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Some Definitions

Media

In terms of communication, we might consider a medium an environment. Technologies offer new capabilities and at the same time shape our behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes. Television, the technology, allowed us to see into other parts of the world, previously unknown or inaccessible. It also constituted a new way of experiencing the world, through moving images, accompanied by sound, experienced in various disconnected spaces. The technology put itself in the middle of the communicative process, between us and the world. As a result, we began to experience the world in a new way. The new experiences came through various human senses, in a distinct organization. Lots of visual, some sound, highly edited, etc….The environment created by the technology is the medium. The way the technology organizes and presents information to the audience is the medium.

In his famous Playboy interview, Marshall McLuhan says of media:

You’ve got to remember that my definition of media is broad; it includes any technology whatever that creates extensions of the human body and senses, from clothing to the computer. And a vital point I must stress again is that societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media with which men communicate than by the content of the communication. All technology has the property of the Midas touch; whenever a society develops an extension of itself, all other functions of that society tend to be transmuted to accommodate that new form; once any new technology penetrates a society, it saturates every institution of that society. New technology is thus a revolutionizing agent. We see this today with the electric media and we saw it several thousand years ago with the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which was just as far-reaching an innovation — and had just as profound consequences for man.

But there’s got to be more, right? Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics tries to give a quick explanation of all of this:

From Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”

Digital Media

Digital media are forms of communication based on a certain discrete structure. In contrast to analog media, which require a continuous 1:1 reproduction of material, digital media are based on representations of actual phenomena. By replacing the continuous with the discrete we can eliminate data loss that comes in transmission and as the result of noise. You might think of the hands on a watch or clock vs. the electronic numbers that replace them in the digital versions. The movement of the hands is dependent on the moving parts inside the watch, and their ability to stay constant (or continuous). Any slow down in the mechanics creates an imprecise time keeping. Likewise, analog photos, taken with film, are only as good as the translation of light to chemistry. Digital photos retain recorded information at a much higher rate and clarity.

Some folks at Penn State propose this definition of digital media:

Digital media is digitized content that can be transmitted over the internet or computer networks. This can include text, audio, video, and graphics.  This means that news from a TV network, newspaper, magazine, etc. that is presented on a Web site or blog can fall into this category. Most digital media are based on translating analog data into digital data. The Internet began to grow when text was put onto the Internet instead of stored on papers as it was previously. Soon after text was put onto computers images followed, then came audio and video onto the Internet. Digital media has come a long way in the few short years to become as we know it today and it continues to grow.

This definition suits our needs as a class, but it’s important to know what the term implies at a structural level as well.

Culture

Culture is a tricky thing to define, but to put it simply, culture is a collection of beliefs, values, and attitudes. Culture exists in communication, as media scholar James W. Carey notes, and so it is always subject to negotiation and change. His book Communication as Culture is a foundational reading for anyone interested in pursuing study in communication and media. (Chapter One is something you should read for this class.) Carey quotes John Dewey to make this point clear:

There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they must have in common . . . are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge a common understanding– likemindedness as sociologists say. Such things cannot be passed physically from one to another like bricks; they cannot be shared as persons would share a pie by dividing it into physical pieces …. Consensus demands communication.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined culture in saying:

…culture is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life.” In an alternative (and more quoted) formulation, Geertz states, “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative in search of meaning.”

Geertz, following Wittgenstein’s stance on language, believes that culture is not something that occurs in the heads of humans; “Culture is public, because meaning is.” Cognition is largely the same throughout humanity, while the symbols that people use to communicate are different. Symbols are not to be studied to gain access to mental processes, but as formations of social phenomena. It is the anthropologist’s job to unravel the webs of meaning and interpret them.

Culture is also not a force or causal agent in the world, but a context in which people live out their lives. This goes back to Geertz’s early distinction between social structure and culture. Culture is only the pattern of meanings embedded in symbols. Social structure is the “economic, political, and social relations among individuals and groups.” Geertz does not dismiss the study of social structure, but takes culture to be his object of study.

You may find a lot of information on culture, but we’ll use these as starting points for our work in class.

Cybernetics

Since it would be silly to reproduce something done so well by someone else, this is required reading in this class (including the links he provides). A few key points:

“Cybernetics” comes from a Greek word meaning “the art of steering”.

The term itself began its rise to popularity in 1947 when Norbert Wiener used it to name a discipline apart from, but touching upon, such established disciplines as electrical engineering, mathematics, biology, neurophysiology, anthropology, and psychology. Wiener, Arturo Rosenblueth, and Julian Bigelow needed a name for their new discipline, and they adapted a Greek word meaning “the art of steering” to evoke the rich interaction of goals, predictions, actions, feedback, and response in systems of all kinds (the term “governor” derives from the same root) [Wiener 1948]. Early applications in the control of physical systems (aiming artillery, designing electrical circuits, and maneuvering simple robots) clarified the fundamental roles of these concepts in engineering; but the relevance to social systems and the softer sciences was also clear from the start. Many researchers from the 1940s through 1960 worked solidly within the tradition of cybernetics without necessarily using the term, some likely (R. Buckminster Fuller) but many less obviously (Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead).

Winograd and Flores credit the influence of Humberto Maturana, a biologist who recasts the concepts of “language” and “living system” with a cybernetic eye [Maturana & Varela 1988], in shifting their opinions away from the AI perspective. They quote Maturana: “Learning is not a process of accumulation of representations of the environment; it is a continuous process of transformation of behavior through continuous change in the capacity of the nervous system to synthesize it. Recall does not depend on the indefinite retention of a structural invariant that represents an entity (an idea, image or symbol), but on the functional ability of the system to create, when certain recurrent demands are given, a behavior that satisfies the recurrent demands or that the observer would class as a reenacting of a previous one.” [Maturana 1980]

Here’s a video that may or may not help you:

The important thing to understand is that cybernetics is a basis for our understanding of complex systems and the way that communicative processes and feedback make things what they are, from metal machines to cognitive machines to human made systems of law, economics, and so on. It one way to understand these things. The term cyberspace has been tossed around quite a bit, as has the cyborg. Quite often these terms are used without much thought about the actual science that goes into the concept. The ideas about technology and media that I presented above, attributed to McLuhan (among others), are rooted in cybernetics. The idea, for instance, that the process of driving a car involves the merging of human and technology…the meeting of the minds, so to speak…is a cybernetic idea. The organization of resources to achieve a goal is part of the cybernetic philosophy. There is feedback within the metal machine, as well as within the cognitive machine, and then in the merging of the two once again.

Cyberculture

In order to boil this down to something useful for our course, we have to simplify the range of things we’ll be considering. Digital media, as “digitized content that can be transmitted over the internet or computer networks,” including text, audio, video, and graphics, operate according to the principle that humans interacting with computers and other digital devices do so according to a specific organization. The things we believe and value, and the attitudes we take, are shaped by this interaction. While me might take this point of view about any technology, as I mentioned earlier, this course focuses specifically on what we’re calling digital media and the environments in which our culture (beliefs, values, and attitudes) is negotiated, maintained, and transformed.

So…now that you’ve got all of that, sort of…maybe…you might make better sense of this from Neil Postman:

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About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University

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  1. Pingback: Sockpuppets and Catfish | Digital Media & Cyberculture - June 3, 2013

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