Make New Media, but Keep the Old:
Replacing Media’s “Old” vs “New” Dichotomy
While universities devote whole departments to the study of New Media, focusing on “newness” overlooks the crucial charaterstics of media. Obviously, some media have come later than others. The book came before film and the television came before the computer. However, all media are constantly changing. Though the basic construction of a medium may go long periods of time without drastic change, a book has almost always consisted of a paper bound to a front and back cover with the text moving in a linear fashion, no medium is static. A book from the fifteenth century certainly does not look the same as one from the twentieth century. More important than the physical construction of media, the social construction of a medium changes over time. The social meanings placed on a book or even the much younger television have changed significantly over their respective existences. Every medium is intricately tied to its socially defined meaning.1 Because a medium’s meaning is tied to the society in which it resides, the “newness” of a medium is irrelevant as the society ultimately redefines every medium in light of any technological advances. Scholars of media must replace the old versus new media dichotomy, which holds little value, with analysis examining the immediacy and hypermediacy of media.
In one of the most influential works on media, The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan highlights this old versus new dichotomy, claiming that at the time society was trying “to force the new media to do the work of the old.”2 McLuhan brings out this argument through his, to say the least, non-traditional work in which he attempts to discomfort the reader and undermine the medium of the book. He constantly changes the text’s sizing, color, and location, inserts unpredictable graphics, and even has a selection of text only readable with a mirror. McLuhan clearly exposes the constraints of the book as an “old” medium in his efforts to free new media from the shadow of older media.
McLuhan is correct, too, that a medium being created by new technology is almost always examined in the light of existing media. The Internet’s first “webpages” consciously resembled printed books. Likewise, Thomas Edison interpreted the phonograph in terms of print and speech media, envisioning it as a tool for business, not entertainment as it would become. Studying the phonograph’s history, Lisa Gitelman argues society, and not the phonograph’s inventor, ultimately defined the medium. Gitelman suggests the changing economic and social structures of corporate industrialization first push the phonograph towards public entertainment, followed by middle-class women, who redefine the phonograph as a medium for private entertainment.3
The old versus new dichotomy that McLuhan uses does not aid any analysis of the phonograph as a medium. The phonograph may appear to have been a new entertainment medium originally constrained by older print and speech media. However, examining the phonograph’s early history through this lens of old and new media comes dangerously close to suggesting the phonograph was predestine to become an entertainment medium, obscuring the social factors that pushed the device in that direction. Social influences, whether realized or not, function as the deciding factor in the creation of new media. Society must accept a new technology before the tool can become a medium. Inventors and promoters often push for certain adaptations of devices like the phonograph and not all inventors fail to influence the social development of their tool. To acclimate the public to the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell placed his device in hotel rooms so that they would call the front desk. Unlike Edison, Bell successfully shaped his tool into a medium attractive to the public.4
Similarly, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin examine the computer’s development as a medium. They argue the computer was not a medium until society placed cultural meaning on the tool. Only when the computer had enough social power to influence other media, did it truly become a medium. As the computer has continued to grow in importance in society, Bolter and Grusin suggest, the computer has transformed into multiple media.5 The phonograph, then, was never truly a medium informed by the older medium of speech and print. Instead, the phonograph, like the computer, was merely a tool until it influenced society, which it did as a medium for entertainment, not as a business tool. The old versus new dichotomy therefore not only obscures the social factors behind the phonograph as a medium, but presents a false conflict between older and newer media. Without the social cache to truly function as a medium, the phonograph was never caught in between media, but rather waiting as society formed it into a medium. Instead of some epic clash of old and new in which an older medium is handicapping the new medium, as McLuhan suggests, new media has always emerged in the context of established media.6
In fact, McLuhan’s non-traditional book fits neatly within Bolter and Grusin’s argument. In response to new media, McLuhan altered the older medium of the book. Similarly, Bolter and Grusin themselves contributed to the remediation of the book integrating de facto hyperlinks in their text, allowing the reader to ignore the linearity encouraged by the book. Bolter and Grusin explore the remediation of a variety of media including television, which today would likely look quite different to McLuhan. Bolter and Grusin note how digital media has influenced television arguing the prevalence of on-screen text and the juxtaposition of different views work to emphasize the television as a medium. Television, like many media today, has largely given up attempting to simulate lived experience.7 Digital media, today’s new media, has updated McLuhan’s new media placing television into a gray area of the old versus new dichotomy. While not entirely new, it is also certainly not old media. Instead of new media being stifled by the work of old media as McLuhan argued, television has become old media reinvigorated by new media. The cyclical nature of remediation places the importance of media not on the old/new dichotomy but rather on examination of individual media and their changes.
By focusing on individual media, a new, more valuable dichotomy evolves around the immediacy or hypermediacy of a medium. Examining whether a medium attempts to place the viewer in the space being viewed without obstruction (immediacy) or it looks to highlight contrasts in the medium (hypermediacy) provides scholars with much more valuable insights on the nature of the medium.8 McLuhan also addressed this more useful dichotomy, stating plainly “Environments are invisible.”9 While McLuhan correctly points out that in the case of the book, the medium is often invisible, McLuhan’s use of unconventional styles made his use of the book as a medium unavoidable. Likewise, in many cases environments are not invisible. When the phonograph moved to the private home its medium became much more obvious than its use in a public venue, which was more like the real life experience of listening to music. As previously mentioned, television’s incorporation of superimposed texts, graphics, and views highlight the television as a medium to the viewer.10
Asking questions of immediacy and hypermediacy instead of new and old returns the scholarly focus to the medium itself. Age conveys little useful information about a medium. However, the way in which a medium interacts with the user’s viewing of some content directly explores the meaning of the medium and the medium’s influence on its content. McLuhan argues the medium is the “massage,” but in order for the medium to massage anything the medium’s influence must not be noticeable. The environment must be invisible. If the environment is visible, as in McLuhan’s book itself, the medium is not massaging the message. McLuhan draws attention to his medium to support his argument, however, an attentive reader realizes this rhetorical device. Likewise, Bolter and Grusin’s use of de facto hyperlinks highlights their medium of choice, also the book, once again revealing the medium’s weakness when compared to other media, notably digital media and neatly fitting into Bolter and Grusin’s larger argument about remediation.
Framing the analysis of a medium in terms of immediacy and hypermediacy automatically direct one’s attention to the medium, its influence on the content, and its relationship to other media. On the other hand, comparisons of media in terms of new and old direct attention to the relationship between media, though in a way in which a false conflict emerges. McLuhan may have been correct at the time that older media was restricting the usefulness of new media. However, media are dynamic. Society and other media constantly redefine existing media. Seeing new media in terms of existing media is a natural, though the comparison should not stop at that point. A provocative, seminal work, Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage raises important points about the changing nature of media and the importance of examining the environment of a medium. However, McLuhan examines the interaction of media from only one perspective, new media. McLuhan rightly notes the power of existing media holds on emerging media, though he ignores the emerging media’s influence on existing media. McLuhan consciously influences the older medium of the book, though only as a rhetorical device. His argument glosses over the fact that new media profoundly affects existing media. To fully explore the differences between types of media scholars need to ask questions relating to the fundamental purpose of the media, like its immediacy and hypermediacy.
1. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), 19; Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 4, 8, 15.
2. Marshal McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (New York: Random House, 1967), 81.
3. Gitelman, 13-14. See also Gitelman’s first two chapters, pp. 25-88 for a complete history of the phonograph as a medium.
4. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000), 88.
5. Bolter and Grusin, 66.
6. Ibid., 14-15.
9. McLuhan, 84.
10. Bolter and Grusin,190-191.