions of man, McLuhan and his contemporaries implicitly relate their ideas to discourses which emerged during the founding years of electromagnetic telegraphy. In the 1850s, telegraph lines were compared to nerves for the first time. Even if it has no name at that time, the extension thesis is related to the establishment of electric media in the second half of the 19th century. It is a spearhead in the development of new knowledge by crossfading different orders. It makes the separation of body and technology precarious and provides a new ontology to clarify their relation. This ontology has risen in physiology, a leading science of the 19th century, and in the sciences of electricity. With the electromagnetic telegraph, which is related to the subsequent history of galvanism and ‘animal’ electricity, analogies between humans and technology as well as juxtaposition of cables and nerves, electricity and physical agents reach a climax. With galvanism, an organic cause for electricity became plausible and the same force seemed to act in the human body and in the cable. The cable networks of 1877 are, in the words of Kapp, the “big triumph” of organ projection. With telegraphy and the following explanations of human bodies by new metaphors from the technical field (or vice versa) the dualism of body and technics is deranged. Afterwards, technology and not simply tools can be correlated to the body as an extension. Telegraphy is described, to name one example, as an elongation […] of our own nervous system” , as the London essayist Andrew Wynter said already in 1865.

Florian Sprenger

Florian Sprenger, is a media scholar and philosopher. He earned his doctorate on the media history of electricity. Since 2010 he has been a fellow at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies in Vienna. Film is – like water – has always been his passion, and the relationship between his philosophical interests with this art and this element is very important to him.

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2 Responses to “More on the Technological Extensions of Man”

  1. All ideas have their roots elsewhere. Someone once said there is nothing new under the sun. Ideas evolve and like biological evolution ala Darwin follow the course of descent, modification and selection. The idea of “tools as extensions of humans” descended by some path we know not what into the mind of Marshall McLuhan and were modified there and then came the selection of his ideas by a very wide community of scholars, journalists, practitioners, etc. It is the last step that is critical and that occurred because of the fitness of McLuhan’s ideas in the arena of thought. Carrying the biological parallel even further I will argue that McLuhan created an intellectual niche in which we media ecologists and other social scientists and thinkers now operate. My suggestion is supported by the following excerpt from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niche_construction) which I have modified with insertions found within {curly} brackets.

    Niche construction
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    “Niche construction is the process in which an organism {a scholar} alters its own (or other species’ {scholars}) environment, often but not always in a manner that increases its chances of survival {in McLuhan’s case it did}.

    Several biologists have argued that niche construction is as important to evolution as natural selection (i.e., not only does an environment cause changes in species through selection, but species also cause changes in their environment through niche construction). {McLuhan has caused a change through niche construction of his intellectual environment that he inherited through the work of Mumford, Gideon, Innis, Hall, Emerson, Beecher, Thoreau, Teilhard de Chardin, Freud, Kapp, Carpenter, etc and he changed the environment of scholarship, i.e. that of the media ecologists and others through the niche he constructed with his scholarship}.

    This creates a feedback relationship between natural selection and niche-construction; with organisms affecting their environment. That change then causes a shift in what traits are being naturally selected for. {McLuhan certainly caused a shift in the traits of scholarship selected for as a result of his work}

    The effect of niche construction is especially pronounced in situations where environmental alterations persist for several generations, introducing the evolutionary role of ecological inheritance. {McLuhan’s work has persisted for at least 3 generations so far and with the renewed interest in his work due to the effects digital media and his Centenary celebrations promises to persist indefinitely introducing the evolutionary role of media ecological inheritance.}

    Less drastic niche-constructing behaviors are also quite possible for an organism. This theory, in conjunction with natural selection, shows that organisms inherit two legacies from their ancestors, genes and a modified environment. Together, these two evolutionary mechanisms determine a population’s fitness and what adaptations those organisms develop in the continuation for their survival {the population in the case of McLuhan’s scholarship is that of media ecologists, philosophers of technology, communications scholars and other social scientists}.”


  1. 1 More on the Technological Extensions of Man | High-Tech et notre liberté | Scoop.it

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