Transcending Human Sensorium

People still act in virtual reality in a mostly natural way, as “physical beings”, which is obviously predefined by their (our) previous experience. Moreover, the content of the virtual reality is still the physical reality.

This reflects McLuhanian ideas of the interplay between the new and older media. “The content of any medium is an ericolder medium”, as Eric McLuhan put it in the preface to his and Marshall McLuhan’s Laws of Media: The New Science [29]. Marshall McLuhan himself declared that, “The content of the press is literary statement, as the content of the book is speech, and the content of the movie is the novel” [7] (p. 267). Similarly, in the chapter devoted to the development of the phonograph, in Understanding Media, McLuhan described the expectations related to the phonograph in the late 19th century:

It was conceived as a form of auditory writing (gramma—letters). It was also called “graphophone,” with the needle in the role of pen. The idea of it as a “talking machine” was especially popular. Edison was delayed in his approach to the solution of its problems by considering it at first as a “telephone repeater”; that is, a storehouse of data from the telephone… [7] (p. 305)

But afterwards, the phonograph ceased to be providing just an enhanced version of something performed by the older media. Developing this line of McLuhan’s thought, we can assume that it was the phonograph and its descendants (the tape recorder, etc.) that created the sound-recording industry, making their contribution to the emergence of show business and the entire pop culture with its cult of celebrity, which in turn changed culture, social life, and politics, as is masterfully exposed by Neil Postman in his Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). (In the same chapter about the phonograph, McLuhan wrote: “… entertainment pushed to an extreme becomes the main form of business and politics” [7] (p. 306), as Donald Trump has demonstrated.)

Starting with the satisfaction of old needs, a new medium creates a new environment that unfolds media capacity, which is authentic specifically to this new medium. The environment always pays back. As for digital reality, inhabitants create habitat and thereafter the habitat recreates its inhabitants, to make them compatible. It is not an opportunity, but a necessity.

Applying such McLuhanian speculations to the self-evolving interplay between media and the sensorium, we will come with necessity to the question: which new properties of the new environment will reshape which properties of human beings, how, and with what outcome? Thus, the McLuhanian approach allows us not just to explore but also explain and predict possible (in fact, inevitable) changes in the human sensorium. What ultimate conditions of the environment are thinkable, if this environment is “enhanced” so far that it can entirely and controllably be recreated in the digital “space”?

Answering these questions, we will get a notion of the future human being. After all, it is not that difficult, since we already can trace existing and oncoming properties of the digital world. In terms of their impacts on humans, they lead to:

–        escape from the given reality and, as a consequence, the abandonment of the body;

–        transition from biological networking to social networking and development of the social sensorium instead of the biological one;

–        escape from the “physical” time-space continuum, followed by the full liberation of time-space navigation.

Which possible, or, better to say, required properties of the sensorium can and have to support these conditions and requirements of the digital reality, if a person gets immersed in there entirely? What changes in senses may and have to happen? These questions also relate to the media and therefore belong to the set of questions that need to be answered “… in order to understand how and why it is metamorphosing man”, as McLuhan said in the Playboy interview about media impacts in general [4].


1. Angelism and Dismissal of Gravity

While media have had to do with the given reality, they have been expected to enhance the body’s perception of physical surroundings, as the feel-space belt does. But “electronic man has no physical body”, as McLuhan put it [30]. In an interview to Father Patrick Peyton in 1971, McLuhan said,

<Electric media> give you a sort of dimension of an angel, an almost supernatural being, a disembodied spirit. In the electric age, man becomes a kind of disembodied spirit [31].

This angelic condition of the digital human being, in fact, has to undermine this world’s physical basics, such as gravity, for example.


The absence of gravity is not unfamiliar to people, thanks to space exploration. However, the absence of gravity also can be created in the digitally induced reality of video games. After playing a 3D-flying shooter game for a long enough time, gamers may experience a sense of flight, as though it were real. In digital reality, the “movement” up and down has to be as easy as any horizontal movement.

The transfer of the gravity concept to the digital world still reflects the habits of physical beings and will be overcome completely, sooner or later. As physical weight is irrelevant in digital reality, gravity will not just be overcome—it will be completely dismissed.

In parallel, it is interesting to watch what happens to the metaphor of gravity in social relations. The “social gravity” of the pre-digital society created the structure of relations describable through the concept of a pyramid: the massive bottom, the authoritative top, somehow equalizing each other. The vertical, offline organization of authority clashes with the horizontal online organization of authority on the Internet, which again still reflects the “gravitational bias” of physical being. In fact, the Net shapes not the horizontal but the cloud-like structures of authority, with its heavy centers and dispersed peripheries. In the digital world, social coherence will be run by peer-to-peer authoritative gravitation, not by top-down authoritarian gravity.


2. Navigation in the Digital Space: From Physical to the Social Dimension

The digital space is filled not with physical objects but rather with humans themselves (and also with algorithms, many of which seek to act like humans). That is why digital reality will gradually have ceased attempts to simulate physical reality, and will develop its own characteristics; not
time-space ones, but rather timing-spatial ones. It goes well for the concepts of gravity, distance, direction, duration and timespans.

In digital reality, distance, directions, duration, and timespan turn from physical characteristics to social characteristics; they represent the distance between people, directions toward others or crowds, time passed after someone’s actions, etc.

It is interesting to note that the sense of the Net tends to be rather more temporal than spatial. The nearer one is to the source of significant information, the more efficiently one will get responses (in the form of shares, comments, etc.) Time is becoming a category of distance. Earlier means closer. Everyone has to share significant items as early as possible in order to be a part of society. Acting in this way, people socialize themselves and at the same time serve each other. Digital tools very much facilitate this human need, which is placed on the very top of Maslow’s pyramid.

Human perception of the digital space is mediated by other humans and algorithms. Being put into the digital space completely, the augmented reality turns into the augmented humanity, which is a nice term coined by Google CEO Eric Schmidt [32].

Not without reason, speaking of the “angelism” of humans in the electric environment, Marshall McLuhan related this angelism to humans’ shared omnipresence: “I don’t think our institutions have any way of coping with this new dimension of man… the angelic discarnate man of the electric age who is always in the presence of all the other men in the world” [31].

Paraphrasing other utterance of McLuhan’s, we can say that the best, ultimate extension of man is another man (until algorithms, on behalf of man, intervene and capture this function). In digital reality, humans are the best media for each other: homo homini media est. That is why the sensation of physical objects has to be replaced with the sensation of others of our kind in the environment that tends to be purely social, not physical. This is what has to reshape the human sensorium completely.


3. Social Dimension: The Sense of the Others

In the blogosphere and social media, we almost already experience a sense of social gravitation. This observation brings us to the conclusion that with the transfer from the given reality (through the represented reality) to the induced reality, we inevitably have to switch from the biologically-based sensorium to the socially-based sensorium.

In the digital reality, the need for social cohesion will provide people with a sense of social gravitation, by means of which they will learn how to sense the direction toward each other (or out of each other) in the socially networked space. Connecting to the social network, we will have to experience “sensually” the distance to those speaking or the currency of what is said. We will have to sensually perceive the massiveness, or virality, of a topic. We almost already can feel it now, looking at the number of likes and reposts, but in the future, it will have to be a particular sense, similar to how we feel the crowd at a stadium or in a subway; or how we feel the emptiness of an empty room. Such indicators as numbers of likes, shares, and reposts may turn to the sensors of the new, social-based sensorium.


The sense of social coherence will enhance the social–spatial orientation, but also will nurture the sense of social resonance, which will be subordinated to the timing of wave-shaped social activities. By the way, this wave-looking pattern of activity will form a “digital calendar” to replace the solar–lunar calendar (which has already been very much spoiled by electricity).

The transformation of the biological sensorium into the social sensorium is worth additional exploration. In the context of this paper, it is important to chart this tendency as a continuing and inevitable way for the sensorium to be adapted into the realm of digitally induced reality.


4. Social Dimension: The Thirst for Response

Marshall McLuhan used the myth of Narcissus to explain humans’ addiction to media. According to him, “men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves” [7] (p. 45).

As has already been said above, the best, ultimate material for man’s “extension” is another man. Many researchers note, for example, the narcissistic nature of the selfie, which looks very similar to the original myth. But in fact, the most important aspect of taking selfies is the subsequent sharing of it in the hope of getting responses from others. The phenomenon of the selfie does not exist without its publication. Reflection in others, not just on the screen of a smartphone—this is what the selfie is, in essence.

Any human interaction may have its certain purpose, but the interaction itself is not achievable without the exchange of reactions. Reacting to each other’s signals is essential for human enrolment, as well as being the basis for both individual and group survival. For the sake of socialization, people seek response and spend their talents, time, and effort in pursuit of better responses. This thirst for response helps human beings to be social beings [33].

The thirst for response is the same driving force that Hegel called the “struggle for recognition”. In order to get a response, people choose to share the best of what they come across. It may be said that people experience the thirst for response on a sensual level. It is the sixth sense—the social sense. Sufficient or insufficient satiation of this thirst can prompt action and bring people stress or pleasure. The Internet provides new, quick, and inexpensive opportunities to satisfy this thirst. However, it is a thirst that is never fully satiated, because socialization is not a product, but a process.

If the sense of others allows the “feeling” of digital distance and direction toward significant people and events, i.e., allows orientation in the digital–social space, the thirst for response is a sort of inducement for people to act in induced reality.

Excerpted from:

Miroshnichenko, Andrey. 2016. “Extrapolating on McLuhan: How Media Environments of the Given, the Represented, and the Induced Shape and Reshape Our Sensorium.” Philosophies 1, no. 3: 170-189.


Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon


Categories: Augmented reality, Future and Futurology, Immersive experience, Marshall McLuhan, Media ecology, Singularity and Transhumanism

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