Category Archives: Week 8

Revive The Vinyl: Music, Medium and Mediation

For the past weeks, we have examined the poignancy of a particular text, whether it was Daft Punk, Andy Warhol or “Ayo.” This week, we devote our conversation to the artifacts that allow our senses to consume this content, information or media, if you will – the medium. The manner in which this content is transmitted to and from analog and digital formats is through mediation. One medium that I am steadily becoming fascinated with is the vinyl record; partly, because I’m a minimalist and partly, because my mom’s 45s are sitting in my living room, begging for some airtime.

The mere discussion of vinyls in the age of mp3 files and Bluetooth-capabilities for music playback is reflective of how a technology – more so, a medium – cannot be eradicated. Dialectically speaking, one cannot die when it is constantly being acknowledged in comparative discourses. As Professors Ribes and Irvine discussed, Apple and Adobe became one another’s archrivals based on the functionality of their respective products. And while both appeared to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum argument, their interaction proved them both to be a part of a broader ecosystem – a media system.

While digital music files and playback lessen the need for tangible artifacts, the transformation of the medium has altered the art form. As McLuhan’s tetrad of technology lays out, just as we advance, we risk obsolescence. I believe the current minimal effort behind listening to a musical composition devalues its essence. I may be negating myself a bit here, but in making the access to music more efficient – placing it on our mobile cellular devices – we intensify the immediate gratification, quick-triggered satisfaction/obtainment of an art form. There’s something sweet about listening to an entire album untouched, no clicking or tapping of a screen, as you would with a vinyl record. It is this appreciation for tangibility that has sparked a resurgence in vinyl record sales. Similarly, it is a richer experience to indulge in a live acoustic performance versus running over to YouTube to catch video of the same event. And while the cost of concerts and vinyl records may be a deterring factor in its competition with mp3 sales, the quality is at the heart of the matter for most of these traditional aficionados , not the quantity.

Some digital music playback systems – specifically Pandora – display album art as songs play. Therefore, it is not just sounds, but visuals that are being mediated. Prior to music videos or recorded live performances, there was an ambiguity attached to music where the artist’s identity was either implicitly or explicitly hidden. Some record companies did not allow for many artists to have their faces on album covers according to their race and the musical genre. How did the idea of race as a social construct infiltrate the impact of music and of producing album art?

Vinyls also contributed itself as a galleria artifact — a thing to be admired or envied upon display. Cover art for records like The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Stevie Wonders’ Songs in The Key of Life and even Fugees’ The Score has made it on to lists for “Best Cover Art of All Time.” How do these artifacts compare to posters sold in retail shops? My parents and other relatives often mocked me for getting posters out of magazines, insisting that “nothing can compare” to using vinyl art as bedroom décor. Has the significance of album art diminished since the employment of digital music online? Do artists and record companies even focus on creating visual masterpieces to complement their aural work? How do the visuals of music — be it music video or album art — affect the manner in which it is mediated? This interplay between audio and visual can either strengthen or dismantle our notion for signs can be delivered. [Ex. Remembering the shock of seeing Teena Marie and Bobby Caldwell for the first time, as they performed hits like “Square Biz” and “What You Won’t Do For Love?” respectively.]

My dream entertainment room | Source: Pinterest

My dream entertainment room | Source: Pinterest

teena marie robbery cover

Lastly, the dissatisfaction with an aspect in the media system can influence one’s mediation decisions. Case in point: the cost and monopolization of media consumption, be it film or music. As Professor Ribes pointed out, Apple has been accused on filtering out competitors within its own products in terms of searching. How does one’s ethical decisions affect companies on a larger scale? Are we more cynical in terms of accepting larger brands like Apple, Google or even Walmart? Mediums like vinyl records are more readily associated with mom-and-pop shops while digital music files have no definite identity, except for Apple’s iTunes store or sites like Pandora, Soundcloud and Spotify. I find myself anticipating self-started web series as opposed to guaranteed blockbusters, and even watching more public television stations. (Much of this has to do with the scandalous, over-publicizing of mainstream entities.) I wonder if   instances of distrust in mainstream media will create a surge in vintage or underground art and content.

Restored Reality—Google Contact Lens

Google Contact Lens is a smart contact lens project announced by Google on 16 January 2014. The project aims to assist people with diabetes by constantly measuring the glucose levels in their tears. However, the original idea when Google announced the lens project was to design an augmented reality device for healthy people and even for blind.


By adopting modularity design philosophy, a lot of pre-exist technologies can embedded in the lens, such as camera, sensor and screen. An embedded camera can capture the moment users choose, and the information can be saved for future analyses. Also, the camera will follow users’ gaze and can zoom in/out to provide detailed information that natural human vision cannot cover. Also, a sensor can embed in smart contact lenses; therefore, facial recognition and searching feature can be realized. In addition, the camera and sensor can provide thermal induction and night vision features to users. Therefore, users can largely expand their vision and information in various extreme conditions. The sensor could be a light sensor, pressure sensor, temperature sensor or electrical field sensor, which may allow people to gain a “sixth sense” of sorts. With an embedded mini screen in the lenses, users can visualize important information such as the target they are looking for or an emergency. For example, the lens will highlight an approaching car to prevent car accident. Equipped police officers can haunt their target without wearing heavy gears. The camera would be placed below users’ pupil without obstructing their view. The control circuit could be linked wirelessly or via a wire to the camera and sensor. Therefore, users can control the device via gazing, blinking or finger gestures.

This idea is a perfect example of a transparent interface. Which would be one that erases itself, so that the user is no longer aware of confronting a medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium. This device would combine three essential features of new technology: immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation. Even though the prototype of this project was only aimed to assist people with diabetes by constantly measuring the glucose levels, the as long as the hardware has been developed, software will updated really soon. When it comes to the nature of new technology, Manovich highlighted that, “None of the new media authoring and editing technologies we associate with computers are simply a result of media ‘being digital.’ The new ways of media access, distribution, analysis, generation, and manipulation all come from software.” Manovich’s idea is similar to Bolter and Grusin’ s when they are talking about new media: immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation did not begin with the introduction of digital media. We can identify the same process throughout the last several hundred years of Western visual representation.

All of theses reminded me the modularity design philosophy. According to Baldwin and Clark (2006), modularity means breaking the whole operation system into different, smaller, self-contained systems. Arthur (2009) pointed out that, “Supporting any novel device or method is a pyramid of causality that lead to it.” Different workers are borrowing prototypic designs from each other. With the interaction between this device and the users further, the users generated more and more “discrete pieces”. New media obviously “remediated” and “hypermediated” the pre-existed media, and the embedded features are consistent and can be traced back to Renaissance. However, my question is with technology developed, some disabled people could expand/restore their abilities, would this be considered as something innovative because of the development of hardware?


Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York, NY: FrDavid, P. A. (1985).

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Transmission in the Digital Age: A Mini-Case Study

With consolidation of digital media technologies and networks, are we transitioning to a “post-media” era where individual media forms matter less than the social institutions, economic systems and industry groups, and political boundaries define information, communication, and cultural expression?

As a “content” strategist for my job, I realize that there is an awful lot of redundancy in digital messaging. The first step in being strategic about content is figuring out who you want to reach and with what message – next step is to decide how to convey that message in the places you want to be (YouTube, Twitter, website, conference, etc) to reach the intended audience. No matter how creative your approach, this will mean redundancy in messaging between different “channels” or “mediums” to emphasize the intended message.

In the case of the program I work on, we seek to transmit (in Debray’s sense of impart in a meaningful and lasting way) a cultural value of pregnancy planning. From that core goal, we develop other core messages (“planning is part of healthy relationships and healthy sex”), then build out content to communicate those messages in a variety of ways in a variety of places. And knowing the message is not enough. For transmission to be successful, the communication must account for context.

Is it hubris to seek to intentionally change a cultural value? Our cultural values are constantly shifting, shaped by economic and political powers. Sometimes those shifts may be organic; sometimes they may be driven by the intention of some power. (Maybe it’s more often than not a combination of those two parts.) This is not new to the digital age.

In contemplating the idea of a post-media era, I found it intriguing to think about the many ways ideas and messages are packaged through these screen-based mediums, as if staring at a screen reading about Taylor Swift on Perez Hilton were conveying a different message from watching a Taylor Swift music video on a screen. Of course there may be differences between the messages in these two pieces of content, but both transmit the essential message (cultural value?) “this person, who you don’t know but maybe you feel like you do, matters.” Debray writes in “The Medium’s Two Bodies” of the importance of redundance in transmission. “Because an excess of originality affects reception adversely, one must know how to use signs that are dispensable – or already familiar to the ambient milieu – to be understood.” (Debray 13) I would say that messages that transcend media go way back. There have been recurring themes across different kinds of media since the beginning of recorded history.

If commercial and political interests shape cultural values, why shouldn’t “do-gooders” try to be a part of that “conversation”? And indeed, part of the strategy for transmitting this cultural shift is to insert messages into the “spaces” where these commercial and political interests are vying for people’s attention. McLuhan’s famous saying “the medium is the message” makes sense if I think of the medium as the context and perhaps even the subculture of an online space where a message is being delivered.

Our brand, for example, seeks to have a presence in contexts as diverse as television (mass media, alongside multi-billion-dollar advertisers) and Twitter (tweeting directly to our audience). We seek a blend of influence and intimacy, and navigating the various mediums available to us (even, gasp, analog materials from time to time) helps us do this. Of course we must confront our own set of political and commercial forces. Our message is extremely political and politicized – that our brand attempts to deliver that message in a “sex-positive” way makes it even more controversial. We also face the challenge of simply not being a multi-billion-dollar corporation with resources to figuratively shout from every rooftop. On the other hand, our status as a non-profit sometimes lends credibility.

The powers that be at my organization chose to use digital media and the Internet to transmit their message because they felt this technology offered a unique opportunity to reach their intended audience. It’s true that we have a unique opportunity to get our message in front of many, many people without needing to be there physically. Yet the analog component of our work is still very important – and for us to make any lasting impact, we will need time.

P.S. Speaking of the political and commercial forces and digital media, the Atlantic published a story today about some of the challenges our program and other sexual-health-related brands have been facing lately.

Mediation in Digital Platforms

As McLuhan stated, the content in a particular media form distracted our attention from the materiality of transmission. Separating the materiality of transmission from the media function, however, provides a unique perspective to understand the impact of media. Understanding the possibility of doing a surgery in light of the technology that electricity provides, for example, brings insight into understanding modernism. Modernist critique is, in fact, embedded throughout Debray and McLuhan’s writings, in which they let us understand modern activities (like making a surgery, going to gym, etc. ) as cultural practices that are enabled through mediation technologies. The insight that they bring is so revolutionary, it can even be translated to critical theory. Consider the idea of “news,” and how they function, for example. The immediacy characteristic of the news form allows us to comprehend “news” as objective and neutral facts, even thought they are crafted combinations of text, image, and moving image, and chosen though a particular perspective, to serve a particular point of view.

Considering that the readings focused on media as a central factor in the expansion and structure of societies, an understanding of Web 2.0 is necessary. With Web 2.0, a completely new infrastructure of Internet has developed. Google, in particular, went beyond and provided us imagination: we have established a relationship with Google. Through our understanding of how Google works, we are able to ask for precise information by typing a couple of words into a box. In this transmission, for example, the media is our understanding of Google’s algorithm, transmitting our thoughts into a couple of keywords, and functions as a filter.

Therefore, post-digital media did not only simulate previous functions of mediums, (simulating the book function in the case of e-books, for example) but also the characteristics particular to them has led to the generation of unique medias. The hashtag, for example, despite being a derivation of text, is particular to social media platforms




Understanding Media

According to Bolter and Grusin, as well as McLuhan, a medium can only be understood in its relation to other mediums. As in poststructuralist and Peircean semiotics, where the meaning of a sign is always made up of other signs, McLuhan remarks that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (Understanding Media 3). This applies the concept of infinite semiosis to understanding media. As with words, we can only understand a medium in relation to other mediums, which in turn are only understandable in relation to still other mediums, ad infinitum.

This is what Bolter and Grusin refer to as “remediation,” and it is by no means the result of digitization, but instead a general theory for understanding all media, new and old. It is not only that newer media remediate (and reform) older media; “older media can also remediate newer ones” (55), an example of which might be Tosh.O, a television show (old media) that appropriates youtubes (new media). In this way, various media struggle for cultural, economic, and aesthetic dominance. They conclude, “No medium, it seems, can now function independently and establish its own separate and purified space of cultural meaning” (55).

As a result, it seems clear that we should study each medium in relation to both prior and succeeding mediums. One potential issue is that we continue to use linguistic metalanguages in order to understand all other mediums, thus granting privilege to the medium of language as the key to all other mediums. As McLuhan ends “Myth and Mass Media,” “For our experience with the grammar and syntax of languages can be made available for the direction and control of media old and new” (348). In other words, we can use the same tools of linguistic analysis in order to understand and therefore control other types of media. For instance, we tend not to think of music as having a syntax or grammar, but, like language, music is generative; a musical scale contains only a fixed amount of notes, but with these notes one can create an infinite amount of utterances. Similarly, the arrangement of the notes constitutes something like a syntax. Through such an analysis, we can come to a better understanding of how music (or any medium for that matter) functions, thus enabling us to direct the medium rather than it directing us.

However, does the study of linguistic media retain a higher methodological value for understanding other forms of media—that is, should we apply linguistic principles to the study of non-linguistic media? Does this not reinforce the centrality of linguistics, the same centrality that Bolter and Grusin criticize in relation to contemporary theory (57)? Should we instead strive to create a more inter-medial metalanguage: one that is equally relevant to all mediums?

For now, it appears that the use of linguistic analysis is the most pragmatic, but the development of a post-linguistic metalanguage might be necessary to understand the elements of other mediums that have no linguistic relation.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. 1st edition. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Myth and Mass Media.” Daedalus 88.2, Myth and Mythmaking (1959): 339-48.  JSTOR. Web. 03 Mar. 2015.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1964 (many subsequent printings and editions).

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?