Al Gore on Marshall McLuhan in The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (2013)


“For over half a century neuroscientists have known that specific neuronal pathways grow and proliferate when used, while the disuse of neuron “trees” leads to their shrinkage and gradual loss of efficacy. Even before those discoveries, McLuhan described the process metaphorically, writing that when we adapt to a new tool that extends a function previously performed by the mind alone, we gradually lose touch with our former capacity because a “built-in numbing apparatus” subtly anesthetizes us to accommodate the attachment of a mental prosthetic connecting our brains seamlessly to the enhanced capacity inherent in the new tool. (p. 48)

In Plato’s dialogues, when the Egyptian god Theuth tells one of the kings of Egypt, Thamus, that the new communications technology of  the age – writing – would allow people to remember much more than previously, the king disagreed, saying ‘It will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remember no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.’

So this dynamic is hardly new. What is profoundly different about the combination of Internet access and mobile personal computing devices is that the instantaneous connection between an individual’s brain and the digital universe is so easy that a habitual reliance on external memory (or ‘exomemory’) can become an extremely common behavior. The more common this behavior becomes , the greater one comes to rely on exomemory – and the less one relies on memories stored in the brain itself.  What becomes more important instead are the ‘external marks’ referred to by Thamus 2,400 years ago. Indeed, one of the new measures of practical intelligence in the twenty-first century is the ease with which someone can quickly locate relevant information on the Internet”. (pp. 48 – 49)

  • from Gore, A. (2013). The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. New York: Random House.

On Thamus and Theuth, see:

New York Times review of The Future: 

One Response to “Al Gore on Marshall McLuhan in The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (2013)”

  1. 1 Don Clement

    Seems to me that the universe of smartphones and the Google internet is exponentially more powerful and compelling because of its addictive qualities. Though literacy had its time and cult-like following, the instantaneous nature of current technology is hugely different. What this means for the definition of human intelligence is an experiment in the making. My instinct is that the mechanization of man is a retrograde step, but eventually it comes down to who is preaching to which choir.

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