Is content or medium the message?

Winston concludes his book with the technological primacy of our current age in discussing the Internet.  The grounds for specific scientific competence were met with the creation of a language or code and computers in the 1970’s. 

According to Winston, language, or code, had developed as a result of the application of Information Theory developed in the 1940’s and applied during World War II.  Information Theory was instrumental in the machine gun calculations discussed earlier this quarter.  The Internet’s language, therefore, had its roots in previous military applications.  In addition, a system of breaking up data for broader efficiency was also and important precursor to the Internet. 

In the 1960’s the US Airforce supported a program to develop interconnectivity of geographically distributed networks so that if one or many of them were removed during nuclear attack the system could still function.   The idea was that data would be broken up amongst a network of nodes so that if a nuclear attack were to occur, the data could be retrieved through the redundancy of the other computers.  In this case, the supervening social necessity was protection against a nuclear attack.  However, there were also important contributions to the development of the Internet in academia.

The National Science Foundation eventually provided the funding for supercomputers to be networked in order to facilitate academic research.  Mini computers were introduced as intermediary between supercomputers to handle networking chores an alleviate Academics concern that computing time for institutions would not be a suppressing constraint.  The beginnings of ARPANET meant a huge outlay of cash.  However, email brought such efficiency to the academic environment that it was indispensable.   There were costs though.  The intellectual elites were the only ones with access to email.  In addition, the average user could not afford to become part of the network because of the cost of computers, which even having been scaled back in “ruggedness,” were in fact prohibitively expensive. 

The NSF agreed to commercialization of the Internet in the late 1970’s.  Adoption was mischaracterized as being dramatically robust in 1995.  It is likely that the numbers of online users were likely 3 million instead of the 45 million that was previously estimated.  However, there are very accurate numbers on the demographics of users.  According to a Georgia Institute of Technology survey conducted in 1994, the private internet audience was predominately male, white, and North American.  It is arresting to think that the Internet is not in fact the globalizing, egalitarian environment it is often lauded to be.  McLuhan would agree, however, that there was still a great gift of the Internet:  email.

According to McLuhan, the change of a scale or pace or pattern is the great benefit of a medium or technology that infiltrates human affairs.  Email certainly changed the pace of communication just as the plane changed the rate of travel.  There was a profound effect on the human experience with the introduction of email.  McLuhan states that the important thing to understand in discussing the adoption of email, is that the medium is the message.  The content of that medium or how it is used is less important than the medium itself in affecting change.  Email’s introduction affected speed of a communication first and foremost.  Further, McLuhan states that speed is when awareness emerges of how the medium is contributing to society.  Certainly, travel speed by plane or email communication is the defining factor of how each technology changed the social sphere.  Similarly, film was used as an example of the unchaining of time in medium.  Film allows sequence and connection to be uncoupled and moved into the realm of the artistic.  McLuhan extrapolates further that an artistic work can in the visual sense fragment, or create an illusion, not only in time but visually just as in Cubism.  McLuhan states that by Cubist’s decoupling of space and inclusion of multiple perspectives of time, there is created an “instant sensory awareness” (McLuhan, 2005).  Representing multiple facts at once makes the medium the message.  The content is secondary but necessarily important.  There are often pitfalls in trying to understand content. As an example, A Passage to


by E.M. Forster (a personal favorite) shows the collision between the rational European viewpoint and the contrary Indian viewpoints.  The seminal moment in is when protagonist experiences a conflict between her rational understanding and visual stimulus in a cave where she observes visual communication forms.  She is forever changed by the experience.  The collision of the visual and the auditory in our current world across cultures is being normalized by new technology, but content is not the effecting influence according to McLuhan, it is the medium. 

Winston would agree that visual mediums are more important than the actual content.  His final chapter chronicles the emergence of holographic, moving images, which he implies is the next technological advancement.  Kollock and Smith focuses both on the medium as the message and the content.  Creation of technology-mediated communities like graphical worlds emphasize the importance of medium and content.  The fact that online communities strip away the many “cues and signs that are a part of fact-to-face interaction,” (Kollock & Smith, p. 8) makes the medium more important.  At the same time, there is not a unified representation of cyberspace.  Therefore the uniqueness of content itself is an appeal to users.  Connection is the overarching theme in choosing to interact in cyber communities.  However, there are definite drawbacks to the growth in these communities.  The opportunity to establish new identities lends itself to deceit.  In addition, stereotypes are sometimes exaggerated online.  Also, online communities do not reasonably approximate real life interaction because nuance is lost in technology-mediated communication.  Winston would say that society more broadly adopts technology-mediated communication which most closely approximates the real.  According to Kollock and Smith, cyber communities will never closely approximate real life experience.  Cyber communities are a viable platform for social protest but at the same time a self-moderated community also gives way to many inaccuracies.  In essence, Kollock and Smith believe that cyber communities have deficiencies.


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