Is the internet a new medium? There are two ways to address this question; to literally consider the Internet a recent addition to the ranks of mediums or, is it the way the Internet communicates its media, comparative to pre-existing mediums “new”. In this essay I will approach both interpretations with focus given to the latter as it provides a greater opportunity to analyse the history of mediums and the further evolution of the Internet. To answer whether the Internet is a new medium I will provide a brief history, with focus on the original purpose of the Internet and a fundamental analysis of what it means to be a “medium” with a direct application to the Internet. In analysing the latter, more salient interpretation of the question I will identify how the Internet effects or is affected by other pre-existing mediums, applying concepts from remediation theories and the Guttenberg Parenthesis to identify whether the internet provides new behaviour or is reproducing traditional values as a medium.
Zakon (1993) compiles a comprehensive history of the evolution of the Internet to what we experience today. Developed from a military based desire to connect computers for shared processing and long-distance transferral of project specific data. The conception of computers in the 1940’s addressed a desire for higher volume mathematical processing regarding accurate ballistic based research. America dominated the pursuit of a connected computer network and the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) developed the first embodiment of the Internet, known as ARPANET, in the 1960’s. As noted by Sterling (1993) in the early stages the rigid ideals of ARPANET devolved into the transferral of personal communications, request and gossip, a trend of social connection we have come to expect of the internet. The 70’s saw ARPANET rapidly expand and become a structure of connection with numerous global networks that lead to the catalyst of the disembodied, ownerless Internet that we use today (Clark, R 2004).
Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “The medium is the message” (Mcluhan 1964, p. 8), which (in its most simplistic of interpretations) assumes that which is mediated is communication itself or rather the transport of content that communicates, i.e. media. Thusly we can apply these definitions to the Internet: does the Internet, in its current form transport media? From the earliest notion of the internet as covered above, it does transport communication and thusly we can consider it a medium. As the Internet can be considered a medium and its earliest use of transporting communication occurred in the late 1960’s it is hardly “new” in the sense it has existed, in its most basic of forms, for almost half a century. Having addressed the literal interpretation of the question we will proceed with the intent of addressing whether the Internet as a medium is a new medium or the re-emergence of old.
The theory of remediation was developed by Bolter and Grusin (1999), though notably the pre-existing works of McLuhan correlate to the foundations of theory application. The theory focuses on incorporating Digital Age mediums to the concepts and theories surrounding pre-existing mediums such as analogue technology and literature. Remediation in its simplest definition is “the representation of one medium in another” (Bolter, J, Grusin, R 2000, p. 45). In the Internet we see the emergence and storage of all media that came before, providing access to social groups that historically may have been unable to. A complimentary concept developed by Mcluhan is the “Tetrad of Media Effects” (Mcluhan, M 1989, p. 172), the tetrad quantifies four values that a medium incorporates with specific focus on mediums that existed prior. The values are: Enhance, what the medium improves over pre-existing mediums, Retrieval: what lost values of media does it bring back to prominence, Obsolesces: what the medium removes that was otherwise powerful in other mediums and Reversal: in the most extreme use of the medium what does it become? I will briefly apply this framework to the modern-day Internet with particular focus to what it Enhances, as it is the most salient value to apply in this analysis.
The current Internet of 2018, which may be unrecognizable compared to the Internet of 2019, arguably enhances all media that has existed prior. Still images, photo, video, tv and subscription streaming services are all readily if not instantly available. Sound, music, recording, media construction and deconstruction are similarly at user discretion. Comparative to other mediums this enhancement is constantly progressing; visual and audio software, streaming services, delivery channels and the protection of such are all constantly optimized and unlike any medium prior, expected by the user base to be implemented and updated. Perhaps the Internet’s most notable enhancement is the unprecedented provision of media that provides both immediacy and hypermediacy (Bolter, J, Grusin, R 2000, pp. 22-44). The two conflicting user desires of interface are unparalleled through the distribution of the Internet and thusly the hardware that supports it. The internet can provide real-time, high definition visuals of global events, or even immersion in fictional realities, though true immediacy of absolute unhindered immersion is not yet achievable, virtual interface through headset and sensor input is at a standard comparative to science fiction predictions. Whilst immediacy is more accessible than ever, so too does the Internet provide users with unprecedented hypermediacy through user interface. Multiple streaming inputs and windows, editing options to manipulate and transfer media and access to a library of multi-media that no previous medium can compete with. The volume and range of media that the Internet can provide simultaneously creates a convergence of accessibility, education and entertainment that makes for a strong argument that as medium, what the Internet provides is new and powerful.
Covered above nominates the pre-existing values that the Internet enhances in essentially all media but the Internet’s ease of access retrieves all early media forms to prominence. Both recent and dated media are available and even restored, black and white films or vinyl recorded soundtracks are digitized for posterity and now easily played for domestic use. Scrap booking and photo albums are similarly now synonymous with basic user interface, apps such as Facebook and Instagram allow for safe storage and access. Public forums are now thriving through global connectivity and not limited to any one demographic. Information access which historically could only be for certain demographics is now for users of all creeds so long as they have access to the internet. What the Internet retrieves from historical mediums is too numerous to continue analysing thus we should consider what it obsolesces. As the Internet evolves so too does the technological demand to support it, whilst the Internet is a platform that enhances and retrieves all previous forms of media it invalidates any physical medium or hardware that can no longer sustain it. Early iterations of smartphones are essentially useless in the face of newer models and society has evolved to be receptive of this constant evolution and thusly depreciation of physical mediums just to maintain the optimized interface with the Internet (Proske et al. 2016). This, I believe is how Internet displays the value of Reversal. Pushed to its limit the Internet creates a driving force of evolution in software, hardware, user and societal educational and legislation development. This value seems to be constantly in effect as there is no perceivable end to the Internet and a developed future without it seems impossible.
Another viewpoint of the Internet and its interaction with pre-existing mediums is Pettitt’s Guttenberg Parenthesis (2013). The concepts of this theory focuses less on the content of media that the Internet provides but rather the social values and behaviour the Internet mediates because of its media distribution. The Guttenberg Parenthesis argues that the development of the printing press created an anomaly regarding the social and behavioural intake of media but through the development and interface of the Internet society is adopting values from prior the press’s invention. The historical theory argues that prior to the printing press, the primary medium of communication and media was through orality or rather speech, norms and values were exchanged through direct conversation and even fiction or entertainment was demonstrable through storytellers and musicians. During the early 15th century until the late 20th literature-based media reigned superior focusing the exchange of knowledge to be born from the cognitive act of reading (Ong, W 1982, p. 17). The unprecedented production of texts and the ensuing understanding of literacy created a major shift in media intake and behaviour as fact and fiction was now notably more accessible.
Walter Ong prescribed that the parenthesis began with the development of the alphabet rather than the printing press but at its conclusion the development of analogue media created the concept of secondary orality. Secondary orality isn’t the absolute return of the orality of pre-literate societies but rather an embrace of oral communicative values born from text-based media transition (Ong, W 1982, pp. 2-3). Televisions and radio communicated orally but through the use of scripts and text-based research. McLuhan, a teacher of Ong, had similar interpretations but, complimentary to the Guttenberg parenthesis, observed that it was print itself rather than the development of the alphabet that created a new approach to media interpretation and communication. McLuhan’s parenthesis closure noted the more immediate similarities of analogue media transfer to that of pre-literate societies, telephones, radio and tv now governed our attention through audible exchange (Mcluhan, M 1962, pp. 2-3)
The dated values of McLuhan’s and Ong’s arguments of the restoration of media values in analogue media are still salient in the Guttenberg’s parenthesis analysis of what the Internet mediates in social values. Bolter and Grusin (2000) argue the digital age consumed analogue media but as noted above didn’t obsolesce the media itself, the Internet absorbed the format and content and provided further access. The Internet in its provision of immediacy continues to reflect a return or orality, whether prescribing to Ong’s secondary orality or a more literal audio intake is not clear. The connection to orality is clear in the applications of the internet: livestreaming, and personal recording equipment can allow the user to converse globally without any text based input, technologic assistant devices such as google home can interact with the physical and virtual world on the users behalf with only audio commands.
Recognizing the age of the Internet and how long it has operated with the capacity for transferring and communicating media it is easy to validate that in terms of age, the Internet is not a new medium. Whether the Internet represents a new function or interpretation as medium is a significantly more complex issue. Analysis of the concepts of remediation theory show us that the Internet has enhanced all that preceded it in forms of media quality and distribution. The internet has provided a platform for all media including historical content to be accessed globally and yet access and enhancement is not inherently new. The Internet has absorbed and reproduced previous mediums but so too the mediums that existed prior: film absorbed sound and script, print absorbed speech etc. The Guttenberg Parenthesis and the works of Ong and McLuhan correlate that the values the Internet mediates to society are the re-emergence of norms that existed before, slightly changed but not new. However, I perceive a value that Internet has exclusivity over is the absolute multi-media hypermediacy, inclusive of the ability to manipulate, react and edit in real time. The focus of the above theories notes only what a medium can give but the Internet reflects a platform of interactivity and community that is unprecedented by any platform made prior. The Internet in its ability to mediate the user globally either in real time or in virtual words confirm that Internet functions as wholly new and original medium comparable to none.
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