Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Disguising The Medium

In New Media: A Critical Introduction, Lister et al. (ch. 2.7.1, 2009) quote Bolter and Grusin, who stated that "if the medium really disappeared, as is the apparent goal of the logic of transparency, the viewer would not be amazed because she would not know of the medium's presence" (1999). After growing up on science fiction movies, the present seems far less consumed by technology than I would have anticipated, and I believe that this "transparency" of the medium is why. While the actuality of technology is definitely different than what science fiction writers anticipated, as in no flying cars or armies of human clones, it has actually far extended some writers' visions in terms of what we are able to do with computers. Today we have the ability to relay digital content from across the globe in seconds from something that is able to fit into our pockets. Technology is a huge part of our lives, so why does it feel so natural? It seems that one of the ways that we have made technology fit into our lives is by disguising it as other things, thus making the medium "disappear."

Science fiction draws attention to the technology. The writers' goal is to make sure that the viewer is amazed by it. They celebrate the steel buildings, and purposely make them look like nothing we have ever seen before. The computers that they envisioned for 2019 in Blade Runner (1982) look like computers from the time the movie was made, which are closer to gigantic calculators, clearly mechanical and largely unfamiliar. The writers probably did not think to disguise the computer, and probably would not have wanted to. They embraced the technology and made no effort to hide it. This is the general case, and the result is that few sci-fi depictions of the future look very natural or comfortable, but we are amazed by the technology.

What might make our world feel so much less consumed by technology than in science fiction, despite the impact that technology has on our lives, is our tendency to divert our attention from it. One way that we do this is by balancing out the inorganic with the organic. As I write this, I sit at my laptop, and stare out at the grazing buffalo in Yellowstone National Park -- as my desktop background, of course. I suppose I could instead have picked a background of circuitry, to remind myself of the masterful machine I am using, but the green rolling hills instead remind me of a window to the natural world. This disguises the medium, creating, in fact, a sort of virtual natural environment, with the result of making me less aware of the technology I am using and creating the illusion that technology is less a factor in my life than it really is.

Balancing out the inorganic with the organic is just one way that we try to disguise technology and make it easier for us to adapt to. In general, we seem to migrate between technologies and media by making them simulate environments we are already familiar with. Instead of us adapting to "computing environments" we make the computers adapt to ours. Not only does this make us more comfortable, but it also seems to aid in accessibility and decrease the device's learning curve. So, instead of having a computer that acts like something that processes words and numbers, zeros and ones, I have a computer that simulates a desktop, making it not actually look like a computer and thus making the medium itself less apparent. Of course, as we get used to computers they will start to develop more and more of their own conventions that are unlike anything else, but it was this disguising of the medium that made most people comfortable with using them in the first place.

Of course, the other side of this coin is the obvious effort to emphasis the "new" in every new medium and new technology, however in many ways it is the "new" itself that is doing the hiding of the medium. The end result is actually a seamless integration with the medium and the content. In another quote, while discussing the excitement that surrounds the prospects of new gadgets and technology, Brian Lam states in the Gizmodo article "Shine On, You Crazy Gadgets" that "the best tech, as it approaches a zenith of purpose and polish, becomes invisible. It gets out of the way of the user, and becomes just a portal to...stuff"(2010). How true this is! While I am talking on facebook, I do not sit and think "Wow! Today I am able to sit down and, through the magic of the world wide web, communicate with my friend across the world in real time." Instead, I just sit down, and talk to my friend. After a short time the novelty wears off and it feels completely normal.

Lam finishes off his article by making the very important point, that "It's not shiny things that captivate me anymore; it's what they shine"(2010). So, while the novelty of the medium might wear off, what the medium convey will be the ultimate message. The opening quote of this post was taken from a discussion on CG. In most CG heavy movies, I am in awe of the fact that we have the technology to create these effects, however once this awe wears off there still remains the thrill of being able to experience the content that I would not have been able to without CG (the medium), and as far as I am concerned this is pretty amazing on its own in many cases. So, all in all, I guess McLuhan lost out in this round.

Lister, et al. New Media: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Lam. "Shine On, You Crazy Gadget." Gizmodo. Jan 1, 2010. Web. March 17, 2010.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Technological Determinism: McLuhan and Williams: Do We Control the Media or Does the Media Control Us?

The end of first part of the New Media: A Critical Introduction is spent examining the philosophies of two of the most influential philosophers of new media: Raymond Williams and Marshall McLuhan (ch 1.6 - 1.6.6). Both men have impacted the philosophy and studies of new media and are deemed relevant, however their differing philosophies have created somewhat conflicting ways of looking at new media. Essentially, McLuahn writes about the impact that media has on us, while Williams says that since we determine how we use the media we are the ones who decide the media's effect (Lister et al. 1.6.1). So, which way of the two men is correct?

In general, I can understand Williams' frustration with McLuahn's way of thinking. While reading about Baudrillard, and post-modernist perspectives of new media (Lister et al., ch 1.2.6) stemming from McLuhan's philosophies (Lister et al. 1.6.4), I also felt like media and technology were taken out of the context of our intended uses for them, which seems to, in reality, be a largely limiting factor. This might be a little bit more obvious to me after having witnessed a future that hardly resembles that which science fiction writers of the past had predicted. In general, social factors have gotten in the way of allowing media and technology to consume our lives to the extent that it might have been predicted earlier, and it seems fair to say that our society has influenced technology at least as much as technology has influenced society in response. While for me it was apparent that we, ourselves, are controlling what type of an impact technology has on our lives, Williams, more accurately and importantly, notes that existing power structures limit how technologies impact our lives whether most people want them to or not (as is the case with the medium of writing and illiteracy discussed by Lister et al. in case study 1.9).

I do think, however, that the theories spawned from McLuhan's perspective on the power of media and technological determination are very important as well. I state "the theories spawned from," because from the reading it seemed that followers of McLuhan, such as Baudrillard (Lister et al. 1.6.4), were stronger proponents of technological determinism than he might even have been. Anyhow, if we did not decide to use media the way we do, there would be no reason for McLuhan to even be writing about it, so it seems that he is already one step head of Williams in a sense. So, assuming that we decide to, and the existing power structures enable us to use the medium, how does us using the medium in turn effect us?

While it seems to me that the vast majority of the effect of these new media are due to the content, this puts the discussion back in the realm of Williams, in that it seems easier for us to be in control of the content than the effects of the medium as a whole, and as McLuhan makes clear, he is focused on the media itself as the message (Lister et al., 1.6.2) which is a much better grounds for making a point of technological determinism.

What strikes me as part of the problem with Williams is that he seems to assume people as all knowing, which in turn means that by allowing the medium into our lives we ourselves have invited its effects. However people are not all knowing and we can not necessarily predict the full spectrum of the effect that using a new medium will have on us. We are not always capable of determining exactly what the impact of a new medium is going to be, and thus we are not completely in control of it. For example, while we might have wanted TV to be a part of our lives initially since we thought of it as a great thing for its ability to engage our visual and auditory senses as McLuhan did (Lister et al., 1.6.2), we might not have perceived the more subtle effects of the medium that we did not intend to expose ourselves to.

In addition, there is also the question of addiction and temptation. While the medium is to blame for this as much as chocolate is for being too tasty, there remains the fact that if this medium was never introduced people might have had more rational control over their lives. I do believe, that to an extent, we do not watch TV, but TV makes us watch it. What seems to click and feel good about a medium is sometimes beyond our logical intention for it, and I would argue to an extent that if there is something inherent in a medium that directs how we use it, that thing would be its capacity for giving us the most pleasure and sense of power. While what gives us pleasure and a sense of power are partially social constructs, they are also in a large part biological constructs, and in that sense are more set in stone by our genetics, getting us into the question of an even larger determinism. Ultimately I would say that when a new medium is able to find the key to making us feel these things, its use starts to slip out of our logical control.

In general, however, the most obvious answer the question of "whether or not a media technology has the power to transform a culture (Lister et al. ch 1.6) " might be found when we just think of a new media in terms of enabling. While we might have wanted to communicate something, it simply is not possible without a medium capable of it. So, yes, the medium itself is a crucial step in transforming the culture, and thus the medium itself seems to have the power to create change. The response to this seems to be: "but an object is inanimate, it is not doing it, we are doing it with it," so then I guess it is possible to answer Lister et al.'s question in ch 1.6 only if we change the wording a bit. What we want to and are now able to accomplish through new media has the power to change a culture. This empowers us and dictates our responsibility while also stating the importance and the potential for change that having a new media creates.

Lister, et al. New Media: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.