Whether one accepts straightforwardly deterministic speculation or not, whether one prefers to think the mind and the collective mind as functions of or factors in computing, we are bound by mediating forces. As the paragons of privileged speculation, Marshall McLuhan and Lev Manovich stand unchallenged as the sources for media and software theory in the United States. Their conceptual frameworks are most contentious when held against certain French thinkers’. McLuhan’s insight that all media contain as a message a prior medium finds a counterpoint in Regis deBray’s analysis of media as overlapping paradigms, rather than linear progressions. Manovich’s later contributions to software theory as a field in its own right takes as a direct target the archaeology of media as expounded by Michel Foucault, whose concentration on print and writing as valid archival data severely limits his historiographic impulses. But taking these two Anglo writers’ work on their own, we can unpack just where they stand, as well as their utility and inspiration for contemporary thought.
Marshall McLuhan writes in sound bites. Matters of scientific epistemology do not give his arguments pause. Rather than designing or modeling replicable, reliable, verifiable experimentation on which to base evidence for his claims, McLuhan concentrates on the phenomenological appearances of subjectivity and user experiences of media, writ large. His most famous claim — and if you’ve never heard it before, it’s time to pick up Understanding Media – the Extensions of Man— is deceptively oversimplified: “The medium is the message.” Mostly, of course, this means precisely what it says – the content of a message coextends with its form In other words, the range of possible expression or communication through one medium is unique to that medium, and the same message appears quite differently in another. As McLuhan unravels further speculation throughout the book, though — attempting to categorize media as ‘hot’ or ‘cool,’ trying to draw a linear history of media that finds later introductions to mass culture indispensible in giving earlier media form, and arguing that end-to-end mediated communication forms the basis of social life — his central aphorism finds some substance, depth, and complexity. Perhaps it is this subtle intuition, borne out by a humanism extended to the media around us as tools of a shared subjectivity, that drives McLuhan’s recurring or resurgent popularity in communication and media studies. But whether his claims endure due to self-perpetuating popularity or due to their perceived relevance to a generation of burgeoning media scholars without the conceptual tools to discuss technological underpinnings of media, their impact on the field ought not be understated.
Lev Manovich, writing decades later, takes a remarkably similar approach to the mediation of information and expression. His focus on digital media and software also relies on the linear historical track implied by McLuhan and many others, in which new media supercede older media. Taking “new media” as an homogenous group, circumscribed by a logic of networks and databases, a social space of virtuality, and a language of programmable code, Manovich does broach a question left unasked by McLuhan – that of poetics. How creativity is constrained or enabled by the structural factors of media becomes simultanously banal and deeply problematic when the medium in question is interactive and programmable. On one hand, because software does not simply record and hold its contents to be played back, but rather relies on input and output, reading and writing, one’s ability to create (with) it multiplies exponentially compared to static recording technologies. On the other hand, in Manovich’s view, the pattern of linear diegesis – wherein a message is (perhaps creatively) encoded for a (perhaps technically literate) user to decode, individually or in select groups, the very interactivity of the medium is cancelled out by its eventual mass adoption. The critical shift here, then, is to construct an archive that includes digitalia for cultural research. Questions of identity and technological detail have to wait for another theorist to ask.
To find these writers’ relevance for an ongoing research project, one needs to ask slightly different questions than those they pose directly. First, we must remember that attention to historical detail trumps clever insights. Second, the embeddedness in an acutely privileged subculture that engenders their respective theories demands the question of how their observations compare to those gathered in other, or in global, contexts. Finally, to reflect on one’s engagement with media as a research methodology can come under fire from empiricists, but more troublingly for us, we have to ask after theory’s complicity with structural privilege and alienation in its cultural situation. If the research planned here can accommodate these challenges, then it can enter a robust dialog with these paragons of media theory.