After ‘abandoning’ the blog part of this site in early 2022, I embarked on a foolish newsletter endeavour called Shift Lock. It was fun and/or sustainable for a handful of posts, but then life got in the way. Over the next little while I’ll re-post those ruminations here for posterity. Errors and omissions my own. This instalment was published March 18, 2022 (see all Shift Lock posts here).
Sometimes it’s good to go back to first principles.
A course I’m teaching this semester has a number of non-media students as part of its cohort. As a result, I found myself having to establish a number of core ideas from media studies that I hadn’t really thought about for quite some years.
We talk a lot in our typically siloed university about ‘disciplinary knowledge’, the sort of thing that is often taken for granted that teachers or students of a particular area will possess.
I was thinking about how to start this little project; what best to wax lyrical about as a way in to some of the deeper theoretical/philosophical questions that might lie underneath whatever it may turn out to be. This idea of disciplinary knowledge let me to think that horrible existential question: do I have any? What have I retained? What are some of the buzzwords that I use all the time without really questioning or thinking too hard about them?
One such phrase is media landscape. Given that it’s what I tell everyone I’m interested in, I should know what I mean by it, right? Or at least, have some take on it specific to my work?
Landscape evokes mental imagery of distant horizons, hazy hills, some broken-down ruin in the foreground. Invisible brushstrokes; fantasy rendered real. When I think media landscape, the first flash is of a wireframe model; something from Tron or Lawnmower Man.
Leaving questions of real/virtual and metaverses to one side for now, though (soon, don’t worry), a wire meshwork is actually closest to how I think about the media landscape. It is an effective model, given that media — broadly defined, at least for me — is a set of relations between texts, artefacts, messages, products; platforms, forms (genres?) and formats; producers, creators; tools and technicians; institutions; and audiences (semi-colonic separation very intentional, if only to bracket out potential future articles/chapters/Shift Lock posts).
Leaning into this metaphor, then, the meshwork, the lines, the connections, would represent relationships, behaviours, transmissions, shared characteristics between all of these elements.
In attempting to understand how meaning is formed in non-human minds, Tim Ingold examines James Gibson’s ecological, affordance-based, approach to perception, alongside the work of Jakob von Uexküll, who sits arbitrarily opposite Gibson. I shan’t go into affordance, Umwelt, and so on here, suffice to say that Gibson argues that properties of tools/resources — such as a stone in Ingold’s example — are available to be “taken up”, where von Uexküll offers that “they are qualities that are bestowed upon the stone by the need of the creature in question and in the very act of attending to it.”1 This singular vision of an organism to its resource means that no other possible use or perspective is possible to that organism; it is trapped in its own Umwelt, “its own particular ‘bubble’ of reality.”2
Such a uni-directional model (organism > object) would render all objects “neutral” in von Uexküll’s view. To this, Ingold rebuts:
No animal, however, or at least no non-human animal, is in a position to observe the environment from such a standpoint of neutrality. To live, it must already be immersed in its surroundings and committed to the relationships this entails. And in these relationships, the neutrality of objects is inevitably compromised.3
You may well be thinking, “Well, this is certainly a tangent.” Consider the media landscape, though, as an environment in Ingold’s sense. In many ways, we are caught up in our own little Umwelts, our little cycles of use (or self-abuse), our routines of creation or consumption. These bubbles (theory throwback, anyone?) establish relations and modes of behaviour between humans and the tools (services, platforms, apps, sites, companies…) we engage. They are as porous as we need them to be; some are siloed, others open and truly enmeshed.
So when I close my eyes and think ‘media landscape’, I think some combination of procedurally-generated wireframe world, and also The Internet map, a ‘photo’ that data scientist Ruslan Enikeev took of the internet at the end of 2011. Part of this current project is to map — conceptually, not empirically — this landscape, updating it somewhat to consider innovations in (and impacts of) algorithms, new creative technologies, and recent research in fields like psychology, social science, and ethnography.
Another part, though, is to head back to those first principles: to audience, institution, to text… and to re-evaluate these in light of the foregoing. Anyway, if that sounds like a fun time, hang about!
Below the Divider
At the end of each post I’ll try to link a few sites, posts, articles, videos that have piqued my interest of late. Some will be connected to my research, some to teaching and other parts of academia, still others will be… significantly less so (let’s keep some fun going, shall we?).
- ‘Web3: A Map in Search of Territory’, by Evgeny Morozov, at The Crypto Syllabus.
- ‘Flipped learning: Extinct or endemic?’, by Robert Talbot, on his blog.
- ‘Is the Internet Dead? – Dead Internet Theory Explained’, from Chill Fuel on YouTube.
Ingold, Tim, ‘Point, Line, Counterpoint: From Environment to Fluid Space’, in Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, London: Routledge, pp. 76-88, p. 79.
Ingold, p. 80.
Ingold, p. 80.