Bruce Mazlish

 



Bruce Mazlish
was a professor of History at MIT his entire career, and now enjoys emeritus status (meaning he is officially retired but retains the honorific title of professor). He has written on many topics, but most pertinent to Media Studies is his book The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines. In this book Mazlish makes a compelling case that the close relationship between humans and their tools is deeply-rooted in human nature. His work features the same type of ontological-philosophical aspects that we saw in McLuhan's work, but Mazlish adds a different type of historical emphasis.

He first contextualizes the current flood of interest and concern with regard to media technology in relation to prior historical examples of three prior 'crises' or 'critical junctures' where humanity has been faced with uncomfortable realizations:
In the eighteenth lecture of his Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis, originally delivered at the University of Vienna between 1915 and 1917, Sigmund Freud suggested his own place among the great thinkers of the past who had outraged man's naive self-love. First was Copernicus, who, according to Freud, taught that our earth "was not the centre of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness." Second was Darwin, who "destroyed man's supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom." Third was Freud himself. On his own account, Freud admitted, or claimed, that psychoanalysis "seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information on what is going on unconsciously in the mind."

Mazlish then goes on to suggest, from the above historical perspective, that electronic media may be creating the next or "fourth outrage" or insult to humanity's view of itself by making it impossible for us to deny our inherent dependence on technology. In some ways the 'impossible to deny' feature connects back to McLuhan's work. If it weren't for the fact that the message of electricity is awareness, we could possibly continue to deny that we are utterly dependent on our tools.

Mazlish also suggests that, from a deep-historical perspective, humans may have literally co-evolved with tools, such that even very basic human characteristics such as upright posture may have evolved in direct relationship to tool usage. So the message of Mazlish furthers a "Tools R Us" strand we first identified in McLuhan. But for Mazlish tool-use not only extends outwards as an augmentation of human physiology (which is more or less what McLuhan suggests), it also connects inwards towards things like an inborn human propensity to reach, grasp, and use tools. Have you ever seen an infant reach for, grab, and then bang a spoon, or whatever it is, for all its worth? Mazlish gives us new ways to look at such behaviors as prototypical practice in tool-use!

He also provides us with another example of how useful it can be to understand the vertical dimension of learning. If we are able to truly get our minds around how inseparable we are from our tools and toolmaking practices, it becomes much easier to understand why people are so interested in, worried about (at times), seemingly dependent on, computers and related media. Coming to grips with Mazlish's principles on this topic will change your framing of things, and these types of changes automatically enable you to make better sense of a lot of other, more detailed matters that are within the frame so to speak.


Distilled principles
:
  1. The advent of electronic media signals a momentous crisis in human affairs by making it obvious we are co-dependent with technology rather than the masters of it

  2. Tool use not only extends outwards as an augmentation of human physiology (which is more or less what McLuhan suggests), it also connects inwards towards things like an inborn human propensity to reach, grasp, and use tools.
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