In his groundbreaking work, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan posits that technologies in the “electric age” rendered it impossible for the individual to remain “aloof” anymore . Over the course of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, while an increasing presence of electric machines in daily life irrefutably signaled our nation’s arrival into the electric age, society’s “central nervous system [was] technologically extended to involve [each individual] in the whole of mankind,” McLuhan states (20). Previously disconnected, isolated individuals and groups suddenly became compressed, involved in each others’ lives, and unified into a network. As opposed to the preceding mechanical age, this was an age that sought “wholeness”-- an aspiration that McLuhan refers to as a “natural adjunct of electric technology” (21). McLuhan believes that great progress was made in the electric age; that wholeness was sought and worked towards eagerly.
However, at the turn of the century, three individuals—the philosopher, historian, and writer Henry Adams, the author Henry James, and the escape artist Harry Houdini—seemed to believe society was falling short of the goals that McLuhan claims it held. To these artists, the dreams of making everything seem attainable and everyone reachable were unrealistic; complete global unification, involvement, and wholeness served as a foil for disintegrating interpersonal relations. These American artists saw technology not so much as a device that brings individuals together, but rather as a means of escaping each other, individual social lives, as well as the constraints of the natural world.
The Autobiography of Henry Adams, first printed privately in 19...
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... not yield wholeness, grant individual freedom, and give Americans the infinite mobility they dream of. On the contrary, technology may cause separation, destruction, and confinement.
The question of whether future technologies will unite individuals peacefully or destroy civilizations ruthlessly is just as relevant, if not in fact more pressing today, at the turn of the 21st century, with a global presence of weapons of mass destruction haunting America, than it was at the turn of the 20th century. Based on his law of acceleration and increased danger, Adams might be surprised that America withstood two world wars and even entered the 21st century. But since we have, there is reason to hope that individuals and fellow nations may continue to defy Adams’ fears; that we may continue to “jump” headfirst into the future, and in doing so, eventually make progress.
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