The medium isn't the message

Created at: 23 Dec 2022 Last updated: 24 Apr 2023

On Twitter awhile back I saw an ad for a 'domino train' that automates setting up dominos. In the comments I saw a few disparaging comments. One read, "Nobody needs a fully-automatic, magazine fed domino laying train." Another, "Yup, let’s continue to take away our children’s imagination and eye/hand coordination development. Corporate imagination for everyone🙄. What an awful product." 

I was suddenly reminded of one of the reasons I dropped out of a graphic design major at Indiana University around 2005 or so. I love design, and photography, film, movies, everything image related. But, I didn't want to be forced to draw for 4 hours every day (as was/is required). I guess you could say I didn't want to set up the dominos myself.

This was a great choice, not just because busywork and homework is waste of time, but because I ended up getting to do graphic design, anyway. Further, my lack of desire to compromise lead to more fun when I eventually capitulated on secondary education. After getting burnt out at an unsatisfying job (Kinkos), I went back to IU as an 'undeclared' major—very fun, and highly recommended! If you're obligated to get some expensive credentials to prove...whatever it is that college degrees prove, you might-as-well have fun exploring all kinds of ideas while doing it!

I took a class called CMCL 101 (I think it was labeled, though I believe the CMCL department is dead now), taught by Robert E. Terrill. This class had a weekly screening at a theater, which I think no longer exists, called the Buskirk Chumley. I got to watch, talk about, and think deeply about movies at school! What a thrill, albeit a very expensive one. No regrets!

For the discussion section of the class I read an excerpt from McLuhan's book, the titular piece for this post, "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Chapter 1: 'The Medium is the Message'". In the subsequent lecture I was implored to not "look though, but look at" communication. I can think of few better ways to describe empiricism. I was put under a spell of sorts. This was very exciting to me, and inspired me, as I had always had an interest in weird movies and film, to major in Communications and Culture.

Now, some 12 years after graduating, I think McLuhan and Terrill have something wrong at the basis of their philosophy. Now, I'm not saying the theory is not without merit! And even McLuhan admits that the title was something of a marketing gimmick. But, the fact is: the medium is the medium and the message is the message—and this statement that the medium is the message is simply wrong.

Any medium carries inexplicit knowledge, and encodes knowledge in a way which makes aspects of it's imperfection hidden from easy criticism. Each media has it's own low hanging fruit and hidden treasures. As you read this text you are likely not considering further improvements to the alphabet, or the limits of available phonemes in the English language for communicating felt senses that are better communicated through Japanese onomatopoeia, for example.

But, this seems to suggest we ever have a perfect understanding of media. It also says nothing of the more important question: where do new media come from. These are related problems. The reason we'll never have a perfect knowledge of any single media, and the reason that we don't know where knowledge about new media comes from, are the same problem: what is knowledge? Where did our understanding of media come from, and how do we come up with new media? creativity.

We don't know how creativity works, if we did, we'd know what consciousness is and we'd be able to create an AGI (another mind, like ourselves, but not on a water based substrate). But, we do know that creativity can't come from observations alone. For, what we have observed has nothing to do what what we can possibly observe. And, all observations are theory laden (drawing heavily on Karl Popper now)--all observations have imperfect guesses about reality at their core.With this in mind, let's look at the second sentence of the second paragraph of McLuhan's mumbo-jumbo: "The electric light is pure information." Well, that's just plainly wrong. We know that light is made of photons, and the double-slit experiment shows us that either: light is in two positions at once (a superposition), or the universe splits into two causing the photon to interfere with itself and create the interference pattern we see above. This means the information we have access to in this universe is imperfect, read: not pure.

There is no particle that is not reducible split into some quanta that has limitations on it's measurement. Electrons occupy a cloud, where either it's speed or position can be measured, but not both. Quantum particles, well, they all have similar properties to the photon, existing in 'superpositions' (or multiple universes, depending one what kind of problem you're trying to solve).

This idea that we have access to some kind of 'pure' realm of information, that does not contain some underlying guess, is called "the problem of induction." That data can justify some level of certainty of truth assumes an end to data and it's types. There has always been light for people, we are born with eyes--but not radiation. Before radiation was discovered there was no data of it's existence--was it any less true? This is the problem with relying on existing evidence, peer review, data, and probability—it doesn't take creativity seriously.

With enough evidence and data, we can get 99% certain of reality, and the rest will be easy-going? I think this was comforting to me, and is still a great justification for a lot of things in society. It's very comforting, when facing traumatic problems, to assume that we can reach a plateau of civilization where we've solve most, or all, of any number of existing problems—and that our decisions which sometimes negatively affect other people can be justified in that regard. But, nothing in reality suggests this is attainable, or even desirable—the more problems we solve the bigger new ones we get.

"The media is the message" is a sort of deepity. Deepities are comforting and they reduce cognitive load, temporarily, by allowing the user to avoid creating a third option when a space between two options (sometimes called liminality) is presented. Here, presented with having to change because some small increment in creativity had huge ramifications on all of society (take recent advancements in AI as a contemporary example as of writing).

Faced with a choice about how to treat this new thing, which introduces conflict to our current state of social/work equilibrium, we can accept or not accept it--OR we can try to say that really there was no advancement at all, that as soon as the new technology was created, it's fate was in some way already sealed.

This is a sort of technological "historicism." Historicism is the idea that certain patterns or cycles can be predicted to repeat in history. Karl Marx, for example, notoriously prophesized that a (violent) revolution of the working class is foretold by the nature of capitalism. McLuhan, similarly, is saying that the fate of how a technology will be used, how it will affect society, is intrinsic to the technology itself. And, if we can just understand that, we can predict the problems and solutions (possible messages, possible communication) that will come from it.

Let's summarize:
1. We have no idea the novel ways in which media (technology) may be used by people (including ourselves).
2. We have no idea what new media will be discovered and used to by people (including ourselves) communicate.

But there's two other things worth noting before I conclude. Similar messages/abstractions can be encoded for/in different media (in fact, that's what minds/consciousness must be, if it's not magic). In other words, media are interoperable (a counterfactual property). And, if we're going to take "the media is the message" seriously, it is then worth considering: the media is the media, the message is the message, and because of the interoperable property it can even be said that the message is the media. So, did we really learn anything from McLuhan's mumbo-jumbo?

Apparently the first domino run shows were in the 1970s, but the game of dominos dates back to the Song Dynasty in china (1232–1298). I'm pretty sure the people playing it then didn't imagine it would be used for elaborate and beautiful displays completely unrelated to the game they were playing. And, I'm pretty sure they didn't imagine that a train-engine-like contraption for automatically laying tiles for that purpose would be sold to children by 2022. And so, I'm definitely sure that dominos will be used for more and more beautiful and unexpected things in the future—but only if we accept that things don't always have to be the same, and we can't predict how they will media will be used, and that learning needn't be some kind of hazing ritual.