Mediums contribute to the rise of social practices that circumscribe them and subsequently foster or frustrate their use. The three concepts below have captured the imagination of luminaries in film, literature, and liberal arts, and illustrate some of the challenges associated with navigating the modern world.
1. Dissociation of Content and Source
Many digital mediums are designed in a way that enables public users and hampers commercial ones. Acts such as lifting articles, skipping ads, or critiquing corporations show that consumer-seller relationships have become multidirectional. This phenomenon is illustrated in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2004), a novel in which protagonist Cayce Pollard, a branding sensitive with a preternatural understanding of logos and brands, searches for the elusive creator of a series of videos that is unlike any other.
Pollard is a study of the inner life of individuals who, after years of exposure to advertising, have developed sophisticated coping mechanisms. Her allergy to brands compels her to purchase nondescript items (save for Casio and DKNY, which she buys as clones or de-labels herself), dress monochromatically, and perform verbal ablutions in times of stress and after glimpsing images, such as the Michelin Man, which horrify her. Brands inflict context; whenever possible, Cayce seeks to exist outside of them.
Some writers describe realities as they are. Others describe them before they materialize; Gibson is, reliably, the latter kind. A recent Edelman white paper suggests that web users are less interested in where the information they receive originates, identify with a limited baseline of brands, and are most easily reached by companies that have established ‘digital embassies’ in the online spaces they frequent – a development also evidenced by the rising popularity of mass update services such as Zannel and Posterous.
2. Coexistence of Different Concepts of Time
Civilizations have devised time management systems for thousands of years. When mechanical clocks, originally designed by the Benedictines to regulate monastic activity, were introduced to the public, they brought about a series of industrial innovations that produced what is now known as the workweek. The effects of the clock suggest that humans are subject to the empirical rules of time itself, as well as the vast galaxy of systems designed to describe it.
In this context, Chris Marker’s experimental film Sans Soleil (1983), which was released before the widespread adoption of internet and wireless technology, could be considered prophetic. To quote the film’s unnamed narrator, “in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space … the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time.” What, then, is to be done when we encounter forms of time that are distinct, complimentary, or contrary?
An immersive meditation on time and memory, the film and its coexistence question resonate with ideas espoused by Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler, and deserve as much consideration as they ever have, as many of us now exist in a time of a bifurcated sort, within which wireless devices distend dinner plans, laptops can render it more profitable to have an office job but not commute, and today’s breaking news may still reach front doors tomorrow, but is as likely to arrive as a 140-character update the day before.
3. Computational Systems and Their Influence on History
One reason that people write, record, and film their experiences is to preserve what has happened. By doing this, they have a record with which they can reflect on the past, consider the present, and prepare for the future. Following this reasoning, it could be said that to some extent a culture’s history, and the methods that are used to qualify moments as historical, inform its identity and trajectory. As media transforms how we retain, perceive, and think, history changes, and some aspects of it may become inaccessible.
Edward Hallett Carr’s What is History? is an engaging departure point for those who seek to understand history as a methodology and explore the implications of their own perspectives. To Carr, history is not comprised of facts, but of facts that have been processed by the human mind and, after broader acceptance, are held to be significant. While Carr does not concentrate on media, his ideas harmonize with an argument raised in Neil Postman’s essay, titled 5 Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.
Postman’s third point is that “every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds … how it codifies the world [and] in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.” One of the computer’s messages is that “through more and more information …more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems.” As we are flooded by information and time evaporates, the question is whether we can, or should, process like we once did.