What’s New About New Media? — the Smart Watch As an Example

Xiaoyi Yuan

Abstract: “New media” has been a buzzword for decades. However we rarely ask ourselves what’s new about it. Traditional approaches in communication studies have identified new media as revolutionary technologies that no old medias can transcend. Through the example of the smart watch as new media, this paper takes a new approach merged from metamedia theory and distributed cognition to further explain the newness of new media beyond simplified generalizations of new media features. Moreover, the new approach opens up possibilities for interdisciplinary research on interesting issues of new media and human cognition.

 I. Introduction

What strikes me most throughout the semester is the question: What’s new about new media? There has been a significant amount of theories devoted to explain new media and how it has revolutionized our life. Traditional communication or media disciplines define new media as digital media facilitated by computer technology, Internet, and digitalization. In that traditional sense, computers are new media because “the key to the immense power of the computer as a communication machine lies in the process of digitalization that allows information of all kinds in all formats to be carried with the same efficiency and also intermingled” (McQuail, 2010).

Traditional approaches consider new media as one followed by old ones: newspaper, books, film, and broadcasting. This approach studies media as individual artifacts and focuses on the study of how new media differs from old ones and emphasizes how revolutionary new media is. However, what has been taken for granted was the interdependency between “old media” and “new media” — in other words, how new media is always the simulation and modification of old media. Also, we rarely ask ourselves what is media and what is fundamentally new about new media.

This article uses a system approach and explores the definition of “new media” from the perspective of metamedia theory and distributed cognition. However, before we launch into this approach, we have to historically recognize that “media” refers to a broad range of concepts. “’Media” has been used to refer to a broad range of concepts, “the term media has become a master metaphor-concept, a reified abstraction, a term used for so many objects, systems, and technologies that its descriptive value seems to work only in marketing and productive development. We talk about ‘the media’ and generally mean the older idea of ‘mass media’ or ‘mass communications’—radio and TV (broadcast and cable), advertising, ‘the press,’ or ‘news media’—through the media categories continue to morph in the post-Internet, pan-digital ‘media environment.’ ‘The media’ (as used in politics and PR) can reflect the older idea of ‘the press’…” (Irvine, 2012). In this short paper, we cannot discuss all aspects of new media. So I will mainly focus on discussing what’s new about new media technologies and how new media technologies create new interfaces for humans to interact with those technologies and other human beings.

Abstract concepts and theories are better explained and understood through a concrete example. Here I introduce the example of the smart watch and give a brief systematic review of its evolution. The smart watch represents an example of how new technologies demonstrate what’s new about new media. Compared with older models of smart watches, the new models show the rapid development of integrated and interactive technologies.


II. The Evolution of Smart Watches

There’s no strict definition of what a smart watch is. Usually a smart watch refers to a computerized wristwatch with functions that are beyond timekeeping. One of the most notable smart watches is the iWatch developed by Apple. However, long before the invention of iWatch, there were smart watch models developed by other companies. Moreover, the idea of smart watches has been discussed for decades. In this section, I will give a systematic overview of the evolution of smart watches.

1. Dick Tracy Watch— Early smart watches Idea Transcending the Era and Medium That Gave Them Birth


Figure 1: The 2- Way Wrist Radio in the comic strip Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy is a comic stripwritten by Chester Gould which debuted in 1931 about an intelligent and highly successful police detective named Dick Tracy. The 2-Way Wrist Radio (Figure 1) worn by Tracy and other members of the police force became one of the most recognizable icons of the comic strips. Detectives wearing this wristwatch could communicate directly with police headquarters through radio.

Even though fictional gizmo should not be included in the evolutionary path of real-life technological development, fictional technologies are always allegories of our longing for fulfilling social needs through technology. In this case, this is shown in the example of wearable technology. The smart watch idea in Dick Tracy transcends its contemporary technologies, which reflect the notion that any one of our technologies are based on both ideas and technological development—they are not invented by magical forces.

2. Early Models of Smart Watches: Calculator Watch and Game Watch

Forty years after the cartoon depiction of the fictional smart watch in Dick Tracy, there were real technologies that implemented the idea of integrating functions beyond timekeeping into watches. One of them is the calculator watch (Figure 2) that was first introduced in the 1970s by Casio. Figure 3 is the inner structure of the calculator watch as shown in a patent drawing made by the inventor Nunzio A. Luce in 1976. By de-blackboxing its material structure, it reveals how two functions – the calculator function and the timekeeping function – work together (watch CMOS, calculator PMOS, encoder,and decoder). In addition to this watch, there were other types of calculator watches in the record of American patents. However, the basic functions and mechanisms were similar. The introduction of these early smart watches showed that people wanted features that integrated merging two media functions together in one watch.


Figure 2: A calculator watch developed by Casio


Figure 3: detailed block diagram of the structure of a calculator watch assembly according to this invention

Another model similar to the calculator watch was the game watch, developed by Nelsonic Industries (Figure 4). Although it appears to be more advanced than calculator watches, the inner mechanics of game watch was at the same technological level, and were just variations on the theme of the calculator watch.


Figure 4: Game watch developed by Nelsonic Industry

3. Current Smart Watches: Mac OS/Android Smart Watch and Mechanical Hybrid Smart Watch

What’s more familiar to us are the smart watches developed by hi tech industries that are not specialized in watch productions: Sony, Samsung, Moto, LG, and Apple. Interestingly, there are also mechanical hybrid watches (Figure 5) that keep the traditional components of mechanical watch but also add the digital screen on the outer glass layer. However, no matter whether it is the hybrid or solely a digital display (iWatch), the computerized digital display and Internet/Bluetooth connections requires a much more advanced motherboard compared to its predecessors (Calculator Watch and Game Watch.) The functions of current smart watches are similar with our smart phones—people might call it a watch version of smart phones, except the smart phone’s buzz functions are enhanced in the smart watch by haptic feedback (iWatch). Since watch contact with your skin is all the time, there’s one more way for you to receive notifications.

To include the brief history of the “evolution” of smart watches is not to demonstrate that the smart watch technology develops in a linear way. Quite the opposite: it is to show that the old models of smart watches (calculator watch and game watch) are not enough for us to explain how we get to the current ones. Just as traditional communication education introduces old and new media from newspaper, books, broadcasting, film, and Internet/digital media as separate technological artifacts, it is not sufficient to account for the real evolution process of new media. There is a technological and more importantly, social, cultural, and political dynamic that has happened between any of the old and new media just as significant technological advancements happened between the old and current type of smart watches: Figure 6 shows the inner components of LG “G Watch” and its motherboard. Comparing to the block diagram of the calculator watch (Figure 3), the G Watch’s functions are backed up by technologies such as integrated circuit (microchips), Bluetooth, long-lasting batteries, accelerometer, and large memories (short term 512 MB RAM and 4GB long term memories.)

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Figure 5: Hybrid watch developed by Kairos

LG-G-Watch-Components-SummaryLG-G-Watch-Motherboard-Chips (1)
Figure 6: De-blackboxing LG Smart Watch: the Motherboard

III. What’s New About New Media? – Merge Metamedia Theory and Distributed Cognition Theory

Are “calculator watch” or “game watch” new media? We might not have a consensus answer to this question. However, this paper does not aim to address questions on this specific level, but rather, the example poses a crucial question on a higher level: how should we define “new media” and what’s fundamentally new about it? What’s the implication of those new technologies integrated inside of each smart device? How can we further explain the newness of new media?

The reason for me to raise this seemingly counterintuitive question is to avoid falling prey to identifying every newly developed media as “revolutionary.” Consider the example of print technology, which some people call as the “Renaissance computer”, “By 1500, over 280 European towns had some form of printing press. From these presses, books were distributed in unprecedented numbers… The new, capital—intensive print technology of the early sixteenth century was able to produce almost flawless replicas of a given text over and over again. At once, the symbolic power of the book is redefined” (Rhodes, 2015). The way that we describe the revolutionary feature of book media is just like how we describe our current “new” (digital) media: it is unprecedented; it changes how we interact fundamentally, and it changes everything.

However, rather than just recognizing its newness, what’s fundamentally “new” about new media? I argue that new media allows digital devices to be “metamedia” that can represent other media that distributes human cognition in a revolutionarily new way. In the rest of this paper, I will review literatures on how other scholars define and describe “new media.” Then I will introduce my analytical approach: to merge Manovich’s metamedia theory and distributed cognition theory to discuss the question: what’s fundamentally new about new media?

1. Literature Review on Definitions of New Media in Early 1990s

New Media & Society, a highly ranked international journal specializing on issues of new media as related to society, featured several articles in its first issue on the definitions of “new media.” This first issue was released in 1999 when Internet technology and personal computers started to become pervasive on a global scale. The issue included articles by scholars from both U.K. and U.S., in which they delineated approaches and perspectives on how to define “new media.” Those perspectives, interestingly, are still the mainstream understanding of new media for our current time.

Roger Silverstone stated that the definition of new media had been ambiguous and assumed (Silverstone, 1999). Scholars such as Flichy and Poster identified several important issues and perspectives that are worth further exploration as they pertain to the question, “what’s new about new media” by examining the evolution of Internet and digital technologies that facilities the rise of new media (Flichy, 1999) and new media’s impact on social interactions (Poster, 1999). Other scholars take a more sociotechnical approach: Ronald Rice argued that we need to focus more on the underlying dimensions of attributes available in all communication forms instead of focusing on the particular medium (Rice, 1999). Likewise, Sonia Livingstone has a similar perspective: “What’s new for society about the new media? It must locate technological developments within the cultural processes and associated timescale of domestic diffusion and appropriation.” Also, many other scholars proposed issues associated with specific social/cultural/political/economic factors: new media and information and knowledge based economy (Melody, 1999); How new media creates network capitalism (Robins, 1999); new media and democratic politics (Coleman, 1999); new media and public participation (Rakow, 1999); new media and its implication for future journalism (Paylik, 1999); and new media and globalization: Westernization and the use of English on the World Wide Web (Kramarae, 1999.)

During the rise of the Internet and the introduction of personal computers in the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, research such as those above set up the general agenda of later research and perspectives on new media. It is not to say that such research are not valuable. However, media technologies are changing with the development of cognitive technologies (artificial intelligence) and wearable technologies (Google Glass/Smart watch) and more importantly, the reconfiguration of interrelated social, cultural, political, and technological networks. Confronting more complicated situations, we should rethink the assumptions that are taken for granted in mainstream media studies: to study media as individual artifacts and which simplifies the newness of new media into a set of several or multiple features. Next, I will merge two conceptual models: metamedia theory and distributed cognition and argue that new media allows digital devices to be “metamedia” that can represent other media, which distributes human cognition in a revolutionarily new way.

2. Offloading Human Cognition in a Better Way: “Metamedia”

If we want to know what’s fundamentally new about new media, we should first ask what’s not new about it. The question can trace back to the interaction between human and artifacts.

Imagine you want to get various kinds of groceries you need in a grocery store. What do you do if you cannot remember everything you want to get? – Of course you write down a list! It doesn’t matter if you use a more traditional way (pen and paper) or a newer way (your phone). The point is that the external artifacts help you to think and memorize. That’s the theory that Andy Clark proposed named “extended mind,” as opposed to “Brainbound theory.”

The “brainbound theory” insists that human cognition depends directly on neural activity alone. “According to BRAINBOUND, the (nonneural) body is just the sensor and effector system of the brain, and the rest of the world is just the arena in which adaptive problems get posed and in which the brain-body system must sense and act” (Clark, 2008). However, Clark believes that media artifacts are in the loop of the human cognition process as extensions of the human mind, “Maximally opposed to BRAINBOUND is a view according to which thinking and cognizing may (at times) depend directly and noninstrumentally upon the ongoing work of the body and/or the extraorganismic environment. Call this model EXTENDED. According to EXTENDED, the actual local operations that realize certain forms of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body, and world. The local mechanisms of mind, if this is correct, are not all in the head. Cognition leaks out into body and world” (Clark, 2008).

Therefore, the shopping list you write, according to Clark, is in the “thinking loop” with our human inner cognition. We offload our cognitive processes onto external media artifacts. Similarly, the discipline called “distributed cognition” also has such arguments, “Distributed cognition is a scientific discipline that is concerned with how cognitive activity is distributed across internal human minds, external cognitive artifacts, and groups of people, and how it is distributed across space and time” (Zhang & Patel, 2006). They believe that information-processing tasks require the processing of information distributed across internal minds and external artifacts.  Moreover, external representations are more than just inputs and stimuli to the internal mind. While we interact with machines, we offload and distribute our cognitive processes onto those machines.

Human beings have been distributing cognition onto external artifacts since the invention of language. We can only keep our thinking internal until we can communicate with others by language (Clark, 1998). Even before the invention of language, human beings invented the way to keep records by tying knots. Early “media technology” manuscripts and books helped distribute human cognition to a larger scale. Printing technology, for the first time in human history, enabled mass production of intellectual works. However, no matter whether it is early book media or more recent film, music record, or broadcasting, human beings interact with these media in a passive way. In other words, we offload and distribute our cognition onto older media technologies passively.

Then how about distributing human cognition onto more advanced artifacts—cognitive technologies, instead of passive media interfaces such as pen and paper? How does the newer media artifacts (smart phone, computer, smart watch, Google Glass, virtual reality, or media technologies based on artificial intelligence) revolutionize the way of distributing our cognition?

Here I introduce another important concept: “metamedia” proposed by Lev Manovich. Manovich believes that “new media” is “new” because new properties (i.e. new software techniques) can always be easily added onto it. The “metafunction” that new media possesses is revolutionary, compared to old media. Manovich also believes that the “meta” feature of new media can help people in distributing human cognition — “The prefixes ‘meta’ and ‘hyper-‘ used by Kay and Nelson were the appropriate characterizations for a system which was more than another new medium that could remediate other media in its particular ways. Instead, the new system would be capable of simulating all these media with all their remediation strategies… Equally important was the role of interactivity. The new meta-systems proposed by Nelson, Kay and others were to be used interactively to support the processes of thinking, discovery, decision making, and creative expression” (Manovich, 2013).

To translate the concept metamedia and distributed cognition into a simple example that we experience on a daily basis: huge amount of research devoted to prove that we are spending and wasting too much time on smartphones, Internet, or computers. However, those researches might neglect the fact that smartphones and computers (metamedia technologies) help human to offload and extend their cognition in a “meta” (unlimited) way. As Manovich mentioned in his book Software Takes Demand, “A computer can simulate a typewriter—getting input from the keyboard and arranging pixels on the screen to shape the corresponding letters—but it can also go far beyond a typewriter, offering many fonts, automatic spelling correction, painless movement of manuscript sections…” (Manovich, 2013). Metamedia has the feature of infinity because it can always be used for presenting other media. A computer or a smartphone does not only have note-taking functions; rather, it has the platform that opens up for more functions and creations. For example, the online Apple App Store, where different software applications can be uploaded and downloaded, significantly extends the materiality and physicality of smartphones, computers, or other “smart devices” in a way that no other old media technologies can surpass. “They call a computer ‘a metamedium’ whose content is ‘a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media” (Manovich, 2013).

Therefore the newness of new media is its metamedium function where it can simulate “old media” functions infinitely. New media is the intergradation of old and new, “metamedium contains two different types of media. The first type is simulations of prior physical media extended with new properties, such as “electronic paper.” The second type is a number of new computational media that have no physical precedents… (such as) hypertext and hypermedia (Ted Nelson); interactive navigable 3D spaces (Ivan Sutherland), interactive multimedia (Architecture Machine Group’s ‘Aspen Movie Map’)” (Manovich, 2013).

Thinking about Manovich’s definition of new media through distributed cognition and extended mind: human beings are able to distribute cognitive processes onto new media technologies that: 1, simulate the form of old media; 2, are automated; 3, have new logics (e.g. hyperlinks); and, 4, represent other medias unlimitedly. New media is, by no means, has no history. Just the opposite, new media is the convergence of old medias and thus distribute human cognition with new logic and with automation. There’s no scientific conclusion on whether this new way of distributing human cognition will change human brains since compared to the time span of evolution of human species, new media is just a split second. This new perspective of defining new media, however, opens up the possibilities of interdisciplinary research on media studies and cognitive science.


IV. Conclusion

This paper analyzes what’s new about new media technologies and how the metamedium feature of new media enables humans to offload and distribute cognitions in a new and better way. Compared to the old models of the smart watch, current models integrate the notion of wearable technologies from a more mature market: smartphones. This paper aims to go beyond the simplified generalization of the newness of new media and open up a fresh perspective. A smart watch carries almost all the functions of a smartphone and allow human beings to distribute cognitive processes in a more seamless way. Similarly we can analyze any other emerging media technologies from this merged metamedia and distributed cognition approach. This approach, however, is just a start. It opens up additional interesting research questions such as: How does new media technologies better distribute human cognition? How do our addictive and repetitive behaviors of the use of smart devices relate to human cognition? How do smart devices help young children in their cognitive development? Further research is needed to explore these arenas.


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