A McLuhanian Perspective On Screens & Stress in the Post-COVID-19 World


Media Health is a group of researchers in Montreal who “study the health applications and implications of information and communication technologies.” One of their major projects looks at “Screens and Stress,” the purpose of which they explain thus:

Screens can stress us by their physical properties or by their content . Screens can also de-stress us, by extending our access to information and communication. We investigate the tipping point at which screens can become a health hazard.
In this they are influenced by the work of Marshall McLuhan and Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist who studied the effects of and responses on organisms of stressors, explaining the connection between these two men thus:

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: Extensions of Man urged us to study media’s impact on self and society in the same way that Canadian Physician Hans Selye examined the stress theory of illness: “all technologies [were] extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed“. These extensions also stressed the systems which gave rise to them: “When a community develops some extension of itself“, he wrote, “it tends to allow all other functions to be altered to accommodate that form“. The question is: Is there a silver lining to our screen addiction?

Hans Selye (1907-1982) 

(C) Najmeh Khalili-Mahani

Before the COVID19 Pandemic, many of us were stressed by screen addiction. So stressed (see footnote below) that the Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Safety (MSSS) was holding expert’s discussion forums to address concerns of parents about screen use by children between the age of 2-25. On March 20th, we were called back to discuss the benefits of screen usage for this young population. Ironically, that conference may no longer be needed. COVID19 has made a compelling case.

During the COVID19 Pandemic, digital literacy has become an essential competency. We should not have any human contact. Premier Legault just talked about the irony, for parents who have always asked their children to get off of screens,  to have to now encourage the youth to remain glued to screens, and to find fulfillment in many possibilities afforded by the social media.

After the COVID19, we will be forced to embrace all our our ambivalences about screens. Our future screen-related stress will be the unavoidable reality of the  Digital-of-Everything at the speed of electrons, and joining China, Israel, and Iran in adopting their surveillance systems of public safety.

To navigate this stress, we may go back to Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of New Media, Inspired by Hans Selye’s Theory of Stress.

In Understanding Media: Extensions of Man,  Marshall McLuhan suggested that all screens are initially stressful but we must consider the nuances of screen-related stress. He urged us to study media’s impact on our self and the society in the same way that the notable physician, Hans Selye, examined the stress theory of illness

In a 1936 Nature publication, Selye defined stress as a quantifiable “general adaptation syndrome“–a cascade of common physiological responses to different ‘alarming’ stimuli, which help the system to adaptively recover its equilibrium–else, fall to disease.

Writing for the first issue of the Journal of Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communications (edited by McLuhan), Selye depicted the living organisms with a network diagram of node (See figure below. Reactons or units of life). The nodes were “associated with eachother by interactions of varying importance”.

Pressure exerted on any unit would spread through other nodes, depending on the degree of its connectivity.

Figure Caption: Selye’s depiction of ‘reactons’ (units of life) and how stress exerted its specific and non-specific effects by the degree of association between the communication networks of the body. (Source: The Stress of Life).

McLuhan and Selye’s theories would have treated screens as both stressors and de-stressors in finding adaptive equilibrium.

In his 1956 book, Stress of Life, Selye wrote:

‘Stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, whether caused by or results in pleasant [eustress] or unpleasant [distress] conditions.” But eustress causes less damage because ‘”how you take it” determins whether you can successfully adapt to the change.’

McLuhan concurred:

‘Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Socially, it is the accumulation of group pressures and irritations that prompt invention and innovation as counter-irritants.’

Please read the rest of this essay at https://preview.tinyurl.com/sjpq5j4

Najmeh Khalili-Mahani – Director, Media Health

PhD(2009) Neuroscience, McGillU; MEng(2001) Biomedical Engineering, McGill U; MA(2008), Film Studies, Concordia U; and BEng(1998), Electrical and Computer Engineering, Concordia U) is an Affiliate Assistant Professor in Design and Computation Arts in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Concordia University, and leads the Media-Health and GameClinic laboratory at PERFORM Centre. She is a member of TAG (Technoculture, Art and Games) in Concordia University’s The Milieux Institute for Arts, Science and Technology. She also serves on the Steering Committee of the McGill Centre of Integrative Neuroscience (MCIN), dedicated to creation of neuroinformatic solutions for studying brain health. Inspired by her neuroimaging studies of brain response to stress and drugs, Naj develops translational frameworks that use media and technology to better understand inter-individual differences in resilience through age.

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