What’s “New” about New Media? (System Thinking/Approaches)

What’s “new” about new media? This question has haunted me since I started my undergrad in Journalism in China. Yes, we read text books like the one written by McQuail and I still remember clearly the first class I had in my Freshman year is to explain every one of the media (telegraph, book, magazine, newspaper, film, and computer). Also, we are so used to the language/metaphor such as impact or influence of “new” media. It is so easy just taking granted that new media (computer/Internet) is fast, pervasive, and changes everything. But the problem is that there are too many assumptions embedded if we think in a linear way. I think this week’s reading did a good job on challenging those assumptions we took granted for media studies: what’s the definition of new media? what new questions can we ask when we get rid of technology determinism?

Both McLuhan and Debray proposed ideas to system thinking. As McLuhan says, “the medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and forms of human association and action.” The “message”, in McLuhan’s words, does not equal to the “content” we commonly use. McLuhan thinks that the form (materiality) of technology development ties closely with its social/political pre-conditions and consequences. What’s communicated in a medium is not just the content but everything that this technology makes possible. It echoes the idea of transmission that Debray later proposed in his article. Culture is transmitted through medium from the past to the present that makes human civilization possible.

The system thinking (or maybe we can call it “complex theory”) enables us to question the cliche that Internet and computer mediums are most radical progress we made throughout human history. It is the distinction made by professor Irvine between medium and mediation. Medium/media refers to social-technical implementations and interfaces of sign systems for communications whereas mediation means functions of mediums (e.g. same functions of paperback books and books on digital screens). So what’s new about new media is not technology itself but how it converges different functions of human symbolic interactions. I like how Manovich summarize the difference between old and new media. He said that the popular understanding of new media affects distribution, presentation, and production and old media can only affect one dimension (such as printing can only affect how information is distributed.) Also, Manovich in his book Software Takes Demand, talks about how software works together to converge all the media functions. His idea reminds me that in the past, those news media and some social media used to only have websites instead of apps. And in the past few years, the tendency becomes to be: every media has to has its own app! It’s very interesting to think the consequences and maybe gaps (?) in the way of how multiple apps converge media functions. Some new mobile apps try to build platforms to manage different other apps. It is like in “old” media form, we read books and we take notes but in the computer or mobile devices, reading and writing at the same time becomes even “harder” for us to do. By “harder” I mean, we need to jump between different “interfaces”. And of course, we can tile multiple pages onto our computer screen and look at them at the same time. But I keep thinking, is there any other ways to make it more “convenient” and more “natural” for us to do? I don’t know, maybe make the computer screen NOT in a tiled fashion?