Understanding Mediation

June 07th, 2006 | Category: Essays

Printing PressThough Gutenberg’s printing press represents what Marshall McLuhan referred to as the first assembly line — one of repeatable, linear text — and is what made large-volume printed information a personal, portable phenomenon, the advent of the telegraph brought forth the initial singularity in the evolution of information technology. The telegraph enabled the bifurcation of communication and transportation, and information became a commodity. As Neil Postman put it, “…telegraphy created the idea of context-free information — that is, the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.”

I’ve been half-jokingly calling this transition the “Alf moment.” When the televison show Alf became popular in the mid-to-late 80s, no one wondered what was making Alf move or talk. Growing up with Jim Henson’s alternate universe of Muppets had stripped the “magic” out of the medium. We were left free to enjoy the hi-jinks of this puppeted, cat-eating alien.

Mobile TV is supposedly reaching its “Alf moment,” but, as has always been the case with communication technology, the most enthusiastic prophecies come from those with stakes in the bottom line. According to BBC News, this year’s World Cup is its time. “TV is a medium that everyone understands, and so is mobile,” said Dave McQueen, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media, “Combining the two in the imagination of consumers is not as great a challenge as it is for other forms of mobile entertainment.” I’m not one to believe that technological mediation is inherently a bad thing, for technology holds the potential to augment our experiences as much as it does to obstruct them, but as each advance becomes “forgotten” as a part of our media lexicon, we should be mindful of what we’ve potentially lost.

“Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness,” writes Evolutionary Psychologist Geoffrey Miller, “but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness-subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects.” Fitness-faking is the extreme effect of technological mediation, and according to Miller, it’s out-pacing us: “Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. With the invention of the printing press, people read more and have fewer kids. (Only a few curmudgeons lament this.) With the invention of Xbox 360, people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human.” Communication theorists call fake relationships with TV characters “parasocial relationships,” and as Miller puts it, “Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends.” Again, mediation isn’t inherently bad, but I think sometimes we have to take a step back — maybe even a step away — from all of this stuff.

Do you ever find that your most emotional moments are during or after movies? Do you sometimes feel like you go through more experiences vicariously that you do directly? Miller’s “fitness-faking” concept is an idea that scares me more than most anything else. It not only brings the dangers of mediation into sharp focus, but also begs the question of what is to be done about it. Here is one of my favorite passages on the latter. This is a quote from writer Nina Simons, and she says it better than I ever could:

It’s important that we gather ourselves to participate more fully in the stories of our time and our lives. There’s a serious threat of couch-potatoism in our culture, and we need to make a conscious effort to avoid it and to recognize the enormous energy that comes from participation. It’s easy to get bogged down in the circumstantial and mundane, but if we connect to our passion, that in itself will be regenerative; we won’t have to wait for the energy, it will be there. But how do we connect to that passion? One of my favorite phrases, which a friend taught me, is that we need to pay ‘exquisite attention’ to our responses to things — noticing what makes our flame glow brighter. If we pay attention to those things, we’ll be able to catch the flame and feed it.

Get out of your routine. Get out of your pattern. Talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Change jobs. Move away. Gather up some friends, go outside, and play football, instead of playing Madden NFL 06. Take it upon yourself to change something about your day. Anything. Even if you have a bad experience, you will have had an experience. You will have learned something that you can take with you next time. And if you have a good experience, remember what gave you the feeling and do it again. Soon.

Technological mediation isn’t going to go away. In fact, it’s only going to become more pervasive. Let’s all just try and be more mindful of the metaphors.

“Dreams don’t come from staring at screens. Dreams come from doing things.” — Echo Miranda

[This post is an excerpt from my thinking through a project-in-progress entitled The Medium is the Metaphor]

Sharpies rule, okay?

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