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September 11, 2011

With a little twist of Heidegger

I’m giving a talk in Berlin in a week. My hosts want me to talk about the evolution of media, but suggested that I might want to weave some Heidegger in, which is not a request you often get. It’s a brief talk, but what I’ve written talks about four pairs, all based on Shannon’s original drawing of signal moving through a channel. 1. The medium and bits as idealized abstractions. 2. The medium and messages: How McLuhan reacts against information theory’s idea of a medium, and the sense in which on the Internet we are the medium. 3. Medium and communication: Why we think of communication as something that occurs through a medium, rather than as a way in which we share the world. 4. Medium and noise: Why the world appears, in its most brutal facticity, in Shannon’s diagram as noise, and how the richness of the Web (which consists of connections intentionally made) is in fact signal that taken together can be noise. (I know I am not using these terms rigorously.)

At the end, I’ll summarize the four contrasts:

Bits without character vs. A world that always shows itself as something

The medium as a vacuum vs. We are the medium that moves messages because we care about them

Communication as the reproduction of a representation in the listener’s head vs. Turning to a shared world together

World as noise vs. Links as a context of connection

Not by coincidence, each of these is a major Heideggerian theme: Being-as or meaning, care, truth. and world.

And if it’s not obvious, I do not think that Heidegger’s writings on technology have anything much to do with the Internet. He was criticizing the technology of the 1950s that scared him: mainframes and broadcast. He probably would have hated the Net also, but he was a snobby little fascist prick.

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February 22, 2011

[2b2k] Has the Internet killed our theory of medias effect on ideas and culture?

Heres a paragraph from the draft of the book Ive been working on. Its a draft, so contents are subject to settling during shipping.

…as revolution spread from Tunisia to Egypt at the start of 2011, a controversy arose about how much credit social media such as Facebook and Twitter ought to get. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point, had written a New Yorker article in October 2010 arguing that social media are over-rated as tools of social change because they only enable “weak ties” among people, instead of the “strong ties” activists need in order to put themselves at risk. When some media and bloggers credited social media in the Mideast revolutions of 2011, Gladwell posted a two hundred word essay asserting that the influence of social media was “the least interesting fact.” Gladwells comments were a corrective to those who carelessly referred to the events as “Facebook revolutions” or “Twitter revolutions” as if they were the sole cause, but he also disputed those who thought social media played a significant role at all. Given Gladwells standing, and the fact that The Tipping Point is about the importance of social networks, his position surprised many. But, my point is not that Gladwell is mistaken although I think he is. Its that even if we do accept that social media played a role of some significance, its not at all clear what role they played. The more one looks at the question, the clearer it becomes that we dont even have an agreed-upon explanatory framework within which the question might be resolved. And this is true not only of questions touching the Internet. For example, a couple of months after the New Yorker ran the original Gladwell piece, it published an article by Louis Menand that wondered how to gauge the social and political effects of books such as Betty Friedans 1963 The Feminine Mystique. We look at social media at work in civil unrest and we wonder how much the media shape us? How does it happen? Does media influence have the same effects on all cultures? On all strata of society? How much of social unrest in general and in particular countries comes about as the result of having access to information? How much is the result of communication? Of sociality? If there were no social media, would the revolutions have happened, and, if so, how might they have been different?

As the Menand piece makes clear in its discussion of the effect of The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring, and Unsafe at Any Speed, we used to think we knew at least part of how media influence ideas and policy. You write an important book, you go on Dick Cavett and Firing Line, and it changes minds and brings about changes. How? Well, um, it altered “the way we think about things” or some such phrase. We had a lot invested in the power of books.

Now, that theory seems not just hopelessly over-simplified, but wrong. I dont know if thats because single cultural items no longer have the impact that they once did, or if they never did but now we can see how influence actually spreads by following links and through up-and-coming tools such as the Berkman Centers MediaCloud. Or both. Or neither.

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January 31, 2011

We are the medium

I know many others have made this point, but I think it’s worth saying again: We are the medium.

I don’t mean this in the sense that we are the new news media, as when Dan Gillmor talks about “We the Media.” I cherish Dan’s work (read his latest: Mediactive), but I mean “We are the medium” more in McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” sense.

McLuhan was reacting against information science’s view of a medium as that through which a signal (or message) passes.

shannon's communication diagram

Information science purposefully abstracted itself from every and any particular medium, aiming at theories that held whether you were talking about tin can telephones or an inter-planetary Web. McLuhan’s pushback was: But the particularities of a medium do count. They affect the message. In fact, the medium is the message!

I mean by “We are the medium” something I think we all understand, although the old way of thinking keeps intruding. “We are the medium” means that, quite literally, we are the ones through whom information, messages, news, ideas, videos, and links of every sort move — and they move through this “channel” because we decide to move them. Someone sends me a link to a funny video. I tweet about it. You see it. You send a Facebook message to your friends. One of them (presumably an ancient) emails it to more friends. The video moves through us. Without us, the transport medium —” the Internet — is a hyperlinked collection of inert bits. We are the medium.

Which makes McLuhan’s aphorism more true than ever. In tweeting about the video, I am also tweeting about myself: “This is the sort of thing I find funny. Don’t I have a great sense of humor? And I was clever enough to find it. And I care enough about you— and about my reputation — to send it out to you.” That’s 51 characters over the the Twitter limit, but it’s clearly embedded in my tweet.

Although there are a thousand ways “We are the medium” is wrong, I think what’s right about it matters:

  • Because we are the medium, one-way announcements, such as a tweet to thousands of followers, still has a conversational element. We may not be able to tweet back and expect an answer, but we we can pass it around, which is a conversational act.

  • Because we are the medium, news is no longer mere information. In forwarding the item about the Egyptian protestor or about the Navy dealing well with a gay widower, I am also saying something about myself. That’s why we are those that formerly were known as the audience: not just because we can engage in acts of journalism without a newspaper behind us, but because in becoming the medium through which news travels, some of us travels with every retweet.

  • Because we are the medium, fame on the Net is not simply being known by many because your image was transmitted many times. Rather, if you’re famous on the Internet, it’s because we put ourselves on the line by forwarding your image, your video, your idea, your remix. We are the medium that made you famous.

It is easy to slip back into the old paradigm in which there is a human sender, a message, a medium through which it travels, and a human recipient. It’s easy because that’s an accurate abstraction that is sometimes useful. It’s easy because the Internet is also used for traditional communication. But what is distinctive and revolutionary about the Internet is the failure of the old diagram to capture what so often is essential: We are not users of the medium, and we are not outside of the medium listening to its messages. Rather, we are the medium.

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December 27, 2008

Informationalized conversation

In his important 1996 book, Using Language, Herbert H. Clark opens Chapter 7 by analyzing two lines of conversation between ” a British academic” and “a prospective student”:

When Arthur says “u:h what modern poets have you been reading -” he doesn’t want Beth merely to understand what he means — that he wants to know what modern poets she has been reading. He wants her to take up his question, to answer it, to tell him what modern poets she has been reading. She could refuse even though she has understood. To mean something, you don’t have to achieve uptake, and to understand something, you don’t have to take it up. Still, Beth’s uptake is needed if she and Arthur are to achieve what Arthur has publicly set out for them to do at this point in their interview. p. 191

My first response, and probably yours, is: Well, duh But that’s the point. The fact that Clark has to explicitly state that we ask questions usually in order to get a response is evidence of just how deeply we’ve adopted the information-based paradigm that says that communication consists of the transfer of messages from one head to another. Language is a social tool used by embodied creatures to accomplish complex and emergent projects in a shared world. The transfer of messages is the least of it.

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