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Alicia Gibb, an Urban Library Council Scholar spending a semester assisting me at Brooklyn Public Library, sent me this great article from Wired magazine about Luis von Ahn and his unique perspective on humans’ relationship with technology. At first it freaked me out because I thought I’d found an exception to one of McLuhan’s four laws of media (thanks to the Playful Librarian for pointing me to that page), then I realized it doesn’t illustrate an exception as much as a somewhat scary example of the law in action. Von Ahn, for the record, is a total badass. He is responsible for Captcha and more recently ReCaptcha, those squiggly weird little words that you have to type when you log into websites to verify that you are a person and not a spambot. Here is a paragraph from the article that explains, but you REALLY need to read the whole article:

Von Ahn talks about “’human computation,’ the art of using massive groups of networked human minds to solve problems that computers cannot. Ask a machine to point to a picture of a bird or pick out a particular voice in a crowd, and it usually fails. But even the most dim-witted human can do this easily. Von Ahn has realized that our normal view of the human-computer relationship can be inverted. Most of us assume computers make people smarter. He sees people as a way to make computers smarter.”

One of Marshall McLuhan’s four laws of media is the law of Extension and Enhancement. This law states that every technology extends or amplifies some organ or faculty of the user. So, when Von Ahn is using the visual literacy skills or voice recognition capabilities of humans to teach machines to do the same, the technology he creates attempts to extend or amplify collective human minds themselves. Yikes! That is when it hit me: from a media ecology perspective, social computing is really a group extension of human minds, with the goal being the creation of one massive networked human brain! Its one thing when McLuhan’s law speaks of a tool like a hammer being an extension of the arm, or a telephone being an extension of your voice and hearing. A new technology that exists as a collective extension of human minds is a powerful tool, and I don’t think it is too far out there in sci-fi land to say that success in this arena would drive evolution.

This post only touches on one tiny little part of what made this article so intriguing. I strongly recommend reading it.

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One Comment

  1. Hello,

    I enjoyed reading your McLuhan post, he really is becoming more relevant(with a little interpretation)than ever before. I thought I would share a little jem with you – called McLuhan Hot and Cool.
    It is a collection of essays on his work by some great people including: Susan Sontag,Tom Wolfe and Raymond Williams. Published by Penguin in 1967, its content really reflects the birth of Media and Cultural studies.

    I have just started a blog where you are invited to predict the future of the web. I write on 2.0 subjects and am using it to collect research papers.

    It really is in its infancy but feel free to pop in and get involved.

    “Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov – What if he is right?”

    Tom Wolfe on McLuhan


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