Monday, March 12, 2007

The Medium Motivates the Content

So, I am sitting in the office of Lian Sifuentes, a bright and dynamic up-and-coming professor of drama and dance at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, which is in Colorado not surprisingly. I'm giving a public lecture there tonight on digital culture (and media ecology, of course). And having checked my e-mail (which sometimes seems more like weeding a garden than communicating because there's always so much more to delete than to reply to), I now have an opportunity to add a new blog entry. But why do I need a new blog entry? Do I actually have anything to say? Well, it doesn't matter. The blog is there, it cries out to me, it says "FEED ME Seymour" (popcult reference to Little Shop of Horrors). It wants CONTENT!

This is a fundamental principle of media ecology, and in fact it is one of some dozen or so different meanings I can make out of McLuhan's famous aphorism (and the first axiom of media ecology), the medium is the message (see Understanding Media). (I say dozen or so because I keep discovering new ones.) This particular meaning can be summed up as: the medium motivates the message. Introduce a new medium, and even if you say you are only going to use it when there's a reason to, the presence of the medium sooner or leader motivates people to start using it, to fill it up (following Mumford, a medium is a container, its content is the contents of the container). You may recall that as a result of the internet boom in the 90s, Content suddenly became a buzzword, and everyone was looking for Content. Why the sudden need? To fill up all those websites, to poulate all those empty domains-in-name-only.

Daniel Boorstin made a similar observation in his classic book, The Imagein which he argued that the introduction of steam powered printing presses (as opposed to hand driven presses) in the early 19th century led to the production of mass circulation, inexpensive newspapers, which (along with further innovations in mass communication), led to a need to fill them with content. The result was a shift in journalism from news reporting to newmaking, and from reporting on events to manufacturing pseudo-events (Boorstin's coinage). This is not to discount Henry David Thoreau's incisive observation from Walden:

"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

But, it doesn't matter if there's nothing important to communicate, we human beings talk for the sake of talking, our gossip binds us together in cohesive social groups. If only Thoreau had lived to observe the telephone, and its use by teenagers.

The medium motivates the content. The blog made me do it.

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