Mediums Writ Large

by | Jul 1, 2001 | Usability, Web/Tech | 0 comments

When Thug the caveman first scrawled an image of himself on a wall of stone, we can imagine the prehistoric critics — “Arg! Ick dannae throg!” Which, roughly translated, imparts that the cave art lacked passion, and what’s more Thug would be better off spearing dinner. Little did the critics know that someday we might define the dawn of recorded history by Thug’s efforts.

When, in the Middle Ages Gutenberg created the printing press, the voices of his critics echo still… “What’s the use! The people cannot read! And if they could they would not understand without us to tell them what it means!” Which suggests that Johannes’ critics may have had some idea how the printed page would usurp their power, though even they could not know how profoundly it would change the world to come.

When Bell uttered his first words through his electrical speech machine, his critics were dumbfounded… “Who would you talk to? And won’t you disturb their dinner?!” True enough, dinner would never be the same. What’s more, dinner would never be the same wherever you might go, as one day everyone over the age of 12 would have a phone in his or her pocket.

When Zworykin [or Philo T. Farnsworth] patented his kinescope, his critics were confused. They argued amongst themselves whether the thrust of their criticism would be the tried and true, “It’ll never work” or the more obscure, “Mid-season replacements will confuse your audience.” In either case, they surely couldn’t imagine a live broadcast of man taking his first steps on the moon, or Ally McBeal’s dancing baby.

When Berners-Lee made the Internet accessible to everyone, the critics on Wall Street were frantic. “Buy!” they screamed. And then, “Sell! Sell!” Which suggests that critics haven’t changed all that much through the ages… they still don’t understand the creation of a medium any more today than they understood it in Thug’s time. Or Gutenberg’s. Or Bell’s. Or Zworykin’s.

A medium has the capacity to not only change our thinking, but to change how we think… how we communicate, experience, and understand. And to tell the truth, we still don’t know what the implications of the Internet and the Web really are. This much is fairly certain, though — we’re not finished. We’re only just begun.

A medium has the capacity to not only change our thinking, but to change how we think… how we communicate, experience, and understand.

So what is this invention, this medium, that has evidently caused us fits throughout the ages? Is it a tool? A toy? A myth? A medium is vehicle for communication. It’s a transport for the expression of ideas… a means for transmitting a message from the sender — the person who wants to express something — to an audience, those who might receive that message. This could be an audience of one, or an audience of thousands, or even millions.

Even as a medium transports a message, it also shapes it, and manifests in that message properties that are unique to that given medium. Likewise a medium lends the message its own limitations. The stark lines of a rock chip scratched against a cave wall, the gilded manuscripts of the thirteenth century, an analog broadcast beamed through the airwaves — each has its strengths and its limitations. To master a given medium it’s critical to learn what those strengths and limitations are. Which is precisely why the Internet — and in particular, the Web — is such a mess today.

It’s not immediately apparent how a new medium is best used. If our early cave artist were given a paintbrush would he paint a prehistoric Mona Lisa? More likely he’d try to use the handle to scratch on the walls. It’s no surprise, then, that early television broadcasts were little more than televised radio plays, or that today’s web sites try so hard to look like television screens with hyperlinks. We’ve got a new set of tools, but we’ve yet to master the techniques required for the medium. For that matter, we’re still trying to discover what they are.

So what do we know about this medium–this Internet? We know that there are three laws that govern the Internet, and none was penned by a legislator. The first of these is Moore’s Law — a nifty bit of insight offered by Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel. Moore’s Law states that every 18 months, processing power will double, while costs remain constant. It’s the principle on which Gordon Moore built his business, and it’s proved remarkably accurate. Moore’s law has been essential not only in terms of how it has driven innovation, but in how it’s made basic computing capability more affordable for a mass audience.

That brings us to the second law that governs the Internet. Metcalfe’s Law, offered by Bob Metcalfe — a guy who knows quite a lot about networks — he invented Ethernet, and founded 3Com. Metcalfe’s Law states that the utility of a network equals the square of the number of its users. Consider the computer you’re looking at now. Imagine it unplugged from the network. Alone. Isolated. It’s still a computer. You can run a spreadsheet, edit a document, play a game. But once you connect that computer to even just one more, the power of your own computer increases dramatically. You can now share those documents, or send messages to the other computer on your network. The utility of your computer continues to increase — geometrically — with each additional node that is introduced to your network.

And that brings us to the third law that governs the Internet. At a certain point — critical mass — the power of the computing network is so great that it extends beyond the realm of technology alone, and affects the social, economic and political worlds in which it operates. This is the Law of Disruption, described by Chunka Mui in Unleashing the Killer App. Between the accelerated curve of technological change and the incremental curve of human change there is a widening gap — a vacuum — and a vacuum is a powerful force. I believe that both the fundamental cause for that gap, and the vehicle that will fill it–the agent of change–are one and the same… the Internet.

And so we are where we began, with the birth of a new medium — the invention of a vehicle for communication that disrupts as it transforms. The effects of this particular medium will be especially powerful, and likely unusually disruptive. While other mediums have empowered the individual to communicate with the masses, to do so on a large scale has always required an intermediary — an art gallery, a publisher, a theatre or broadcast company. These are powerful organizations, groups that are rarely content merely to replicate a message, when they can edit and augment it as well.

The Internet, however, is inherently a many-to-many medium. Virtually anyone who has the ability to browse the web has the capability to publish on the web, without the services — or the editorial predilections — of any intermediary whatsoever. It’s interesting to imagine what might have transpired if Thug’s cave art were instantly transported to every cave that chose to tune in. Or if there had been a printing press in every kitchen.

It’s just as interesting to imagine where the Internet will lead us. I don’t claim to know. But I expect it’ll be a helluva ride.


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