What makes media “new”? Is new media, as we understand the term, actually new? To my mind, newer media would be a more appropriate term, or as Liu puts, new media encounter…
In “Imagining the New Media Encounter”, Alan Liu explores the collision between information and the various mediums of communication that it has inhabited throughout the ages. As the author so aptly puts it, media history is a recapitulation of “first-contact narratives”, with technology and literature simply being the latest, rather than the first, to have amalgamated. Liu strengthens this claim by drawing reference to Leonard Doob’s Communication in Africa, but there are far more examples which can be drawn upon in an effort to support this suggestion.
Tracing back through the ages, we can see early examples of such an encounter, namely the first medieval manuscripts, which saw theological symbols and language merged into visual form. But we can trace back further still, to the Upper Paleolithic era. It is to this period, the Late Stone Age, that we can perhaps attribute the first new media encounter: cave paintings. After all, there was a time when the inscription of symbols upon a stone surface was, in itself, a collision between information and a new medium upon which that information could be expressed. If history is indeed a narrative of new media encounters, then cave paintings may be cited as a prehistoric new media encounter, or more simply, the first new media encounter. What we have now, is effectively new new new new ……… new media, or as I said previously, simply newer media.
In the article, Liu conducts and interesting sociocultural effects of this trend, and one need only look as far as any social networking site in an effort to see that to which the author is alluding. He emphasises the notion of the “born digital”, the idea that the current generation are, as a result of the technologically dependent society in which we live, fluent in digital verse. It is here that Liu raises an interesting issue: technology might well be second nature to us all, but is this to be viewed positively? It is true to say that society’s ability to use technology has opened up a world of knowledge collaboration that previous generations did not enjoy: consider Wikipedia, and the vast resource of information that it is. Conversely, however, people now tend to take technology for granted, the advent of user-friendly applications removing the need for most people to develop a real understanding of the underlying technology. To illustrate this criticism, one need look no further than DOS, which, not so long ago, required PC users to possess a relatively basic understanding of file systems. Now, in what I would dub the overly user-friendly age of “drag and drop”, all one needs to operate a computer are login credentials.
Also interesting is Liu’s assessment of “media determinism” – I particularly enjoyed his reference to the “Prospero BBC”. Of course, I’ve always been somewhat uneasy with the typical portrayal of media determinism. I would think it better to live in a society where we can form thoughts based on a multitude of sources, rather than live in a society where no one is subject to such influencing factors, but rather, remains ignorant of the outside world – but this is something of a digression on my part.
I would be slightly critical of Liu’s comment: “Pity the author of an ad hoc website or blog who inserts hand-crafted source code in an open-source environment, only to run up against code puritans who say, “Thou shalt not transgress against XHTML and CSS.” Code, like any language, requires syntax and grammar. If we are quick to point to one’s mistakes in a line of English, then we should be equally quick to point to an error in a line of XHTML. Furthermore, in English, a poorly constructed sentence may still communicate its meaning, whereas when one is speaking the language of machines, syntactical errors will not be so easily forgiven.
Liu’s piece also refers to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the media being the message. By this, McLuhan is alluding to the symbiotic relationship that is formed between the medium and the message, and how the medium informs how it is that the message is received. McLuhan, who also coined the phrase, “global village”, was rightfully sceptical in relation to how we’d handle our entry into the Digital Age – it’s not been as smooth in all quarters as some might think. In 1995, he wrote: “It’s inevitable that the whirlpool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens…we can get through.” From this he went on to write many highly respected works, many of which have sought to aid us in keeping “our cool during the descent into the maelstrom”.
Liu, in this article, seeks to do the same, by demonstrating to us that the “whirlpool of electronic information” into which we all now face is not as strange an encounter as we might have originally perceived. If our Stone Age ancestors can face up to such a new media encounter, then surely, we can do the same.
Federman, Mark. “What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?.” Web. 17 Feb. 2011.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2001. Print.
“Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan.” Playboy (1969): pp. 26–27, 45, 55–56, 61, 63. Print.
Siemens, Ray, and Susan Schreibman. Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture). Hardcover. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Professional, 2008. Web. 17 Feb. 2011.