Medium as an “in-between” from micro to macro aspects
I would start the discussion this week from the earliest meaning of the term “medium”. By thinking about medium as something “in-the-middle” or “in-between”, we can therefore depict an image containing two dimensions in our mind: space and time (Irvine, 2018, p.1).
I would like to start with the spatial axis. To be sure, as for me, the concept of space is more generalized. It is on the one hand object-oriented including the wires as a “media” of physical signals and waves, the assembly language as a “media” between the electronic locations and the lowest level of computer systems, or if we want to step closer to human beings, the newspapers lying “in-between” the readers and the textual, visual information, the TV screens standing in the middle of audiences and dramas and TV shows, or the cyberspace that cross the geographic broader, connecting people in every corner of the world with multiple forms of information, etc. On the other hand, it could be also imaginary, it contains a well-structured top-down layer with technical infrastructure at the bottom and social-political-cultural environment at the top while there are mutual relationships between each layer (Hall, 1999, p.510). I will consider the application of the concept of medium, media and mediation in three layers from bottom to the top: Technical infrastructure, Audiences’ meaning system and Social-cultural-economic-political context.
The earliest concept of medium, or media in technical infrastructure is relatively purely physical (e.g. the copper wire used as a medium for conducting electrical current) (Irvine, 2018, p.1). This knowledge fits well into the first metaphor of medium (i.e. medium-as-vessel/conduit) according to Meyrowitz where the content delivered is analytically separated from the particular presentation of it in a particular medium (Meyrowitz, 1997, p.44-45). However, today there is no way we can separate the operation of electrical, telecommunication system with computer science. Therefore, during the mediation from the physical and hardware onto the computer system, assembly language, initially using the binary system to represent physical location with electrical energy, becomes a medium, or interface (Personally I think interface is a more imaginary or less material explanation of medium). The concept that everything computational and digital is an artefact of and for human symbolic cognition stands out here, while for example, programmers can choose basing on their preference about whether use 0 or 1 to represent an off status, there is already human meaning system interacts here (Irvine, 2018, p.8). Besides, digital media nowadays becomes one of the most popular way for us to access information as the receiver and deliver information as the transmitter, the OSI layer model in TCP-IP showing a bottom-up structure from physical layer (where those physical signals flows) to application layer (where human beings get their final touch of this system) greatly explains how technical infrastructure, with components inside which as micro media object and itself as a macro media object, is serving as a critical proxy in the whole media system and is used importantly in many fields including information and communication, new media and software studies. (Irvine, 2018, p.4)
If we then have a glance at Hall’s figure describing the process of encoding and decoding (Hall, 1999, p.510). It might not be a bad idea to consider the second layer, i.e., the meaning system, as the medium of the user interface (it can be print books, newspapers, TV, radios or the screen of your iPhone) and each person as an entirety. While there are lots of studies here applied to the semiotics field, one concept I want to bring here is that media do not neutrally communicate or transmit some equally neutral information content (Irvine, 2018, p.15). If we consider meaning system of human beings as the medium here and think about the semiotic system theory, it might not be hard to explain. According to Peirce’s successive interpretants in his model of the sign, an interpretant can always point to another representamen with a relatively degree of randomness (Chandler, 2007, p.32). Stuart Hall mentioned a related concept called connotation where in Barthes’ s example of sweater, multiple connotative levels emerge including ‘a cold day’, ‘informal fashion styles’ or even ‘long autumn walk in the woods’. The same information sent from the transmitter, therefore, can experience lots of possibilities and changes at different receivers (i.e.: our meaning system). Therefore, the codes of encoding and decoding is usually, or always, asymmetrical (Hall, 1999, p.510).
The top layer, i.e., the political-social-economic-cultural context, from my perspective, affects we as the audience in two steps. First, it regulates directly towards the information we receive. Today in a digital world, usually the first step has a lot to do with the technical infrastructure where for example governments’ censorship, control on the domain name system, working with search engines such as Google to take the advantage of algorithms invisible to ordinary users to create fake news or affect the elections (there are good purposes though); Second, it makes the audience (probably unconsciously), to reproduce the dominant, or preferred meaning which will in turn affect our later perception and judgement of the following information by imputing the preferred information to us. This serves as an explanation of why audiences from different cultural backgrounds perceives the same information differently. According to McLuhan, one way where social and political power is wielded is through control over communication media (Meyrowitz, 1994, p.51) and media are thus forms of social-political-cultural mediation, and presuppose institutions dedicated to cultural transmission over time (Irvine, 2018, p.15).
Finally, if we look horizontally through the time line, medium is also an “in-between” through the temporal axis of history, affecting and witnessing the social changes. According to Meyrowitz, there are three phases of civilization that could be well matched to three major forms of communicating: Traditional oral societies, Modern print societies and electronic global culture. The society is first integrated (i.e. in the nomadic society) in face to face communication, followingly segregated and fragmented with the emergence of print media and libraries and re-integrated within digitalization where intimacy is brought back and simultaneously a geographic barrier in the first state is broken (Meyrowitz, 1994, p.53-58). The social roles assigned to male-female, adults-child, leaders-followers are also travelling from unitary to binary and gradually back to unitary (Meyrowitz, 1994, p.63-69). If we think about this in a Postmodernism way, there is endlessly revolution and revolve and we, as audiences, are luckily also in-the-middle in the communication and media history.
- Chandler, D. (2007). Semiotics: The Basics. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Hall, S. (1999). Encoding, Decoding. New York: Routledge.
- Irvine, M. (2018). Media Theory: An Introduction.
- Meyrowitz, J. (1997). Understandings of Media.
- Meyrowitz, J. (1994). Media Theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.