Meditating on Medium, Mediation and Mediology

In front of me sits the great metamedium, the smart phone touch screen. A metamedium, as described by Professor Irvine, is a “medium for aggregating, distributing, transmitting, formatting, representing, and presenting other media.” (1)

The design of the touchscreen provides interfaces to various applications that can then be viewed, heard, and interacted with through the digital display, speakers, and touchscreen. The touchscreen, however, isn’t just a medium. It also plays an active role in the construction of a complex sociotechnical system.

Figure 2 iPhone 6 Screenshot (2)

In order to break down the complex ways the touchscreen acts as a mediator, we need to unpack the nested layers of meaning and function that the touchscreen affords.

Function: The touchscreen, through its digital display provides mental map of functions that can be performed on the phone. The layout relies on symbols that have been digitally represented and affords the user the ability to run different programs by pushing on the screen. The pressure on the screen is then mediated through the sensor technology and transferred to the phone’s operating system where those functions are transmitted to the various modular components of the phone, delegating the task of requesting and retrieving content. Once the information has been retrieved (through a complex series of operations involving a diverse number of players) the content is then displayed. The content retrieved though, is bound by certain requirements of touchscreen. Webpages need to be modified to fit the screen dimensions. Pictures may need to be resized. The touch screen presents the content and also informs the content of what it can and cannot be.

Figure 2 iPhone 6 Teardown (3)

Socialization: The functions of the touchscreen are embedded in socialization. The relationship is codependent, with the uses of the touchscreen emerging from social behaviours and also defining those behaviors. Latour refers to the first level of mediation as “goal translation.” (4) These goals, such as connecting with friends, paying bills and booking travel can be achieved through the touchscreen, but they are also changed by the presence of the touchscreen which affords multiple ways to achieve these goals. For example, one goal, which has its roots in social relations, might be a student checking in with their parents. The presence of the touchscreen now affords multiple ways of achieving this task. However the touchscreen also changes the nature of the task. For instance, the ability to communicate quickly and easily may mean that the student is expected to either call, text, or write home more frequently.

Figure 3 English: Man Talking on Phone (5)

Institutionalization: The functions and social practices enabled by the touchscreen are reinforced by institutions. Consider my old job which provided all their employees with a smartphone. The firm not only purchased the phones, but paid the monthly bills. Applications were rolled out that could be accessed by the touchscreen to make working from outside of the office simpler. However in return, it was expected that employees would respond to messages wherever they were, at whatever time of day, marking a significant shift to the way work was done. 

Figure 4: PwC Minneapolis (6)

Dependencies: The touch screen’s ability to successfully mediate is dependent on a number of interconnected systems.

  • Physical: The person’s use of smartphone is dependent on their ability to see, hear, and touch the phone. The impairment of any of these senses will define what can mediated.
  • Legal: The ability of the smart phone to be used (not while driving), and the materials it can access (public vs private information) are largely bound to legal concerns. Legal concerns also impact of many of the smart phone’s dependent technologies to mediate.
  • Economic: Business interests play a key role in the mediation of content.

Latour and Debray break down the false dichotomy between social and technical artefacts. The two exist in an ouroboros configuration, connected in an unending loop that only becomes more enmeshed with the advancement of technology. (7) Debray describes the mediologist as “interested in the effects of the cultural structuring of a technical innovation (writing, printing, digital technology, but also the telegraph, the bicycle, or photography), or, in the opposite direction, in the technical bases of a social or cultural development (science, religion, or movement of ideas).” (8) Cultural practices have influenced the construction of the touchscreen from its modular form, to the different media it can access, but in turn cultural practices have seen significant shifts since the rollout of the touch screen.  

Notes:

(1) Martin Irvine, “Understanding Sociotechnical Systems with Mediology and Actor Network Theory (with a De-Blackboxing Method)” PDF. 9.

(2) Kathryn Hartzell. iPhone 6 Screenshot, October 3, 2017. Own work.

(3) “IPhone 6 Teardown.” IFixit, September 18, 2014. https://www.ifixit.com/Teardown/iPhone+6+Teardown/29213.

(4) Bruno Latour. “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans — Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 179.

(5) Mylesclark96. English: Man Talking on IPhone, March 15, 2016. Own work. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Talking_on_iPhone_6.jpg.

(6) Zhao, Bohao. PWC Minneapolis, August 13, 2013. http://www.panoramio.com/photo/94715469. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PWC_Minneapolis_-_panoramio.jpg.

(7) Bruno Latour. “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans — Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 201.

(8) Regis Debray. “What is Mediology?.” Le Monde Diplomatique 32 Trans. Martin Irvine (1999), 1.