Metamedium: a great idea yet to be fully implemented

Manovich (2013)’s historical approach explaining the development of digital media as a metamedium is inspiring. He shows with primacy that, even if it is possible to visualize a combinatorial process at place when comparing old media and the computing devices, there is nothing inevitable or deterministic about this development. In fact, such devices were built, constrained not only by people, but also by the market dynamic. On the one hand, the new properties emerged with the metamedium had to be “imagined, implemented, tested, and refined” (p. 97). On the other hand, industry interests and decisions also influence the kind of devices that the broad population will be able to experience. As Manovich (2013) affirms, “the invention of new mediums for its own sake is not something which anybody is likely to pursue, or get funded (p. 84). It does not go unnoticed that although researchers such as Alain Kay and Adele Goldberg imagined a metamedium that would allow computer users not only to consume existent media, but produce new ones, and being themselves programmers, the industry has not invested on these attributes as devices’ mainstream characteristics – neither in 1984, when the first Macintosh was launched, or in 2010, when Apple’s Ipad impressed the market.

The concept of a metamedium announces that it not only simulates old media, but it also has unprecedented functions. One can write using computers, as used to do using papers, but the “view control” (Manovich, 2013) is totally different, once one can change the fonts, cut and past, or yet change the structure of the text presented, to name a few possibilities. It is true that, as the author perceptively shows, although conceived some decades ago, some affordances are not fully developed yet, such as the Doug Engelbart’s spatial features to structure the visualization of text. Even though, the capacity of organizing text using computing devices is unprecedented.

Computing devices are also interactive. The possibilities that they open to support problem solving situations go far beyond previous calculators (Manovich, 2013). As a metamedium, computers bring the possibility of engaging the learner in a two-way conversation” opening new possibilities for teaching-learning methods (Kay and Goldberg, 1977). The history has shown less changes in education that imagined by such scholars, though. Why?

Nicholas Negroponte, from the same generation of Kay and Goldberg, settled at MIT, launched, in 2005, the One Lap Top Per Child (OLPC) project. Policymakers from developing countries received it with enthusiasm. Negroponte promised a device – with standard software included –  per 100 dollars each, to change teaching and learning process. The project was seen by many as the solution for the lateness in adopting digital media at schools. Latin American countries, including Brazil, invested a lot in this project. I then conducted a study with a colleague at Columbia University to understand mobile learning in Brazil and the results show that the OLPC failed in many distinct ways. Our focus was the public policies aspects of the project, but from the readings I can see that the device itself was completely different from what Kay and Goldberg once imagined and also from what Negroponte made people think that it would be. The device was locked-down (The future of the Internet and how to stop it, Zittrain, 2008), with limited affordances to allow students to create new media. The screen was small (although bigger than other classroom devices), the processor and memories were also limited.

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OLPC is in the left


Despite the fact that the uses imagined for such devices could create a better teaching and learning environment – and they created indeed in some classrooms where they were organically adopted  –  their affordances would not generate a new level of student, a metamedium student, I would say, that would be able to create new media, new tools, according to their necessities and personal trajectory. And this is a huge gap in this project, focused on developing countries.

Going further, as Manovich points out, from the point of view of the media history, the most important characteristic of a metamedium is that it is “simultaneously a set of different media and a system for generating new media tools and new types of media” (p. 102). This refers to the capacity of a user not only to transform a text, but also create mash-ups, remixes, machinima. The problem is that, as extensively studied by some scholars (Lawrence Lessig, Jack Balking, Aram Sinnreich), while the affordances are available, the limits imposed by intellectual property regulations, not only through laws, but also through technological and digital rights management (DRM) tools, have restricted the metamedium capacities massively. And because the industry also works in shaping the narrative about this kind of digital practices, naming “pirate” people that engage in such kind of activities, in a derogatory way, I believe that industries deliberately contribute to prevent the development of metamedium devices, metamedium students and metamedium users as whole.