DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY & CULTUREAn Open Education Resource
The Digital Media chapter introduces some core concepts from the field of media studies as they relate to the module readings. Bolter and Grusin's essay "Immediacy, Hypermediacy and Remediation" draws on the ideas of Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan to explain how any new media copies, improves upon and/or critiques the content of previous media. Manovich's "Principles of New Media" lays out the characteristics of digital media based on an examination of its underyling code structure. This chapter concludes with a hands-on exercise using a popular digital form, the internet meme, to explore how the nature of digital code affects the message and messaging.
2.1Media Shapes Us
One of the core concepts in the field of media studies is that the unique conditions and materialities of human communication shape thinking, behavior and culture. Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan were two visionary thinkers about the individual and societal effects of 20th century mass media ‐ radio, film and television. Each thinker, in his own way, was cautiously optimistic about the effects of mass media. But their ideas were formed before media became digital. Neither Benjamin nor McLuhan could have anticapted how digital media would transform all aspects of life in the 21st century.
“…that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.”
Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish cultural critic and essayist who’s perceptions and thinking about the then emerging 20th century mass media have been very influential to understanding 21st digital media. In the mechanical reproduction of books, newspapers, music, voice, photographs and particularly film, he saw a revolutionary and democratic potential to free individuals from politically dominant systems and hierarchies. He also saw the potential dangers of mass media to influence, manipulate and control the masses. Benjamin witnessed the swift rise of Nazism in Germany during the 1930s through its effective use of mass propaganda and ritualized violence: flyers and posters, staged events for the news and emotionally manipulative films. During this time, Benjamin lived in Paris as an exile and tried to escape to the U.S. when the Nazis invaded France in 1940 . Unable to leave the country, and fearing his fate as a Jew, he committed suicide with an overdose of morphine tablets
Walter Benjamin’s "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1930) is one of his most influential essays and one that is particularly relevant to understanding digital media today. With this essay, he said he wanted to produce a theory that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” In other words, he wanted people to wake up to a world changed by mass media and to use the “new” media rather than be used by it. A central concept in the essay is what Benjamin calls the aura of a work of art. The aura of a work of art is the quality of an original, mainly its distance in time and space,that cannot be reproduced by technology. While there has always been some form of reproduction of art works - a student copying the painting of a master, for example - in the age of mass production, the speed and accuracy of reproduction, Benjamin argued, annihilates distances of space and time which in turn diminishes the authenticity, the cult value and the aura of the original.
“even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
Aura or Kitsch?
An effect of mechanical reproduction, besides its weakening of the original’s uniqueness in time and space, is in the emancipation of “the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Fine arts had aways been a domain of the elite and powerful, those who owned the objects and sites of cultural heritage. Folk arts, often defined by geographical region, were embedded in distinct historical traditions and rituals. With the mechanical reproduction of movies, books, comics and music, art becomes available for public consumption on a massive scale. Fine art and folk art become popular and secular. The culture industry is born.
What Benjamin did not anticipate is the role of mass media in creating new types of aura through the amplification of attention to replicated images. For example, the aura of movie stars. Social media sharing intensifies rather than diminishes the auras of sites or works of art.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most visited works of art in the world because its reproduced image is ubiquitous.
In the "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Benjamin explores many important ideas about the democratic possibilities as well as authoritarian dangers that result from mechanical reproduction. But what is particularly prescient for today’s digital media environment is his anticipation of technologies that free the author and the artist from the constraints of reaching an audience. In the 21st century, everyone with a social media account is a writer and producer of images and sounds. These technologies of reproduction, Benjamin observed, also generates new methods and styles of writing: multimodal, collective, fragmentary and combinatory. The annihilation of time and space not only changes how human share experiences, it changes experience itself.
The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian academic and public intellectual, became famous (and controversial) for his phrase “the medium is the message.” First introduced in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the phrase condenses into a pithy meme many of McLuhan’s ideas about how human beings are changed by their technologies. The phrase, on its surface, asserts that it is the medium of communication itself, not the content it carries, that has the greatest impact on the individual and society. This implies that media act on our bodies in ways that sometimes bypass direct understanding. McLuhan felt that Modern art most clearly expressed this idea. A Cubist painting is about its sensory effect rather than the subject depicted. Film, a technology that builds wholes out of temporal fragments, transforms "the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure.” A family who gathers to watch a television sitcom may appear to be just having a laugh together. But the medium itself introduces into the home a ritualized, continuous and immersive space that connects to other homes involved in the same ritual.
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effects upon him.”
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, p.318
"The Medium is the Message", Part 1
"The Medium is the Message", Part 2
Media have such an impact on thought and behavior because, according to McLuhan, they are extensions of the body and the senses. All human technologies extend some function of the body. A wheel is an extension of the foot. The hammer is an extension of the hand. The camera is an extension of the eye. And electronic media is an extension of the nervous system. Each major human transformation can be attributed to a new technology extending the human domain. The Oral Age experienced the mysteries and fears of living in acoustic space, a state of unknowing. This “tyranny of the ear” was liberated by the Writing Age which “abolished mystery and created architecture and towns and brought roads and armies.” The Print Age experienced an “exhaustion of the eye” and the fragmentation from clocks, punch-cards, assembly lines and bureaucracies until the emancipation of the Electronic Age. McLuhan argued that the new electronic age of connectivity, nonlinearity, simultaneity and sensory plentitude was “paradise regained,” returning human culture to the sense of wholeness and surrounding acoustic space that had been lost with writing and print.
The Medium is the Massage
“The Medium is the Massage is a look-around to see what’s happening. It is a collide-oscope of interfaced situations.”
— Marshall McLuhan
When the proof of McLuhan's new book "The Medium is the Message" returned from the printer, the title read instead "The Medium is the Massage." This typo agreed with McLuhan because it expressed his central idea that the medium acts on the body."
McLuhan conducted his research during the 1950s and 1960s, a period of great cultural transformation in the way people related to and were shaped by media. The expansion of broadcast television with its live coverage of events, such as the moon landing, created the sense of what McLuhan called a “global village.” Rock & roll music on the radio freed popular music from fixed genres and became a vehicle for counter-cultural ideas that spread across the globe. McLuhan was not around for the emergence of personal computers and the internet, but his ideas, contested during his time, have become central to the field of media studies seeking to makes sense of the rapid changes in the Digital Age.
2.2Principles of Digital Media
Lev Manovich is a media theorist who, in his The Language of New Media(2002), defined new media by its distinct difference with past media, namely the properties of digital code. His 5 principles, illustrated below, help in undertsanding how digital media is used culturally. The principles are numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability,
Principles of New Media
“Not every new media object obeys these principles. They should be considered not as absolute laws, but rather as general tendencies of a culture undergoing computerization.” - Lev Manovich
Explore below to see Manovich's 5 principles demonstrated with this digital photograph.
'the “content” of any medium is always another medium’ - Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
"Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation" by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (from their Remediation: Understanding New Media) describes three phenomena observed in the evolution of any communication media:
1. an initial desire for the new media to be invisible in its representations
2. a later desire to represent the media and its mediation of reality
3. the tendency for new media to imitate older media.
These phenomena are especially present in digital media because of it ability to easily reproduce and simulate other past media.
Early filmmakers looked to 19th century theater and vaudville for subjects, forms, styles and techniques. Once the unique qualities of film were formalized - editing, camera movement, framing - film could define its own styles, forms and techniques. In the same way, digital cinema began by "remediating" the formal qualities of theatrical film and only later came to embrace the unique qualities of the digital: looping, networked and participatory making, small-screen aesthetics, etc.
“a transparent interface … one that erases itself, so that the user would no longer be aware of confronting a medium, but instead would stand in an immediate relationship with the contents of the medium” - Remediation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin
Immediacy is a style that presents the illusion of a perceptively real world, rather than represents a world through a set of signs like language. Of course, there are different techniques and technologies to create the illusions in panoramas, perspectival paintings, photography, cinema and virtual reality, but for the viewer the medium is not so much invisible as transparent. When one is at a movie theater, the movie's world takes over perception, rather than the screen, projector and curtains.
"If the logic of immediacy leads one either to erase or to render automatic the act of representation, the logic of hypermediacy acknowledges multiple acts of representation and makes them visible." - Remediation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin
Unlike immediacy, hypermediacy is a style that calls attention to the medium and the act of perception. This might involve an awareness of the medium. For example, a scene in a movie that is revealed to be a scene on a fictional movie set. The spatial juxtapositions in multi-panel paintings, in collages and on screen devices all call attention to the act of looking and reading images rather than being caught in the illusion of a single reality. Video game interfaces often involve both immersive immediacy with layers of hypermediacy.
“...for our visual culture there is nothing prior to mediation. Any act of mediation is dependent upon another, indeed many other, acts of mediation and is therefore remediation” - Remediation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin
Remediation happens when new media must look to older media for both technique and content, until the new media finds its own style and content. Websites tend to remediate printed books and video games tend to remediate movies.
2.4Unit Exercise: Create a Meme
A meme is an idea, image, joke, phrase, gesture, recorded act, or a style that spreads from person to person within a group. A meme usually conveys a particular point-of-view, theme, or meaning that connects with others and gives a reason for them to pass it on. Because internet memes, as digital media, can circulate very rapidly and widely from one user to another, they have been used to get activist or poltical messages to spread "virally."
Create your own meme as an image or gif animation with text. Think of an important or funny message you want to spread and create a meme that you can share with the rest of the class.
1. Create or find an image (in the public domain) that expresses your idea.
2. Add a caption to the image that will get across your message.
3. Share your meme with the class and/or with your social networks.
4. Track what happens to your meme.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings et al., First Edition edition, Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2008.
Bolter, J. David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Mit Pr, 1999.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Reprint edition, The MIT Press, 2002.
Ryan, Marie-Laure, et al., editors. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.