Mindfulness and the Medium

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.

References:

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.

The Human Factor: Animals, Machines, and Us

Before we all take the nonhuman turn, perhaps we should revisit what being human means in the first place. The debate has a rich pedigree. Situating the humans among the animals, as well as among our machines, is as fraught a philosophical position as one is likely to find. What separates us? Language? Self-awareness? Consciousness? Suffering? The machines themselves? No one, from Descartes and Kant to Heidegger and Levinas, seems to have a defensible answer. Two recent books explore the animal question in very different but interesting ways.

The human is a pointless and treacherous category.
— Kodwo Eshun

Burroughs to Ginsberg: “Human, Allen, is an adjective, and its use as a noun is in itself regrettable.” — Tweeted by Steven Shaviro, November 28, 2009.

Building an elaborate three-way bridge connecting animals and humans and machines (a.k.a. “the cybernetic triangle”), Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines by Dominic Pettman (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) is a wildly engaging exploration of what it means to be human. From the philosophies of Agamben, Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, and Heidegger to documentaries like Grizzly Man (2006) and Zoo (2007) and from songs like Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer to God” to Aerogramme’s “A Simple Process of Elimination,” Pettman swings wide in search of the lines we draw as well as the ones we cross.

Animals came from miles around
So tired of walking so close to the ground
They needed a change, that’s what they said
“Life is better walking on two legs!”
But they were in for a big surprise
‘Cause they didn’t know the law!
— Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”

Pettman writes, “In Descartes’s time, the beating of an animal was, in most cases, the beating of a machine, akin to thrashing an unreliable car that would complain by beeping its horn. Compassion for animals was seen as a misguided and extravagant anthropomorphism” (p. 114). He cites Jean Baudrillard arguing that animal cruelty, specifically the late medieval ritual practice of hanging a horse, makes us more human by equalizing the two. He continues, “Today, we have widened the circle of empathy, depending on our cultural and individual sensibilities, although not yet to the extent that we would throw our arms around a photocopier were we to witness it being assaulted by an overworked librarian” (p. 114). The argument continues, citing a sort of Turing test of suffering, as if each species must prove to us (humans) that it is in pain.

The rules are written in the stone
Break the rules and you get no bones
All you get is ridicule, laughter
And a trip to the house of pain!
— Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”

Donkeys are stoic in their suffering, forever keeping their cards close to their chests. They would pass the Turing test of animal suffering in only the most extreme cases. In The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World (Walker & Co., 2008), Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked. Head veterinarian Dr. Mohsen Hassan posits that most donkey mistreatment comes from ignorance not cruelty, and that most of the donkeys collective problems seen in the clinic could be avoided “with sensible handling practice and informed care” (p. 187). In short, respect for the donkey. The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.

Merriman’s book follows his travels elsewhere through the southern regions of France and through many fictional tales of humans and donkeys and donkey treatment. They do not respond well to the prodding and beating they get. Donkeys need patience and gentle encouragement. Often their circumstances do not afford them this. Saying the same about us, Merriman writes, “Global donkey inequities mimic the human world’s inequities” (p. 191). Or, as Pettman puts it, “To err is human; to forgive, equine” (p. 110).

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Special thanks to Ken Wark for recommending Merriman’s donkey book.

References:

Elfman, Danny. (1983). “No Spill Blood”  [Recorded by Oingo Boingo]. On Good For Your Soul [LP]. Santa Monica, CA: A&M Records.

Eshun, Kodwo. (1998). More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books.

Merriman, Andy. (2008). The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. New York: Walker & Co.

Pettman, Dominic. (2011). Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.