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.

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