Terminal Mediation: Two Recent Books

April 13th, 2010 | Category: Reviews

Since the telegraph’s advent separated the process of long distance communication from the means of transportation (Carey, 1988), communication technologies have covered the globe with an endless network of connectivity. Today, the web is host to nearly every type of information available via other forms of media (e.g., text, audio, video, etc.), the computer has become a staple technology in the homes of millions, and the average American is now a computer user (Nie & Erbring, 2000). You don’t need me to tell you all of this, but our capacity for producing information far exceeds our ability to process it. If you’ve read more than one thing on this site before, you know that this represents my main intellectual obsession. Here are two recent edited collections on the subject.

Electronic Elsewheres: Media, Technology, and the Experience of Social Space (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), edited by Chris Berry, Soyoung Kim, and Lynn Spigel, aims to explore “how different world populations experience place through media technologies” (p. vii). The interaction of media and space has previously been explored more in the way that space is represented via media. Acknowledging this, the essays in Electronic Elsewheres set out to show how space is not only represented, but conjured up, experienced, and produced through and by media technology, often adopting and applying what Altheide and Snow (1979) termed “media logic” as an interpretive framework. That is, they proceed into this territory realizing the we are “cooperatives in a media communication system in which we have come to accept a media culture as the real world” (p. 60). Walter Ong (1982) and Marshall McLuhan (1964) discussed technological mediation in terms of senses, specifically the eye and the ear. C. Kaha Waite (2003) suggested looking at a “communication matrix,” which moves beyond the visual and the auditory into the “complex human sensorium of speech, vision, hearing, gesture, touch, and kinesthetic processes” (p. 23). Electronic Elsewheres follows the latter into the present exploring how media and connectivity have altered and reconfigured our spatial experiences.

Forty years ago Gene Youngblood (1970) conceived television as the “software of the world” (p. 78), and a decade later Altheide and Snow (1979) argued that television was not only our culture, but that it gave us a “false sense of participation” (p. 48). As it moves into our living rooms, bedrooms, backpacks, and pockets, media technology problematizes the border between the public and the private, rendering it permeable at least and obliterating it completely at most. It often inadvertently mixes them together like so much chocolate and peanut butter. Berry, et al. look at many aspects of this mixing, including oft overlooked concepts such as the “home” in “homepage.”

Moving outward from the idea of home to the extended built environment, the sections in this book include “The Reconfigured Home,” “Electronic Publics,” and “The Mediated City.” The authors make a lot of sense out of what can easily be a hand-waving mess, chocolate and peanut butter notwithstanding.

Mediated Interpersonal Communication (with one of the ugliest book covers I’ve ever seen), edited by Elly A. Konijn, Sonja Utz, Martin Tanis, and Susan B. Barnes (2008), is a similar a collection of articles about many aspects of how technology is changing interpersonal communication, relationships, and how we study both. Three sections comprise the book’s organization: “Bridging the disciplines,” “Technology as a relationship enabler,” and “The appeal of communicating through technology.” The choice of these categories in particular is interesting–and telling. One establishes from the onset that studying computer-mediated communication (CMC) is inherently interdisciplinary (i.e., communication scholars studying technology use must draw from many other fields), the second highlights the augmenting features of technology (i.e., technology use brings about communicative action that was previously impossible), and the third points out our attraction to technology (i.e., humans love communication tools). These are three unique angles on this field of study, and they position this book’s content in a useful and interesting framework.

The most interesting article in the first of these three sections is Susan B. Barnes’ essay, “Understanding social media from the media ecological perspective.” Media ecology sees technology as changing everything about a communicative situation. It also sees it as loaded with biases (e.g., spatial, temporal, sensory, and symbolic biases, among others). Take, for example, the addition of video to online chatting. With the addition of this one dimension, the system is completely different. It contains new kinds of information and new kinds of biases. The ecology or environment of the interaction is just not the same. “Perceptual space is an amalgamation of the visual space created by the computer screen,” Barnes (2008) argues, “the information space established through the network, and the social space experienced as people interact with each other. Because communicators are separated by geographic space, establishing a sense of presence for the other to perceive oneself is a central issue in CMC” (p. 24).

Another standout piece in this section is Tilo Hartmann’s “Parasocial interactions and paracommunication with new media characters.” Returning to the original definition of parasocial interaction theory, Hartmann recasts it online. Much of the existing theory regarding CMC has grown and still grows out of preexisting theoretical frameworks (Katz & Rice, 2002). While much pre-internet media theory is ill-equipped to tackle the interactive and ever-changing nature of CMC media (Spitzberg, 2006), Hartmann’s interpolation of parasocial interaction theory, which was established before our online world existed (see Horton & Wohl, 1956), lends light to existing theory, bridges mass communication and interpersonal communication studies, and illuminates new directions for further study. Communication is unlikely to stop developing or invading every aspect of our lives. When chasing a moving target as such, scholars, theorists, users, programmers, and designers desperately need new perspectives. By recontextualizing parasocial interaction theory online, Hartmann’s article provides several such new perspectives.

Technological mediation has changed and continues to change our relationships with each other, our information, time, space, and ourselves. As communication technology and the use thereof become more and more pervasive and ubiquitous, scholarship like that presented in Electronic Elsewheres and Mediated Interpersonal Communication is tantamount to an understanding of our rapidly changing world.

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References:

Altheide, D. L. & Snow, R. P. (1979). Media logic. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Carey, J. (1988). Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. New York: Routledge.

Katz, J. E., & Rice, R. E. (2002). Social consequences of internet use: Access, involvement, and interaction. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Konijn, E. A., Utz, S., Tanis, M., & Barnes, S. B. (2008). Mediated interpersonal communication. New York: Routledge.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Nie, N. H., & Erbring, L. (2000). Internet and society: A preliminary report. Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society. Retrieved October 23, 2008 from http://www.Stanford.edu/group/siqss/press_release/preliminary_report.pdf

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the world. New York: Routledge.

Spitzberg, B. H. (2006). Preliminary development of a model and measure of computer-mediated communication (CMC) competence. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11, 629-666.

Waite, C. K. (2003). Mediation and the communication matrix. New York: Peter Lang.

Youngblood, G. (1970). Expanded cinema. New York: Dutton.

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A much longer version of the review of Mediated Interpersonal Communication above will appear in the September, 2010 issue of The Journal of Communication. Hoopa!

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