Mindfulness and the Medium

May 08th, 2012 | Category: Reviews, Videos

Over forty years ago, media philosopher Walter Ong wrote that the “advent of newer media alters the meaning and relevance of the older. Media overlap, or, as Marshall McLuhan has put it, move through one another as do galaxies of stars, each maintaining its own basic integrity but also bearing the marks of the encounter ever after” (1971, p. 25). That is, a new technology rarely supplants its forebears outright but instead changes the relationships between existing technologies. During a visit to Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Demo Day, Professor Janet Murray told me that there are two schools of thought about the onset of digital media. One is that the computer is an entirely new medium that changes everything; the other is that it is a medium that remediates all previous media. It’s difficult to resist the knee-jerk theory that it is both an entirely new medium and remediates all previous media thereby changing everything, but none of it is quite that simple. As Ted Nelson would say, “everything is deeply intertwingled” (1987, passim).

Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2012), Murray’s first book since 1997’s essential Hamlet on the Holodeck (MIT Press), is a wellspring of knowledge for designers and practitioners alike. Unifying digital media under a topology of “representational affordances” (i.e., computational procedures, user participation, navigable space, and encyclopedic capacity), Murray provides applicable principles for digital design of all kinds — from databases (encyclopedic capacity) to games (the other three) and all points in between. There’s also an extensive glossary of terms in the back (a nice bonus). Drawing on the lineage of Vennevar Bush, Joseph Weizenbaum, Ted Nelson, Seymour Papert, and Donald Norman, as well as Murray’s own decades of teaching, research, and design, Inventing the Medium is as comprehensive a book as one is likely to find on digital design and use. I know I’ll be referring to it for years to come.

“Mindfulness” illustration by Anthony Weeks.

Designers can’t go far without grappling with the way a new medium not only changes but also reinforces our uses and understandings of the current ones. For example, the onset of digital media extended the reach of literacy by reinforcing the use of writing and print media. No one medium or technology stands alone. They must be considered in concert. Moreover, to be literate in the all-at-once world of digital media is to understand its systemic nature, the inherent interrelationship and interconnectedness of all technology and media. As Ong put it, “Today, it appears, we live in a culture or in cultures very much drawn to openness and in particular to open-system models for conceptual representations. This openness can be connected with our new kind of orality, the secondary orality of our electronic age…” (1977, p. 305). “Secondary orality” reminds one of the original names of certain technologies (e.g., “horseless carriage,” “cordless phone,” “wireless” technology, etc.), as if the real name for the thing is yet to come along.

These changes deserve an updated and much more nuanced consideration given how far they’ve proliferated since Ong’s time. Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012) collects Howard Rheingold‘s thoughts about using, learning, and teaching via networks from the decades since Ong and McLuhan theorized technology’s epochal shift. Rheingold’s account is as personal as it is pragmatic. He was at Xerox PARC when Bob Taylor, Douglas Englebart, and Alan Kay were inventing the medium (see his 1985 book, Tools for Thought), and he was an integral part of the community of visionaries who helped create the networked world in which we live (he coined the term “virtual community” in 1987). In Net Smart, his decades of firsthand experience are distilled into five, easy-to-grasp literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection (critical consumption), and network smarts — all playfully illustrated by Anthony Weeks (see above). Since 1985, Rheingold has been calling our networked, digital technologies “mind amplifiers,” and it is through that lens that he shows us how to learn, live, and thrive together.

These two books are not only thoughtful, they are mindful. The deep passion of the authors for their subjects is evident in the words on every page. A bit ahead of their time, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan gave us a vocabulary to talk about our new media. With these two books, Janet Murray and Howard Rheingold have given us more than words: They’ve given us useful practices.


McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Murray, Janet. (2012). Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nelson, Ted. (1987). Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Redmond, WA: Tempus Books.

Ong, Walter J. (1971). Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.

Rheingold, Howard. (1985). Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rheingold, Howard. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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