The Media and the Material

From Gerald R. Lucas


Recent reading has made me think more about the seriation between the medium and the message — i.e., the cybernetic matrix of ideas about the physical and metaphysical that merge and precipitate new and unexpected ideas. In fact, these two notions — the medium and the message — upon further consideration, don’t seem separate ideas at all, but inextricably linked in extensions of ourselves, or what McLuhan calls “technology.”

What is the medium? Seriously, can you point to it? Is the medium the compact disk or the music it holds? The guitar’s amplified staccato, or the dancing fingers on the frets? The equipment through which the digital music is decoded, or the amplifier that presents the analog message to the speakers through 10 feet of copper cable? The couch on which the listener feels the boomboom of the subwoofer, or the image created by the perfect placement of the speakers? Does this analysis even matter? According to McLuhan’s “The Medium Is the Message,” yes, it does. However, McLuhan seems to present his argument from within a dualistic construct: as if the content and the purveyor of that content can be at all separated — as if the information is distinct from the materiality that presents it. His caution seems to be that we, the inventors and users of media, should be aware of how that media shapes our perceptions by being aware of the media itself.

If a Gutenburg paradigm of written discourse creates a homogenized nation (the book as the primary medium of knowledge), then what does the move from atoms to bits suggest about how we process and store information? I think McLuhan sees the homogenizing potential of “electric technology” — the Borgification, if you will — of technological uniformity and control of standards if we, the users of these media, are not aware of the way they shape who we are and how we perceive the world. McLuhan states that the

If we do not consciously examine our media and shape it how we want (like the “serious artist”), then it will shape us the way it wants, like Dawkin’s selfish gene. We will “become what we behold” in a sort of unconscious way, like watching too much Beavis and Butthead. This notion reminds me of the issues of transparent technology and anti-trust. How many of us question the media of the operating system? How is it may be shaping us into drones? Should we be concerned about who makes our operating systems, something that we use increasingly everyday, and how we interface with them? If we do not turn a critical eye on the media that surrounds us, the implication I read in McLuhan is that we will be slaves to one form of expression — it won’t matter what we say if we are all saying it the same way. If media, as McLuhan suggests, are extensions of our senses, then we should strive for diversity and polyphony in how we construct those media.

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N. Katherine Hayles, in “The Condition of Virtuality,” sees the information / materiality duality as a dangerous figuration, linking how we think about our new media with traditional religious views of the world: the soul is distinct from the body.[2] Yet, Hayles sees information and its medium as inseparable: one informs the other, like a cybernetic loop, constantly interpenetrating and influencing each other.

Hayles reads virtuality as an informational offshoot of postmodernism. Terms like “access” and “pattern / randomness” as seminal in re-evaluating the place of literary production in an information age. Rather than plots driven by a capitalist notion of possession, Hayles asks, what will they be centered around questions of access (I think the RIAA is already finding this out)? Or, instead of a psychological evaluation of self based on castration, Hayles sees mutation as the dominant trope of self-recognition. Indeed, one needs only to look at Ballard’s Crash to note the ways that mutation is involved in the affinity of Vaughn and his mutating cyborgs. These theories seem to be based around the notion of the body as medium and message.[3]

Rather than draw distinct barriers around the body, our relationship with information technologies is one of proprioception — the sense that defines our bodily boundaries through a “combination of physiological feedback loops and habitual usage.”[4] Hayles discusses our proprioceptive relationships with technology seem less distinct in terms of media that we use frequently, like Tiger Woods’ golf club becoming an extension of his arm, or the relationship of the gamer’s hands with her keyboard. This proprioceptive sense will become increasingly difficult to distinguish as our media become more transparent. Where does the body end and the screen begin if we walk around wearing Deep Eddy’s spex, his virching equipment, or Spider Pete’s climbing gear (see Sterling)? When we can no longer distinguish the media from the body, perhaps we become McLuhan’s techno-zombies.

These two texts seem to advocate a critical look at new media and how it informs our perceptions of ourselves and our environment. Hayles and Haraway already see us as cyborgs surfing the seriated currents of medium/message, living as virtual subjects. Yet, this life is not virtual in the sense that it is separate from the physicality of our bodies — what many would argue as the “real” — but is intertwined with and penetrated by information. The lesson? Pay attention to the materiality of the medium.

Notes

  1. McLuhan, Marshall (2003) [1964]. "The Medium Is the Message". In Wardrip-Fruin, Noah; Montfort, Nick. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: The MIT Press. pp. 207–208.
  2. Hayles, N. Katherine (2000). "The Condition of Virtuality". In Lunenfeld, Peter. The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 68–95.
  3. What is the message of the current trend in body piercings and tattoos? Not one of individuality, but perhaps a conscious decision to shape the medium we are born with. Are these modifications any different than ones done in a lab? Are biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics really anything more than the restructuring of media?
  4. Hayles 2000, p. 88.