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by Wanyu Zheng
The little things always triumph over the large
And literature will kill architecture
The scholarly books will kill the cathedrals
The Bible will kill the Church, and man will kill God
This will kill that
— Florence, Notre-Dame de Paris Musical (1998), by Luc Plamondon
This opening song in the second act of the French musical Notre-Dame de Paris briefly and poetically presents the printing revolution that Gutenberg’s invention has raised during Renaissance. After reading this week’s pieces, I realize that the properties of printing media during Renaissance are amazingly similar to those of the digital media in our Information era. “Mcluhan saw the present age as a new Renaissance, a new sensory galaxy ushered in by electronic media that are capable of jolting our sensibilities as sharply as the printing press did earlier.” (Czitrom, 176) Lev Manovich concludes five characters of new media as numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding, and I’ll say printing technology at its time matches some of these characters: it enables human the ability to do things more automated, and relatively makes every word on books a modular individual components, further more, by sampling all the shapes of letters into standard print text, it’s doing the same work with a binary system that digitalizes the information displayed on computers.
Marshall McLuhan’s media theory has always been mind blowing to me, whenever I read his articles or other scholar’s comments on his contribution, I’d gain new understanding of media and its relationship to human society. The point was made as early as in 1964, and media forms in the world have changed profound enough since then, but McLuhan’s theory has never been “tarnished”. As for me, to say “the medium is the message” is like to say “knowledge is power”, what matters is not the message a medium itself carries, but the fact that a medium has brought to human society such tremendous change and power that any prior mediums didn’t achieve during the process of communication. The message would not exist without the medium, according to McLuhan, “This fact merely underlines the point that ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”(McLuhan, 9) “His famous phrase, ‘the medium is the message,’ refers to the change in scale or pace or pattern that any extension of communications technology introduces into human affairs.” (Czitrom, 177) This idea with technological determinism is indeed optimistic about the meaning a new media form brings about, but one must start question: What is that change on earth? What do we mean by the power of media?
Although the word “new media” is largely concerned with the term “web”, new media is always a relative concept of the old media: when newspapers stemmed from the invention of the printing press, the newspaper was the new media of its age. “When media are new, they oﬀer a look into the diﬀerent ways that their jobs get constructed as such.” (Gitelman, 6) By saying “a look into the different ways” doesn’t solve our puzzle either, as McLuhan’s media theory actually emphasizes media’s social effects, which can span realms of culture, politics and psychology or human recognition. “The effects of media technology occur not on the conscious level of opinion and concepts, but on the subliminal level of sense ratios and patterns of perception.” (Czitrom, 177) At this point, when we talk about media we are talking about the “forms of social-political-cultural mediation” (Irvine, 3), we are talking about the recombination of a media type and its inseparable content. What discusses the power of media is Debray’s mediology theory, a method de-blackboxing the influence of the information transmission process. It’s a method to figure out what’s behind the scenes instead of only focusing on the inputs and outputs like Victor Hugo’s rhesis “this will kill that”.
The mystery of media is that although current new media are digitalizing and integrating all prior communication media forms, old media remain meaningful. I can’t help thinking the initial meaning of studying in the Communication, Culture and Technology program. The rapidly changing technology introduces us new possibilities of media forms, which take us into new mode of communication, and thus shape our culture. It seems that media is at the crossed paths of CCT: when Wired magazine pointed out that the definition of new media is that “media age of all for all communication”(New media, Baidu Baike, 2013), will there be a day that media are no longer merely the extension of human, but human agents themselves become the media/transmitter? A big if might be, one day the wireless systems will be implanted in human body.
Regis Debray, “What is Mediology?” Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. (Trans. Martin Irvine).
Daniel Czitrom, “Metahistory, Mythology, and the Media: The American Thought of Marshall McLuhan,” excerpt from Daniel J. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982; read pp.172-182.
Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” (Excerpts from Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, Part I, 2nd Edition; originally published, 1964). (See especially Part 1, “The Medium is the Message,” sections 1-3.).
Irvine, “Media Theory: An Introduction” (working draft of book chapter: overview of issues and ways of working)
Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. Excerpt from Introduction. [Includes excellent bibliography of references.]
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, excerpt, The MIT Press, 2001