9.339 more media meditations

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Fri, 1 Dec 1995 00:34:10 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 339.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: "Todd J. B. Blayone" <chorus@bud.peinet.pe.ca> (81)
Subject: Re: 9.317 media meditations

[Subject: when is radio not radio?]

> Recently I had the honour and pleasure to participate in a
> centennary celebration of Marconi's invention of radio (i.e. radio
> telegraphy). This being Toronto, the nature of communications media
> was itself a topic. A recurrent question about radio in particular
> was, how will it be affected by digital technology and the seeming
> convergence of all electronic media?
> One expert, especially impressed by the possibilities of digitalized
> radio, was quite certain that we would soon be able to break radio
> free from linear time and offer downloadable, highly segmented radio
> broadcasts. While he was saying all this, I in turn was thinking
> about how much I valued radio in its current form. As I type these
> words, having pondered his for the last few days, I am listening to
> a jazz programme on a wonderful local station, and I am still
> thinking how well radio does the job that it is now doing. I grew up
> with radio, more than television, and while I was confined to bed as
> a boy (for a year, with rheumatic fever), radio, local and
> short-wave, was primary matter out of which I constructed my
> imaginative world. When I objected to the radio expert's views, he
> expressed fellow-feeling but informed me that the bulk of the young
> radio-listening public shows every sign of wanting highly segmented,
> digitally downloadable, personally rearrangable broadcasts. In other
> words, he called me an old fogey. Perhaps this is so, but having
> devoted the last decade to Ovid's Metamorphoses, I think I have as
> keen an appreciation for discontinuous, fragmented narrative as
> anyone. The real question here, it seems to me, is one we have
> tossed around on Humanist many times, but which seems not to fade:
> what is the nature of a given technological artifact, such as radio
> or the several forms of computer-mediated communications, and how do
> we figure out what this is?

> Of course the radio expert wants to do new things in his own field,
> and no doubt he will at least make the attempt. Perhaps he is right,
> and perhaps he will succeed in turning his radio station into a
> digital emporium -- and perhaps I will like the result. But does it
> not make sense that we should be paying attention to what a given
> technology seems to do well, what poorly, so that we can understand
> it and so make best use of it?

A few belated thoughts. First, the terms that we use to speak about
*a new medium* are frequently carried over from the world of an old
medium, and are laden with assumptions from that world. What becomes
of "text" in the phrase "electronic text"? What becomes of "radio" in
the phrase "digital radio"? As your subject line suggests, we need to
be sensitive to the problem of "illegitimate totality transfer," that
is, the attribution to a particular word of content or associations
which accrue to it only by virtue of its use in a particular context
(or with reference to a particular communications technology!) I
think you do well to make the move from "radio station" to "digital
emporium." Second, evaluating what a technology does well and poorly
is a good idea. One must resist the temptation, however, to begin
with a set of values that are media-specific and to use them as
general criteria. This approach misleads. An example from my own
field might be the common-place assertion that the papyrus roll did
not function well at handling the job of referencing and
cross-referencing (and therefore, early Christians adopted the codex
form). This type of analysis mistakes cause and effect. The lack of
reference systems in the earliest manuscripts indicates that
referencing and cross-referencing, as a cherished hermeneutical
activity, was a *product* of a technological shift and not the cause
of it. (The oral tradition also did a poor job of supporting this

> Take, for example, online publishing. It's quite clear that current
> mechanisms are rather poor for imitating the conventional book or
> journal. This seems to me to indicate that the genius of the Web
> lies in a rather different direction, and that we would be foolish
> not to put our efforts into figuring out what we might do with this
> genius rather than against it.

As you suggest, the issue should not be one of trying to imitate an
old medium. (Of course it is inevitable that this will occur. Note
McLuhan's dictum that the content of a new medium is always an old
medium.) Rather, our task should be to reflect on the connection
between current conceptions of scholary publishing and the print
medium, and to assess the electronic medium on its own terms.



Todd J. B. Blayone (chorus@peinet.pe.ca; MIME OK!)
Project Coordinator, Chorus / Ph.D. candidate, McGill

Address: 2480 Brock Rd. N., Pickering, ON, Canada, L1V 2P8