Mad About Media

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The question is "what do I refer to when I talk about a medium and media in general?" The short answer is: "in all ways, because limits are - well - limiting." This view of mine reflects the fact that I have personal history in most disciplines that inquire into the nature of media, and interest in the others, and that my current academic explorations draw on all of them, and that I really need to see everything that carries or stores a thought or action to be understood as a medium so there are no arbitrary boundaries in my investigations.

Mind of Matter

Here are some of the things I think about when I contemplate the concept of media:

The human brain is the actual thing that manifests mind. (There are arguments about whether that manifestation includes something called a "soul", but I won't go there.) Mind is what we are, literally. Now, if you are not physically challenged and have never spent time with a person who has a significant physical challenge, imagine mind without a significant body part that most able-bodied people take for granted. Disable any of the eyes, or ears, or hands, or speech, or sense of smell, or feet. How do people live without these extensions, these media that so many take for granted?

Of course, we don't doubt that people missing some physical faculty still have minds and that they're eminently human. The brain has this incredible plasticity that we have come to appreciate only recently, yet the evidence has been before us since we thought about such things.

Here's an experiment that someone performed for sightless people. They made an array of little pins sticking through a board so that the pins could move in and out, then drove the movement of pins with a video input. Images of scenes were represented in the height of the pins, the brighter the image point, the further the pin stuck out. They strapped the board matrix to the back of a sightless person, put the camera on his head, and he could "see" through the patterns of pressure points on his back. He even started doing things like spontaneously ducking if an object appeared to be rushing towards him. He was blind from birth. The skin of his back, a matrix of pins, and a camera became a prosthetic eye.

So, what does this suggest about the brain and the mind? I believe (as does a well-recognized cognitive scientist named Andy Clark) that it suggests that the media we are born with - our hands, our voices, our ears, etc. - are only our first and most promising opportunities for interaction with the world, but there can be substitutes at any level, any time. Our brain is capable of adapting to and adopting prostheses or extensions with incredible flexibility and our minds don't mind it at all.

The fabulous pencil

Now think about another kind of prosthetic device, one that extends our minds considerably and our bodies only slightly. Think of a pencil. With this miraculous device, we can make marks that we use to enhance our ability to remember and understand all kinds of things. Numbers, words, facts, ideas. Its scope is limited only by one's ability to make and organize meaningful marks, and to encode and decode information in the marks.

Besides recording words, I draw diagrams of things I want to build so I can hold a particular vision, working with and developing details as they come to mind once I've removed the need to remember all the early details I think of. Because I can erase the pencil marks, I can change my diagrams beyond simply adding to them. I render representations of both physical objects and information and its structure.

A pencil is a valuable cognitive extension that I use every day in many ways. And not only for me, but I can put my thoughts and ideas into other people's minds by showing them the marks I make - assuming, of course, that they can decode the marks. There's no question that combining various add-on technologies I have available - bound books and erasers - extends the usefulness of my pencil, not just making my life easier, but enhancing my intellectual capabilities meaningfully.

The fabulous electronic pencil

Have a look at this fun video by Michael Wesch. While it seems to say that pencils aren't so great, I've put this video here to provide a little perspective on the prospect of electronic media given how powerful a simple pencil really is. I hope, with these examples - the board of pins, a pencil, and Wesch's most excellent video - I've conveyed some sense of the importance of studying media and talking about them in all their manifestations.

The corollary of our wandering lion-like in this wilderness of media, is that our symbol-manipulating minds can extend themselves without a physical appurtenance but with only an idea or information. Think about how fear can upend any creature. Then think about thinking about new ways of thinking. How we hoist new information structures with language - both natural language, like the ones we speak, and the special ones we invent, such as mathematics. What if we deliberately create physical media that enhance the effect of purely symbolic media using tools that are purely symbolic themselves and self-referential. Hence my fascination with media and with that most powerful medium, social tool and intellectual prosthetic, software.


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