Mediums

I’m often surprised how much my perception of particular words is different from other people. They say things and proceed as if their meaning was clear to a “reasonable” person. Dave Weinberger’s post on medium and world is a case in point. Dave clarifies his point in a follow-up comment, and his response confirms how differently we think of the word “medium”:

Reductionists take a rich phenomenon and strip it of meaning. Viewing the Web as a medium does that. Thinking of it as a world does not...at least not as badly.

Dave thoughtfully supplies his definition of medium: “A medium is something through which a message travels from A to B. The communication succeeds if the message arrives at B unaltered.” That is the Shannon-Weaver model, but it isn’t the sort of thing that I think of as a medium. The idea of media as the bearer of “signals” hasn’t really gone very far in communication theory. When I think of a medium, the first thing I think of the stuff in Petri-dishes that grows cultures. Not to get all Kripke about it, but the second thing I think about is water. All sorts of stuff can be dissolved in it. Often, when stuff dissolves, it changes chemically as a result of what it is dissolved in. While it can be precipitated out, it is seldom unchanged after experiencing transmittal through a medium. Water, however, can be purified back to its original state. The web remains unchanged regardless of what is dissolved in it; in this sense, I think the metaphor is apt. In our “world,” water is water. In other worlds, this is not necessarily the case. A compound labeled “water” might be composed of nitrogen there.

There is a third sense of “medium” that seems closer to what Weinberger recommends: mediums are people who channel spirit energy to make long-dead spirits appear. All this talk of the web bringing something into being is reminiscent of that. In my mind, the word “medium” isn’t reductive in the slightest. To call it the web a “world” conjures visions of strange denizens swimming a great ocean of being. Is this really apt? Poetic, yes, but accurate—no.

Though it is decidedly unpopular, I really feel that the web is a technology. It is neither a medium in any conventional sense, nor a “world.” It contains media, to be sure—both the mainstream and countercultural currents can be easily found. But they are not what the web is. Messages do not travel across it unchanged; they are constrained by both technical and social limitations. Technologies have several levels of function which often occur simultaneously. To call the web a technology is not to reduce it; actually, it complicates things. Technologies are not static like the normal notion of a medium. They are not holistically constituted like the notion of “worlds.” They exist purely as an interaction with the world, an amplification of it that bridges distance and time. To call the web a technology is not to suggest that it can be reduced to the wires and circuits that form it.

The hazards of leaning too hard on technology to explain human actions is well demonstrated by the failures of art history as suggested by Friedrich von Blowhard:

Another thematic definition of Modern Art might be that of art that responded to the impacts of the reproductive and distributive technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution—photography, the cinema, the phonograph, the high-speed press, mass advertising, etc. This is perhaps the most logical thematic definition in general use, but it makes me scratch my head a bit. I’m not aware of the art of any other period being explained quite so literally by contemporary technological innovation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall much discussion suggesting that medieval art was the obvious result of the revolutionary application of water- and wind-power during the period between 1000 and 1350. Or that Renaissance art was the obvious outcome of the period’s advances in optics, leading to the mass manufacture of eyeglasses in Florence and Venice during the mid-1400s. Generally, such technological explanations are considered, well, rather reductionist (at least when advanced by David Hockney) but appear to be accepted without much demur in the case of Modern Art.
Ultimately, I think the “world” problems Weinberger wants answers to are not so much a problem of figuring out what brave new world we’ve entered, but rather a matter a figuring out how our preexistent world is amplified or attenuated by technology. Technology does change things, but it is not an explanation—especially when social factors are involved. It would be ludicrous to speak of a new “photographic” world, for example, with the proliferation of imaging technology. Images have been around for a bit longer—at least as long as communication has been around. I don’t think that photography is a medium or a world—I think it is a technology—just like writing. Admitting that doesn’t explain much, but at least it avoids consulting any sort of seer into new worlds to divine an answer.

Mediums have a questionable heritage. However, I agree with McLuhan that the medium is the massage. Media are technologies which extend our senses as well as comforting us with conventions we are used to. They do not create worlds—mostly, imagination does that.



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