Every once in a while someone outside of my head asks: ‘So, what’s your work mean outside of your research? I mean, what’s the practical application?’ At this point I hum and haw, muttering something about the capacity for media to change the world while simultaneously trying to explain just how fundamental ontology is, even though I can’t define it so good. What follows is my attempt to answer that question in a series of scenarios.
Elevator Pitch (approx. 1-2mins, 1st to 9th floor)
I look at media, like books, television, and computers, and how they change our relationship to the world at large. I’m particularly interested in what passes as realistic and believable and how that changes over time. HDTV, for instance, has turned standard definition television into a style. But it wasn’t all that long ago that that ‘low-definition’ style looked real to us. What I’ve come to conclude, so far, is that media aren’t more or less realistic, but merely more or less attuned to our senses. And being better attuned isn’t always a good thing. The more like our everyday experiences our media become, the less critical we appear to be. Fortunately, we can use media to train our minds to see the world in different ways, just as a photograph allows us to see the world in a way our eyes never could. The real issue, though, is that we passively accept new media without any thought towards what they can teach us. Critiquing, designing and deploying media with anticipated effects, then, is where my work is headed.
Small Talk with a Philosophy Prof (approx. 2mins, more pedantic name-dropping of philosophers than usual)
Protagoras once said “Man is the measure of all things.” Centuries later Niels Bohr remarked that you cannot separate the measurement from the tool used to measure it. And they’re both right, in a way. Take Plato’s cave as an example. The premise here is that through ignorance we’re led to believe that these mere illusions before us, these shadows dancing on the wall, make up reality. For Plato, man is still the measure of all things, but tricked by his senses, he often measures falsely. As the analogy goes, the shadows on the wall are an illusion of real events transpiring outside the cave. But if we cannot separate what is measured from how it is measured, and yet man is the measure of all things, then it stands to reason that reason itself is inseparable from the means of measurement (which in this case means the senses). Inside or outside the cave, we can only measure the human version of things (this is similar to Kant’s criticism of Greek philosophy). And while we cannot separate the measurement from the tool, this obscures the fact that ‘tool’ is often code for an always already human form of measurement. My work looks at how our phenomenology and our technology perpetuate the fallacy that man is the only measure of all things.
Connecting phenomenology and technology is the idea of media. For if we think of measurement as a systematic approximation of other things, then we could say that the firelight mediates the human body. Often we mean this in the pejorative sense, such that a mediation is a reduction, just as the shadows are a reduced form of reality. But that’s okay, because all objects reduce or distort or measure according to their own rule (this is what I’ve taken from reading object oriented philosophy). And this means that in respect to the shadows, fire is the measure of all things. Or perhaps photons are the measure of all things. Or maybe oxygen. And so on. Thus, we could add to Bohr’s claim that while measurements are inseparable from tools, all things measure. But we need to add a Protagorian twist to that, in that all things measure with themselves as the base unit. In other words, the fallacy exists not in mistaking the mediation for the real (as Plato accuses the uninformed) but in believing that the real is a form beyond mediation (as with Aristotle). My work looks towards objects, media among them, for new structures and relationships that deprivilege anthropocentrism, something sorely needed in an age of environmental catastrophe brought about by human self-centeredness.
Social Event (i.e. a party with beer, approx. 3-5mins, less jargon, more enthusiasm)
At the risk of over-generalizing, the mainstream approach to media analysis is rather confused. We remain obsessed with content and care little for the mechanisms that make content intelligible. But like a newspaper, the content is always yesterday’s news. This means that events that have already occurred strike us as fateful, where joyful or sorrowful actions seem inevitable, unavoidable; we encounter our world as fixed, implacable, and determined. In other words, we live in an age of latency.
This can be attributed, in part, to our obsession with linear media. Printed text, frame-by-frame film, side-scrolling video games, and successive tracks on an album: all of these media have left us impoverished when it comes to proactive strategies. And by impoverished I mean they’ve left us bereft of useful metaphors, which in this case means metaphors for thinking about the future.
If content is our focus, let’s look at the behaviour it elicits: we read towards the inevitable climax, we watch for the pinnacle scene to unfold, we listen for the reporter to tell us how climate change has passed the tipping point. Across the mass media we have no means of representing concurrent processes, of miniscule effects aggregating over time, of large scale processes that dwarf the individual. Linear media are always ‘cause-then-effect.’ We have benefitted from this line of reasoning but it has also obscured non-linear events, such as climate change. What we need is an ‘effect-then-cause’ mentality if we are to become forward thinking.
Every book, every film, every lecture, in short, every linear argument that means to promote action to change the future rhetorically undermines itself with its structure of foregone conclusions and reductive interpretations. Can you persuasively argue for a different future when your rhetorical tact, the structure of your argument, is one of inevitability, of one thing blindly following another, of a non-participatory event? Climate change is characterized by environmentalists as the effect caused by our past. And yet the media used to disseminate this reasoning relies on successive, inevitable signs. If we think of media as heuristic tools for how we view the world, then it’s no wonder calls for action and participation haven’t been realized: as far as we can see, that’s not how our world works.
It’s worth mentioning that with linear media the context of our actions is always the past. The actions of Queequeg and Harry Potter are in respect to their past selves, their linear history; they are a product of their actions, a sum of their parts. McLuhan once quipped that ‘the future of the future is the present,’ unlike the news, today isn’t a product of yesterday as it is a producer of tomorrow. What’s more, this aphorism points to non-linearity in time, a folding of time that should be reflected in the media used to advocate for change.
This offers the digital humanities with a sizable opportunity. For its members, should they choose, can argue with processes, they can build structures that incorporate ambiguity, polysemy, participation, they can anticipate effects, such that we have effect-then-cause, they can use the medium as the message. In short, my work in this field aims to bring about the end of the age of latency by designing, critiquing, and deploying media that start with the present as the ground for the future, rather than the past as the ground for the present.