Anthropotropism is the principle that technologies work better when they respect the nature of the human body and the human mind. Alternatively, as media evolve they replicate human characteristics, behavior and/or adapt to them. The concept is most commonly associated with media scholar and science-fiction author Paul Levinson and his book, The Soft Edge. Levinson is quoted in The Soft Edge as saying "...media must respect human nature, and satisfy human needs."
Levinson, and his mentor Marshall McLuhan believe that all media, in time, are reshaped to conform to human physical attributes and cognitive structures, and are thus extensions of the self.
Levinson and McLuhan offer up examples of the anthropotropic principle in terms of media evolution. "Talkies" replaced silent films, color television replaces black & white television, stereo sound replaces mono-channel recording.
The Wallace Paradox
The Wallace Paradox, according to Professor W. Lambert Gardiner, is the inexplicable speed at which human mental function evolved in relation to the observed typical speeds of biological evolution. The paradox suggests there must be another factor influencing the pace of human cognitive development. Gardiner suggests this factor is the development of media, or more specifically the ability to augment our memory and speech capabilities with media.
- The recent shifts from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society to an industrial society to an information society have taken place in too short a time to be explained by the theory of evolution. Historical time is too short for the mechanisms of evolution to have much effect. Barbara Parker points out that it takes 500-1,000 generations for a survival-enhancing adaptation to become genetically encoded and we have had only about 100 generations since the birth of Jesus Christ. It is unlikely then that there is much genetic difference between our hunter-gatherer ancestors and you and I.
- Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) had discovered the principle of natural selection at the same time as Darwin. Indeed, he published the same theory in the same issue of the same journal. Most people assumed, as did I, that he does not get as much credit as Darwin, because he did not spend 17 years accumulating empirical evidence for the theory. However, modern evolutionary theorists argue that he had done his homework. The main reason he does not get as much credit is because he subsequently abandoned the theory. He could see no way in which adaptation to a hunter-gatherer society could explain the sophisticated modern mind. How could a species, which evolved by adapting to a hunter-gatherer society, deal with the dramatic shifts to an agricultural society, then to an industrial society, and now to an information society?
- This book suggests that at least part of the answer to this Wallace Paradox is that, during historical time, we have extended our nervous systems by developing tools for storing and transmitting information outside our bodies.4 The story of how we acquired those extrasomatic tools is the history of media. This history of media could thus be considered as an attempt to solve the Wallace Paradox, or, returning to the jigsaw metaphor above, to fill in the third border in the emerging picture of the human mind.
- Excerpt from The History of Media, Chapter 1.1 The Evolution of Media by W. Lambert Gardiner
Memory and Speech
According to Levinson, McLuhan and Gardiner, media evolution can be understood largely as the augmentation of human memory and human speech (and by connotation sight and hearing). Each development in media history is an attempt to better address our desire to remember or communicate.
Developments in Speech
- Books were easily portable, allowing the sharing of ideas in the exact form the author originally recorded them
- The telegraph allowed for a giant leap forward in humankind's ability to overcome space and still communicate instantaneously
Developments in Memory
Developments in Computer Memory
Despite exponential growth of commercially available hard-drive space, many computer users still push the limit of their home computer's storage capability.
The book for example records human thought in a manner so that when read, perfectly recalls the thoughts of the author(s) at the time of recording. The book is also relatively portable, and can be read and re-read by an indefinite number of people. It can also be translated into other languages sentence by sentence, offering a wider audience than any single utterance offered by any one speaker.
In turn, the transition of oral / aural culture into written culture came with trade-offs. As noted in Plato's parabale of Phaedrus, when humans begin to rely on media (in this example, the written word) to serve in place of their memory, they risk losing, by Plato's estimation, "any semblence of actual knowledge." What Plato means is that instead of truly having nowledge, humans begin to rely on knowing where that knowledge can be found.
Whereas Plato offers this insight up as a potentially negative consequence of relying on media for extend our memories and speech, McLuhan believes it only highlights a new emphasis on the cognitive ability to recognize patterns.
Examples of potential trade-offs within digital media
Extensions of the physical self
Once connected to the wall, users were forced to walk over to the phone when it rang. Later, car phones became available to give people a place to make and receive calls outside of the home or office. And now, phones are highly portable, relying only on their distance from Cell Towers. They are being re-shaped to better adapt to the form of the human face, freeing users to use their hands freely when they talk, as they would if they were speaking with someone in the same room.
In the early days of computers, the only way to navigate through the graphic interface was exclusively done by use of the keyboard. That all changed when researcher Douglas Engelbart of the Standard Research Institute invented The Mouse, a pointing device that could be moved by the user's hand on an X/Y axis. The movement of the mouse corresponds with a pointer on the computer screen to help humans easily navigate through the graphical interface, along with buttons tied to functions or commands, as if the user was manipulating the computer with his/her fingers. The Mouse was a breakthrough in combining hand-eye coordination in computer usage for a natural interactive navigational interface. The Mouse has changed over the years, adding more buttons, removing the ball in favor of optics, becoming more ergonomic, and even becoming wireless for added convenience.
For years, when someone took a photograph, the image was captured onto a piece of film. The image laid emblazoned onto the film until it went through a chemical development process to become a negative. After light shined through the negative onto photo paper, the photo paper passed through a development process. Only after that final development, did the image from the camera finally reveal itself in its true form. This time consuming process plays against the human need of the instantaneous reward of the captured image. This all changed when digital photography allowed the implementation of a way to instantly view the captured images on the cameras interface. This was a substantial upgrade in the way people edit as they take photographs, allowing the individual to immediately determine if the captured image was satisfactory and to their liking. This, along with other aspects of the conveniences of digital photography have put a substantial damper in the use of traditional film photography.
Extensions of human cognitive structures
Before Digital Video Recorders, or DVRs were invented, the only way to record a television program was on to a VHS tape or DVD. VHS tapes and DVDs had to be bought, allowed a limited amount of storage, and required large amounts of space keeping them around. The creation of the DVR made it possible for users to record multiple television programs and store them on a single hard drive. People no longer have to buy the recordable media or at the store. DVRs allow users to set many different recording options regarding specific programs or channels, including how often to record the program. Some DVRs can even record programs that it thinks the user may enjoy based on the catalog of recordings the user typically makes. This evolution of the recording of television is a great example of how technology and the media have adapted to our own human design. Many people are too busy to watch the television programs when they originally air, leading to the demand of recording devices. With the use of DVRs, users don't even have to be present to record the program. Engineering automation to make things easier for ourselves is an example of the anthropotropic principles taking place.
The News Ticker
The News Ticker, also referred to as the crawl, is a line of scrolling text on the bottom of a television broadcast. It debuted on the first ever edition of NBC's Today show on January 14, 1952, and was used sparingly over the years by broadcasters to display headlines, stock prices, weather, and other information to viewers. This changed on September 11, 2001 when terrorist attacks on the United States left Americans panicked and desperate for emergency information and any and all updates regarding the attacks. By that afternoon, every major American news network added crawls to their broadcast. The demand for information following the attacks was so intense that news agencies ran as many as 3 crawls on the bottom of the screen displaying updates. Crawls related to the attacks ran on most 24 hour news channels for around three weeks, but all of the news networks absorbed the ticker into their usual format as viewership had increased as a result of the rapid simultaneous dissemination of information.
Through out the history of the Internet, the tool used to communicate have improved multiple times. These evolved applications that let us talk to each other improve constantly. Some of the first tools used to communicate over the internet were programming languages. Since not everyone knew computer code and computers were ready to be released on a wide scale, new communication tools were invented. Email allowed people to have personal accounts and be able to send messages to each other. Chat rooms gave people a place to "meet" on the internet. Soon more applications where created to make communication easier for users. Instant Messaging became popular because it allowed users to talk privately with other individuals over the web. Now with latest applications such as iChat for Apple computers, people can video chat with up to four other people at the same time. This has completely allowed people to be personal and face to face with each other while still communicating over the internet. The evolution of internet communications is a great example of how media has evolved to suit our human nature.
Uncategorized examples of Anthropotropism
Larger computer screens, HD, Wireless components, The Wii, Voice Recognition, Windows OS (vs. DOS), HTML vs WYSIWYG,
Automation of thought
Beyond the attempt to remember more, the anthropotropic principle is seen at play in the efforts to automate human thinking. Levinson refers to the microprocessor as an extenstion, reflection of the human brain's ability to process information. The development of the computer itself can be viewed as a series of attempts to automate human thought, including the pioneering work of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, Alan Turing's Universal Turing Machine and Vanner Bush's Memex Machine.
According to Lev Manovich, "...this automation of thought (computers) then converges with the previous automation of language (media). This convergence requires the digitization of our various extrasomatic tools for transmission of information so that they can "talk" to the computer for the storage of information."
The attempt to automate thought using computer technology binds the concept of anthropotropism closely to that of modality, in that the numerical representation and modular nature of digital media lend themselves to be manipulated mathematically and put to use through algorithms that are designed to mimic human thoughts, actions and behaviors.
If "talkies" replaced silent films, why did television not replace radio in a similar fashion?
If we agree that seeing someone while speaking and hearing with them is more natural than just speaking and hearing, then why haven't videophones replaced the telephone?
If a phonorgraph (record) offers a more accurate replication of sound (as we hear with our ears), why was it replaced by tapes, and then the compact disc and now the mp3?
How do the keyboard and mouse violate the anthropotropic principle? What would alternatives be and why are we not developing them?
Why do we prefer the ability to rewind, fast forward, pause, etc. if those are not "natural" human communication experiences?
How do developments in computer storage in the last ten years work to extend human speech needs as well as memory needs?
What do true broadcast mediums (pre-digital TV and Radio) have in common with oral/aural culture that no other medium, including digital media has?
- The Anthropotropism Category from the What's New Media blog
- Part Of Human Brain Functions Like A Digital Computer, According To CU-Boulder Professor press release from the University of Colorado
- Why New Media Matter from Evolutionarymedia.com
- Jeff Han: Unveiling the genius of multi-touch interface design from the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talks series
- Jeff Hawkins: Brain science is about to fundamentally change computing from the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talks series
- Ray Kurzweil: How technology's accelerating power will transform us from the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talks series
- J. C. R. Licklider's Man-Computer Symbiosis