How did we get here?

Any interested party possessing a passing familiarity to the history of media has heard this story a thousand times before. It’s become standard in almost any book or article on the history of cinema, usually going something like this: ‘Early cinema didn’t really exploit the features of the medium. The first films were just recorded plays, shot on a stage, and acted out. It was Eisenstein, Vertov and his wife, and Kuleshov who changed that when they invented montage.’

There’s more to the emergence of film than that summary, just like there’s more to the book to ebook ‘transition’ than swapping out one medium for another, or adding another format to the hardcover / trade paperback / mass market paperback lineup.

First of all, much to everyone’s surprise, plays didn’t disappear with the advent of film, nor did film once TV arrived, and TV’s definitely still around despite the now several-decade-long existence of the web, and more ubiquitous digital media.

Second of all film—as a medium and a context—remains informed by the play, as a medium and context. Film theatres kept many of the trappings of play theatres for decades—curtains, ushers, gilt mouldings—before they became the more fast-food-style, commercially driven outlets that they are today.

Actors frequently switch between cinematic work and theatre, their art form isn’t bound to one or the other, despite the need to adjust some facets of it for each medium. There are more, but sorting them out would turn this into a text exploring the form of film, not a text on text.

The history of these things is difficult to crack apart and lovingly shove into neat little boxes. As with film, digital text draws from its predecessors, borrows a lot of its trappings and languages, although, as has become clear, doesn’t replace it. Newer forms of media rarely disrupt their predecessors—at least, not in the Clayton Christensen sense. What happens is that when a new form of media arrives that is better adapted to a specific environment than others, it tends to push those less well adapted out of it.

If the older media has no other habitats then it does get replaced, but throughout the history of media it’s been more common that the older media merely retreats into their core environment. Occasionally it gains a new strength because its practitioners refocus their efforts on the form’s strengths.

And, in turn, the new form only matures once its practice stops being defined and studied in the context of and using the terms of its predecessors.

In a mature field, when it comes to practice the fate of a form’s predecessors is immaterial. It doesn’t matter if the predecessors die out, thrive, or become relicts, you can learn from and steal from them. The only things that matter to those making the new form of are the two following questions:

  1. How do we make it?
  2. How do we make it, better?

Get started. Start simple. Make it. Improve. If you want to compare your work to something, compare it to the best of your field, not to the canon of a predecessor that is drawing on a thousand years of distilled genius and intellectual wealth.

  • Where are we now?. Ebooks versus digital text. Fluidity and typography. Transformation and symbiosis. Digital as a toddler.

  • What has been done?. Digital isn’t a toddler (actually). Advances. Stuff people have done.

  • Skeuomorphism and remediation. Maturation into a teenager. An independent identity. The “Digital Age”. Remediation (bleh).

  • Exeunt Book. Adulthood means separation. New models.