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Communication, whether verbal or written, has never derived its value or meaning simply from the symbols employed. Rather, these auditory or visual symbols gain meaning when they are used to translate the thoughts or emotions of one individual for the understanding and consumption by one or more others. In this manner they are the medium for the machinations of the human mind.
Over the course of history symbols have been used for human expression through ever evolving series of medias, from fixed-in-place cave paintings and stone obelisks, to transportable papyrus and printed books, and presently through keyboards and electronic signal based formats. Yet, while the physical manifestation and method of consumption of the symbols has changed, the creation and understanding of them remains firmly rooted in the norms of social interaction.
Take as an example the uses of a modern tablet computer. Beyond the physical similarities to early surfaces used for visual communication, the rules that dictate how humans operate IRL translate to this seemingly independent product. First lets think about the interface. The touchscreen removes the artifactual keyboard interface in favor of a medium that ideally responds in a seamless manner to human desire. Analogous to an office desktop, the swipe motion to clear the screen of the current document in favor of seeing the core tools on the user’s desktop feeds into the basic human action of using their hand or arm to clear away space in front of them to work on something new.
The tablet is fundamentally one more tool in the family of stone tablets, papyrus, and typewriters for forming symbols with the goal of long-form communication. However, they are more frequently used for instant outgoing communication with other people via chat, email, audio calls, and video calls and incoming communication via all of these channels plus video and audio broadcasts, and written news media. I would like to touch on a few of these that seem more modern than they actually are in practice: Video Calls and news broadcasts and alerts.
Video calling has been a dream of technologists since long before early sci-fi comics depicted such communication. In practice, while it is used more frequently, we have found that certain rules and social norms surround it. First, the times when I can or will answer a video call are more limited than the times I will answer a phone call or text. Looking back into early history, where a phone call or text would be analogous to leaving a note under the recipients door or passing a message through a neighbor, a video call out of the blue is akin to running up to someone in the street and yelling “Hey! Hey! Will you stop what you’re doing and talk to me?” Just as there has always been a time and place for that sort of impromptu meeting, there is a time and place for video calls. The method of communication has changed but the fundamental social context has not.
As we are bombarded by buzzing alerts and screen pop-ups by news agencies, we might be prone to gripe about the invasion of modern technology into our lives. But is this really a new feature? How is this different from the days of paper boys standing on street corners shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” We may have to deal with the issue of a misallocation of importance to certain news items but fundamentally if the news is relevant to us we appreciate the notification and if it isn’t we are a little annoyed by the disturbance.
In summary, all of the functions of the technological artifacts we use today are re-mediation of age old social behaviors and forms of communication. This blog post is the print at home pamphlet shared amongst a small group of thinkers. The medium has changed but the social behaviors fundamentally have not.
Translation of Régis Debray, “Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?”
Le Monde Diplomatique, August 1999, p32.
By Martin Irvine, Georgetown University
Martin Irvine, “Understanding Sociotechnical Systems with Mediology and Actor Network Theory (with a De-Blackboxing Method)”