The Extended Body Extended: McLuhan Reconsidered

By Stephanie Koltun and Patrick Burke

Illustrated by Hadar Ben-Tzur

Issue 2

I n his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan argued that technologies—meaning all media, from transportation systems, clothing, and money, to printed text, television, and games—are extensions of the human body. They extend our senses, our capabilities, and our perceptions, transforming our relationships across space and time. McLuhan concludes the first chapter by underscoring how technology’s impact is felt at the scale of the body: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”1 If the body is the fundamental site of technological change, then how is this body conceived and whose body is it?

The body extended by technology is an imagined one. It is constructed by designers, developers, institutions, marketers, manufacturers, and users. Each technology imagines an unchanging body of a certain form, ability, and dexterity. But in encountering these technologies, our bodies are identified by their correspondence to an imagined universal. A door knob presumes a hand of a particular size and strength, an automobile’s ceiling suggests bodies of a particular height.

New forms of interaction are furthering our sensory possibilities: seeing things we can’t touch through augmented reality, hearing soundscapes composed by machine learning. While a given technology may focus on a particular sensory engagement, our bodies don’t turn off other ways of perceiving. This can affect us unexpectedly such as when we suffer motion sickness while experiencing VR. As new forms continue to emerge, McLuhan’s emphasis on the tangible body and sensory perception is critical to our considerations. But beyond asking what sense is extended, we must ask whose body is extended? How are our endlessly varied bodies accounted for in the ‘universalized’ body imagined by technology?

To identify our own tangible bodies against a ‘standard’ denies the inherent variety in shape, size, dexterity, and flexibility of our human condition. We age, we carry groceries, we change routines, we stand up straight, we slouch, we clean our ears, we wear baggy clothing, we heal broken bones, we damage nerves. Our bodies change. Nor are our bodies just thumbs and eyes but also forearms, shoulders, knees, back sides and front sides. All aspects of our material-ness come with contingency that is unacknowledged by a standard imagined body. So in considering McLuhan’s argument, does technology extend many different bodies in many different ways? How so?



Reading Susan Leigh Star’s Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being Allergic to Onions in parallel with McLuhan provides a starting point for exploring new possibilities in the relationship between standards and our inherent multiplicities. Star argues that standards—or imagined universals—become standardized by denying multiplicity and contingency in favor of unity and stability. This process excludes the many ways standards could have been otherwise. Yet these standards are only stable for ”those who are members of the community of practice who form/use/maintain it”—standards are never stable for non-members.2

In studying and creating technology, if we start from the point of view of a non-member, as Star recommends, we can expand McLuhan’s argument to study how a technology may extend one body while not extending another. What are the standards enforced by a technology, how have they become stabilized, and who are they stable for? How do standards contribute to a technology’s legibility—and legibility for whom? How can technology recognize multiplicity while avoiding the illusion of infinite flexibility?

Cover from 1964 edition

Stephanie Koltun | Stephanie Koltun (ITP 2018) is a creative technologist and researcher thinking about the relationships between technology, our bodies and physical space. For better or worse, she works across mediums making websites, installations, maps, games, films, and
Patrick Burke | Patrick Burke (Harvard M.Arch 2016) is an architect, urbanist and researcher exploring how social relations function through the built environment. He has worked on projects in New York City, Toronto, Vancouver, and the Netherlands.

  • 1Marshall McLuhan, "The Medium Is the Message," Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (Berkeley: Gingko, 2003), 31.
  • 2 Susan Leigh Star, "Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being Allergic to Onions," The Sociological Review, 38.1, 1990, 42.