Another post from the archives of SomeRandomNerd.com, originally posted on July 29th 2008 at http://somerandomnerd.com/losingavirtuallimb.

I saw a quote from a research respondent earlier this week, talking about how living without their smartphone was like losing an arm, which reminded me of this. So I dug it out. Originally, it had a nice picture of a Terminator's arm, which I can no longer find.

There's an idea that Marshal McLuhan talks about, to do with how there's a balance between our senses. The idea is that you can never give anything more than 100% of your attention, so whenever one sense takes your focus, then the attention you can give to the other senses has to be lessened. This is a key theme of "The Gutenberg Galaxy"— how the invention of the printing press created a huge cultural shift in the way we communicate, creating a literate society, so instead of an oral culture we became a visual culture, and information is now usually something that's read. As a result, even though we think that we mainly value the content and words of what we hear, any professional speaker knows that what you say isn't nearly as important as how you say it and how you appear. Hundreds, if not thousands of years of cultural evolution don't just get swept away by a new technology.

The 20th century has seen a huge number of innovations in communication (telephones, television, mobile phones, the internet to name a few), but I think the biggest impact of communication in the 20th century is the idea of 'the screen.' It's easy to get hung up on the different uses of it as being different media in their own rights (which of course they are), but from television broadcasts to email, over the course of the 20th century our communications have increasingly been focussed on some sort of screen.

Over the last few years, the screen on a mobile phone has evolved from a basic, low resolution, monochrome screen that helps you interact with the phone (browsing the contacts list, seeing the number you've dialled— features that weren't needed on a traditional telephone) into an integral part of the communications platform— essential for text messages, photos, mobile web browsing and so on. More recently, it's developed into something interactive; lightpens and similar devices that have been around since the 1960s but never really taken off in the mainstream have now evolved into the touch screens that we see on devices like the iPhone.

Media as a tool

I think Mankind is defined by his culture; the need to communicate, and the understanding of tools. The opening scenes of "2001: A Space Odyssey" illustrates this development, as one neanderthal man works out how to use a bone as a club, extending his reach and increasing his strength— meaning that he could then hunt more easily (and live more comfortably as a result), but that simple idea of understanding how to use mechanical tools has taken us as far as travelling into space.

(Like most of the film, it's much clearer in the book…)

A weakness can actually be a strength— if early man had horns, claws or tusks, there would have been no evolutionary need to use tools to survive— and maybe today our nails and teeth would be stronger and sharper, our skin would be tougher and we wouldn't need clothes to keep us warm in the winter. Again, there's that idea of balance; in compensating for a physical weakness, Man as a species becomes physically weaker.

This leads into another idea that McLuhan talks about; thinking of media as an extension of the body. Alone, my eyes can see everything that's in front of me. With tools like a pair of binoculars or a telescope (or microscope), I can see further, and in more detail. But by thinking of media in terms of abstract tools rather than simply as a source of information or entertainment, I can use it to extend my vision more powerfully than any telescope could do; through live television, I'm no longer limited by my line of sight— I can sit in my living room and see what's happening elsewhere, from local news that informs me of what's happening in my town to worldwide news that shows me live images of what's happening on the other side of the world. (I can even watch images being transmitted from satellites in outer space- or through recorded video, look back in time.)

Likewise with the telephone, my voice isn't restricted by how loud I can shout- I can have a conversation with anyone who has the same technology, connected to the same network. When that technology became mobile, the connection became more personal; not only directly connected to an individual (rather than a specific location like a house or a desk), but also allowing for a number of different kinds of convergence. You can get a message and not deal with it until it's convenient for you.

Art as a Cultural Defence

Another idea is the importance of art as a way that a culture can prepare itself for the imminent impact of changes that are coming. The vision of the artist can spread messages about cultural shifts that are about to come, in a similar way that music in the form of rhythms played on drums could have been used to warn of approaching dangers.

While science fiction gave us images of cyborgs as people with mechanical limbs, bionic eyes and computers that interface directly with the brain, it could also be said to have helped prepared us for social changes that were to come. For example, George Orwell's "1984" has become a standard reference point when you're talking about social engineering, state control and the role of "Big Brother" in society. Fiction gave us the vocabulary needed to prepare us for the changes that were yet to happen around us, and to deal with them once they started.

When I grew up, mobile phones were strictly the domain of high flying executives; the value of the large and expensive pieces of technology simply didn't offset the the value of constantly being in touch for most people. The phone book was something we used on a regular basis, and we'd commit dozens of phone numbers to memory. Now the job of both the phone book and our memory has been taken over by the mobile phone. So while most of us might not have noticed that we have already started outsourcing the jobs of our brains to machines, with mobile phones now doing the work that used to be done by our brains, the language of science fiction has already given us the idea of where this kind of technology might be heading.

Think of the mobile phone in terms of a machine in a science fiction story. First, it confused us by complicating a job we were already doing (uncoupled from the physical location, no longer is a 4-digit local number enough to identify someone as it's been replaced by an 11 digit mobile number), and then it's taken away the job of remembering the number and started doing it for us. Suddenly, we're unable to phone up a friend without our personal mechanical helper— a helper which can also provide answers from the likes of Google, Wikipedia etc. for other bits of information that you might not quite be able to remember.

It's no coincidence that Google have named their open-source mobile phone platform "Android"…

So what happens next, after we've built machines to do our heavy lifting and hard physical work, computers to do our difficult calculations, and now pocket sized devices that are doing the jobs of our memories?

Who knows. But whatever happens, I'm pretty sure that there's already a science-fiction film about it.

Losing a virtual limb

You're probably familiar with the feeling of losing your phone or leaving it at home by mistake; the stress at the back of your mind, not knowing whether you're missing important calls or messages, the hassle if you don't have an important number that you need to call— it's something that McLuhan would probably have described as a kind of shock, like when you realise that a limb has gone to sleep, because it's stopped telling you about the world around you and has gone numb.

Well, the idea of media and technology being an extension of the body is particularly resonant for me at the moment. A couple of weeks ago I lost my iPod Touch and, apart from the sentimental value of the device itself (it was a very generous leaving present from my last job), it's honestly not an exaggeration to say that, in the context of the media tool as an extension of the body, it's not unlike losing a limb. Even though it didn't do the jobs that a mobile phone usually does, it was something that I used on a daily basis as an internet device, as a notepad, and with about 3 whole days worth of non-stop music and video on it it was a very effective tool to make sure that I didn't get bored when I was on my own. When I didn't have that in my pocket, I really missed it.

But it's the timing of losing it that raised a pretty big question for me. I decided long ago that I was going to be getting the second generation iPhone, having held out for something cheaper than the original model and deciding not to renew my contract and upgrade my last phone until a 3G phone that I liked was available. The benefits of not having to look for a wifi hotspot to check my email or look up a map were obvious to me after 9 months or so of using my iPod Touch on a very regular basis. But I'm also now acutely aware of what will happen if I lose my phone along with my notes, my music, my contacts and calendar.

So the question isn't about whether I'm going to get one— after about 2 hours of standing in a queue, I've actually already got one.

The real question is whether I'm ready to lose it.