The Medium Matters

There you go.

We’re going to come back to that again and again. Not that we’re invoking the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, but each platform offers something specific to the writing process and keeping that in the forefront of your mind is critical. Put another way, a film isn’t a TV series, nor is it a Broadway play. The end product, whatever that might be, is going to impact how you write.

Now, we’re not going to trot out McLuhan’s arguments out for yet another parade. If you haven’t been convinced by his witty aphorisms (‘the medium is the message’), tortured metaphors (hot and cold what now?), and glib style, running them past you once more won’t change a thing.

Instead here’s a note from one of his intellectual predecessors, John Dewey, who in 1934 in Art as Experience outlined much the same argument but in more detail:

Because objects of art are expressive, they are a language. Rather they are many languages. For each art has its own medium and that medium is especially fitted for one kind of communication. Each medium says something that cannot be uttered as well or as completely in any other tongue. The needs of daily life have given superior practical importance to one mode of communication, that of speech. This fact has unfortunately given rise to the popular impression that the meanings expressed in architecture sculpture, painting, and music can be translated into words with little if any loss. In fact, each art speaks an idiom that conveys what cannot be said in another language and yet remains the same. (p. 110)

Less pithy than the ‘medium is the something something’ line, sure, but by overflowing his sentences he gives the argument a little bit of space to breathe. But if you want it in buzzfeed-y list fragments:

  • Each medium has unique modes of expression, structures, and idioms.
  • You can’t ‘translate’ or remediate these various media in to text (or any other media) without losing something.
  • Much in the same way, you can’t separate out meaning (message) from the form (medium) any more than you can translate idiomatic Icelandic phrases into English and expect everybody to get what you’re saying.

If you have the looks on your faces that I think you do, then everything here is totally walking on its hind-legs, know what I’m saying? (Að ganga á afturfótunum.)

Which brings me to the other bit about the medium and why it matters. Languages aren’t just spoken. They are also listened to.

Dewey again:

Language exists only when it is listened to as well as spoken. The bearer is an indispensable partner. The work of art is complete only as it works in the experience of others than the one who created it. Thus language involves what logicians call a triadic relation. There is the speaker, the thing said, and the one spoken to. The external object, the producer of art, is the connecting link between artist and audience. Even when the artist works in solitude all three terms are present. The work is there in progress, and the artist has to become vicariously the receiving audience. He can speak only as his work appeals to him as the one spoken to through what he perceives. He observes and understands as a third persona might note and interpret. (p. 111)

I highlighted the important bit for you. Ain’t I nice? This here:

Even when the artist works in solitude all three terms are present.

Explains quite neatly how an artist can edge their way into a mode of expression that has no audience yet, which is exactly what the early interactive media authors did. They’ve spent fifty years exploring the digital terrain, building new idioms, testing what structures and grammars work for that particular language. It’s still young and it’s still immature but it’s a medium of its own and that matters.

But it also matters that it is a part of an ecosystem of art and media. That’s where digital media borrowed or stole a lot of its characteristics. It’s the genetic base it mutated from.

Which leads me to this last quotation from Dewey (for now):

If, moreover, we establish the discussion on the basis of media, we recognize that they form a continuum, a spectrum, and that while we may distinguish arts as we distinguish the seven so-called primary colors, there is no attempt to tell exactly where one begins and the other ends; and also that if we take one color out of its context, say a particular band of red, it is no longer the same color it was before. (p. 235)

Digital media is our band of red. That we’ve chosen to focus on it isn’t intended to diminish or slight the other colours. It’s all good. Our ‘red’ just happens to be the youngest of the bunch and that’s why it warrants a bit of love and careful study.

Its youth makes it interesting in its own right, both to creators and to the audience.

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