Technology in its current context conjures up notions of bits and bytes, virtual real estate, built upon by a few fluent in the language of ones and zeros. We don’t have to understand how it works, merely that it does. The button and the touch-screen have become our gateway to the intelligence of others, who code the added-functionality that has become increasingly necessary in our daily lives.
This added-functionality is the by-product of evolution, a function of the insight and creativity that allows us to analyse our own short-comings and devise better ways to navigate the world outside of ourselves, fuelling discoveries and inventions as diverse as that world – from fire, to the spoon to the iPad. But we are no longer navigating just one, real world, we have created for ourselves another virtual one.
Virtual: meaning almost or nearly as described, but not completely. So, we engage with a real world and a nearly-real world. It could be argued that there is no such thing as nearly-real, it either is or it isn’t, and yet this nearly-world exists – and that is just the beginning of the paradox we have created for ourselves.
We create technology that affects the way we interact with the world, whether it is a lever or the internet. Changing our relationship with the world changes us – how we think, what we think, the time we have to think, how we see and hear, and what we see and hear. We no longer just create tools to master, but virtual environments to inhabit and explore – why? What spurs this incessant need to improve our relationship with the worlds around us?
I believe at the heart of the matter lies a design-flaw in ourselves. The virtual world of our creation is not the only nearly-world we navigate. Each of us has an interior world of thoughts, ideas, hopes, fears, dreams, whimsy; things we can’t or won’t articulate. But we’re a black-box design; there is no way to experience the thoughts of another (an odd oversight in the evolution of a social animal).
A project, initiated by James Bridle, entitled ‘The New Aesthetic’, investigates and explores our relationship with the real and the virtual, or ‘technologically-enabled novelty in the world’. ‘Waving at the Machines’ a presentation delivered by James Bridle, covering some of the themes of ‘The New Aesthetic’. Also available at http://booktwo.org/notebook/waving-at-machines/
Locke described the thoughts of others as invisible (1968, pp. 404–405), while some philosophers query the very existence of ‘other minds’. This essay accepts that existence and addresses the issues inherent in transmitting and receiving the contents of other minds.
We have adapted to our inefficient interface by developing means to communicate. Barnlund (1962) defines communication as the process of creating a meaning. There is a fundamental dichotomy in that simple statement. He exerts that…
I agree that communication depends on the completion of a circuit, both a transmitter and receiver are required. I would argue though that this process takes place, not between entities without and within, but is the consociation of two interior worlds that share a language, requiring the message to pass through the exterior world to reach its destination. Berlo (1960, pp. 175) writes,
I would add that where there is a shared language (be it verbal, written or artistic), the message creator may hold a reasonable expectation that meaning will be generated by the message receiver, or as Sartre (1988, pp. 53) put it,
In other words, meaning is not an end-product. Meaning exists at the beginning and the end of the communication process, but it is necessary to encode that meaning to transmit it between two interior worlds or minds. We encode our thoughts in words, visuals, music and actions and decode the contents of others’ minds by deciphering the product of these encodings. This process of encoding and decoding, cypher and decipher is the conduit through which all knowledge, science, art, and emotion pass.
Valuing the contents of our interior world, to the extent that we develop language, music and art to share them, is integral to our evolution and a defining characteristic of our species. As Karl Britton (1939, pp. 206) put it,
McLuhan (1964) asserted that ‘the medium is the message’. Medium has many definitions: a means by which something is communicated or expressed; a liquid with which pigments are mixed with a binder to make paint; a particular form of storage material for computer files, such as magnetic tape or discs; or the material or form used by an artist, composer, or writer.
The latter definition describes the media discussed in this essay most accurately. However, the definition that best conveys the impact of the medium on the message is one usually associated with séances – that of an intermediary, a link between people in different (internal) worlds.
Medium is to communication what tone of voice is to speech. It is both the vehicle and the cargo, sharing the journey with a passenger – encoded meaning. Meaning is delicate and absolute. Insights, thoughts, emotions or theories possess a clarity as the mind grasps or creates them, and their meaning is comprehended. But this meaning is transmutable. Having no mass of its own, it takes the form of the medium used to transmit it, and as such, is subject to its vagaries and constancies. Meaning can be lost or found in a particular medium, emphasised or muted.
Considered choice of medium is the difference between communication (transmit + receive) and the presentation of information (transmit).
<< transmit >>
What do you know?
How sad am I?
Am I disappointed or devastated?
Have I been feeling this way for a while, or is it a fleeting thing?
<< communicate >>
Listen to the file linked below, and answer the questions again.
It is my contention that Irish medieval scribes understood the symbiotic relationship between medium and message, harnessing its nuances to deliver their message. This sensitivity to form and function, along with a visual literacy and language, identifies them as graphic designers – they were visual communicators.
Irish medieval scribes applied themselves to maximising the efficiencies of the medium (the written word), knowing the impact this would have on their message. Analysing the implications of the content of their message (Christianity) is beyond the remit of this essay. My interest lies in the medium itself, its nature, and the scribes’ relationship with it, not the encodings it delivers.
Encoded meaning is subject to many simultaneous and circuitous decodings – meaning to concepts to words to concepts to meaning, marks to glyphs to characters to words to meaning, parable to story to lesson to meaning. Add to this the meaning imbued by the medium itself – status, value, legitimacy, possessivity and permanence. The experience of decoding offers yet another layer of meaning – the aesthetics, smell, sound, texture, heft, fragility and responsively of the medium as it is interacted with, or what Davis (1996) refers to as ‘conceptual aura’.
There are many decoding processes that must be engaged with before fully comprehensible meaning can be attained. I believe the innovations of Irish medieval scribes are attempts to simplify some of that code, which would in turn make the meaning of their message less obscure, thus they were solving a communication problem. It is the reason that generations of scribes developed the word space and the lower-case alphabet over the course of centuries. Efficiencies that improved the medium’s ability to be a medium (intermediary), so much so that we employ them still, over a thousand years later.
Inherent in this acceptance of the impact of medium on message is the implication that a change to that medium similarly impacts the message. Just as Gutenberg changed forever the context of communication and the medium of the written word, similarly digitisation affects our interaction with the written word, and therefore the way in which we generate meaning from the encodings it delivers.
There are benefits and limitations inherent in both print and pixel as media. These myriad distinctions can be traced to the origin of their difference – one inhabits a real world, the other a virtual one. This intrinsic divergence leads to both media developing independently of each other, each playing to their various strengths.
Developments in the digital delivery of the written word are concerned with devices primarily; functional considerations such as screen resolutions and band-width. Print is playing to its strength, exploiting its sensory capacity, becoming yet again a rarefied object and ward of artisan publishers. I hope, through my research, to propose a hypothetical ‘future-publishing’, a hybrid approach that blends the best of both page and pixel, and which at its heart is a medium – an intermediary between internal worlds.
Further rationale may be viewed in the Introduction page of this blog.
Barnlund, D.C. (1962) Toward a Meaning-Centred Philosophy of Communication, Journal of Communication, Vol. 12, no 4, pp. 197-211
Berlo, D. (1960) The Process of Communication, New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winstoil.
Britton, K. (1939) Communication: A Philosophical Study of Language, New York, Harcourt, Brace,
Davis, L.J. (1996) Factual Fictions. The Origins of the English Novel, New York: Columbia University Press.
Locke, D. (1968) Myself and Others, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Sartre, J.P. (1988) ‘What is Literature? and Other Essays’ Harvard University Press.