Monday, April 16, 2007

Is the Internet Medium the Message?

In a recent post on Spotlight blogging the field of Digital Media and Learning, Howard Gardner asks "Is the Medium the Message" in the digital age and then responds:

I have no doubt that, over time, the new digital media (NDM) will change our minds—both their contents and their manner of processing information. But the most profound media effects occur slowly. Plato was afraid that writing would change thinking and memory, and he was right about that—but it took decades, perhaps centuries, for the ways that we write to alter the way that we speak, categorize, remember, or distort. So, too, the changes that were wrought by the printing press, the telegraph, and the broadcast media were substantial, but not immediately manifest or understood.

Though he is much criticized nowadays, Marshall McLuhan had genuine insights here. McLuhan argued that new media invariably begin by presenting the contents of the old media: radio and movies first presented the theatrical stage, television initially was visually-presented radio, and so on. This characterization is even true of the NDM, whose initial games, webcasts, search engines, and social networks draw heavily on prototypes developed in a predigital age. It takes time to arrive at the forms of presentation that take advantage of the distinctive features of each new medium.

On the other hand, another of McLuhan’s aphorisms may prove timebound. McLuhan famously contended “The medium is the message.” The classic example here is the 1960 television debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Those who heard the debates on radio thought that the authoritative-sounding Vice President had won on points; those who watched the debates on television felt more in synch with the young Senator from Massachusetts. But increasingly, the print, broadcast, and other communication media are merging; in the future, users may pay no attention to the source of, or the means employed by, converging media.

I think Dr. Gardner spot on with regard to the biases of current media and the impact they are having on our society. In our analysis of culture, we Media Ecologists consider the biases regarding time and space of a medium and what attitudes, beliefs and institutions those biases encourage. Harold Innis would have noted whether a medium has permanence and therefore enables communication over time, or is portable and therefore encourages communication over space. This frame of reference has been amended by Walter J. Ong who noted that the salient feature of any human culture is whether it is completely or primarily oral and shapes it cultural institutions around the oral/aural transmission of information or is literate, possessing a means of writing down and transmitting information through sight.

Marshall McLuhan would have added that any technology can be investigated in a four-fold manner. What does it enhance? What does it obsolesce? What does it retrieve that had been lost? What does it reverse into when pushed to an extreme?

The older media have a spatial bias. They can influence mass audiences over great distances, but until recently, were ephemeral. Access to recordings of old programming or even films was not universally available. In primary orality, human memory and speech were the means by which information was stored and transmitted. In the manuscript and print era, writing allowed a disconnect between the source of the message and the recipient. Until recently, any film, TV or radio program was here today and gone tomorrow, thereby mimicking the operation of primary orality cultures. Our transmission of the content of those media remained largely oral, with some commentary in writing.

With regard to the Internet and the accompanying digital media (cell phones, cheap digital recorders and editors, etc.) it seems to me that the medium of the Internet encourages and augments the transition begun with film, radio and television to a culture of secondary orality. The new digital media remove the spatial bias of the older media by allowing the recording and replay of anything anywhere. The Internet allows for the immediate retrieval and replay of almost everything and adds external memory to our secondary orality media. This is the true transformation of our culture that we are witnessing. For example, before YouTube, the recent Imus imbroglio would have been inconceivable. His comments would have faded away immediately after they were delivered. The new media preserves moments like these (Imus’ racial slur, George Allen’s “macaca” remark, etc.) for continuous review.

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