The Digital Environment: Taking the Long View

1.Mediums and Content Interact with Mutual Effects

We begin with three major questions: First, "what do we mean by "a medium"? Second, "do mediums really matter"? Third, "what are the relationships among mediums and messages"?

First, mediums are the technologies (for production, transmission & reception) and the socio-cultural uses to which they are put.

  • A medium is not just the channel and delivery system, the means of production, the content, and the people who transmit programming.
  • A medium combines these factors with the socio-political system in which the medium operates and the uses to which audience members/receivers put the medium.
  • So a given medium, say online communication, is very different in differing cultural settings, for example, in America and/or in Africa, where the technological infrastructures, the socio-political systems, and the uses to which online communication are put vary widely.

Second, the influences of mediums and social forces can be visualized along a continuum:

Media Determinism-----Social Shaping-----Social Determinism

  • From the media deterministic view, dominant media (such as television in America), influence and change everything.
  • From the social deterministic view, media are a mirror reflection of the people who use the media. The uses for the media determines what it becomes (market forces).
  • In the middle, there is a view that sees a mutual interaction between the media and its users.

Third, there are at least three (famous) ways of talking about the relationships between the medium and the message.

a. The Medium is the Message (McLuhan): The technological infrastructure (and its potentials) are the most important features. The technological environment (what one can and can't do and how it works) is the key "meaning" that gets communicated . Media content is not very important, in fact, it is not much more than a distraction from that which really matters. Mediums work on the senses and actually change the sense ratios by "extending" some and "limiting" others.

b. Mediums Shape the Message (Postman): Mediums transform content. Since each medium has "preferences," messages must be shaped in particular ways to be effective and not every message is translatable across mediums. Contemporary mass media (especially television) tend to trivialize content: "Success" in the current age is found in advertising rates and audience ratings. Therefore, contemporary dominant mediums in America rely on entertainment as the American audience far prefers it to serious (difficult) content. Steven Johnson adopts this view (though NOT Postman's generally negative take on commercial media) when he argues that "the Sleeper Curve" shows that mass media (including entertainment--games and the like) are growing more (not less) demanding and sophisticated and that our brains happily gravitate toward that newfound complexity.

Postman's 5 questions to ask about technological changes:

And so, these are my five ideas about technological change. First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.

c. The Medium Embodies the Message (Negroponte): Mediums give life, form, substance to messages. Messages are made of/by mediums. Opposing medium with message is an error as, in the new digital media, both medium and message are constituted by the same things: Codes, networks, production and reception technologies.

With regard to this innovation . . . what do each of our three perspectives say about relationships among the "medium" and "message"?

According to early MIT computer scientist (the inventor of ELIZA, the first working IA language program), Joseph Weizenbaum, (in Carr's"the Shallows)
[An intellectual technology . . . ] "becomes an indispensable component of any structure once it is so thoroughly integrated with the structure, so enmeshed in various vital substructures, that it can no longer be factored out without fatally imparing the whole structure". . . . The computer was not a prerequisite to the survival of modern society in the post-war period and beyond . . . it's enthusastic, uncritical embrace by the most 'progressive' elements of American government, business, and industry made it a resource essential to society's survival in the form that the computer itself had been instrumental in shaping . . . the introduction of computers into some complex human activities may constitute an irreversible commitment." (Carr, page 207)

Many of Weizenbaum's fellow computer scientists decried his computational analog to media determinism.

Epic 2015 [a fictional look at how things might turn out]

For concept application:

The Internet: A Series Of 'Tubes' (And Then Some)


The Allure of the Print Book


"Software is the Message"

Read more about it:
Software takes Command (Lev Manovich's book, open source--free)
Media Effects Research Lab at Penn. St.
Tom Wolfe introduces McLuhan's approach
Jim Andrews on McLuhan
Postman: Neil Postman - Technology and Society (1998) (at Calvin College)
Negroponte on technology and design
Marshall McLuhan (esp. Understanding Media)
Neal Postman (Amusing ourselves to death)
Nicholas Negroponte (Being Digital)
Steven Johnson (Everything bad is good for you)