Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Remediation and the Rearview Mirror

Back in February, I shared several posts based on lecture notes from my Fordham University online course on Writing for Online Media:
  1. Orality and Online Writing 
  2. Reading, Writing, and Rearranging 
  3. Scribes and Scribbles
  4. From Print to Screen
  5. Electronic Writing and Digital Media  
So, later on in the semester, I prepared a couple more sets of remarks, and didn't get around to posting them until now, so no time like the present.  Again, let me note that these are basic lecture notes in written form for an online class, not original essays or anything like that, and they incorporate some material that have already been included in other posts on this blog.  So, here goes.

Remediation and the Rearview Mirror 

Marshall McLuhan famously used the metaphor of the rearview mirror to describe our inability to predict the future. We typically depict time in spatial terms, as a road that we travel along, moving into the future, but in reality we do not and cannot know what lies ahead of us, we can only see clearly where we already have been. So in effect we are walking backwards into the future. Having been called a prophet, McLuhan noted that a prophet is someone who can tell you what is going on right now, in the present, because everyone else is fixated on the past.

McLuhan also noted that many of our problems stem from trying to solve present-day problems with yesterday's solutions, or just trying to do today's job with yesterdays tools (or yesterday's job with today's tools).

 And he suggested that the content of a medium is always another medium. This is not to deny the fact that there is plain old content as well. But there is a sense in which the content of writing is speech, writing being a technology developed to record the spoken word. And the content of printing is the handwritten word, the manuscript. In fact, the first printed books, in the early years following Gutenberg's innovation, all were purposefully made to resemble the products of scribal copying. After all, that's all they knew. It took time to develop typefaces that took advantage of the unique capabilities of the printing press, typefaces that vastly improved the legibility of the text, allowing for faster reading speeds. Think of the differences between Gothic fonts, and the clear, clean look of the Roman fonts we commonly use as a default.

Along the same lines, the content of electronic writing is print. It may look like a printed page, but what you see on your screen is not inked marks on a paper surface, it's all a product of electrons and protons. 

Jay David Bolter, a noted media ecology scholar, uses the term remediation to refer to this process (see his Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (second edition), highly recommended for this class; see also Remediation: Understanding New Media by Bolter and Richard Grusin; and Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency by Bolter and Diane Gromala). Using this terminology, writing remediates speech, printing remediates writing, and electronic text remediates print. 

McLuhan is often misquoted as saying that the content of a medium is an older medium, rather than an other medium, and it is true that the examples he uses are of older media becoming the content of newer ones. But Bolter notes that an older medium can remediate a newer one. For example, computer graphics and television images become the content of motion pictures, and screen shots from computers appear in newspapers, magazines, and books. 

The process of remediation need not be confined to one medium. When television was introduced, it was originally referred to as radio television, as radio with pictures, and it was certainly true that television remediated radio programming. But it soon included old motion pictures as its content as well. And television also remediates many types of live performance. 

The computer is a medium that remediates pretty much all other media. Today, we see the computer and computer networks (e.g., the internet) remediating speech, handwritten and hand drawn documents, printing, newspapers, magazines, books, photographs, motion pictures, audio recordings, telephone, radio, television, etc. For this reason, Alan Kay, one of the pioneers in the development of computing, including the graphical user interface or GUI (on which the Mac and Windows interface, and Web browsers are based), stated that the computer is a metamedium, a medium that incorporates all other media. 

Within the process of remediation, Bolter discusses two distinct approaches. One is called transparent immediacy, the approach associated with windows. We try to create an interface that is essentially invisible, giving us the impression of a direct connection with an unmediated reality, the impression we have when looking out of a window. When painting in perspective was introduced during the Renaissance, it was seen as a method for the direct reproduction of reality, creating an impression of transparent immediacy, direct viewing of the subject, letting viewers forget that they were looking at a painting. 

 Of course, photography accomplishes this even more effectively. But photography does not simply remediate reality, it remediates painting in perspective, and its specific formats, like the portrait and the landscape. This continues as photography is remediated by motion pictures, and transparent immediacy is the strategy of most mainstream movies, especially in the tradition of Hollywood realism. New media artist and theorist Lev Manovich (in The Language of New Media) argues that digital media remediate cinema more than any other medium, and this certainly is true of videogames, especially the recent generation of PlayStation, Xbox, Wii, etc., games, as well as various approaches to simulation and virtual reality. 

At first glance, writing may seem quite distant from a transparent window on the world, but if you think about it, it is quite easy to lose yourself when reading, and become absorbed in an alternate reality. Indeed, one of the traditional criteria for evaluating literary works is realism, the semblance and illusion of the real. This seems to be harder to achieve in most forms of online writing, which accounts to some extent for the differences in reading online, and the different requirements for writing online. Tablets like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad may do a better job of remediating the transparent quality of print media than desktop and laptop computers. 

The second approach to remediation is called hypermediacy, and is associated with mirrors. Hypermediacy breaks the illusion of transparency, and therefore involves a certain amount of self-reference, and self-reflexiveness. Whenever content makes reference to itself as content, and therefore to the process of its mediation, it breaks "the willing suspension of disbelief" of the audience, and makes them aware of the process of mediation. This can occur when a narrator makes reference to the process of telling the story, or writing the book, or when the actors in a play break the fourth wall and interact with the audience (e.g., Bertolt Brecht), or when there's a movie within a movie, etc. Hypermediacy also includes situations where the audience is aware of and uses controls (e.g., tutorials that show you how to play a game before the game actually begins, admonitions along the lines of "don't touch that dial," "don't change the channel," etc.). 

As the mirror approach makes us think about our process of reading or listening or viewing or operating a medium, it makes it possible for us to be more active in participating with the medium, to take more control of the medium, and of ourselves. And as a mirror, the hypermediated medium can perhaps show us something of ourselves, help us learn a little bit about ourselves; it may also have the effect of making us more self-conscious, but perhaps more critical and aware as well. 

Hypermediacy also can involve spatial juxtaposition of disparate elements, where the differences in style make us aware of the presence of styles, whereas uniformity of style allows the style fade into the background, to be experienced as normal and natural, and thereby become unnoticed, subliminal, essentially invisible to us as we no longer pay attention. The juxtaposition of different, distinct, often clashing styles is one of the characteristics associated with postmodernism, whereas uniformity of style is a feature of modernism, in art and architecture. 

The newspaper front page, dating back to the mid-19th century, is an example of this, with many different articles slapped together. McLuhan referred to this style as a mosaic, and it is associated with the introduction of electricity via the telegraph, the speeding up of news gathering forcing newspapers to adopt a more fragmented, nonlinear style than their predecessors. The mix of different typefaces and sizes adds to the hypermediacy, as does the addition of illustrations, first drawn by hand, and eventually photographs as well, providing a mixture of two very distinct types of media. The web page of contemporary online media is an excellent example of hypermediacy, as it may combine many different types of text, graphics that include illustrations and photographs, and audiovisual material. 

Manovich makes the point that spatial juxtaposition has replaced montage as a primary form for new media. Montage is the use of film editing, cutting from one shot to another, one scene to another, and making meaning though the sequential juxtapositions (the theory of montage was originated by the pioneering filmmaker and film theorist from the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein). Film does so using a single frame, whereas websites, even one devoted to the moving image like YouTube, makes meaning though the combination of different elements on the same page. 

Blogs are clearly hypermediate, and bloggers need to consider the best ways to take advantage of this kind of interface. What is the best way to position and juxtapose the different elements? What can be done to facilitate usability, allowing users to find what they're looking for, and navigate the site easily? How can we best utilize the new capabilities of the new medium, rather than just try to reproduce what was being done in older media? 

For those trying to translate or recreate older media experiences in the online environment, the problem is much more difficult. How much of the older medium should be remediated? How far do we want to go to remediate older media? Do we want to take the approach of the window, or the mirror? Or better yet, to what extent do we want to create an experience of transparent immediacy, and to what extent do we want to supply the audience with the options of hypermediacy? 


 For an example of an attempt to remediate print media faithfully, take a look at Is this an example of rearview mirror thinking? What is missing from the magazines, newspapers, catalogs, etc., made available on this website, that you would find on a more typical type of website or blog? Identifying what is missing helps us to understand what is distinctive about online media. What might be the motives for making online versions of print media as similar as possible as the actual print media? What needs does this serve? 

Camille Paglia's essay discusses her experience writing for, so take a look at that site. As an online magazine, in what ways does it resemble a print magazine? In what ways does it differ from a print magazine? What are the major differences, that really help us to understand what is distinctive about online media? 

Here is an attempt to start an online magazine called PeoplePlanet. There is just one issue so far, and the editor told me that she wants to use the format of separate issues, even though it is not necessary to do that with online media (as you can see from The piece on McLuhan is based on an interview with me. What is your assessment of this magazine? 

Take a look at the sites for some print newspapers and magazines that you are familiar with or know of, for example the New York Times, Washington Post, other daily papers, perhaps local papers as well, and Time magazine, Wired magazine, or whatever you care to. How well do they manage the transition to an online format? Do they make the mistake of trying to bring too much of the print format into the online context? 

For a lighthearted, but sobering and revealing bit of comparison, take a look at this Daily Show segment about the New York Times.

In 2004, a Flash movie entitled EPIC 2014 debuted on the web, and gained a great deal of attention. It was set in the future, in the format of a documentary for the fictional Museum of Media History, looking back on how the press and 20th century news organizations ceased to exist, pushed out by news aggregators, blogs, and social media. It begins with a factual account of new media developments from the introduction of Web forward, and fictional elements start to appear from 2004 on. It ends on a pessimistic note with the New York Times going offline. An updated version was released a year later as EPIC 2015, where the fictional elements start in 2005. Although the details are different, predictions like the Google Grid very much anticipate Google+. You can watch both versions, or just the updated one, via the website devoted to them

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