A Twig by any other Name…

These are not chopsticks.

These are not twigs.

With apologies to Rene Magritte, and to avoid the danger of succumbing to French surrealist gobbledygook, I’m not trying to make a statement about the reality of these images or the objective existence of objects. What I’m getting at with my little visual gimmick is the notion that we are our technology, and our technology is us. There. I did it. I got a little surreal and gobbledygook-ish.

Think for a second about what distinguishes the first object from the second. Could they not both be used for the same purpose? Maybe the first set could be used as kindling or to poke at a small animal to gauge its reaction. The second set could be used to eat or to to ceremonially pass bones at a funeral. In either case, the sticks are serving as an extension of our own physical abilities. They are extensions of our fingers, replacing the duty of flesh and bone with the utility of instrumental precision. When we use them, we become wholly unaware of them. They are invisible. We are numb to the extension of our body’s function. In fact, we only become aware of this aspect of our technology when the environment created by their presence and use is polluted by an outside force. Perhaps one of the sticks slips out of our hands, or breaks. Perhaps they are ill-suited to the use we intend them for and don’t work very well. Maybe someone writes an absurd blog about chopsticks being used like twigs, and twigs like chopsticks. Maybe someone writes a book and makes a whole career out of calling attention to such matters:

I didn’t set out to write this blog with McLuhan in mind, specifically, but my posts to date have been largely dominated by ideas that were articulated (in his own peculiar and intriguing way) by him. This year is the “McLuhan Centennial,” the 100th anniversary of his birth, and I’ll be presenting a paper on McLuhan and education in Brussels in the Fall. Anyway, he is the Kevin Bacon of media ecology, and so all lines intersect…

Getting back to the images at the top, we refine and adorn our technology when we adopt it from the natural world. Those things we employ in our service become part of us and we mold them and shape them in our image, and in turn they shape us. We integrate them by giving them ceremonial importance and they become culture. They are us, by physical extension, and we are them in the same way. They are us, by symbolic extension, and we are them in the same way. Naming them chopsticks is the final step in differentiating them from the things we name twigs, which only the primitive would consider as eating utensils.

Next time you eat dinner, eat entirely with your hands and see what I mean. Then, eat with a couple of sticks. How would you be different if you lived according to either of those practices? How much more “in touch” with your food would you be, if you “sense” my meaning…

About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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